Great Albums: Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)


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: 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.