Shorty and Ebert – A Tribute to Roger Ebert and Chutney Soca

Roger Ebert

I used to listen to Howard Stern a lot and always enjoyed when Roger Ebert would make an appearance on the show. My favorite appearance of his was soon after Stern had moved to satellite radio (this would have been around 2006-2007), when Howard and his staff would take every opportunity to crow about how great things were now that they were on satellite. So when Ebert came on the air, and congratulated Howard on his new gig, they proceeded to go on and on about how great it was, how great the other stations were, etc. Gary even got in on it and started bragging about the music selections on satellite, which led to one of my favorite exchanges:

Gary: “There are stations for every kind of music! Here, watch – Roger, what’s your favorite kind of music?”

Ebert: “Chutney Soca!”

[silence]

Gary (utterly deflated): “Well, OK, I don’t think there’s a Chutney Soca station.”

This exchange was so memorable not only because it was so funny, but also because Ebert had stumped me. I take great pride in knowing a lot about music, and at the time I had never even heard the term “Chutney Soca”, let alone heard any of the music. I was intrigued, and that has stuck with me ever since.

Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013. It was a very sad day for me not only because I so enjoyed his movie reviews, but also because it was his writing that inspired me to write about music on this website. I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of fitting tribute for the past weeks, even though nothing I could do or say could really qualify. It was my wife who finally suggested, “Why don’t you actually learn something about Chutney Soca, and write about it?” Damn, wish I’d thought of that.

So here we are. Now let me say, I am very, very far from being any kind of expert on Chutney Soca. I have listened to it and studied it for mere days. It is really not fair to the music for me to write this so soon, but I felt I needed to get this down while the feeling is still fresh.

Knowing nothing about Chutney Soca, I figured I’d start with a basic Wikipedia primer. It tells us that Chutney Soca is “a crossover style of music incorporating Soca elements and Hindi-English lyrics, Chutney music, with Indian instruments like the dholak and dhantal. It is distinguished from regular soca music by the referencing of rum, alcoholism, infidelity and suicide in the lyrics.” Sheesh. What a definition. Sounds so heavy. And boring. Let’s see if we can do better.

I went to high school with a guy who was originally from Trinidad. I remember having a conversation with him one day about the music he grew up with. He was trying to explain to me and a few other guys about Calypso. The other guys just had blank stares. I thought I was Joe Cool and piped up, “Yeah, like Harry Belafonte, right?” Um, not exactly. I remember him shaking his head, and getting frustrated trying to explain it to us, the uninitiated. “You just have to hear it for yourself,” he kept saying.

He was right, of course. Chutney Soca, like Calypso and so many other forms of music, is an immense melting pot of influences, so much so that it’s sometimes tough to get a handle on. Inevitably any description of Chutney Soca quickly unravels into an endless list of other influential forms. For instance, when I listen I hear elements of jazz (complex polyrhythms and vocal improvisations), 70’s disco/funk (dig the funky rhythm guitar, even with a wah from time to time), hip hop (much more in the beats of modern Soca music, but it’s there in the old stuff too if you listen), raga (the hypnotic Indian rhythms are prevalent), gospel (vocals), ska (the sharp brass hits), reggae (in the vocal rhythms and the guitar ostinatos), and South African Mbaqanga (the interplay between the percussion and harmonic instruments like keys and guitar). And that’s just from my limited knowledge of Caribbean music in general – I’m sure someone schooled in all the various forms would have a field day.

So how do you explain a musical form that encompasses all that??? Well, you pretty much just have to hear it. But I will say this – more than anything, this is dance music. It is designed to get the listener moving. Anyone who has listened to Indian percussion music will immediately recognize the driving, relentless rhythms at play here. This is not passive music – it is active, in your face, “get your ass up and move” music.

Moving forward in my study, I wanted to start at or near the beginning, where Chutney Soca began, with the foundational artists who created this amalgam of Indian and Caribbean sounds. Wikipedia also tells us that the Godfather of Chutney Soca is Garfield Blackman, aka Lord Shorty. So I sought him out, and came upon his 1978 album Soca Explosion.

Over the course of several nights I listened to this album, along with several others both classic and new. Here are some of my impressions of a few songs…

“Higher World of Music” – check out the syncopated rhythms of the guitar playing off the percussion during the vocal breaks. And the Flamenco-inspired Phrygian chord changes and horn lines. I can almost hear Paco de Lucia jamming on this tune. The Flamenco connection actually makes sense when you think that Flamenco originated with the Romani culture in Spain, whose origins can be traced back to India.

“Keep In Touch” – you can really hear the reggae/gospel influences in this one (“Jah, oh Lord, can you hear me people?”).

“Om Shanti Om” – the Indian influences are obvious in this one, not only in the title and lyrics, but also in the percussion and vocal rhythms.

“Soca Fever” – my favorite tune on the album. This one has it all. The infectious driving rhythms, the evocative chord changes, the vocal gymnastics, the rich brass counter melodies. This one just moves. But it also has so much going on melodically and harmonically that it never gets boring or tedious.

Yet, other songs sometimes do. I can definitely say that I have a tremendous new appreciation for this music, however ultimately I can’t quite say that I’m a fan, at least not yet. I loved examining the DNA of Chutney Soca, and I enjoy many aspects of the music, but overall, well, it’s just not my thing. At this point I still don’t feel any emotional connection with the music the same way I do with, say, jazz or rock or the blues. But even that isn’t really fair, because I don’t enjoy ALL jazz, or ALL rock…a lot of it is awful. I guess the best way to say it is that I have a lot more listening to do. And that’s OK. That’s what is so great about the world of music – it is so vast, there is more than enough for everyone.

Before I wrap up, an honorable mention must go to the undisputed queen of Chutney Soca, Drupatee Ramgoonai. Her song “Mr Bissessar (Roll Up de Tassa)”, usually referred to as simply “Roll Up de Tassa”, was another groundbreaking hit and one I listened to over and over again while studying. She deserves much more attention than I’m able to provide here. Go check her out, she’s bad.

In the end, I hope my sojourn into the world of Chutney Soca turned out to be a kind of fitting tribute to Roger Ebert. Preparing for and writing this essay took me way out of my comfort zone and forced me to really think about an art form I (still) know so little about. And I realized, that’s what Ebert’s movie reviews did for me. Reading his reviews led me to discover some of my favorite movies, many of which I never would have seen or sought out had I not read an enthusiastic review on his website. Movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away (and all of Miyazaki’s works, for that matter), Hoop Dreams, Some Like it Hot, Fitzcarraldo, A Town Called Panic, and The Third Man come to mind. I hope someday maybe I can do the same for someone else.

(here’s a YouTube link to the entire Soca Explosion album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1d5uCZCZg8&playnext=1&list=PL0F05F0FC9911D4CD&feature=results_main)

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Great Albums: Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)

Album: 

Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)

Personnel: Charlie Haden (bass), Pat Metheny (guitars and other instruments)

When I lived in Washington, D.C. there was a radio show on Sunday mornings called “G-Strings” which featured acoustic music played on stringed instruments. The music was usually jazz or classical, with a bit of bluegrass and folk music thrown in. It was a great show and you could always hear some really interesting stuff. The beauty of acoustic music and acoustic instruments is that you can really hear the personality of both the instrument and the player coming through the music.

Beyond the Missouri Sky is an album that, like Haden and Metheny themselves, defies categorization. Both of the players are known as jazz musicians, but this is not really a jazz album, even though it is informed by the spirit of jazz and has many improvised passages. At heart it is a duet album, with Haden on upright bass and Metheny on various acoustic guitars, with a little bit of very subtle supplementation via keyboards, additional guitars (electric, acoustic, and sitar), and percussion. In the liner notes to the album, Haden refers to Metheny’s sound as “contemporary impressionistic americana”. I can’t really say it better than that. But it’s interesting to see that word, “impressionistic”, coming from Haden, who known primarily as a lyrical and, well, impressionistic bassist. My friend Rick  used to always refer to Haden’s playing not as “playing” but as “painting”. It’s really a powerful metaphor when you think about it, especially when listening to this album – you can almost picture the two of them, Haden and Metheny, seated together, painting with their instruments, the wide open Missouri sky as their canvas.

But enough waxing poetic. Back to the music. One little detail that I love about Missouri Sky is that you can hear all the little noises that the instruments make. It’s not sanitized – this is pure musical creation, in all its imperfect glory. Bass strings flap and buzz against the fretboard; guitar strings squeak and creak as the player’s hands slide across the ridged surface of the strings. And the most glorious thing about stringed instruments, especially those played with the fingers, such as guitars and basses, is that more than any other instruments, they respond so well to touch (the master of touch, Jeff Beck, doesn’t play with a pick anymore for a reason). Couple that with a wide dynamic range, and you have an incredibly expressive vehicle.

Missouri Sky is the first album where I really “got” Pat Metheny as an artist, and it’s also when I fell in love with his playing. That may seem strange, considering how prolific he is, but it took me a while to get my head around what was going on in records like Bright Size Life, Watercolors, 80/81, and the like. Missouri Sky is quiet, it’s slower, and provides easier access to the music, and after listening to it – many, many times – I found that it eased the transition into Metheny’s more famous trio records, and beyond.

I won’t talk about every tune here, but I do need to touch on a few of the highlights.

“Our Spanish Love Song” is by far the best piece on the album, and it features one of the best guitar solos I’ve ever heard – possibly THE best. No joke. I would love to know how many takes of this they recorded, and how much they rehearsed it. The song itself was penned by Haden, and has a beautiful melody, the kind that you just want to listen to over and over again. But Metheny’s solo is something to behold. It is almost classical in its composition, utilizing many classical compositional techniques, yet it retains the presence and magic of the best of Metheny’s improvisations. Listen to the way he uses theme and development (around 1:40 – 1:50), and repetition (2:05 – 2:17) to create tension and release.

The playing here is highly technical – his phrases are almost textbook perfect examples of playing over changes, moving only the notes you have to to create that sort of slippery feeling of playing through the chords. My favorite lick in the solo is a great example of this – it’s just a quick turnaround lick that starts at around 2:04. Notice how he outlines the changes perfectly, yet still manages to sound musical, amping the emotion at the same time. Brilliant.

After the solo, the melody is restated before a final rideout solo. This song also features one of my favorite songwriting techniques – stating the melody first in a lower register, then later returning to the same melody an octave higher. You can hear this technique in just about any style of music, and it always works to give the song a sense of movement and momentum, that one extra push at the end to make the song really fly.

“Precious Jewel” hearkens back a bit to Metheny’s “Two Folk Songs” from the 80/81 album. This one has Metheny in strumming mode while Haden handles the melody. It’s a nice break from the more pensive moods of the other tunes. Some obvious overdubbing here, with Metheny playing some electric guitar lines for the melody and solo.

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is probably my second favorite tune on the album, which is kind of amazing considering it’s composed of a very simple melody over some basic open chords (G, D, Am, Em). It’s a tribute to both the songwriting (it was written by Jimmy Webb) and to the setting. The song has been performed and recorded a bunch of times by numerous artists (Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, and Webb himself), but none come close the emotion that is discovered here…

OK, quick aside/brainstorm…as I was writing this I was thinking that I kinda liked the Linda Ronstadt version and that it reminded me a bit of Grace Potter…then I thought, wow, Grace Potter would absolutely KILL singing this song…then I thought what if Metheny was on guitar and Haden was on bass with Grace Potter singing…then I sat here and daydreamed happily for a while about what that would sound like. Somebody needs to get that together NOW…ok, I’m done.

In this intimate setting the song takes on an intense melancholy tone that is hard to shake off – it stays with you long after the last chord has been played, and you don’t want it to end. The song features some really nice and subtle key modulations as well – if you’re not paying attention you almost miss them completely.

The final song, “Spiritual”, was written by Haden’s son, and you can really hear Haden get into it on this one. The playing by both Metheny and Haden is almost painful in its restraint.

The word I keep coming back to when I think of this album is intimacy. The music here feels close, palpable. Haden and Metheny are true legends and masters of their instruments, yet they never show off, never overplay. Every note is perfectly placed yet they retain a loose, improvisational feel. I listen to at least some of this album almost every day. It has long held a spot on my personal “Desert Island” list, and I think it always will.

Great Albums: Chickenfoot

Album: Chickenfoot

Personnel: Sammy Hagar (vocals), Joe Satriani (guitars), Michael Anthony (bass), Chad Smith (drums)

Sometime around ten years ago, I got a little lost.

OK, that’s a little dramatic. Nothing really bad happened in that time period. In fact, a lot of really great things happened. I moved to Arizona, started a new career as a programmer, had two beautiful kids, bought a house, switched jobs a few times, and my wife became a published author. So when I say I got lost, I don’t mean that I was wandering the streets howling at the moon night after night. I mean that something that was previously a huge part of my life – music – took a bit of a backseat to everything else that was new. I stopped playing guitar, almost completely. Stopped going to record stores, and buying CDs every chance I got (mp3s weren’t everywhere yet, and I still like buying CDs). Stopped going to clubs and concerts, seeking out new music. Pretty much just stopped. But so much other stuff was going on that I almost didn’t realize I was missing anything. Life went on, and it was good.

Then one day about three years ago I was surfing around online, and made my way over to Joe Satriani’s site, which even in those days I would visit from time to time. And then I saw this word on one of the pages, “Chickenfoot”. It was a little unclear what it was, but my interest was piqued, so I Googled it. And sure enough, up came the website. And my jaw dropped when I saw the site header – Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani, and Chad Smith. In a band. Together. Called Chickenfoot?

At that moment something clicked. Something changed inside me. It was something I hadn’t felt in a really long time. Excitement for music. I was crackling with it.

The album wasn’t due to be released for several months yet, but I told everyone who would listen about this “new” band. I put the Chickenfoot logo up as my Instant Messenger avatar. For the next few weeks, I had the same IM conversation with a whole slew of people:

Them: “Chickenfoot? What’s that?”
Me: check this out http://www.chickenfoot.us
(a few seconds pass by…)
Them: “No shit!”
Me: “I know!”

I would then proceed to tell my friend/coworker/random stranger everything I knew about the band, whether they wanted to hear it or not: when the album was coming out, how they got together, if they were going to tour, if I thought it would be good, etc. I did this so often that my friend Brian created a Chickenfoot whiteboard sticker for me (my kids got in on the act too, hence the “Chickenfoot Dad” scrawl and red clay logo).

My wife, being a writer and therefore more than a little perceptive, noticed my excitement too. And bless her, unbeknownst to me, she signed me up for the Chickenfoot Fan Club for my birthday – the first time I’d ever been in a fan club in my life. And I loved it. So basically I was a fan even before the album was released. I just had a feeling it would be something special.

During that time, there was some speculation online that Joe Satriani would have trouble playing in a band setting, having been a solo artist for so long. But I knew that was just stupid. Satriani is one of the few absolute masters of the guitar – the guy can do anything. I remember an interview Joe once gave where he lamented the fact that so many people still thought he was some kind of “mad fusion” player – “I play rock music,” he said. Yes, yes he does. Need proof? Read on.

Quick aside: my all time favorite quote about Satch was from jazz guitar legend Pat Martino. Satriani played on Martino’s comeback album many years ago. After the recording session, Martino remarked, “Man, I’ve played with the best of the best, and that guy’s a motherfucker.”

For those not versed in jazz parlance, that was a huge compliment.

So when the album finally came out, I was more than ready. As I bought the CD I had a weird sense of terrible excitement tempered ever so slightly by the knowledge that so-called “supergroups” like this often didn’t work out so well – uneven efforts at best, and epic failures at worst. But I had nothing to fear. I went home and listened to the album straight through, just like the old days, smiling like a fool the whole time. The album rocks. Somehow these four guys managed to come together and create a kick ass record that not only showcases their considerable individual skills, but also sounds like a great band.

“Avenida Revolucion” kicks things off, and right away it’s high energy hard rock. Satriani is hitting his trademark harmonics and wailing all over the place; Chad Smith is beating the drums like they owe him money; Sammy is screaming the way only he can; and Mike is holding down the bottom and the top all at once, with his solid bass lines and steady harmonies. The guitar solo finds Joe in legato mode, and the rideout has some nice moments where Mike is able to shine on bass for a bit.

While we’re on the subject, let’s take a moment to talk about Michael Anthony. To be honest, I never really appreciated Mike when he was in Van Halen.  When the Chickenfoot album came out, the band put together a series of videos to sort of introduce the band and the songs. In one of the videos Sammy said that they really made a conscious effort to feature the vocal harmonies in every song, because Sammy and Mike’s voices blended so nicely and created that signature Van Hagar sound. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but he was right – it is a very distinctive sound and a lot of that comes from Mike.

Chickenfoot put out a concert DVD after their tour (filmed, by the way, at the Phoenix show which I attended – I’m even in the video for half a second…well, my hair is anyway). There is one moment in that video that epitomizes Michael Anthony. I don’t even remember which song they were playing, but it was a moment that Mike was away from his mic, just jamming along on his bass. When the chorus came up, he just casually stepped up to the mic and belted out one of his patented VH-style harmonies, all the while holding down the bottom as if it was nothing. And that moment, for some reason, clicked in my head what an absolute pro Mike is.

It reminded me of a story about the actor Hal Holbrook (yes I know that’s an odd reference…stay with me). He was hired to be on a few episodes of The Sopranos back when it was still on the air. Sopranos creator David Chase was watching Holbrook film the first take of a scene, and when it ended, someone turned to him and said, “Wow, that was really good, wasn’t it?” And Chase replied, “Well, when you want something done right, you hire a pro.”

So hats off to Michael Anthony, the man, the myth, the professional.

While promoting this album, Sammy Hagar made a somewhat controversial statement comparing Chickenfoot to Led Zeppelin. He has since recanted that statement, saying he was drunk and it was just a really stupid thing to say (he even went so far as to pay homage to Led Zep on Chickenfoot’s second album, mentioning Houses of the Holy in the song “Big Foot”). Now, I’ll agree that his statement wasn’t exactly well thought-out. But, I have to say that if any Chickenfoot song were to win the honor of a Led Zep comparison, it would have to be the second song on the album, “Soap on a Rope”. This song ROCKS. It has a monster riff that Jimmy Page (or Tony Iommi, Angus Young, James Hetfield, or any of the all-time riff master gods) would be proud of. This song has it all and you can really tell that the whole band put everything they had into it. Chad’s drumming is funky and hard hitting at the same time. Joe’s tone is unreal, Sammy is killing it and Mike has some ridiculous harmonies going on. And to top it all off, they give us the extended rideout, somewhat reminiscent of Joe’s “Summer Song”, so by the time the song is finished the listener is just exhausted. What a great tune – one of my all time rock favorites.

“Sexy Little Thing” is a straight ahead rocker with some nice harmonies from Sammy and Mike, a tasty clean solo from Joe, and some really nice high-hat work from Chad. I hate to throw more fuel on the Led Zep fire, but Chad really does remind me a lot of John Bonham on this album. They were both big, powerful drummers who you expect to just bash the hell out of the drums, but they continually surprise you with how intricate their drum parts are, and how perfectly they fit the songs. “Thrifty” was how Robert Plant described Bonzo’s drumming, and I think that’s a very appropriate term for Chad here as well.

“Oh Yeah” was the first single off the album, and for good reason. It’s got the same attitude as “Soap on a Rope”, but with a bit more polish and restraint. It also features some of Joe’s best rhythm playing ever. I wish I knew how he got that extra crunchy rhythm tone.

“Runnin’ Out” is another mid-tempo tune, similar to “Sexy Little Thing”, with plenty more thriftiness from Chad and a killer wah solo from Joe.

“Get it Up” is next and is by far the most exotic of the tunes. One of Joe Satriani’s favorite scales is the Phrygian Dominant mode, which has a strong Middle Eastern tonality. Not something you hear every day, especially in mainstream rock music. But somehow Joe manages to write an entire song built on it, make it accessible, and make it rock. More great hi-hat and cymbal work from Chad on this one, and probably my favorite vocals of the whole album. Sammy and Mike’s harmonies are right up front on this one, with Mike joining in on all the verses rather than the chorus. The mix of their voices creates a really nice haunting effect that floats above the rhythm section like shifting sand.

The story behind “Down the Drain” is amazing. Joe had brought in a rough demo to share with the guys, and while he was tuning up his guitar, he started playing a little of his “Rubina’s Blue Sky Happiness” (my most favoritest tune of his ever, by the way). He then started just messing around, playing some slow, swampy riffs, and the guys joined in, thinking that was the song Joe was going to show them. They continued to jam for 15 or 20 minutes, instinctively following each other and never calling out chord changes or notes to each other. Sammy even got into it, throwing down rhythmic scratch vocals on top of the music. When the jam wound down, they all realized how cool it was and went to listen back to it. When they heard it they knew they had a song, so they edited it down, added a short bridge, Sammy overdubbed some vocals, and boom, there it was. They even kept Sammy’s original speaking parts from the start of the jam: “Is that that new thing, Joe? Huh? Talk to me, chief!”

“My Kinda Girl” is a tricky one for me. This is by far the most commercial sounding song on the album, and by that I mean it veers away from hard rock and into pop territory, especially in the chorus and bridge, where Sammy and Mike’s harmonies are really layered on thick. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with a good pop song, and I’m a sucker for a good melody, but in this context it just doesn’t quite feel right. Joe saves this one though, ripping into his guitar solo with one of his patented single-string runs, leaping through arpeggios punctuated with open strings, and ending with a blues run and whammy bar growl.

“Learning to Fall” is a beautiful ballad in B minor, featuring some great vocals by Sammy and Mike. But Joe steals this one too, with a soaring harmonic at the start of the guitar solo that is the emotional high point, elevating the song to another level.

“Turning Left” might as well be called “The Joe Show”. Another killer riff, and just a ridiculous amount of high-octane soloing insanity throughout. Supposedly he did all the solos in one take. Unreal.

“Future in the Past” is a bit of an oddball tune, but it’s my second favorite on the album, behind “Soap on a Rope”. This is the album’s closer, and the boys take us on an epic journey, winding through a dirty, funky verse section, into another Phrygian Dominant interlude, and winding up with a bombastic rock rideout. Joe is in full-on Hendrix mode here, and he delivers some gut-wrenching and soulful blues lines in his outro solo, while Sammy belts out his most emotional singing on the album.

Chickenfoot (the album) went gold just a few months after it was released. Compared to some of the past multi-platinum successes of its members, that seems like nothing to really brag about. But when viewed in today’s music climate, where hard rock is rarely seen or heard except on classic rock radio, and albums are something made in the olden times before iPods existed, it’s nothing short of extraordinary. My guess is that I’m not the only one out there who was awakened by this album and the glorious music on it. I’m thinking there are a lot of us out there, who for one reason or another really needed something like this, and the boys in Chickenfoot delivered.

Since this album came out, music has become part of my life again. I have been listening to so much more, discovering new stuff and also re-discovering my old favorites. I started going to concerts again (just saw Sting a few months ago). I started this blog. And I’ve even started playing guitar again – my wife got me a book of Coltrane transcriptions that I’m working through. Slowly. Very slowly.

I will be forever grateful for Chickenfoot. And since I may never get to say it in person, I’d like to sincerely say thank you to Sammy, Mike, Joe, and Chad for making the music they make, and stoking the fire.

Great Albums: Kind of Blue

Album: Kind of Blue

Personnel: Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Bill Evans (piano), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums)

Writing about the movie Casablanca, Uncle Roger once wrote: “It is *the* movie…Within its frames are so many of the many different and sometimes conflicting reasons why the movies are so special to us; Casablanca is popular art, and it is Art, as well.” The same sentiment could be applied to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. It is *the* jazz album.

The influence that this album has had on popular music really can’t be overstated. Consider the musicians on the album. With the exception of Jimmy Cobb, who was a great solid drummer but not hugely influential in the drumming world, the musicians on this album have influenced an entire generation of musicians.

There is no trumpet player alive who has not been influenced by Miles Davis.

There is no alto player alive who has not been influenced by Cannonball Adderley.

There is no tenor player alive who has not been influenced by John Coltrane.

There is no piano player alive who has not been influenced by Bill Evans.

There is no bass player alive who has not been influenced by Paul Chambers.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say there is not a musician alive today who has not been influenced by the music on Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue was the first real jazz album I ever heard. At the time I was a competent rock guitar player, and my instructor wanted me to expand my horizons a bit. It just so happened he was learning to play jazz, so he sort of brought me along and showed me some of the stuff he was learning. The first tune he played for me was All Blues. I remember thinking at the time how LONG it was…he recorded it on a cassette for me and it took FOREVER to finish recording. I took it home and listened to it. I didn’t understand any of it. I knew the chords, because he had showed me a basic way of playing it on guitar. I knew the Mixolydian mode, and I even knew how to play a dominant 7#9 chord thanks to Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. But I just didn’t get it.

Though I understand it now, Kind of Blue still has that same feeling of unattainability that it always had. It’s so effortless, so organic, it sounds as if it wasn’t an album that was set up and recorded in a studio by people over the course of several months – it seems as if it was just born, and blossomed into existence in one perfect moment.

So What starts the album. Miles’ solo on this tune is a classic, one of his best. He sits right in the pocket, never showing off or overplaying. It’s a deceptively simple solo – working out the lines on my guitar one day, I was surprised to find how complex Miles’ note choices are here.  Coltrane’s solo on this tune is a little more experimental, searching. Which makes sense; soon after this recording he would pen his own tune “Impressions” based on the exact same modal changes (D Dorian/Eb Dorian). The tune would go on to become a staple of his live sets for the rest of his life.

Freddie Freeloader, known simply as “Freddie” among musicians, is the only tune on the album to feature Wynton Kelly on piano. And Kelly shines on this tune. In his autobiography, Miles said of Kelly “he could play behind a soloist like a motherfucker”, and he proves it here. Listen to his comping behind Miles in particular – he is almost telepathic in his ability to fill in the spaces that Miles leaves. Kelly’s solo is also a gem, bluesy and complex at the same time. But it is Cannonball Adderley who owns this tune. His solo is simply one of the greatest solos of all time, a master class in melodicism and groove.

Quick side story: a friend of mine was hanging out at George Benson’s house when Benson got a call from Jon Hendricks, informing him that he would be singing Cannonball’s Freddie solo in the vocalese version on Jon Hendricks & Friends. Apparently Benson was more than a little nonplussed. He killed it though, of course. Benson is a badass. But I digress…

One more note on Freddie: listen to the monstrous moving bass line that Chambers plays under the head (the “head” is a jazz cat term for the main melody of a song). It is one of the busiest lines he plays, and it plays perfectly against the slower, longer notes of the melody. Once the solos kick in, he’s back to his propulsive swing.

Blue In Green is a tune with some controversy surrounding it. For years Miles claimed he wrote the tune, and he collected the publishing royalties for it. But everyone I’ve ever talked to about it is certain that Bill Evans wrote it. And with good reason – just listen to it. It’s a Bill Evans tune all the way. A few years after Miles died, his estate finally released the publishing rights to Bill Evans’ estate. Better late than never I guess.

Another side story: the same friend told me another story, also about GB. Seems GB walked into a club one night many years ago to see Bill Evans play. When Benson walked in, Evans was playing “Blue In Green”. GB looked around and saw Miles Davis in the crowd, and sat down next to him. Miles turned to him and said “how you like my tune I wrote?” GB replied, “Man, you didn’t write that tune.”

Evans’ compositions favored pensive moods, and Blue In Green may be the most pensive, melancholy tune ever written. It also contains the saddest note ever played: Miles plays it at around the 4:32 mark, and it just kills me every time I hear it.

I mentioned All Blues at the top of this essay. This was the tune that sort of started it all for me. At the time, all I knew about the blues was what I’d heard from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and Albert King. But this was something completely different. It had the same chords, and the same notes, but they were put together in such a way that it was just so foreign. In many ways I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.

Cannonball’s solo is my favorite on this tune, I think. Which makes sense – he had the most bluesy feel of all the players, so this was right in his wheelhouse – same with Freddie. But my favorite moment of the tune is a note that Coltrane plays at about the 6:26 mark. Coltrane had a way of playing just one note and making it sound like his entire life force was pouring out of his horn. It seemed to happen most when he was playing a blues (the album Coltrane Plays the Blues has lots of examples).

Flamenco Sketches finishes up the album. Based on Evans’ Peace Piece, this tune was my favorite for a long time. It’s no secret I’m a sucker for a great melody, and this tune is just that – pure melody. Everyone kills it on this tune. It’s really tough to pick a favorite solo, but if pressed I’d probably say Evans’ because it is so brilliant in its simplicity.

What fascinates me most about this album is something Miles stated in his autobiography. He said that when he conceived of Kind of Blue, he was going for a very specific kind of sound. I can’t recall the album that inspired him (I can’t find my damn copy of the book), but I do recall that in the end, when Kind of Blue had been recorded and all was finished, he felt that he had missed the mark. Not that it wasn’t a successful album, or that he didn’t like it – he did – but that he missed his target with it. In the course of recording it became something different from what he was originally going for. I would love to have heard what was in his head, but I am eternally grateful for what was recorded.