by Steve Pick
Miles Davis puts the exclamation point right at the beginning. His muted trumpet doesn't stop him from punching that first note right into our gut, and then he bobs and weaves with our expectations for three minutes and twenty seconds. Miles plays off the melody, but never plays it as written. He knows we know the head of this tune, so he can call our attention to aspects we might not have noticed, the way "Summertime" can be a song of personal declaration, of statement that one is to be acknowledged, accepted, admired.
Miles had worked with Gil Evans before, but the two albums he did in the late 50s - "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain" - are the acknowledged classics. I've always preferred the latter, but I think I wasn't giving the Gershwin record enough credit. Perhaps I was drawn to the exotic rhythms of "Sketches of Spain" so much that I didn't even notice the delicious methods Evans applies in his orchestrations of "Porgy."
Take "Summertime," for example (as of course, that's the point of this whole project, isn't it?). The intricate chord changes Gershwin wrote are slimmed down to a bouncy little riff which flows across two different chords every time. It's played by different horns throughout the piece, and occasionally saxophones or tubas will play a deft counterpoint drawn from the "Mommy and Daddy are standing by" section of the tune.
All this allows Miles to jab comments on the melody, and even to create his own counterpoint to the tune that's not even being played. You can't lose your place in this familiar piece, so it's easy even for jazz neophytes to hear what Miles is doing. He's taking credit for the good times of summer, acknowledging his own role in the creation of the baby being lulled to sleep, and of course, he's bragging about his riches and the beauty of his woman. All this without singing a word, just swinging that delicious trumpet tone across the bed of beauty laid down by Evans.
If you want words, you can go to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, who transpose the Miles solo and Evans arrangement into three parts for vocals. Now, these guys tend to bug me more than they please me - there's just a smugness about the whole vocalese thing, where jazz solos are given lyrics, all too rarely resulting in anything half as interesting as the original. But, I'll grant that this brief excursion has it's own pleasures, even if they are purely sonic rather than thematic. In other words, by bringing the words back to the forefront (and either slightly changing syntax or inserting phrases like "Yes indeed" to cover up the places where Miles changed the rhythm), all the audacity of intent is removed. Instead, we've got a hard-swinging display of skill, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.
Monday, July 7, 2008
by Steve Pick