If you need to listen to it, but don’t have Miles Smiles…(I’d encourage you to change that situation)
This is such a perfect, elegant little phrase, and it would be pretty good just to shoe-horn it in the next time a few bars of minor modal harmony are left unattended somewhere. Trouble is, there’s something about this phrase that just eats me up - the deep musical logic, its communicative power, the subtlety in the way Herbie delivers it, its placement in the group sound as he repeats it, develops it, breaks it up…. I’ve written before about how I see transcription as being just as much about understanding someone’s musical impulses as it is about imitating their “end-product”. In this instance the end product is just four brief chords, but the musical impulse is pure, distilled Herbie Hancock at his best. What I’ve begun to think, though, is that if you take a step back and listen to the whole group, the power of this phrase is quite revealing about the musical impulses of the rest of the group, and Tony Williams in particular.
Herbie is the master of slinky, chromatically rich quartal (fourths) voicings. The lower three notes of these chords are chromatically descending fourths, landing on G, the fifth note of the chord-scale of C Dorian. The top notes, which really transform the colour of the chords, seem to mirror the melody of bar 9 in Footprints, almost glueing together the horn parts and the rhythm section. The first and last chords are entirely within the mode, the second chord contains one note from outside, and the third chord two. There’s a real sense of resolution to the phrase, and I think it’s because the chords actually have some tonal implications. Here they are with imaginary i - II - V - I bass notes underneath (plus a couple of extras):
I think you can hear the dynamics of a tonal progression here. Even without my ‘imaginary’ notes, the second chord has some of the resonance of either a D half-diminished or a D7#9 (using the diminished scale). The third chord smacks of the phrygian V (the tense, brooding dominant sound at the beginning of Coltrane’s Crescent, for example, or throughout many of Kenny Wheeler’s compositions). I don’t know whether this was a pre-conceived idea, or genuine spur-of-the-moment conception. In either case, it’s a demonstration of how to generate a sense of direction in quartal voicings.
Group Sound, Touch and Communication
If you compare this recording to the various Footprints on the recently-released 1967 Bootlegs, it’s clear that Tony Williams is holding it back a little in the studio, particularly in the lower end of his kit (which is also relatively lower in the mix than the ride). Although it’s still nowhere near the levels of the 1967 discs, check out how much more snare and low-end work there is when Herbie is laying out under Miles’s solo in Dolores. His enormous, explosive sound in the ’67 live sets means Herbie is generally playing higher up the piano and more aggressively, although he still manages quite a lot of dynamic contrast (i.e. Footprints from disc 1).
In the studio, however, Tony is simmering rather than on a hard boil, and, crucially, this opens up the dynamic space that Herbie can exploit (whilst also knowing that it’ll be well recorded, and, in this case, generously mixed). It helps that Tony and Herbie are separated L-R, and Tony’s sound is generally operating at quite a high frequency. Despite the fact that Tony in this period is in many ways a busier drummer than, for instance, Elvin Jones, if you listen to either the studio or live recordings of the Coltrane from 1961 onwards you can hear that Elvin and McCoy are operating much more in the same sonic space, meaning that McCoy is almost consistently percussive, wider (and lower) in his voicings to match the pitch of Elvin’s kit. To me, McCoy plays in Elvin’s sound. Herbie, on Miles Smiles, is confident to play under Tony’s sound. On the 1967 live sets, he is almost playing over Tony’s sound, which is no mean feat!
All this is to say that the subtle weighting of the chords towards the top note, the slight loosening and relaxation of volume through the phrase (particularly as it returns and is extended under Miles at 3.55), and the instinctive way that Herbie brings out the colour of each shape are all allowed space to be heard. I’m not saying it’s better than the 1967 recordings because of it; it’s just that the group dynamic has shifted a little to exploit the slightly more intimate sense of communication that the studio can provide. This was, after all, a band that really knew how to play in a studio.
Essence of Herbie…essence of the Miles Davis Quintet
Whilst I love listening to Herbie tussle with Tony on the live sessions, as a pianist I feel that the way he plays on Miles Smiles is the real late-60s Herbie - I can really hear the same slinky, shapeshifting sounds of albums like Mwandishi, made just 4 years after Miles Smiles. As I’ve listened and thought about this group, what I’ve come to realise is that even a small musical gesture like this one owes its potency not only to Herbie Hancock himself, but to the group sound, the dramatic relationship between Herbie and Tony, the sensitivity of the group to the sonic environment, and even the decisions of the studio engineers. 4 little chords can really make you think!
I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s live recordings at the Blackhawk with Jimmy Cobb, Wynton Kelly, Hank Mobley and Paul Chambers a lot lately. To be precise, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s solo on Bye Bye Blackbird from the Friday night disk a lot recently. If you’re interested in my opinion, I think it’s possibly one of the most satisfying two minutes of small group jazz playing I’ve ever heard.
This is the second time I’ve tried to write this post. In my first attempt I tried to put across in words how I see the mechanics of this group working. I’ll do that again in a minute, but before I do, here’s a picture I have on my wall. It’s Jackson Pollock’s Yellow Grey Black from 1948: (excuse the internet pic, but I can’t get a good photo of it)
I don’t really know much about this picture, and in truth I’ve never really liked it. For some reason I glanced up at it whilst struggling to write something coherent, and I realised that it could save me from my mangled musical analysis. If you would indulge me for a minute, I’m going to go right out there and say that it does a pretty good job at describing what I hear in this music. A quick bout of googling has revealed that Pollock was a big jazz fan, and many others have pondered this same hookup; whether this confirms the originality or unoriginality of my thoughts I haven’t decided, but here’s what I’m thinking;
Miles is the yellow
Kelly is the silver
Chambers is the black
Cobb is the canvas
Let me explain. If you look at the transcription you’ll see that Miles and Kelly are operating in symbiosis. It’s quite disconcerting how in-tune they are with each other’s phrasing - just look at bars 9-15 for an example. They seem to leave each other the perfect amount of space, trading remarks and coming together in unison at the end of bar 15. And don’t you just love that little interjection at bar 14 from Wynton? So on the beat and so punchy. It’s commentary on what Miles is saying. It’s comping as an active pursuit, lurking in the background but popping up in the spaces to ask a question, make a comparison, nod in agreement…it’s the silver to the yellow. When Mobley comes in, Kelly is stuck, lost for space and dialogue, and the whole thing stops swinging.
Speaking of silver…notice how it’s both in the foreground of the picture and, if you’re just glancing, how it almost fades into the canvas? Kelly’s comping is so in tune with Cobb’s feel that he almost sounds like a part of the drum kit at times. He’s the snare comping that Cobb is leaving out. It’s really all crotchets on these choruses - you can hear the odd skip/push/kick/snare comp if you concentrate on it, but that ride cymbal, wilfully consistent and unreactive, sets the soundscape for the group whilst acting as a foil for the Miles/Kelly duet. He is the feel of the group, but the space he allows Miles and Kelly is what gives the performance the chance to ascend to the level of improvisational dialogue that is so endlessly joyful to listen to here.
Paul Chambers is as much a melody instrument as a rhythm instrument in this group. With Cobb so insistent on the crotchets and leaving so much space at the bottom and in the middle of his sound, the tuneful logic and surprising twists of his bassline really come across. The black covers the whole canvas with its lines, sometimes thick and heavy, sometimes barely there at all. There’s not much immediate correlation between the shape of what he’s playing and the content of what Miles and Kelly are up to, but that’s the way it can be sometimes….if everyone’s reacting to something, there’s nothing left to react to, right….?
Lastly, a word on Miles. Bold statements, lots of space, simple shapes, bristling tone and almost no syncopation. Yellow is the brightest colour on the canvas, but there’s just the right amount of it. It’s balanced.
I could go on, but I might be stretching the metaphor, if if hasn’t collapsed in an exhausted heap already. In any case, I love this music (and I think I now like this picture).
It’s the silver that makes it though.
Here’s the transcription (pdf)
If you’re interested in the ‘booklet’, here’s the intro and the analysis and exercises
Go nuts people, and get in to Jorge’s ride cymbal...
In September last year I took a trip down to rural Suffolk and the stunning Potton Hall to record some music I'd been writing since the spring. The main attraction was the sublime piano that lies in residence there - a new(ish) Steinway D picked out by Vladimir Ashkenazy. As a jazz pianist you dream of sitting down at an instrument with and endlessly deep tone, a meaty, sonorous touch, a sparkling clarity, a thunderous bass...but more often than not it's a battered upright with hammers like dead wood and the expressive power of a breeze block. The hall has incredible acoustics, and a fabulous natural reverb which sound engineer Josh Kemp really captured. Let's just say it was a treat.
Every pianist spends a huge amount of time alone at the piano. In jazz, sometimes the music that comes out really needs a group to put it across. Sometimes it's pretty self-sufficient. A few people have asked me why I chose to do my first full album as a solo one, usually joking that it's because I don't like playing with other people.....well nothing could be further from the truth! The truth is that sometimes I write things where I end up thinking, "I'm not sure where a kit or a tenor sax is going to fit in there....'. The tunes didn't begin life as solo piano tunes, but after I'd written a couple I decided that they just had to be.
It became a bit of a homage to my growing up with the piano and to all the music I loved playing when I was younger, seen through where I was as musically in summer of 2011 (John Taylor, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Bill Evans, Messiaen...magicians of chords and sonorities....). The countryside where my family still live inspired quite a lot of the music - particularly the three pieces that start the album. The Autumn is where I think the album belongs, and the beautiful artwork by my sister Kate places it perfectly.
I'm launching it at The Forge in Camden on the 29th November - book tickets here. It'll be available to buy on iTunes, eMusic and Amazon from the 26th November. Before then, you can have a little listen to a couple of tracks here.
The basic transcription, and the chorus comparison
Back in the spring I started to learn this incredible piece of improvising from Konitz's Motion (with Elvin Jones and Sonny Dallas). It took a little while, not least because the recording is almost a semitone sharp, which, for me is like asking a painter to paint a portrait whilst wearing tinted sunglasses (perfect pitch...life's a bitch. Might put that on a t-shirt). It's possible, but requires some adjustment....anyway, I finally got around to finishing it. To download it, click here.
Aside from the obvious thing of playing it in various keys, I'm always trying to find new things to get out of transcriptions like this. One idea that popped up was to put all the choruses on top of each other to see what sort of patterns come up regularly. To download this version of the transcription, click here.
This isn't a small-scale analysis of lines/changes/language (I'll be doing that too), but something with a wider angle. It's really about how he manages to keep tension and forward motion whilst leaving a lot of space and playing with quite a narrow tonal range. I've come to realise that this is largely down to how he chooses his battles - which parts of the sequence to play, which to leave, which changes to catch strongly and which to just hint at. Here's what I see:
-He avoids resolving strongly onto the key centre (F Major) at the beginning of the head, often leaving space (bars 2-3 of the form), or playing short fragments and cross-rhythms (bars 8-9). He avoids resolving onto chord tones, apart from at the very end of the head (bar 35). In doing this he never 'closes' his harmonic drive; a bit like harmonic 'keepy-uppys' (keeping a soccer ball in the air for all you non-brits).
-There are some changes that he does tend to catch. The main point of interest in this tune is the tritone shifts in root notes that occur in bar 2 of the A section and bar 2 of the bridge (in my transcription those are bars 2 and 18). Interestingly, on the repeat of the first A and during the last A (bars 10 and 26), he doesn't play so strongly over this change. What this tells me is that he is interested in expressing this change at the two most important formal points in the tune (the top of the head and the beginning of the bridge) in order to get some momentum at the start of those sections, but once that change is repeated in the second and third A sections it doesn't carry the same impact so he is happy to leave it and work with other changes. He's really in tune with the inner dynamic of the changes, picking and choosing what to play based on the structure of the whole tune.
-He always resolves quite strongly onto chord IV in the A section, usually with a chord tone on beat 1. The changes that follow (Bbm7 Eb7 Am7 D7) are very rarely left alone - he prefers to leave space once chord ii is reached (i.e. bar 8).
-The largest density of notes is to be found at the end of the bridge (bars 23-24). Only in the 5th chorus is he not playing a long line over this part of the form.
It actually surprised me how many similarities in terms of space and phrasing there were between the choruses. Of course there are a lot of differences, but the similarities reinforce the fact that this is not a developmental, shaped solo but one that operates at a fairly constant level of intensity and ingenuity throughout. What struck me when looking at it this way is how closely Konitz stays to the phrasing of the melody. The genius of this sort of restraint is that when you break free (such as at the end of chorus 3 into chorus 4) the line carries a lot more expressive power.
I think there's something quite broad to be taken from this that I might use. It's a bit of a dark art, the use of space and the control of resolution, and it's something I think you can work at just in the same way you can work at language on a smaller scale. What I might try is taking a tune and really take apart the dynamics of the changes, perhaps stripping it back to 3 or 4 places in the head to play, seeing if I can still keep the improvisational focus going. Only picking one place in the head to resolve to chord I could also be a good exercise. Let's see.