Monday, September 15, 2008

Revenge of the horn Nr. 3

The third and final part of my Miles Davis trilogy.. many thanks to those of you who've provided such entertaining commentary to the last two instalments, I've enjoyed it a lot. I've stayed in the sixties for number three, in an attempt to give the series a sense of coherence, although it has to be said I'm leaving out a huge body of work both before and after the ten years I've covered here.

I've picked a slower track this time, and one with a particular resonance for Miles Davis: "Mademoiselle Mabry" is named for Betty Mabry, who married Miles in 1968 and whose image was printed on the cover of the album, Filles de Kilimanjaro.
The marriage was short lived, however; following their divorce a year later Betty retained the surname Davis and began her own musical career.

She knew Jimi Hendrix and introduced Miles to rock and R&B, as well as changing his wardrobe, his style, and his musical taste. Excited by the new music he was hearing, and having more or less exhausted his excursions into jazz abstraction after 4 years of relentless exploration, Miles gradually began introducing electric instruments to the lineup.

Davis had been aware of Joe Zawinul's work on Fender Rhodes for the highly successful Cannonball Adderley quintet, as well as admiring Hendrix's band, and wanted to introduce more of a contemporary, R&B sound to his own band. He was also motivated by the desire to attract young, African-American fans, who had been increasingly absent from his concerts in the mid- to late sixties.
Contemporary critics who saw his experimentation with electric instruments as a "sell out" were wide of the mark- Miles was simply seeking new ground to break, having gone as far as he could with acoustic instruments.

"M. Mabry" begins with the rhythm instruments, electric piano, bass and drums repeating a written score three times, while the horns remain silent; this is already quite different to the standard jazz structure, where the horns carry the melody and the rhythm instruments perform a backing role.

Davis begins his solo without any reference to the theme; his playing is enormously expressive and playful, the tone of the horn as varied as a human voice.
Wayne Shorter continues with his characteristic arpeggios, developing an appealing vulnerability as his melodic lines take him into the upper registers of the horn.
Chick Corea, on electric piano, gets a chance to break out of his proscribed role as the piece develops into a long, languid, R&B tinged jam. The backing is sparse, with subtle tempo variations and the recurring three note motif offering enough time and space for the soloists to develop their ideas into extremely lyrical statements.

The music has a wonderfully relaxed feel: the rhythm section is far more constrained and quiet than it was in Freedom Jazz Dance- rather than spontaneous interaction, this piece is more about establishing a mood and making an emotional statement, although there is still room for some very fine, responsive drumming by Tony Williams in the second half of the piece.

Looking back to the two earlier pieces, perhaps "Milestones" and "Freedom Jazz Dance" can be best appreciated in terms of their complexity, balance, and contrast, rather in the sense of a seashell, or a city; they are probably quite difficult to comprehend at first listen.
In comparison, "Mademoiselle Mabry" is more sensual and evocative, like the caress of a lover, or the feel of water on your skin- it leaves a more immediate impression, although repeated listening is also rewarding.

Miles went on to produce the ethereal perfection of "In a silent way", before the band switched tack and charged into the occult, funky rawness of "Bitches Brew". In 1970 his band played the Isle of Wight festival, and the transformation was complete- until shortly before his death, he would never revisit his acoustic period.

Mademoiselle Mabry

As an aside, the theme of Mademoiselle Mabry has a certain affinity with
The Wind Cries Mary, by Jimi Hendrix.


steenbeck said...

That was beautiful,Nilpferd, thank you. I just listened to it through twice. I like how it is relaxed but it still contains a kind of tension, and how it seems to set up expectations, but makes you wait to hear what you'd expected. Your description was wonderful (again). It does feel like water, or like breathing, maybe.

And I can absolutely hear the connection to the WInd Cries Mary.

Thanks again. I'm going to have another listen...

steenbeck said...

Does anybody know...if I download it and listen to it in my iTunes rather than on the 'Spill, does it still use up Nilpferd's bandwidth?

nilpferd said...

Thanks steen, glad you liked it! That's a very perceptive remark about the way the piece sets you up and then delivers what you expect to hear, that's exactly how it works for me too. I should add that the connection to Wind Cries Mary has been fairly widely written about (ie, I can't claim to have had that insight on my own). I like to see Mademoiselle Mabry in sort of a troubadour light, ie. Miles wooing Betty Mabry using the music she introduced him to, even if their happiness together was short lived in the end.

nilpferd said...

Oh, and I think once you've downloaded it, it must be separated from my account, but I admit to not being 100% sure about that.

Blimpy said...

Once you've downloaded it, and it's in your itunes, it's on your hard drive, a separate copy of what's on boxstr.

Abahachi said...

I've never heard this album, and the abacus isn't wired for sound, hence the uncharacteristic silence from this quarter. Working at home today, but should be in the office and able to use work PC tomorrow. In the meantime, are you sure this has to be a series of three? I'd love to hear you on something from Bitches Brew or one of the disturbing 70s albums...

nilpferd said...

I guess I just know I won't be able to resist doing a second set at some stage, and the seventies would definitely be my next port of call.. I'll need a bit of a breather though, it does take a while to get these things honed down to something vaguely readable..
I love Filles de Kilimanjaro, Miles' trumpet has a unique, full sound, he's in great form, and Tony Williams is just awesome.. it's quite rock oriented but there are some lovely melodies. One thing which doesn't really work is Ron Carter's bass guitar, which drones a bit, but tracks like Petits Machins and Frelon Brun just fly..

PaintRunner said...

Hi All

As a bit of an aside, if you like the electric Miles stuff, the Wadada Leo Smith/ Henry Kaiser group Yo Miles! have two full concerts, free to download in a variety of formats at internet music archive:

There are thousands of other concerts, mostly audience recordings, even several thousand Grateful Dead ones. This is a great resource. There are also collections of moving images, texts, spoken word recordings, wax cylinders etc. Definitely worth using some bandwidth on


Abahachi said...

Very nice; yes, lovely trumpet sound. Must confess that it did become background music after a while, rather than seizing my attention in the way that even the quieter cuts on, say, ESP do, but perhaps that's my fault for listening to it at work. I was interested how much Hancock Chick Corea sounds on this; I'm not sure I'd have spotted the difference if I didn't know.

nilpferd said...

It's less intense than E.S.P., but as Steenbeck points out above, the tension is contained in the play with your expectations, which makes it for me somehow more tactile. Obviously, you need to go home, draw a long bath, get yourself a suitable drink, and listen to it again.
The ballads on E.S.P. are beautiful but very melancholy, whereas M.M. radiates satisfaction.

With the Hancock/Corea switch it's even more confusing as I think the original liner notes got it wrong. You can identify Dave Holland's bass compared to Carter's bass guitar much more easily than the e-pianos, which really are interchangeable. Perhaps Corea uses chords more, but I can't really tell them apart either.

DaddyPig said...

I can see I'm going to be raiding my brother's Miles Davis LPs very soon. This is lovely, gives a beautiful drifting feeling without ever losing its way. I think the "Wind Cries Mary" riff just holds it together in the right way. Cheers nilpferd.

Abahachi said...

Damn, forgot to listen for Mary. Will have another go, in more conducive surroundings. Meanwhile, have just got hold of a cheap copy of Highlights from the Plugged Nickel and am wallowing in bliss - and wondering how I could raise a loan to buy the complete set...

nilpferd said...

Go for it, Daddypig!
Abahachi- actually that Highlights CD is probably your best bet- a friend got the boxed set and was a little disappointed with it, he reckoned you didn't really need anymore. Heresy, I know..
I don't know if "Highlights.." has the version of Milestones from the original "Cookin' at the plugged nickel" compilation- if if does, you can hear some guy talking at a nearby table and insisting that the bass player is Paul Chambers, while Hancock, Williams and Carter work up to an incredible crescendo- it's hilarious.
You might want to check out the 6 disc Cellar Door sessions box set from 1970 instead, which really are all brilliant. I think the Miles Davis/Sony website has samples.

ejaydee said...

An unexpected yet great choice, and Steenbeck sums exactly what I love most about Miles. It's all about the tension and density.
About The Wind Cries Mary, I seem to remember the liner notes of the re-release saying it was the same riff, only backwards.