Sunday, October 19, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Part 43a: Lee Konitz with Miles Davis

The guy in the bar in Harlem, or 18th and Vine in Kansas City, putting his nickels into a jukebox, was most likely going to be playing Amos Milburn or Louis Jordan – or the Ink Spots or Nat “King” Cole or Mr. B. if his tastes ran smoother – but there’d be nickels for Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, too.  Jazz was no longer America’s popular music, but it was hip, and it was hot, and once you got used to the rapid tempi and counterintuitive melodic twists (as Chuck Berry was to put it a few years later, “I have no kick against modern jazz / Except they try to play it too darn fast / And change the beauty of the melody / Until it sounds just like a symphony”), it sounded good. And today, to the jazz lover at least, that music is mainstream. It remains fresh and inventive, but it’s familiar, just like home.

On those same jukeboxes, very  few nickels would summon up Lee Konitz and Miles Davis. Over sixty years later, this music still presents a challenge to the ears.

Don’t forget, while the Birth of the Cool recordings had been made two years earlier, they didn’t get widely heard until Capitol released the album in 1958, and even then the music sounded advanced. Don’t forget that Miles was not able to keep his nonet together, to get more club dates or recording sessions, because their gig at the Royal Roost was not a big draw.

And this session, with Lee Konitz and the Lennie Tristano gang (Sal Mosca playing the Tristano role), is actually even harder to listen to than Birth of the Cool, which itself sounds mainstream these days. Possibly the difference is no Gerry Mulligan arrangements. Possibly Davis and Konitz, stung by the rejection of what is now generally regarded as their masterpiece, decided to go for an even more intensely challenging experience.

In any case, one has to be fairly certain that Bob Weinstock knew he was not getting a Gene Ammons jukebox toe-tapper when he brought these guys into the studio, so more credit to him. Anyway, if Weinstock had been looking to make money more than he was looking to make jazz, he would have been out signing up the next Amos Milburn, or maybe some of these new vocal harmony groups like the Orioles or the Clovers.Or maybe it came to him in a dream that Miles was shortly to form a quintet with John Coltrane and make music that was advanced and intoxicatingly listenable all at the same time.

Digressing once again, and back to the jazz and race topic I’d been addressing in a couple of these blog entries, I was thinking about my first experience hearing jazz in a club – the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet at Small’s Paradise in Harlem --  and I started wondering how many other jazz ensembles had been co-led interracially. J. J. and Kai were the first that came to mind. The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. The Clarke-Boland Big Band, if one extends the search to France. And those were all I could think of. Certainly there has never been a shortage, at least since Benny Goodman broke the color barrier, of groups made up of both black and white musicians, but not many, that I could come up with at least, with a black-white co-leadership.*

This one is under the nominal label of Lee Konitz Sextet, so maybe it shouldn’t count either, but certainly Miles is a coequal partner. The tracks from this session have also been released, at varying times, under the Davis name, and lists it as the Miles Davis / Lee Konitz Sextet. In fact, Konitz and Davis collaborated a lot -- the 1948 nonet sessions are sometimes listed as the Miles Davis/Lee Konitz Nonet, and they also recorded some sides in '48 as the Lee Konitz/Miles Davis Quintet. 

Anyway, the music. On my blog entry for the January 17 Miles Davis Sextet, I noted that it seemed to me that Miles, although playing on an essentially bebop-oriented session, he was introducing something different, something more from the “Birth of the Cool” tonality. I wasn’t exactly sure how to describe that, and I’m still not, but I found this master’s thesis  online, from Leonardo Camacho Bernal, a student at the University of North Texas (noted for its jazz program). I learned a lot from reading it, and I  plan to go back and read more of it. It’s called MilesDavis: The Road to Modal Jazz, and it traces the development of the sound that would come to fruition on the Kind of Blue album. Here’s what Bernal has to say about Birth of the Cool:

 At the end of the 1940s, the Miles Davis nonet unified all the experimental approaches in the 1949-50 recording sessions that later became the album Birth of the Cool (1954). Davis brought together some of the most talented and vanguard jazz musicians, such as Gil Evans,Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Lee Konitz, to create the new style.

Most of the bases of the cool style were not common in jazz small ensembles: the
classical Western music influence; the instrumentation and orchestration; the fusing of variedtones of the instruments. The influence of classical composers such as Stravinsky and Debussy helped Evans, Mulligan and Lewis, arrangers on this project, to create that sound density and color richness in their arrangements that started to be identified as the sound of the cool style.

Moreover, all the musicians who performed in this project had their particular and personalfeatures, which were extremely important to the creation of a new jazz style. Each had his own tone color, articulation, rhythm, and an individual approach to improvisation. Their playing also featured the plain sound with no vibrato, smoother timbre, and dry tone. Most of the players had been formed by Thornhill’s and Herman’s bands, and had been influenced by musicians like Young and Tristano, which gave them the perfect tools to start a new style.

On the other hand, Miles Davis came from the best of the bebop school. After being in
New York for a while, he started working with Parker’s quintet where he was playing trumpetwith some of the masterminds that created and developed bebop: the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. They taught him how to approach the virtuosic features of the style. At the same time, Davis was jamming and hanging out with musicians such as Evans, Mulligan, and George Russell, a theorist and composer who started introducing Davis to classical Western music. At that time, Davis’s project was the best approximation of cool style. “Davis’s nonet was originally seen as the smallest unit capable of reproducing the flavor of Thornhill’s big band of the mid-1940s,” according to Mark Gridley. This was the starting point for Davis to pull together musicians and concepts to create a new way to play jazz in his quest for new colors, textures, and a new sound.

So, we're not at the modal point yet -- that's still a few years away -- but we're starting out on the road to it, with a way of combining sounds that's new and groundbreaking, with Miles's unique and visionary approach to music -- he's not quite 25 at this point, but that's well past prodigy age and into his mature period as a jazzman -- and the influence of Gil Evans, of Lennie Tristano, and of the composer of two of the tunes recorded on this session, George Russell.

Russell composed "Odjenar" and "Ezz-Thetic," the latter of which became one of Konitz/s signature
pieces. Konitz composed "Hi-Beck," and the fourth song, "Yesterdays" (Max Roach sitting this one out) is a Jerome Kern standard.

The interplay between Konitz and Davis is intense, intricate and in a way simple, with one of them taking the sort-of-boppish melody line, and the other playing a somewhat discordant and always compelling harmony. The contributions of Tristano protege Sal Mosca and Billy Bauer are also notable.

They may not have been prime jukebox fodder, but they were released on 78 under both the Prestige and New Jazz labels, mixed in with Konitz/Bauer duo sides. Also on a 10-inch (as Lee Konitz with Miles Davis), and as part of a Prestige 7000 / New Jazz 8000-series LP (as Lee Konitz and Miles Davis).

* Afterthought -- you'd probably have to include the "Mulligan meets..." sessions - Monk. Ben Webster.

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