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Month

March 2020

The blistering cosmic music of The Black Unity Trio

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‪The new ultra-affordable edition of my best-selling TASCHEN book ‘The Rise of David Bowie…

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Morgan Enos Bitches Brew At 50

How Miles Davis Embraced Studio Technology and Rewrote the Jazz Rulebook

Throughout its early history, jazz depended on in-the-moment interactions made by human beings in real-time. As the 1960s wore on and The Beatles and The Beach Boys crafted lush, multilayered studio works that couldn’t be replicated live, America’s Music remained the stuff of physical bodies in space.

Fourteen seconds into his 1970 album Bitches Brew, Miles Davis put this tired notion to bed.

In the double-LP’s sidelong opener “Pharaoh’s Dance,” Davis and his 14-piece ensemble — including keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, and guitarist John McLaughlin — stir up ominous dust-devils of sound until a decaying note (sampled from a different roll of tape) interrupts them. Within a minute, that audio splice repeats as if the LP had skipped.

A “chopped-and-screwed” album two decades before the term existed, Bitches Brew‘s innovations got the ball rolling for hip-hop, techno, ambient music, and other nascent genres. Reassembled from sliced snippets of tape and hard-panned to disorienting effect, it wiped clean and redrew what recorded jazz could be — and today (March 30) marks the classic album’s 50th anniversary.

Back in 1969, Davis was bored to tears by generic jazz, preferring the rock-and-soul of Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown. Inspired by the burgeoning youth culture, he decided to lose his conservative sweaters and slacks and — with the help of his then-wife, soul and funk singer Betty Mabry — fill his closets with psychedelic threads.

Enter… Teo Macero

Meanwhile, Teo Macero, Columbia Records’ producer since 1957, had worked with Davis on boundary-nudging albums like 1960’s Sketches of Spain, 1961’s Someday My Prince Will Come, and 1968’s Miles in the Sky. (To say nothing of Charles Mingus’s post-bop masterwork Mingus Ah Um and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s innovative-yet-commercial Time Out, both released in 1959.)

Davis and Macero’s fruitful partnership started to crest with 1969’s In a Silent Way, a dark, droning fusion album recorded in a day that slouched toward ambient music. Foreshadowing “Pharaoh’s Dance,” “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time’s” beginning and end consisted of the same sample — which, to at least one journalist, came off as an error.

“The editing [is] horrendous,” Martin Williams wrote in a New York Times review of In a Silent Way in 1970, protesting “Through faulty tape splicing, a portion of the music event gets inadvertently repeated at one point.”

Craving an evolutionary step from In a Silent Way, Davis began writing rudimentary melodies for three pianos — the more basic the contents, the easier they could be messed with. “I used to think when I was doing them how Stravinsky would go back to simple forms,” he wrote in his 1989 autobiography Miles, evoking the inflammatory Russian composer’s usage of traditional structures in the 1920s.

Let’s Go Back To Studio B

Stravinsky was famous for stacking disparate rhythmic strands to chaotic effect, another technique Davis incorporated in his new sound. Six months after recording In a Silent Way, Davis brought his outsized band, including two bassists, two to three drummers, and two to three keyboardists, back to Columbia Studio B in New York City for three days of tracking.

Keeping in the tradition of 1959’s Kind of Blue and In a Silent Way, which were barely outlined before their recording dates, Davis brought in sketches instead of full-fledged compositions. “I told the musicians they could do anything they wanted [on Bitches Brew],” Davis wrote in 1989’s Miles: The Autobiography. “So that’s what they did.”

“If we used any notation, it was often a collage-type thing with a bass line and some chord movements,” bassist Dave Holland explained in Paul Tingen’s 1991 book Miles Beyond. “His approach was that if he needed to tell someone what to do, he had the wrong musician.”

“Often, I didn’t know if we were rehearsing or recording,” he continued. “But Miles had a policy of recording everything.”

As the musicians vamped on strange fugues and motifs, Davis kept one ear bent to how the results could be edited later. “If I wanted something else in a certain spot, I would just bring the musician in, and we would just do it,” he wrote in Miles.

“When I didn’t have something and I wanted it, I’d go two sessions before or five sessions before, because I remembered a couple of good tracks,” Macero explained in a video interview posted four years after his death. “I used to have stacks of tapes in the editing room.”

Method To The Madness

The producer had a method to his madness, though, sequencing the snippets on “Pharaoh’s Dance” in a neat ABCBCABC structure. “I could drop this out, put that in, add this, add that… with all the machines I had at my disposal,” Macero said in the clip.

“A couple of people came into the studio and said, ‘This stuff is dynamite,’” he continued. “I said, ‘I know. [But] when we’re finished with it, it’s going to be even better.’”

Bitches Brew‘s 26-minute title track was carefully stitched together from no less than 22 disparate parts, with Davis’s rasped directions (“Keep it like that!” “Keep it tight!”) reverberating in the background.

In contrast to the highly manipulated “Pharaoh’s Dance” and title track, Davis and Macero let Bitches Brew remaining tracks — “Spanish Key,” “John McLaughlin,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary” — remain relatively untouched. (“Voodoo” is the only start-to-finish, unaltered take on the album.)

Even still, like the rest, these tracks exhibited extreme stereo panning by Macero, with bassists Holland and Harvey Brooks and drummers Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette, and Don Alias sparring from the right and left speakers — another wholly alien sound on a jazz LP.

“I knew we had something,” a grinning Macero insisted in the video interview, “with all the electronics and the gimmicks.”

Not that the musicians fully knew it at the time. After wrapping up tracking on Bitches Brew, Zawinul laid his true feelings on his boss. “I don’t like that stuff at all, Miles,” he admitted. “It’s too much noodling around, you know.”

What The Hell Is This?

“And then, much later on, I [went] to CBS and the lady working there was playing this incredible music in her office,” Zawinul told author Ian Carr in 1998’s Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?’”

“What the hell is this?” he remembered the employee retorting. “This is you and Miles and John and everybody on Bitches Brew.”

“That’s where I heard it, in San Francisco, sitting in a car on the radio,” Maupin later told the blog The Last Miles. “I was blown away by it.”

If the music hadn’t been manipulated and warped in post-production, it’s hard to say whether it’d still be a classic. But on Bitches Brew, Davis, Macero, and the ensemble both defined fusion and opened portals to new musical worlds — all by using the studio as a jazz instrument.

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Freya Parr Free Download: Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands in D

‘Hill and Frith have done us a service’

This week’s free download is the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano Hands, performed by pianists Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith and recorded by Delphian. The album was awarded four stars for both performance and recording in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine

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Freya Parr Get three issues of BBC Music Magazine delivered to your door with no direct debit

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We are here for you. If you're used to buying our magazine from the shops, you can order by 27 April and receive our next 3 issues delivered to your home. This offer is risk-free, doesn’t require starting a Direct Debit and still offers you savings on the shop price.

 

If you’d like an even better deal and are happy to set up a Direct Debit with us, we can offer you greater savings and your first 6 issues for just £9.99.  Our US readers can receive the next 3 issues for $9.95.  Choose the offer that works for you. Stay safe everyone!

 

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Alex Ross Yuval Sharon’s Sweet Land

Midnight Trains. The New Yorker, April 6, 2020.
Go here to watch the video of Sweet Land.
Photos above and below by Casey Kringlen.

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Mick Rock at Home Ep. 4 – “Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood w/ the Police, 1975”…

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Freya Parr Obituary: Krzysztof Penderecki

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The Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki has died aged 86. 

Penderecki was a revered avant-garde composer, who, as well as writing operas, symphonies and concertos, was committed to sacred music, using sacred texts as the basis for many of his choral works. Venturing beyond the concert hall, his music was also used in films including The ShiningThe Exorcist and Wild at Heart. 

Having initially studied as a violinist, Penderecki went on to focus on composition at Krakow's Academy of Music in 1954. With Stalinism overthrown in Poland in the 1950s and the end of censorship, it was an exciting decade to be a young composer. Penderecki's early works were avant-garde in style, incorporating extended technique, note clusters and experimental sounds and textures.

Penderecki reached an international audience following the success of his 1960 work for strings Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, written as a response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and a reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare. The piece went on to be featured in BBC Music Magazine’s list of 20 works that defined a century.

He was the composer most commonly associated with 'sonorism', a style of music used by avant-garde Polish composers which focuses on the qualities of the sound itself: textures, timbres and contrasts. This was often linked to the creation of new sounds from traditional instruments using extended techniques and graphic notation, a prominent feature of Penderecki's compositions. 

 

 

Citing his two greatest influences as JS Bach and Monteverdi, Penderecki went on to explore choral music, marked by the St Luke Passion, the first large-scale oratorio by a Polish composer since the 19th century. This was later followed by his Credo and Polish Requiem, the latter of which was dedicated to the heroes and victims of Polish history. 

Later in his career, his avant-garde approach developed into more of a focus on neoromanticism. His First Violin Concerto was the first major example of this, with a soaring violin part. 

Speaking to BBC Music Magazine in 2019, he said, ‘I was using the elements of different music – always in a form in which I was very much connected to the tradition, although the sounds were different. I was inventing new sounds – using old instruments to make them, particularly stringed instruments because I was a string player.’ He is known for his string works, with his first violin concerto dedicated to and premiered by Isaac Stern, and his second for Anne-Sophie Mutter, a violinist with whom he worked and recorded many times over the years.

Despite never having had any formal training, he conducted many of his own orchestral works in concert and on recordings. 

Penderecki's other great passion was his arboretum, located 60 miles outside Krakow and the largest in Eastern Europe, with 1700 different species of tree. 'I go there, to the big trees and put my arms round one of them for a while,' he told James Naughtie in BBC Music Magazine last year. 'It is a huge. That gives me a feeling of power, and peace too.'

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Freya Parr The best works by Krzysztof Penderecki

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St Luke Passion (1962-66) 

Penderecki’s epic work for three solo voices, narrator, three choirs, boys’ choir and orchestra is undeniably dramatic. Its power comes partly from a bold mix of styles, from the avant garde to its nods to the traditions of Bach and Palestrina. 

 

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

This nine-minute scream doesn’t make for easy listening, but its clusters, almost nausea-including pitch changes, and thudding pizzicato and knocking effects are frightening evocations of nuclear annihilation. Original and brave.

 

 

Symphony No. 7 Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996)

The composer’s most ambitious symphony calls for tubaphones – percussion instruments made from gigantic horizontal pipes. Its Carmina Burana-esque opening gives way to music of great beauty, including the breathtaking choral De profundis. 

 

String Quartets Nos 1 & 2 (1962/68) 

Penderecki’s uncompromising chamber works explore the sonic capabilities of the quartet – bizarre but totally arresting, and important milestones in Polish music. 

 

 

Violin Concerto No. 1 (1976) 

Premiered by Isaac Stern, the First Violin Concerto marked a turn towards a more post-Romantic, almost modernist style. Frequently recalling Bartók, Penderecki inserts enthralling musical effects alongside a plaintive, soaring solo violin part. 

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