Friday, August 19, 2005

I'm listening to Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel in 1965

a fantastic box set where he and his band-- the same basic group he had the year before at Carnegie Hall: Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, with Wayne Shorter replacing George Coleman -- just kind of burn through one old Miles standard after the next: "If I Were a Bell," "Stella by Starlight," etc., etc. I don't know jackshit about jazz, and it's always pained me because I can't write about it. Unlike rock or movies or books, you have to have some formal training in music to even really express yourself, to distinguish between players with any kind of depth of interest, to not sound like an idiot. For example, it's hard for me to even say what I like about Miles Davis without resortiung to a lot of cliches: that he's passionate, say, or that he has full command of his means of expression, that he can go deep inside a melody and just roll around in it with such wild improvisatory glee -- the same thing you can say about a lot of other jazz musicians. Interchangeable commentary.

I don't think Miles had much use for Ornette Coleman. They're polar opposites. I've been buying a lot of Ornette Coleman lately -- a lot of his early records. And I do buy records; I've come to the conclusion that vinyl simply sounds better, and the fact that it's comparatively non-portable in the Age of the iPod appeals to my nostalgia, I suppose, or my occasionally troglodyte, unreconstructed, back-in-the-day aesthetics. There's something about a format, like vinyl, that puts demands on you rather than the other way around. A record demands you sit and listen, and it pays off, too, because the sound it delivers is very full. Coleman delivers so much wild sound. It is jazz pushed to the edge -- as he himself puts it, very much like a Jackson Pollock painting. Pollock spattered paint as a way of getting out of certain regimented forms. He wanted to get pure emotion on canvas in all its riuchness and he didn't want representational form, or form of any kind, to hold him back. Coleman -- who puts Pollock's painting "White Light" on the cover of his album Free Jazz -- doesn't, so far as I can tell, want to be held back by standard melody. It's like he wants to achieve something close to pure abstraction; to see how much he can achieve by setting aside standard structural form.

Ths is where it would help to be Nat Hentoff. I could talk about 12 bar this and eight bar that, and modal and structure and etc.


I like Coleman's music immensely because it is always so imaginative and pure. His horn has a very pure sound to it, much like his occasional sideman Eric Dolphy does on bass clarinet and flute and whatever. There's such a strong pure breath of pure life you hear in their records.

It happens with Miles Davis, too, but he's more conventional; the great thing about Miles Davis is that he works within convention and bends it to his will.

I love all of Miles Davis up to his fusion years: I hate all that In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew shit; it's all but unlistenable, and I have an especial agon against Bitches Brew because it was one of ther first jazz records I ever heard and it almost turned me off the whole genre. Years passed before I discovered Mingus and Monk and Duke and Dexter and Armstrong and pre-1968 Miles.

Another thing about Ornette worth noting: all of his early records are very righteous boasts that would sound pretentioous coming from anyone else, and maybe in their day they sounded that way coming from him. Here is someone who changed the direction of jazz completely, and his early record titles really put that ambition right in your face: Something Else!!!, Tomorrow is the Question!, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, and the glorious Free Jazz. (As the Rolling Stone Record Guide put it, how many albums have a whole genre named after them?)

One bad thing about vinyl, you have to listen to it on weekends, when the family's away. I crank it up as loud as it will go and the dog and I groove. The dog is a chocolate-ice-cream-colored toy poodle named Charles. I tell people he was named for Charles Mingus, because he's smart like Mingus was. I love all the dogs we've had, but Charles -- maybe because he's a puppy and his brain is some wild mass of neurons that are still connecting and evolving, or whatever neurons do -- is some kind of genius. He's incredibly interested in everything and he's unjaded, insofar as that can be said of a dog. He takes wild leaps all over the house: couch to floor to bed to chair. He often leaps completely over the footstool, which is amazing to watch. He demands attention, constantly, and knows how to get it, picking up one toy after the next and hauling it in front of you, sometimes trying to carry two in his little yap at the same time.

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