I own quite a bit of jazz although I know very little about it really. I mean I can bluff my way through a conversation about Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew* with the best of them and I know bits by all the major players, but I don’t really know much about it – I’m a rocker really when all is said and done. All of which makes writing about it even more difficult, particularly as apart from owning a ton of vinyl I have no musical talent, or technical knowledge at all – you’ll get no informed chit-chat about minor pentatonic scale paradiddles from 1537. Which doesn’t of course mean I can’t appreciate a mean minor pentatonic scale paradiddle when I hear one.
I got into Miles Davis via the aforementioned Brew in 1993 and it was amazed when I found out just how many LPs this man had made as I was more used to the bloated rock star route of the 2-year LP, tour, second tour, 8 months partying, bit of new recording routine. These jazz guys were knocking out an LP every few months to stay alive and people seemed to revere them all as classics, it was very confusing. So I dived into Jumbo Records in Leeds and grabbed whichever ones I could afford and liked the sleeves of, in-between buying all the other stuff I craved**. My logic for buying Miles Davis The Birth of The Cool was that it was the earliest of his records I could see and people were talking about acid jazz being the Rebirth of the Cool, so I thought I would go straight to the source.
The Birth of The Cool is actually a compilation LP of a number of tracks originally released on 78’s – I remember 78’s, my granny had some. These tracks were originally cut between January 1949 and March 1950, or so it tells me on the really useful sleeve notes provided by Ian Carr^, think about it, that’s 64 years ago – a drop in the ocean for classical music, but in terms of more modern forms of music we’re talking dead sea scrolls type old.
The historical context of this LP is that after getting tired of totally improvised playing, Miles Davis wanted to try something else and, just as importantly to his titanic ego, wanted to lead his own band in doing so. Teaming up for the first time with arranger Gil Evans and a composer called Gerry Mulligan, they put together a small band by the standards of the time, nine players – a nonet. Nonet is my brand-new favourite word, although I am going to struggle to slip it into my conversations. In his Autobiography (Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe – thoroughly recommended, that, umm, cat’s got some amazing stories), Miles states that he wanted the instruments in these sessions to sound like human voices and that he wanted to give the jazz-buying public a ‘sweetness’ that bebop didn’t provide. He also credits the LP’s success to the fact it appealed to the white ear more than bebop did.
To my mind the best track here is the first one, ‘Move’ which sets off like a sprinter coming around the final bend in the track with the finishing line in her sights. ‘Move’ is all fast, machine-like precision with some rather raucous drumming near the end. ‘Jeru’ which follows it is slower, slightly more stately, the rhythm muffled and pounding away under the surface, with Miles’ trumpet picking some lovely clean melodies over the top before being joined later by the other soloists. I also have a soft spot for the third track, ‘Moon Dreams’ and its slow romanticism fits in perfectly with my fantasies of being Philip Marlowe, continually falling for the wrong woman at the wrong time in the wrong place. There is hope, despair and joy packed deep into these grooves.
I have to report though that I do struggle with some of The Birth of The Cool, the likes of ‘Deception’ and ‘Venus de Milo’, do wash over me a bit, sounding a bit old-timey and irrelevant to me, too much like the inoffensive jazz one hears peddled at wedding receptions and, God help us, piped through building foyers. I do know of course that this is simply a product of time and context again and that one day I’ll be able to take the lift to the 20th floor listening to a Muzak medley of ‘Touch me I’m Sick / Teen Age Riot’. As a 21st Century listener I am divorced from the time and place these recordings were made and so what was embraced as revolutionary then, is apart from bits and pieces, only sketchily understood by me and so just the music remains, as it always does in the end. Some of the sweetness that Miles Davis talks of imbuing these tunes with can hit my jaded ears as being a bit too saccharine at times. The couple of tracks at the end of the LP break through this trap, ‘Rocker’ (sadly not a time-travel enabled AC/DC cover) and ‘Israel’ pick up the pace and the individuality again.
I hadn’t listened to this LP for about 8 years before today and I can see why that’s the case. It certainly has its moments still, but it is possibly one for the history, rather than the play, books and I fully accept that may be a view formed in a certain amount of ignorance. But you gotta dig those G# Major Sonic-twill twiddles throughout.
I found the video below on YT, there are some great photos on it too.
*anyone fancy joining me starting a jazz glam cover band called Bitchez Brüe ?
**I did actually go without food for a day once in a tight financial spot, opting to buy a Dag Nasty LP instead. To add insult to stupidity, it was crap!
^another reason I love jazz LPs is the sleeve notes, when I eventually become a top recording artist I’ll insist on sleeve notes.