science bastards

3 December, 2011

Kind of Blue, Vol.8, Final Verdict

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 9:29 pm

Upon first listen, Kind of Blue really made me think it was going to be a super straight jazz record.  I was quietly dreading that possibility because I really do love Miles Davis.  I think part of me didn’t want any of him tainted by something I’d find boring.  I think that a lot the “cool jazz” that has been made since this time really tries to ape this album and this sound but really doesn’t have too much else going for it.  I think for when it came out it is a revelation for sure, I just also think it spurred some really bad stereotypes as far as what jazz should be.  I tried to find some good examples of really pedantic jazz that was just posing but I was at a loss as to how to search for something like that.  It’s better anyway, it’s never a good idea to talk poorly of other people, even if it’s on a blog that will never be read after next week.  It’s just an example of how deep the impact of Kind of Blue actually was.  It was a complete game changer of a record and, unfortunately, it garnered many hangers on.  It’s sort of like all the terrible bands that suddenly counted themselves as grunge once Nirvana blew up.  Not that I really thought Nirvana were the be all and end all of that era, but it shows that when someone really makes an impression, less talented people will try to ride those coattails as long as they can, even if it ruins everything.  In the case of Kind of Blue, it seems as if the album itself set the seeds of jazz’s eventual implosion.  As Slate notes, it opened jazz up to immense complexity and this complexity is what transformed the genre from what was popular music into something best appreciated by specialists.  I personally like some of the jazz that came after this better than any other, but there was a lot of junk too.  Fusion, which Miles would also have a huge hand in, was such a double-edged sword it’s silly.  There are a few nuggets of greatness but a whole lot of turds that spoil everything.  This loops back to the album at hand as well, it seemingly was just swamped by all the garbage that may have followed to the point where I wrote the album off without good information to start with.  I have now repented.

Final verdict: 4.5 of 5

Kind of Blue, Vol.7, Flamenco Sketches

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 8:19 pm

“Flamenco Sketches” is another really slow and subdued number, ala “Blue in Green”.  According to legend, it was written by Bill Evans but not credited to him.  It does seem to center around a really simple progression that Evans kicks off in the beginning.  His playing again seems to have a lot of space to it and, at least in the first part of the song, is just holding things down.  The horns seem more mournful than “Blue in Green” though.  Miles’ initial solo is especially so.  There is no percussion to speak of whatsoever until the saxophones start their parts, even then it is a really simple pattern on the ride cymbal with brushes and eventually you can hear a little snare too.  While the song remains pretty slow, it doesn’t seem to plod along.  The mood is less cool than it is a bit muted.  That’s a fine distinction but it seems to really matter in a way.  The big highlight again is Evans’ piano, which slowly wakens throughout the song, eventually culminating in a really ethereal sounding solo at about six minutes into the piece.  He is maximizing his sustain and the notes really hang around.  It starts as sparsely played single notes and eventually works up to some fantastic sounding chords.  I am not sure if Miles really ever did anything else with him and it’s a shame if the answer is no.  The two seem to really complement each other here.  Evans surely wouldn’t have hung around when Miles went electric but he really shines on this track.  This is no slight to the saxophones, which have gone unmentioned here really.  They are rather seamlessly integrated into the mood of the piece and do their jobs quite well.  I feel as if I’m slighting them by not talk of them more but they have consistently been of somewhat lesser interest to me, this track is no exception.  When they are on, I am listening to the piano underneath or just waiting to hear Miles again, because then I get to hear both of them.  All in all, this track is good for some of its individual pieces and maybe slightly less so for its whole.  It seems to lack the narrative arc that some of the others have.  It’s still quite worth it for its good parts though.

Rating 4.25 of 5

Kind of Blue, Vol.6, All Blues

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 8:15 pm

“All Blues” kicks off with a piano track that sounds a bit like it’s trying to emulate a train, that sort of busy and really repetitive thing like guys always tried with harmonicas.  We are then treated to miles doing a little soloing with the saxophones doubling each other in the left and right channels.  Miracles of stereo.  This immediately feels more like a composition than the exploration of spontaneous melody that the previous three songs resemble, that doesn’t last though.  The train bit dies down after not too long but the piano then seems to follow pretty close to the bass line while respective solos are traded back and forth between the trumpet and saxophones.  This may be the most linear of all the album’s songs as there is a general pattern that is set at the beginning by the horns, which the bass and piano then take up as the horns escape to make all of their solos.  The piano does deviate some but the bass and drums really don’t seem to wander away at all.  That may have been boring to actually play, but this also was the time before drummers and bassists showed a whole lot of virtuoso tendencies.  It strikes me as a boring wish then to be the drummer or bassist, but I digress.  I feel bad because as much as I like the saxophone players on this record, I keep ignoring what they are up to to listen to Bill Evans’ playing.  He doesn’t seem to be doing as much when Miles is playing but definitely has his own subdued solos happening under the saxes.  His playing is really what’s doing the most for me on a lot of these pieces, this track is no exception.  They do give him a few moments to go off on his own near the end, which is kind of nice.  After this they slide back into the same bit they did at the beginning, the train sound on the piano is really backgrounded, maybe in order to make the piece feel like it’s drawing to a close.

This song was probably the least satisfying one of the album.   It’s pretty great in its own right but it just grabs me a little less than the others do.  Least satisfying is a really relative term then, I suppose.

Rating: 4 of 5

Kind of Blue, Vol.5, Blue in Green

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 8:06 pm

“Blue in Green” is the albums shortest song at only 5:38, but it instantly doesn’t feel like a conceptual rehash of the first two songs.  This really feels like cool jazz in the stereotypical sense when it first begins.  Really quiet and shuffly drums with piano and bass accompaniment just feel like a bad movie conception of smoldery jazz.  Miles start to solo pretty fast and his horn cuts straight through everything.  You can tell he is using a mute and, despite an instant and childish association with the teacher’s voice from Peanuts, he really pulls some nice melody into what could otherwise be a pretty straight piece.  Again, his clarity and economy of playing are striking.  My favorite part of the song though is when he quiets down and Bill Evans steps up for his solo.  It comes right at the point where the progression hits a change, I’m loath to use the term “chord change” because this is modal stuff here. No chords!  I’m also no expert on whether he is going from major to minor or whatever but the chord seems to descend and he just seems to get it so perfect.  Again, as stated before, his soloing has a really inexplicable lightness to it that I find a bit mesmerizing to be truthful.  At some point it hit me that the piano, bass and drums are being utilized like before, holding down the basis of the song for solos to go on top of.  In this case though, the piano seems to be a transition between the solos as well as being a solo itself.  Evans is definitely stepping his playing up at these points to contrast his light and spacious playing while someone else solos on top of him.  It comes again after the sax solo that comes up next, Evans’ solos are short so they sort of indicate a bridge more than they do an actual solo.  They are the best part of the song as far as I’m concerned though.  Tonally and playing-wise they are just a real treat.  Miles comes back but by now I am more awaiting the return of the piano solo than enjoying Miles, not that he’s no good here.  Suddenly at about 40 seconds to go, everyone pretty abruptly just shuts down and Evans wraps it up with only a bit of bowed bass behind him that sound like really deep, quiet groans.  Texturally it goes perfectly with the sharpness of the piano and gives a sort of moody punctuation to the end of the song that is slightly uncomfortable, in a good way.  Maybe my favorite part of the record, and that’s in a ballad. Whoa.

Rating 4.5 or 4.75 of 5, I can’t make my mind up.

Kind of Blue, Vol.4, Freddie Freeloader

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 8:00 pm

“Freddie Freeloader” doesn’t noodle its way into order like the previous track.  It sets up a horn pattern from the very outset.  Initially the song feels a bit more scripted compared to “So What”.  It doesn’t take long to hit an extended piano solo, which feels sort of out of place as the first instrument, I don’t have a clue as to why that is though.  The piano feels really open and light though, the Slate.com article claims the pianist here is Wynton Kelly, whose playing doesn’t seem much different than that of Bill Evans.  It all feels quite open and spacious and light.  Those are odd adjectives for piano but that is how it comes across to me.  As soon as Miles steps up for a solo, the piano recedes into the background but never leaves.  Miles’ solo comes and goes but Kelly keeps up a sparse and less showy solo going.  Along with the bass, the two instruments carry on an underpinning that could have easily just sustained the original riff the horns were playing for the whole song.  Now when dissected, this song seems to be a bit of a reprise of “So What”, at least structurally.  In any case Miles’ solo is his typically clear and measured piece.  He has clarity and isn’t in a rush to cram notes on top of one another.  He even seems to pause for a beat or two to emphasize bits he just made up.  He really gives the sense of not wasting a single nanosecond of his playing on unnecessary runs of notes.  It’s subtle as it sometimes comes across as just too measured but it’s pretty great in the hands of someone like this.  After Miles come the dueling saxes.  I am definitely no expert on Cannonball Adderley but I believe I know John Coltrane well enough to discern the two just by process of elimination.  The casual listener might just hear continuous saxophone though, not realizing the two were switching off.  It’d be embarrassing if there were only one of them on this track I guess.  Jazz dudes really get into this minutiae but I personally don’t care so much who’s who at each second of the piece.  Guys like that are the reason Miles left all musician’s credits off of On the Corner.  He had no patience for that sort of minutiae either I suppose.  I personally approve of riling up the type of person that would be riled by such a move.  Anyway, all in all it’s a good track but it rings a tiny bit too much of its predecessor so it feels like repetition.  If their order were juxtaposed, I might have switched my feelings of the two.  Who knows?

Rating 4 out of 5

Kind of Blue, Vol.3, So What

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 7:50 pm

Kind of Blue is going to be a bit of a challenge.  I have to write on five different songs and the album only has five songs total. At least I won’t waste any time choosing I suppose.  In any case, track one is called “So What” and it is a definite exercise in linear composition.  The first 30 or so seconds make it seem like you may be in for some really abstract noodling.  Luckily the bass comes in and gives the track some order with a very simple line producing a call and response, first with the piano and then with the horns as well.  This then makes you feel like you are maybe stuck with that theme for a while.  Luckily it doesn’t get too drawn out, it only goes on for a minute or so.  At this point everything loosens up and the soloing begins, each in turn, which I still find a little retro.  It is 1959 though so retro is what it is.  It strikes me that while the order drops out once the bass abandons that simple line and the rest of the instruments abandon their response, there is no real change in what the underlying structures are.  That simple call and response could continue endlessly on top of everything and not be either rhythmically or tonally out of place.  Thus you get the feeling of linearity without the boredom of it.  At a little over two minutes left in the song the horns return to their response to the bass line earlier in the song.  The bass however continues walking around in the background.  Forty or so seconds later, the piano comes back in line and soon after the bass follows suit.  The song then sort of lilts to a close.  This really makes for a nice arc.

When dissected, the concept of modal composition really becomes glaring.  I have always been loath to dissect music because it sometimes really ruins any special qualities a song may have.  Sometimes removing the mystery of something takes away its best quality.  It’s interesting that jazz is sometimes the opposite.  I’m still not sure whether I like that concept or not.

One bit that is very interesting to me is that you catch John Coltrane using a distinct snippet of soloing that would crop up again in his solo work.  At about 4:28 in “So What” you can hear a tiny bit that definitely prefigures a bit from “Resolution” off of A Love Supreme, that part begins at approximately 4:30, here it repeats and isn’t identical but was enough to aurally remind me that it was John Coltrane playing with Miles.

Compare below…

This track, probably a 4.5 out of 5

2 December, 2011

Miles of Smiles, Kind of Blue vol.2

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 11:53 pm

After now spending a little more time with Kind of Blue and reading up on it some (not Wikipedia, of course) the album has gained some depth for sure.  It has definitely begun to more resemble what I understand to be Miles Davis than I had first imagined too.  Slate.com has a pretty interesting discussion of the importance of the album, not just historically, but as an expression of what was to turn jazz inside out.  Modal compositions basically freed jazz from chords and strict arpeggios and gave it over to melodic possibilities that really messed with peoples’ heads.  I understand this as a musician but sort of take it for granted.  I didn’t pick up an instrument of any kind until around 25 years after this album.  Not being a big jazz head though has somewhat stunted my ear for picking this kind of thing apart.  When I began thinking it over, Miles Davis and others abandoning bebop for the stratosphere really constituted a revolution in the genre.  This brought up a revelation of sorts in the way I listened as well.

I had considered this record to be a little confusing after I first heard it.  Again, Miles’ Charlie Parker years yielded some pretty frenetic compositions that, while complex, are somewhat limiting in their own way.  Instead of just cool jazz, the laid back feel of Kind of Blue feels a lot more like space for these people to stretch out in rather than just mellow.  The next recordings I know at all following this record are some of the sessions of Miles’ quintet of the mid to late sixties.  I can now draw a much clearer line from Kind of Blue to that time period.  It seems like less of a disjointed stylistic skip than a real progression.  Miles was definitely finding his feet with these tracks to certain extent.  It sounds stupid because most think of Kind of Blue as a pinnacle.  Personally, it now seems to me to be Miles wrapping his head around a concept that would seem heretical to jazz musicians, i.e. junking chord structure.  What he did later was just to bring it further and further toward abstraction.  “Circle in the Round” is a pretty good example of this.  It’s a quintet piece from the mid sixties or so that really showcases how this approach could be made almost limitlessly linear, the entire version is over 30 minutes long.  This also represents what was previously the extent that I went backwards with Miles’ output with any real attention.

Kind of Blue is not too far from this, it just still seems rooted in old jazz by comparison.  As much of a revolution as it was, I guess it took a little while for this form to really bear its own fruit.

My respect for the album is definitely growing.

Rating 4.5 of 5 maybe.

I Can See For Miles and Miles, Kind of Blue vol.1

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Miles Davis — sciencebastards @ 11:47 pm

This album is a pretty odd choice for me.  While I definitely count myself as a fan, I have pretty much zero knowledge of this era.  I drive to work every morning the same time Phil Schaap does his show on WKCR so I have at least a passing knowledge of Miles’ time with Charlie Parker.  My only deep knowledge of the man’s work comes from his electric era and a bit just before that.  It’s funny that this is precisely the time period most reviled by jazz purists.  Basically I have a passing knowledge of the time period where Miles was most buried in the mix and had yet to develop a real voice for himself (Charlie Parker Quintet era), and the era in which he was doing his absolute best to anger the very people who expected him to produce album after album that resembled Kind of Blue year after year.  Miles Davis of the early seventies seems like a big middle finger to conservative sensibilities.

Perhaps despite logic, this is the Miles Davis I was instantly drawn to when I first began to explore jazz.

So enough of what this album is not to me and on to what it is to me.  At the outset I suppose I was kind of struck by how straightforward the album is.  Even though he doesn’t stand out overly with his contributions to his Charlie Parker, they are much busier than this is.  I am not sure if I ignored this era because it doesn’t punch you in the face like his other work does but it does lack the bombast that I am so accustomed to in Miles’ work.  Not to say I have anything to complain about really, my faith in Miles Davis is pretty great and listening to something outside my comfort zone as regards him is only a good thing.  I do find it amazing that something this different still is instantly recognizable as his work though.  Miles’ trumpet has that clear ring that he maintained throughout his entire career, at least the part of his career that I know.  I still admittedly have big gaps in my Miles Davis vocabulary.  One thing I definitely see here is the convention of each person soloing in turn, this seems very traditionalist to me.  Again, it is only the late fifties here and Miles still has a long way to travel before he gets to what I fell in love with.  He couldn’t break too many conventions at once.

Rating: 4 of 5

10 October, 2011

Handsome Boy Modeling School – Last Thoughts

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, I Know Everything — sciencebastards @ 5:04 pm

So I’ve spent a couple weeks listening to this album and my general opinion of it hasn’t really changed.  This either means my first thoughts are quite honed and incisive or I’m pigheaded.  The latter is probably closer to the truth.  In any case, I still have a few quibbles.

Firstly, I think the sequencing of songs on the album creates a real trough with songs 2-7.  Not that they aren’t good songs, they are all actually quite nice, even the one with the violins and Chris Elliott samples is ok.  I do feel like it comes close to sucking the life out of the album with such a sustained level of mellow.  However, these guys have sold many more albums in their lives than I have so I would guess I’m in the minority.  It slows up a bit after “Holy Calamity” also but it doesn’t feel as much of a lull for some reason.

I also thought the record could have been a bit more concise.  I’m not positive if labels like to put pressure on artists to fill up an entire cd but it does seem as if they usually pad the album out at the expense of making a tighter artistic statement.

I do find it interesting that I could find no live footage of them performing and almost no biographical info.  It isn’t that they were just a studio concept one-off project, I have found live stills of them.  This is a big positive for me though.  Any artistic venture that doesn’t seek to explain itself is always infinitely more interesting than one that does.  Anyone who has ever been to an art opening with an explanatory statement by the artist is well acquainted with how quickly over-explaining something can take all the impact out of something.  Handsome Boy Modeling School achieves the opposite of this.  Whether this silence is just a coincidence or by design doesn’t matter much.  I think one of the best things any artist can do is to confuse their audience.  I know this sounds glib and snobby but I truly hate to get exactly what I expect out of artists.

One part I will reiterate has to do with reception.  In a previous post I said that I didn’t think this album would fly on the radio.  I believe this now more than previously.  Commercial radio relies on easy categorizations and I just don’t think they would have a clue as to where to put this album.  Not that there aren’t plenty of tracks that seem to be of high enough quality and of wide enough appeal to merit airplay, I just think the project itself doesn’t fit an easy narrative.  Media like radio and television are often reluctant to promote art or artists that require much effort to digest.

Final rating: Somewhere between 4 and 4.5

8 October, 2011

Handsome Boy Modeling School – The Songs – Megaton B-Boy 2000

Filed under: Authoritative Music Reviews, Trepidation — sciencebastards @ 11:32 pm

This track I picked mostly because of how different it sounds.  This song hits you right in the face from the start just because of how intensely blown out it is.  This is definitely not the usual hip-hop fare.  Part of the reason I’m so entranced here is because hip-hop very rarely ventures outside of clean recordings and an almost formulaic approach to the sonic qualities of the songs. This piece ends up sounding almost like a noise project, not entirely, but not too far off either.  In fact, I am reminded of a band that is sorely overlooked in rock circles even, Laddio Bolocko, one of their more abrasive songs instantly comes to mind when I hear this track.

It’s seriously good to know that people like to delve into different sensibilities when it comes to just the overall tone or sound of a track.  I’d like to think that not every form of music is so solipsistic that it only sounds like conventional wisdom says it’s supposed to.  Kanye West (I know, I know) pulls from odd enough places like King Crimson and Can and I feel as if it’s one of his saving graces.

The rapping itself is pretty intense but largely indecipherable as far as its intent goes. This is problematic because some words do come through and they aren’t nice ones.  The song is peppered with what seem to be anti-gay slurs such as “faggot” and “fairy”.  This would be an automatic deal killer for me if I wasn’t somehow convinced there was something else at work aside form some gross homophobia.  Also in the song are references to “castrati” and “The Ambiguously-Gay Duo”.  These seem to have a cultural currency to them that might override some ugly name-calling.  I seriously hope this is the case because I’d hate to think bad of these two guys and I’d really hate to think of a record that is so idiosyncratic and creative as having an element that is so retrograde at the same time.  Perhaps they are poking fun at aggressive machismo.  I’ll cross my fingers and give them the benefit of the doubt.  This is one of those times I think I’d like to know what the lyrics are and it’s one of the few instances where I’m not allowed to.

Incidentally, this is the one track of the three that isn’t on youtube.

Rating: 4 out of 5 with an asterisk in case all that ugliness is in earnest.

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