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Books

(Not so) silent night

Swinging that keeps giving, from monumental Miles to jazzy D-Town discs

Still the kind of blue: 50 years of the Miles Davis masterpiece celebrated.
SEE ALSO

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Published 11/26/2008

You want a simple gift to make a plain ol' house a jazz home? Three words: Kind of Blue. It's under-the-conversation music and music to dig into, background and foreground, perfect for a candlelit dinner with company and for when you're alone; it's musical furniture and an aesthetic high. Its original five selections have become a monument of modern jazz — maybe the monument. But for the listener who craves more ... Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition.

What sets this package ($110 suggested retail) apart from lots of other album box sets — particularly from the recent Miles boxes — is that it's all but devoid of rough run-throughs, alternate takes and session leftovers. Out of six tunes, you get one alternate take — of "Flamenco Sketches" — plus one false start and a half-dozen "studio sequences" — snippets of music plus back-and-forth chatter between Miles in the studio and the control booth crew. All that's added to the original offerings on Audio Disc 1 here.

In other words, this two-CD plus DVD box is less about extending Kind of Blue than about placing it in context. The second audio disc, for one thing, captures Miles live helming two variations of the lineups heard on Kind of Blue. But the live performances mainly underscore the a) unique balance of exuberance and reserve Davis and company found in the studio on the two days of the Kind of Blue sessions and b) the new cool that Kind of Blue pioneered with its modal-based compositions.

For another thing, we get a look at what went down. A sumptuous, 60-page book reproduces contact sheets of the three rolls of film that Columbia staff photographer Don Hunstein shot during the sessions; a number of the shots are presented in the book, six are included in a separate pack of 8-by-10 glossies. Those shots are key, too, in a 55-minute documentary on the box's DVD. Interviewed are folks from the studio band's lone surviving member, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and others who were there, to later Miles group alums Herbie Hancock and Dave Liebman, to rapper Q-Tip, Carlos Santana and Bill Cosby. A 1959 TV program shows us Miles, an augmented band and frequent collaborator Gil Evans in action.

Commentators Francis Davis and Gerald Early examine the record's musical moment and ramifications. This was experimental music that, Early points out, "never put you on the spot by revealing your inadequacies to appreciate it." Francis Davis follows Kind of Blue's echoes to the Allman Brothers, Philip Glass and James Brown's "Cold Sweat." He notes, too, how Kind of Blue could only have happened pretty much when it did, during a window when Miles could bring his former pianist Bill Evans — he of the revolutionary, impressionistic touch — back to studio, and before saxophonists Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane left to found not just their own groups, but competing schools of dynamic saxophonics. With bassist Paul Chamber and drummer Jimmy Cobb (and pianist Wynton Kelly replacing Evans for "Freddie Freeloader") this was a dream group.

Also in the package, author Ashley Kahn reads those studio sequences like fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls for insight into the sessions. Bob Belden and Ken Vail contribute a Milesian timeline for 1957-1960.

"Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played," writes Evans in the original handwritten liner notes (presented here in facsimile, another of the package's goodies), comparing this jazz of "direct deed" to Japanese brush painting. "Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances."

Which brings us back to the music itself. There's the elusive bass-and-piano album opening on "So What," the way it eases into a groove that, in turn, ferries the soloists: unflappable Miles; intense Coltrane; jaunty Adderly; moody Evans. Each tune, likewise, delivers on the first and nth listening. That's true whether you're listening to the box-set CD or the special 180-gram vinyl in the package or a scratchy used copy of the original pressing. That's true whether you take Early, Davis, Q-Tip and the rest as guides, or whether you go it alone.


MORE BOXES AND SPECIAL SETS

Charlie Parker Bird in Time 1940-1947 (ESP): Even the producer concedes this four-CD set is "exclusively for Charlie Parker enthusiasts and those interested in his contribution to shaping the history of the modern jazz idiom." Although some widely available selections are included (from the Dial sessions, for instance), there are lots of serious rarities: interviews with Parker and his contemporaries, demos of Parker practicing alone from 1936 or 1937 (the title dates notwithstanding), a hotel-room session recorded by a fan featuring Bird, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford, etc., etc. The two extensive booklets included survey the full Parker story, not just the selections included.

Houston Person The Art and Soul of Houston Person (High Note): His big tenor tone is both brawny and vulnerable. He's an heir to the Texas tenor tradition and Ben Webster balladry too. A celebration of the Great American Songbook culled from a dozen High Note releases, with a few new things tossed in. This has splendid small group work, plus duets with Ron Carter and Bill Charlap.

Art Pepper Unreleased Art, Vol. III: The Croydon Concert May 14, 1981 (Widow's Taste): The alto saxophonist came in from the West Coast cool of the 1950s and finished out his career flame-hot. From the private stash of tapes being doled out by his widow, Laurie, this two-disc set captures Art and his road-seasoned combo in rollicking form a year before his death.

Herbie Hancock Then and Now: The Definitive Herbie Hancock (Verve): It's hard to see how any single-disc could definitively capture Herbie Hancock's 40-year career. This is more like a greatest hits collection — from "Maiden Voyage" to "Chameleon" to (and heavy on) projects of the last decade or so, such as The New Standard and the Grammy-winning River. Bonus: a live version of "River" with Joni Mitchell, her interpretation fluid and deep.

Sonny Rollins Road Shows Vol. 1 (Emarcy/Doxy): Arguably the most exciting live jazz soloist around, he's authorized few live recordings in the last 30 years. Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert signaled a change, but it pales beside this collection. Seven tunes recorded between 1980 and 2006 are nothing less than rapturous.


DETROIT TAKES:

Hot Club of Detroit Night Town (Mack Avenue): Remember that the name is French and maybe it's not so strange that these high-profile gypsy-swing enthusiasts hail from here. The group's sophomore effort shows continuing evolution. For one thing, along with the vintage American and gypsy swing pieces and consanguine originals, they deliver on bop-and-beyond pieces like "Seven Steps to Heaven" and "Blues Up and Down."

James Carter Present Tense (Emarcy): Carter may seem to hyperventilate, but it's a ruse: He's in total control and you're the one who gets dizzy. As always, he comes up with out-of-left-field chestnuts that everyone else has been sleeping on. (Where has Dave Burns' "Rapid Shave" been languishing?) D.D. Jackson splatters note clusters like a latter-day Don Pullen; trumpeter Dwight Adams sails over it all.

Francisco Mora Catlett Outerzone (Premier Cru): The former Detroit percussionist-composer is probably the only member of Sun Ra's circle to hail from Mexico, and to go on to work on the techno scene, let alone to burrow deep in Cuban Santeria. His group here includes Carl Craig and Craig Taborn on keyboards and post-Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen on saxophone. As wild as you might expect, but more canny than you might imagine. "When the Saints Go Marching In" saunters from Congo Square to the stratosphere.

The James Moody and Hank Jones Quartet Our Delight (IPO): The survivor of the three great Jones brothers of Pontiac, pianist Hank at 90 teams up with saxophonist James Moody (at a mere 83). Playing this zippy and spry will make you believe that bebop — especially tunes by Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie favored here — is a musical fountain of youth.

The Bennie Maupin Quartet Early Reflections (Cryptogramophone): Maupin's funky sax and bass clarinet lines helped make fusion mega-hits Bitches Brew and Headhunters — and have almost nothing to do with later acoustic records like this. As reflective as the aforementioned were boisterous, this disc is more in the mold of his ECM disc The Jewel in the Lotus, whose title track is here reprised.


BOOKS THAT SWING

Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature edited by Sascha Feinstein ($21.95 paper, 452 pp., Indiana University Press) At their best, these are conversational jam sessions that zig-zag through (mostly) writers' involvements with the word and the note. A number of the subjects are Detroit connected. John Sinclair, Al Young and Haki R. Madhubuti in interviews, and Phil Levine in a collage of poems and prose entirely about the role of Detroit jazz in his formative years. Other subjects include Amiri Baraka, Gary Giddins, Yusef Konyakaa and Sonia Sanchez.

Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music by George E. Lewis ($35 hard cover, 690 pp., University of Chicago Press): Notice the page count? This is a massive and unprecedented examination of the '60s grassroots organizational from which sprang Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and many others. Remarkably, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians continues today with a vibrant younger generation. One of the most prominent of the group's 1970s wave but also an academic heavyweight, Lewis weaves shifting socio-political milieus, myriads snapshot biographies and deft musical analysis. Among the rarely addressed topics are the often uneasy relationships between various schools of the avant garde: Midwest and East Coast, black and white, American and European, etc.

Backstory in Blue: Ellington and Newport 1956 by John Fass Morton ($34.95 hard cover, 304 pp., Rutgers University Press) With one ecstatic festival performance and a subsequent "live" recording, Ellington revived the flagging fortunes of the group he'd held together for an unmatched span then nearing 40 years. The full story is rich and sometimes surprising. One longtime jazz footnote here expanded into a full chapter is the story of the wild, dancing blond who sparked the crowd and band.

Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan by Jeffrey S. McMillan ($65 hard, $22.95 paper, 288 pp., University of Michigan Press): Loved by serious fans, the trumpeter crossed over with the 1963 hit "The Sidewinder." His troubled, junk-scarred life ended nine years later when his common-law wife shot him at a gig. Life and music are both examined here, the latter with a depth beyond most non-musicians.

Haunted Heart: A Biography of Susannah McCorkle by Linda Dahl ($18.95 paper, 344 pp., University of Michigan Press): An odd bird among jazz songbirds, McCorkle performed in the grey zone between jazz and cabaret and was loved and scorned by some in both camps. Dahl's meticulous biography (though overly reliant on the old on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand ) finds McCorkle's life was as messy as her art was (for all the artifice of spontaneity) controlled. 


PARAPHENALIA

And it seems the Detroit International Jazz Festival still has some leftover items from last summer. They're running a clearance sale at jazzfestwear.com.

Metro Times Editor W. Kim Heron wants to see your suggestions appended to this roundup on the website. Or send comments to wkheron@metrotimes.com.

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