Tag Archives: jazz

194. Soft Machine – Third

Soft Machine - ThirdIt might seem a bit strange, but listening here to Soft Machine’s experimental leviathan album reminds me of “Game of Thrones”. Like the repeated threats that “Winter is Coming” that lurk as I binge-watch through the box sets of tits and dragons, the shadow of prog-rock has been beckoning here for a while. Yes, soon you, dear reader, will have to face up to Yes, Hawkwind, Genesis (sorry), and Jethro Tull, and while there’s some Floyd and Tubular Bells in the mix, that’s still a lot of Moog-mangling to fight through.

You might have picked up on my cynicism with that last paragraph, because, honestly, damn, “Third” was hard work. It’s an 85-minute long behemoth, though it starts with some intriguing electronic distortion and even the promise of some proto-ambience.

Still, despite its prog rock label, this is an album that leans a lot on jazz, and there’s more than a few hints of Miles Davis scattered here and there, certainly enough to give you the feeling there’s something to be reckoned with here.

It’s also an album that clearly harbours the seeds of ambient music, and surely Brian Eno would have been taking notes. From the 19-minute opener “Facelift”, that sounds like it could have come straight from “Bitches’ Brew” to the more mellow “Slightly all the Time” and the more tongue-in-cheek “Moon in June”, there’s a sense of the album enveloping you, and the final track, “Out-Bloody-Rageous” is music to float away to, even with its fair share of freaking out.

Out of the group, Robert Wyatt was the only one to later find solo success, and the album can be seen as a battle between his strange singing and the rest of the band’s jazzy wanderings. “Moon in June” was Wyatt’s last real contribution to the band, and, if not a highlight as such, is certainly the most prominent part of the album.

Wyatt was once quoted as saying “I work in a trance, don’t really know what I’m doing ’til it’s all done”, and that describes the sensation of this album well. Still, as ethereal as it is, there’s no real ‘grab’ moment and nothing that, for me at least, screams for revisiting any time soon.

177. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Miles Davis - Bitches BrewThis is where I start to struggle. This isn’t the first time I’ve alluded to the fact that I can’t quite get my head around the whole jazz thing, but as those lucky few who’ve followed this blog will know, I’ve had a few pleasurable surprises from the likes of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, and even Miles Davis himself. When things start to approach the jazz-fusion event horizon though, I begin to feel like I’m out of my depth.

“Bitches Brew” though, as any proper jazz devotee will tell you while stroking their goatees, is THE BOLLOCKS, an epic, groundbreaking milestone in the genre, one that changed everything.

And we have Miles’s midlife crisis to thank. Hitting 40 and breathing in the heady vapours of flower power, he was overly conscious that his crown of head dude of contemporary jazz was slipping. He started recording this album on August 18 1969, just hours after Hendrix tore music a new orifice on stage at Woodstock. Hendrix was on his mind for this album, and the influence that “Electric Ladyland” had on its production is often noted – he even takes up arms against Jimi with “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”.

Miles and Jimi had met by then, and even talked of one day working together, an eye-watering concept of a collaboration. It was Davis’s second wife, Betty Mabry, who introduced them, and, at just 22 years old and surrounded by rock and funk, her influence on this album is now well-acknowledged.

What effect all those influences has is hard to pin down. The opening “Pharoah’s Dance” starts off with a conventional mix of clarinet and electric piano, but it’s not long before the knots start to loosen and things get more convoluted (not before a jarring edit crossover at 1:38 though). Soon the complexity of what’s going on starts to show itself, and the realisation that you’ve got three pianos, two drummers and two bass guitarists all throwing in starts to dawn. As the track goes on, those elements start to sound more disparate and the whole thing reeks of anarchy, but interestingly it all comes together in the last couple of minutes. It’s a noisy, messy and scattershot ride, but there’s a lot to absorb.

Title track “Bitches Brew” brings down the tempo but raises the crazy, stepping away from the trademark rhythmic feel of the rest of the album. It’s a 27-minute-long epic that’s a lot to digest, but it’s certainly interesting – each musician gets a chance to show off, and by the 22-minute mark you’re quite pleasantly absorbed by the whole thing. I was even reminded (and I’m not sure why) of “Sign o’ The Times”-era Prince. Maybe it’s their shared love for a good groovy jam session.

“Spanish Key” sounds more like the jazz-rock-funk-fusion that the album is famed for, complete with some dirty bass chords and a substantial groove, and actually feels a lot more accessible, though just as multi-textured as what went before. There’s still a lot to take in though, and at the 10-minute mark you begin to realise that the traditional idea of a jazz album working as a soothing background to your introspection doesn’t quite gel anymore. There’s so much going on, so many divergent elements coming through the speakers, that it demands concentration.

While there’s not much to really note about the surprisingly short “John McLaughlin” (except for the fact Miles doesn’t even appear on it), things get proper exciting on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”. While it sounds absolutely nothing like Hendrix, it’s pretty clear that the long frenetic jams of “Electric Ladyland” were being emulated here, and it’s rich both in pleasing basslines and some utterly insane electric piano work. There’s even a brief moment at 1:30 where I thought I could hear the bass from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, although maybe not.

It’s probably the highlight of the album, it’s certainly the point where things get exciting. It’s also the point where Davis’s own trumpet gets the best workout, and there’s something soothing about that.

The album closes with Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary”, a track that had been recorded previously and far more conventionally. It begins so, so gently and sounds more conventional than the madness that preceded it, and it ebbs and flows pleasantly (with a nice little breather around the 5-minute mark).

“Bitches Brew” is certainly epic in scope, and it’s a testament to Davis’s skill that an album with so much going on doesn’t sound like a complete clusterfuck. In fact, it’s so frenetic and multi-layered that a brief few listens doesn’t really do it justice. Suffice it to say that while this level of experimentalism might not be to everyone’s tastes, no one could describe this album as being dull.

33. Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd – Jazz Samba

33. Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd – Jazz SambaNow that I’m a month or so into this grand musical endeavour, I’ve started having conversations about how it’s going and what’s coming up. The other night, I streamed this album over AirPlay as I was having a meal around a friend’s house, and it’s a telling testament to this bossa nova trailblazer that we were only about 30 seconds in before the conversation turned to “Mad Men” and a potential themed housewarming party in the days to come (more on that in a minute).

This album starts cosily with the ever-familiar “Desifinado”, and it’s a collation of smooth Brazilian melodies, seductive guitar from Charlie Byrd and fluid tenor sax from Stan Getz, keeping that warm and gentle pace throughout.

Once again, putting this album in the context of its time makes it an eye-opener. This was the album that really accelerated the bossa nova craze at a time when The Beatles were heading back from Hamburg and  Motown was just getting its mojo working, and it stands out as a delicious and comforting oasis of cool right before the mayhem was about to kick in.

Oh, and that “Mad Men” party? There’s peer pressure on me to do this one as a karaoke treat. I don’t promise the little black dress though.

21. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

21. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

Is it bad that I had to wait 21 albums into this audio odyssey before I got to an album I already owned? Well here it is, Kind of Blue, the album that automatically gets chosen on my iPhone when I want things to get mellow and First Aid Kit or the “Solaris” soundtrack just aren’t cutting it.

I borrowed this off a former colleague a while back, almost a decade ago in fact, and despite my total non-interest in jazz (that I may have previously mentioned), I thought,” hey it’s Miles Davis – it’s generally accepted that Miles Davis is cool. Why not?”

And it stuck. I do like this album, I love the soft wail that starts “So what?”, I love the way it gets slightly Latin in “Flamenco Sketches”, I like how you kind of get lost in “All Blues”. I love the fact that apparently only one track needed a second take to get it right, and that the whole thing was done in nine hours.

And I love that it gave me something other than Portishead to play when the lights get turned down low.

Oh, by the way, how cool is this? Miles Davis and Prince – If I was your girlfriend (live)

12. Miles Davis – Birth of the Cool

R-4609609-1369845713-2713As you may have gathered from my constant moaning about it, jazz has never really been my thing. These bebop straits leading up to 1960 are a challenge then, but so far the journey has surprised me, and that Thelonious Monk album has been played a couple of times since I blogged.

And then there’s Miles Davis. I’ve actually enjoyed some of his stuff before (such as the later ‘Kind of Blue’), and I once nicked the title of this album for a playlist I did for some unimpressed girl back in sixth form. But I’d never listened to this one before.

It’s more imaginative, more lively than ‘ Kind of Blue’, and it’s good to hear Davis being creative. By the time you’re into Side B (or at least the Spotify equivalent), it’s got its hooks into you.

And then, right at the end, there’s “Darn that Dream”. Not a bad track in itself, but when the crooning vocals kick in you’re jolted from the tone poem hypnosis into something quite different.

Imagine “Blitzkrieg Bop” slipped in the middle of a Portishead album and you get the idea. Shame really.

Oh, and love the cover.

 

10. Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners

10. Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners

More jazz? Well if you insist.

Actually, if all the jazz albums I had to plough through were like this, I wouldn’t mind so much.

First things first. Thelonious Monk is cool. Even his name sounds cool. To my son, if one day I’ve been shot dead by Scarlett Johannson’s jealous husband then remember this, you have your name only because I didn’t think of Thelonious before you were born.

Thelonious Jones? Yeah, admit it, you all felt a tingle.

OK, so I’m getting off track here then, but from the first ten seconds, this album grabs your attention. That piano carves its way through your speakers, and by the time that raw clarinet kicks in with its bassy growl, you know that this is going to be interesting.

And it is. Like the forebear of the similarly tangy Miles Davis, Monk manages to put soulful brilliance and daring into his music, so it all feels warm and edgy at the same time.