In a Silent Way – Miles Davis (1969)

Miles Davis

Album artwork for In a Silent Way

Writing anything about a figure like Miles Davis, and his music, is a task not taken lightly by anyone who appreciates jazz music, even just a little.  The man clearly needs no introduction, and yet we sometimes struggle to understand what went on in his mind.  So did he, this writer imagines.

In many ways, 1969’s In A Silent Way, and not the more well-known Bitches Brew of 1970, marked Davis’ entree into the world of jazz fusion.  I say entree, but it was Davis along with Larry Coryell and Charles Lloyd who pioneered the genre, and as such, In A Silent Way  is one of the first jazz fusion albums.  So what is it that makes fusion, fusion?  Any jazz scholar will scoff at such a question, but it does deserve some thought.  The first, most obvious departure from Davis’ previous work is the instrumentation.  The electric guitar (John McLaughlin) and electric pianos (Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea…feeling the power yet?) were new additions to the lineup for Miles, and jazz as a whole.

The format of this particular album was different, as well.  In A Silent Way  was the first album to be cut and spliced by Miles’ longtime producer Teo Macero, and Macero followed the classical sonata format (exposition–development–recapitulation), a departure from the incumbent styles of jazz, hard bop and free jazz of the 1960s.  This format is used in both tracks/sides of the album.  Miles’ use of repetition and droning rhythm section parts can be traced back to John Coltrane’s 1965 A Love Supreme, and from there back to Ravi Shankar and India, both of which influenced Coltrane enough for him to name a son after the sitar player.  This combination of new musical instrumentation, format, and Eastern influence allowed Miles to begin his pursuit of “the best damn rock ‘n’ roll band of all time” which would groove hardest on Davis’ 1971 A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

“All-star” would be quite the understatement in describing Miles’ personnel choices for In A Silent Way.  On soprano saxophone is the ever-present Wayne Shorter, who became famous while writing and playing for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and moving on after a decade with Miles to form Weather Report with Joe Zawinul, who played organ on this album and co-wrote side two.  On electric guitar we find John McLaughlin, who was in the middle of an extremely busy two years: the previous month he’d recorded his debut album, Extrapolation; he’d just moved to New York from England to play in Tony Williams’ (yep, he played drums on this album, too) Lifetime trio with Larry Young; he’d soon befriend Billy Cobham and form one of the greatest fusion groups of all time, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  Sitting behind dual electric pianos are Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, two jazz titans who would go on to lead extremely successful groups of their own.  On bass is Dave Holland, whom Miles had picked up at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club the year before, and who was in the middle of an extraordinary first two years in the big time.  It’s often said that in jazz, especially jazz fusion, all roads lead to Miles Davis.  Perhaps you can see why.

Side 1 is “Shhh/Peaceful.”  The exposition/recapitulation, “Shhh,” features a droning D major in the bass and an even more repetitive line of sixteenth notes in the hi-hat, setting the stage for a musical experience that compels the listener to look within for meaning to the music, rather than from without (save that for side 2).  Every time I listen to Shhh/Peaceful, I come out on the other side unsure of how much time has passed (although I know it’s about 18 minutes), wondering why I didn’t choose to loop the track for as long as I can meditate. Inevitably, the listener will fall into a deep introspection during this track, as the stellar musicians continue their song into the distance.  Wikipedia’s categorization of this album into both “jazz fusion” and “space music” is apt.  Not to mention the name of the track.

Side 2, “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” starts off much more peaceful than even “Shhh,” opening with a pastoral open A chord from McLaughlin, a chord that gives the listener a sense of peace, and yet a suspicion of much energy to come.  The calm before the storm, perhaps. “It’s About That Time,” the development section, is all about that groove.  You know the one.  It’s been stuck in my head for years now.  Atop this simple yet infectious groove (we have Chick, Tony, and Dave to thank for that) sit two of the finest solos in all of Miles’ catalogue, plucked from some of the finest improvisers in jazz, McLaughlin, and Shorter. After a solo from Miles, “In A Silent Way” recapitulates, bringing the listener back to his senses.

Many critics have written many words about Miles Davis’ first fusion album, but Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs might have written it best: it was “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music.  It is not rock and roll, but it’s nothing stereotyped as jazz either.  All at once, it owes almost as much to the techniques developed by rock improvisers in the last four years as to Davis’ jazz background.  It is part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality.”

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Panic – Caravan Palace (2012)

Caravan Palace

Album artwork for Panic

What comes to mind when I say the words “dance music”?  If you’re familiar with the current trends of the music industry, then your first mental images may very well include electronic DJs (meaning DJs that spin electronic music, not electrically-powered robot DJs), underground raves, and massive throngs of people jumping up and down.  But this is only this decade’s version of dance music.  If we travel back through the history of music, we pass by the synthpop of the 1980s, we say hello to the rise of disco in the ’70s, and we predate the birth of rock and roll as we settle down in the early 1900s. Imagine the scene in America at the turn of the 20th century.  The European tradition of ballroom dancing had carried over into American culture, but the sudden rise of jazz out of the South soon took the world by storm. Before anyone knew what was happening, big bands and swing music became the new craze sweeping across the nation, and artists like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Glenn Miller became household names.

Now, swing music was all well and good, but that died away many decades ago, didn’t it? Well no, that’s not entirely true (certainly not if Brian Setzer has anything to say about it).  As I talked about in my post several months ago on Nekta, an artist going by the name of Parov Stelar is generally credited as the pioneer of the latest swing revival movement, this time fusing it with modern electronic music to form a brand new fusion of genres: electro swing.

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Every Man Should Know – Harry Connick, Jr. (2013)

Harry Connick, Jr.

Album artwork for Every Man Should Know

There’s always something incredibly nostalgic and heartwarming about the classic jazz crooner.  For someone like me, who was never alive to experience the golden days of artists like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and the rest of the gang, I can still draw nostalgia from my memories of sitting by the fire in my family home, listening to such tunes from my father’s (and grandmother’s) record collection.  Today, the vocal tradition is carried on by notable greats such as Josh Groban and Michael Bublé, but the man who kicked off the modern era of contemporary vocal music surely has to be Harry Connick, Jr.

Harry Connick, Jr. is a man of many talents, or voices, rather.  He has just released his latest album, Every Man Should Know, and he takes on the personality of many different characters throughout the record.  Granted, all of these characters are the same person – himself – but they represent his person in different situations and stages of life.  When talking about the meaning behind the album, Connick says, “I used to be more comfortable writing in a fantasy-style concept, using ideas that intrigued me but didn’t necessarily come from personal experience.  It’s one thing to assume the role of a storyteller – it’s quite another when the story is your own.  I felt ready to explore some of my personal experiences in some of the songs this time around.”

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Soliloquy – Michael Manring (2005)

Michael Manring

Album artwork for Soliloquy

It’s often said that by limiting your possibilities to only those that exist inside the box, as opposed to thinking outside the box, you are actually required to use much more creativity.  This may seem counterintuitive; since the days of grade school we have been taught that thinking outside the box is the key to unlocking our true potential. Now before we continue any further, let me first just say that I am by no means devaluing out-of-the-box cognition.  It is a wonderful and incredibly useful method, useful in just about any scenario life throws at you.  That being said, sometimes we overlook the significance of what’s already inside the box in favor of flashier, more appealing solutions.

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Alright alright, enough with the box metaphor already!  Isn’t this a blog for music?  I hear you, let’s move on.  The purpose of that whole long-winded introduction was to bring us to today’s main event: Michael Manring, a perfect example of a musician who uses the confines of the box to his advantage – the “box” in this situation being the bass guitar.  As L. Pierce Carson from the Napa Valley Register puts it, “Michael Manring can do more with a bass than even the most creative individual could imagine.”  See?  The box metaphor worked out after all.

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This Is What Happens – The Reign of Kindo (2011)

The Reign of Kindo

Album artwork for This Is What Happens

First things first, all of you should probably watch this.  You may have seen this video several years back when it gained quite a bit of circulation around YouTube.  This is the music of The Reign of Kindo, a jazz-rock group hailing from Buffalo, New York.  In April of 2010 they released their second studio album, and third release in total, called This Is What Happens on CandyRat Records.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the label, CandyRat is one of my most trusted sources for beautifully written modern acoustic music.  Musicians like Jon Gomm and Andy McKee, two of the most notable percussive fingerstyle guitarists, are represented by the label.  In short, its catalog is stocked to the brim with remarkable music quality.  So then, back to This Is What Happens.  What exactly is it that happens?  Press on, dear reader…

If you think about it, the world’s population of music enthusiasts can essentially be divided into two categories.  There are those who value originality and advanced musicianship above all else, sometimes to the point of pretentiousness and condescension towards “lesser” artists.  Then there are those who don’t care about any of that; they just want to dance around and sing catchy melodies.  Both groups have their limitations, but luckily that’s where The Reign of Kindo comes in.  Their music combines elements from both of these viewpoints into a single cohesive style, and the result is an extraordinarily melodic collection of tunes, rich in originality and soulfulness.

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Redivider – Dopapod (2012)

Dopapod

Album artwork for Redivider

I’ve got to say that one of my favorite things about the current music industry is this strong resurgence of jam band music and culture that’s been going on for the past several years.  As someone who wishes they had been alive to witness the explosion of psychedelic rock, progressive rock, and the jam band scene in the ’60s and ’70s, I am extremely happy about the genre’s relatively unimpeded longevity.  After the Grateful Dead’s disbandment in 1995 as a result of guitarist and frontman Jerry Garcia’s death, the band Phish stepped in to fill the gap.  Although they never achieved quite the amount of success and popularity that the Dead had, they certainly helped to keep the scene alive for the next decade.  They were also an integral part of the rise of large-scale music festivals in the modern era.  If you think about all of the festivals that host yearly events now – Bonnaroo, Coachella, Camp Bisco, Rootwire, Lightning in a Bottle, All Good, Wakarusa – the list goes on and on.

Dopapod is a group that is quickly rising to the forefront of the jam band scene.  Born in 2007, they recently released their third studio album, Redivider, on 12/21/12.  The entire record was recorded in a barn at Tyrone Farm, a solar powered farm in Pomfret, Connecticut. Despite the fact that it was released less than a year after their previous album, Drawn Onward (side note: if you haven’t picked up on this yet, the band really likes palindromes), there is nothing about Redivider that gives away any sense of rushed preparation.  As a matter of fact, the entire thing is pure, musical gold.

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