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Saturday, September 24, 2011
Miles and Trane - Two Beautiful Aberrations
If, like me, you're a hard-core Miles and Coltrane fan, with a particular interest in the latter half of their careers, you will no doubt have amassed a pretty large collection of live performances, either in audio format, or very commonly these days, on video or DVD. And if you have a large collection of live performances, you pretty much know what to expect in terms of the set-lists of these bands, and the tunes they most commonly played. With Trane, you probably have dozens of versions of “Impressions”, “Afro–Blue”, and perhaps a few of “Chasin’ The Trane”. With Miles, you probably have multiple versions of “Round Midnight”, “So What”, and “Walkin”. These guys' repertoires did change over time, but slowly, and by listening to these recordings you can get a good idea of what pieces they liked to play and explore.
But every now and then there's a surprise........a tune you rarely if ever hear them play, and it can be really interesting when this happens. For me as a working musician I always wonder what prompted the bandleader to call the tune on that particular night? Were they just tired of the regular repertoire? Was it a sudden impulse? Could it have been a request? Actually, that last possibility is unrealistic in the case of Miles, and probably in Coltrane's case too. But for whatever reason they decided to call it, for me it's always a real bonus to hear a familiar band playing unfamiliar repertoire, and recently I came across two great examples of pieces you wouldn't normally associate with - a) Miles second great quintet of the 60s (with Shorter, Corea, Holland and DeJohnette), and b) Coltrane’s great quartet - being played in live performances, in what, as much as I can tell, were one-offs.
In the case of Coltrane, its a version of “Autumn Leaves” performed in Graz in 1962. I was really surprised to come across this, I have never heard of Coltrane playing ‘Autumn Leaves’, even when he was with Miles, though no doubt he may have done since it was such a staple part of Miles’ repertoire for such a long time. But as far as I know he never recorded it with Miles, certainly not in the studio and in none of the live recordings I’ve heard. So it was a real surprise to come across this recently, and again I was intrigued to think about why Coltrane decided to play this tune on this particular evening.
And they played it quite straight too, with no arrangement. McCoy begins by playing the melody, and as was often the case with that band, takes the first solo. This is McCoy in really swinging mode – of course McCoy always swung, but here he’s playing a bit closer to the original changes than he subsequently would as the group evolved. There’s definitely traces of the McCoy of ‘Inception’ here, which was recorded with Elvin and Art Davis in the same year. Elvin demonstrates his uniquely virile brush technique and shows just how great a brush player he was and how great brushes can be at driving a fast tempo along – something you don’t hear too often, especially these days when great brush playing is at a premium and seems to have become the preserve of Brazilian drummers such as Edu Ribeiro and Kiko Freitas. After a while Elvin changes to sticks which is unusual in itself, as there are very few recordings of Elvin where he changes from brushes to sticks – usually, such as on Tommy Flanagan’s great ‘Eclypso’ album, once he starts on brushes he stays on them. Coltrane’s live recording of ‘Softly As in a Morning Sunrise’ is an exception and he changes to brushes for the soprano solo. Here he switches also – though interestingly he does so during the piano solo and half way through the form, giving the piece a lift in an unexpected place.
All of this gives the music a real wind-up for Coltrane’s entry, though they’re still swinging in a quite conventional way by the time he comes in - on soprano. In a way this treatment of Autumn Leaves is a bit like the aforementioned ‘Softly As in a Morning Sunrise’ in the way McCoy sets it up, Elvin changes to sticks and Coltrane plays his solo on soprano. I can’t think of any other ‘standard’ kind of tune that Coltrane chose to play on soprano – usually he used it for extended churning 3/4 modal pieces such as ‘My Favourite Things’ or ‘Afro-Blue’. But here it’s used on a burning swing piece, over the changes of one of the most ubiquitous standards of all. Unusual in itself, but what’s also unusual is the fact the solo is almost all 8th notes – in fact it’s a masterclass in burning 8th note playing over changes and how to seamlessly move in and out of them. Elvin and McCoy really get it going behind Trane’s solo and by 7.30 they’re thundering, with that giant dotted quarter being brought in when reinforcements are needed. To drop into Jazz Robot argot for a moment – completely killing!
Again, I’d love to know why Trane chose to play this tune this one time – maybe he just felt like burning up some II-Vs! By the way – the tempo hardly budges despite the whole band being on fire by the end – how did Elvin do that!?
The second surprise is Miles’ second great quintet of the 60s playing ‘Milestones’ at Juan Les Pins in 1969. Now Milestones was of course played many times by the seminal quintet with Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams, had been transformed from a loping swinging modal piece into an up-tempo burner, (often at around 300bpm), and was given the full abstract treatment on live recordings such as ‘Live at the Plugged Nickel’, but by the time the second quintet was extant it had disappeared from the repertoire. However here it makes a comeback as a loping swing tune at about 190bpm– at least at the beginning.
Again, as far as I know there are no other recordings of this piece with this band, and I’m sure there were people in the audience, devotees of the good old days of ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Gil Evans recordings who were probably horrified by what they were hearing with this band, only to be apparently thrown a lifeline when Miles starts this familiar theme in a familiar way. But their relief must have been short-lived – Miles solos quite conventionally for a few choruses and then gradually gets more animated and agitated, setting it up for Wayne (I’d love to know what Miles said to Wayne as they passed each other at 3.50.....), who starts to move it outwards, with the help of the rhythm section, and then the piece takes on the familiar contour with this band – Miles plays pretty much over the form, Wayne starts to stretch it and then Chick, Dave, and Jack take it completely out. The rhythm section were definitely going for a different thing than Miles and Wayne, really into stretching everything beyond breaking point and using the themes as a jumping off point to collective improvisation, rather than as structures to solo over. And it’s interesting to see Miles in the background, clearly paying close attention while the young guys are doing their open thing. This band was definitely the closest Miles ever got to playing in an open and free context.
So, were they playing ‘Milestones’ every night (if so there are no other recordings of it as far as I know)? The ending seems almost like an arrangement, but Wayne and Miles were so telepathic and had played together for so long by this time, they could have improvised this ending too. Or did Miles spontaneously decide to play it? I suspect the latter, partly due to the non-existence of other examples of the band playing 'Milestones'. And partly due to a fantastic story Dave Liebman told me about Miles, while playing with the ‘On The Corner/Agharta’ band, suddenly going into ‘Milestones’, and just playing the theme and then walking off the stage leaving chaos in his wake - Mtume, Michael Henderson and the two guitarists, wrestling with the form and upsetting Al Foster (who loved the earlier music) so much that he was in tears after the gig.
There are no tears here though – just incredible playing. Hearing a great band play unfamiliar material somehow reinforces their greatness. Check it out.
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