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.

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Great Performances: Wes Montgomery Live in ’65

This is why I love modern technology, specifically YouTube.

One day a while back I was noodling around online when I decided I wanted to listen to some music. Being lazy, I didn’t want to spend the few extra seconds opening up iTunes on my computer, so I zipped over to YouTube. I was in the mood for some jazz, and I realized that I had never seen any video of Wes Montgomery playing live. None. I knew there was some video out there, but I also knew it was pretty rare to see him in action, most likely due to his untimely death in 1968 at the age of 45.

So I typed in Wes Montgomery in the search box and let ‘er rip. And sure enough, within seconds I was watching Wes play, with that inimitable technique, right before my eyes. I was actually a little stunned. That’s Wes, I thought. Holy crap, that’s Wes. Had I seen this in my younger, practice-guitar-for-hours days, I would have grabbed my guitar and attempted to cop his thumb technique by starting and pausing the video on every frame until my eyes hurt. Instead, I just sat dumbfounded, watching a legend at work.

The video itself is a bit of an oddity. It is actually three separate sessions from 1965 while Wes was touring in Europe. Some of the dates are from London, some from Holland. The tunes run the gamut from up-tempo burners like Impressions and Four on Six, to mellow ballads like Here’s That Rainy Day. And of course there’s some blues.

The actual tunes don’t matter so much to me though. What matters is that it’s there. Wes Montgomery has influenced just about every modern guitarist in the world, and that’s not hyperbole. And I’m not just talking about jazz guitarists – consider Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai. Pat Metheny has called Wes the greatest guitarist of all time, and it’s hard to argue.  The fact that it’s possible to watch Wes play, play anything, is such a gift.

Metheny wrote the excellent liner notes for this DVD (wherein he calls him the greatest). You can read them on his website here.

Links

YouTube: Impressions Live

Amazon: Jazz Icons: Wes Montgomery Live in ’65

Building a JQuery Retinal Scanner

I have been having tons of fun working on the viral site for Erin Kellison’s Segue Institute. We’ve added lots of cool content to the site, and have plans to keep it going (and growing) for quite a while.

Maybe my favorite section of the site is the retinal scanner. It’s the second page you come to when you visit the site (the initial page is a login page). The Segue Institute is supposed to be a very high-tech facility, and the site experience is meant to be that of a Segue employee logging in to their secure website to poke around.

Probably one of the big reasons I like the scanner page so much is because it wasn’t planned. I was working on the main site navigation in the internal pages, and it was giving me fits. I was having a rough time trying to come up with something that was clean and clear to the user, but also fit with the high-tech theme. In a moment of frustration I decided to take a little break, and started brainstorming about various high-tech devices or designs that could work on the site. And immediately I knew we needed a retinal scanner. I started on it that very second, and after a few hours I had it. Gotta love inspiration.

So, on to the good stuff. The scanner is really quite simple. It consists of two images: (1) the scanner background with the sight lines and green radial gradient, and (2) the laser. I went with green because, well, it looked cool. The scanner background is nothing special, just some lines and a gradient on a transparent background. The laser is just a line of green to which I applied some filters for the blurs on the ends. I also added some noise to give it that fluttery sort of look that lasers get when they pass over objects.

The final pieces of the puzzle were two small text paragraphs: one static, with a simple message (“Please hold still”, heh heh) and one hidden, for display when the scanner is finished.

The HTML is again pretty simple. We have a “content” div wrapper, a div for the static message, a div for the hidden message (“auth”), and a div for the scanner (“scanPanel”).  NOTE: line breaks below are for display purposes only. AND ANOTHER THING: both “scanPanel” and “imgLaser” are positioned absolutely so that all the animations start and stop in the right place.

<div id="content">
  <div id="scanPanel" class="contentDiv">
    <img id="imgScanOverlay" src="img/scanbed.png" style="display: none;"/>
    <img id="imgLaser" src="img/scan.png" style="display: none; 
        position: absolute; top: 82px; left: 50px;"/>
  </div>
  <div>
    RETINAL SCAN IN PROGRESS...PLEASE HOLD STILL
  </div>
  <div id="auth" style="display: none;">
    AUTHORIZATION SUCCEEDED...LOADING DASHBOARD
  </div>
</div>

The javascript is where the magic happens. It all starts with a call to loadPanel(), which simply fades in the scanner div. Then the callback method, showScanner(), kicks off a series of animations:

  1. the scanner background is faded in
  2. the laser image is faded in
  3. the laser image’s “top” CSS property is animated to 390px, over a 2.5 second duration. Notice that here we are using the jquery easing plugin to get the effect that the scanner is speeding up through the center, and slowing down at the bottom. There are a bunch of options available here…basically I just tried them and picked the one that felt right.
  4. The laser is animated again, this time back up to the top. Again the easing plugin does its thing.
  5. The laser image is faded out
  6. The callback from the fadeout locates the hidden message and fades it in
  7. Finally, the callback from the fade in does a redirect to the main site. Whew!
NOTE: you could reduce all the nesting below by setting up individual functions for each of the callbacks, however I kind of prefer it this way, it’s easier to visualize what’s going on. Plus, once you minify it, who cares about nesting anyway?
$(document).ready(function () {
  loadPanel($("#scanPanel"))
});

loadPanel = function (panel) {
  panel.fadeIn(500, showScanner)
};

showScanner = function () {
  $("#imgScanOverlay").stop().fadeIn(1800, function () {
    $("#imgLaser").fadeIn(500, function () {
      $(this).animate({ top: "390px" }, 2500, "easeInOutQuint", function () {
        $(this).animate({ top: "82px" }, 2500, "easeInOutQuint", function () {
          $(this).fadeOut(1000, function () {
            $("#auth").fadeIn(1000, function () {
              redirect()
            })
          })
        })
      })
    })
  })
};

redirect = function () {
  setTimeout("window.location = 'dashboard.html';", 2000)
};

So that’s pretty much it. The one thing that I wish I could do with this is make the scanner appear more 3-D when it is animated. Perhaps by animating the width or thickness of the “laser” through its path. Sounds like a fun project for another day.

See the full effect at the SegueInstitute website.

Enjoy!

Great Songs: Three Little Birds

Song: Three Little Birds

Song performed by: Bob Marley & the Wailers

Album: Exodus (also included on Legend)

When I was a kid, maybe 8 years old, I really liked the song “Matthew” by John Denver. It’s a good song, somewhat melodramatic, but I mostly liked it because my name is Matthew. I don’t remember how it got started, but I recall for a few weeks my dad and I used to sit on the couch in our living room, put the song on the stereo, and sing the song together. It wasn’t really a planned bonding moment, it was just one of those random things kids and parents do together and then kind of move on to something else. It’s one of my most cherished childhood memories, and one of the earliest concrete memories I have where music is the focal point.

Flash forward to a few months ago, and I’m burning a CD for my own kids to listen to in the car. I put Three Little Birds on there just for the heck of it – they know the song a bit because it’s featured in a Nick Jr. short animation. We go for a drive to the store. The song comes on. I start singing along: “Don’t worry about a thing…’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright”. Slowly, tentatively, so do my kids. I sing a little louder. They follow suit. Soon we are all singing full voice together. The song ends and we all laugh. I am so full of joy I can’t stand it.

Wikipedia and other sources tell us that the origin of Three Little Birds is disputed. Some say it was written about some of Marley’s backup singers; others say it was about actual birds that fluttered around Marley’s back door. The true story matters little. What matters is the feeling. Others have written about uplift, or elevation (here and here)…I believe this song is the perfect embodiment of this emotion. It is pure inspiration, pure hope and love. This is one of those songs that has the power to lift the soul. In many ways Three Little Birds is a symbol of the things that Bob Marley stood for, and Marley is also a symbol of what Three Little Birds stands for.

Three Little Birds is now a standard in our house. I sing it to the girls at bedtime (along with Little Wing and Blackbird and Summertime). The song is now an indelible piece of my memories, and hopefully my kids’ too.

Three Little Birds Links

YouTube

Amazon (single – mp3)

Amazon (Exodus album – mp3)

Amazon (Exodus album – CD)

Amazon (Legend album – mp3)

Amazon (Legend album – CD)

Great Solos: Machine Gun

Song: Machine Gun

Solo performed by: Jimi Hendrix

Album: Band of Gypsys

Recorded live at the Fillmore East, December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970

It’s THE NOTE.

Thousands of words have been written about Jimi Hendrix and his guitar playing. We can talk about the man, the guitars, the amps, the effects, the tone, the style. But it all comes back to THE NOTE. Those of you who know the Machine Gun solo know exactly what I’m talking about. It is the very first note of the solo, the single greatest rock guitar note ever played. THE NOTE comes at about the 3:59 mark, a huge, sustaining scream that lasts for the first 10 seconds or so of the solo (the note is picked only twice in that time). Hendrix probably could have ended the solo after that note, and the emotions behind the music would have been fully conveyed, but thankfully he didn’t stop there.

There is a kind of mythology surrounding the recording of the Band of Gypsys album, and this song in particular. The details vary and are a little vague, but the gist of the story is this: at the time, numerous sources had been giving Hendrix a hard about the nature of his live shows. The argument was that he jumped and writhed around so much in concert that his actual guitar playing suffered in the process. Some versions of the story attribute the criticism to Bill Graham, famed promoter and proprietor of the Fillmore. So Hendrix decided to show them what he was truly capable of, and when he went out on stage that night he stood in one spot the entire show and did not move, and gave us the best playing of his life.

The song itself is deceptively simple. Like Voodoo Child (and many other Hendrix tunes), it’s basically a jam in E that provides a framework for Hendrix to hang some brilliant solo work on. It starts off slow, with a short intro solo leading up to some sparse guitar licks interspersed between vocal verses. The first thing you really notice in these sections is the guitar tone. Full, round, glassy and shimmering, the tone is classic Hendrix tone even at the low volume of the intro. To get the tone Hendrix employed his usual cadre of effects like the UniVibe, Fuzzface, Vox wah wah, and Octavia.

The solo itself is basically a jam, and for the most part Hendrix remains above the 12th fret on the guitar throughout. He stays in the familiar “blues box” for the first minute or so (after THE NOTE, that is), and then at around 5:18 he embarks on some extended whammy bar manipulations. While doing a slow trill between two notes (hammer-ons and pull-offs to you guitar geeks), he raises and lowers the pitch with the whammy bar, creating an otherworldly fluid sound. This may sound tame compared to more modern whammy bar craziness from the likes of Brad Gillis, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai , and Joe Satriani, but at the time this was innovative stuff. Consider that most whammy bar usage at the time was limited to simple dive bombs and noises, but Hendrix incorporates the bar into the solo, creating and weaving new melodies that at the time were never heard before.

Hendrix caps off the whammy bar section with some wrenching double stop screams and howls, enhanced by a wide vibrato courtesy of more whammy bar usage. He returns to the main theme, only this time an octave higher, then continues with the wails. This is the emotional high point of the solo for me, a catharsis of screaming anguish.

Just when you think the solo must be winding down, at around 7:20 Hendrix launches into a manic legato flurry of notes. At the same time he flips the pickup selector on his Strat to the neck pickup, resulting in a warmer, slightly fuller, slightly fuzzier sound, which blends perfectly with the more legato playing. The effect is exhilarating.  He sticks with the neck sound until the solo finally does wind down, ending in a plaintive feedback cry.

As with any great blues-based solo, it’s never so much about what specific notes are played, but more about the feeling conveyed. This is a fascinating solo to me because it starts on such a high emotional level (THE NOTE), and then stays there, even going higher, throughout the entire solo.

After the solo, but before continuing the vocals, Hendrix plays a short little interlude pentatonic riff. I have always been fascinated with this section. The main riff played by the guitar and bass is the exact same as the end of the main riff played by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. I have always wondered if Page was “inspired by” (i.e. stole) this lick, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in any interviews or official story. If anyone out there knows please don’t keep it to yourself.

Links

YouTube

Amazon (single – mp3)

Amazon (CD – mp3)

Amazon (CD)