Greville St Bookstore

September 23, 2009, 1:45 am
Filed under: Music

The Blue Moment

by Richard Williams
hb $39.95

This year celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, one of the most significant recordings of 20th century music. Commonly cited as the best selling jazz album of all time, it’s also the jazz album most likely to be found in the collections of non-jazz listeners. As for the rest of us, how many copies have we purchased over the years, on vinyl and CD, up to and including this year’s Collector’s Edition box set? Dignity prevents me from a full confession.

Richard Williams began his book — subtitled ‘Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Making of Modern Music’ — a few years back, but put it aside when he got wind of Ashley Kahn’s 2001 book on the same subject. A few years on, Williams has come to realize that he’d always intended to write a very different book to Kahn — not so much about the making of the album, but instead about the cultural milieu that led up to its recording, and how it went on to influence so much that followed it.

Kind of Blue was recorded in quick time over two days in March and April 1959, at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York, a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church. Even today, it remains almost comprehensible how half a dozen musicians could lay down these pieces — most in a single take — within that timeframe. But it’s Williams’ contention that it didn’t happen in isolation, that numerous prior forces came together to bear upon that moment. He casts a wide net in looking at the cultural mix that impacted upon Davis in the years leading up to the recording, including Davis’s friendship with composer and arranger Gil Evans, which resulted in the influential Birth of the Cool sessions in 1948-49; the rise of Third Stream music; and the theoretical writings of George Russell, whose ideas underpinned the rise of modal jazz, so critical to Kind of Blue. But equally Williams looks to Davis’s visits to Paris, where he met Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism, and recorded film music for director Louis Malle — the latter a wildly improvised score that, for the first time, elevated mood over composition. Williams also looks to the place of the colour blue in modern art — Picasso and Yves Klein — and the lonely outsider heralded by the Beat generation. These were just some of the surrounds that coalesced in the lead-up to 1959.

For Kind of Blue, Davis drew on the immense talents of his fellow musicians, in particular John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans. The genius of Davis’s musical sketches lay in their open-ended structure, requiring the musicians to improvise on a series of modes instead of chord progressions. At its heart, the music was as much informed by Gil Evans’ love of French impressionist composers, such as Fauré, as it was by non-western musical traditions. In its totality, which “speaks to some profound ideal of the human condition”, it is music that stretches to infinity, without beginning or end. Kind of Blue is one of the earliest concept albums — a series of haunting sketches meditating on the colour blue – that speaks to us across the ages.

So far so good. But when Williams gets to his second major theme — the influence of Kind of Blue on music that came after — things begin to go a bit awry. Some of his examples are well documented — John Coltrane’s modal explorations, the Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, Joe Zawinul’s compositions for Cannonball Adderley and later Davis albums, such as In a Silent Way, Duane Allman’s improvisatory solos, through to James Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’, based on a riff from Kind of Blue’s lead track ‘So What’. But Williams has an unfortunate tendency to see the hand of influence everywhere, from John Cale’s work with the Velvet Underground, through to Eno’s ambient experiments. In particular, he overly focuses upon minimalist composers such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young. It makes for good reading, but there’s a sense he’s drawing a long bow.

It’s in his final chapter that Williams hits upon what is possibly Kind of Blue’s greatest offspring — Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. It’s arguable that Eicher has founded an entire aesthetic of recording based upon the languid moments of silence to be found on Kind of Blue — the spaces opening out between the players and their instruments, and the otherworldly sound of Miles’s trumpet. Williams ends his book paying homage to Australian band the Necks, in whose music he hears a direct lineage to Kind of Blue. With their “slow accretion of harmonic information and rhythmic intensity”, the Necks “exploit the spaces that were opened up for them all those years ago; spaces in harmony, rhythm and melody, but also spaces in the mind”. And therein lies the immortal legacy of Kind of Blue.

—reviewed by Des

David McComb

edited by Chris Coughran & niall Lucy
pb $35.00

It seems unjust that David McComb is not around to reap the rewards that would no doubt have come his way on the strength of the recent re-issue program of the Triffids’ back catalogue. Some ten years after his death, at age 36, his reputation as one of our finest songwriters continues its ascendancy.

This book is not a biography of McComb, but instead a loose collection of writings by friends, musicians, poets and academics. The editors state they were trying for an Exile on Main Street sort of book — baggy and sprawling — a vagabond collection, full of holes. Within its covers can be found brief memoirs by Nick Cave. Robert Forster, and Mick Harvey, alongside those of fellow Triffids Alsy MacDonald, Phil Karkulas, Graham Lee and Robert McComb. There are diary extracts from Steve Kilby, poetry by Laurie Duggan and John Kinsella, and essays on McComb’s lyrics and influences, both musical and literary. Taken together, it doesn’t quite add up to a portrait, but more a jumble of jigsaw pieces that can be assembled by readers in multiple ways.

In likening their book to an eclectic ‘mix tape’, the editors virtually acknowledge that its intended audience will comb through it for what they like, sifting the contents for the jewels therein. It’s a well-designed book, littered with photographs and drawings, and its very existence is further testament to the restoration of McComb to his rightful place in the pantheon of local songwriters. My only beef is that it tells us too little of his life story — for that we’ll have to await Bleddyn Butcher’s forthcoming biography from UK press Helter Skelter. As an added extra to Vagabond Holes, publisher Fremantle Arts Press have also seen fit to separately release a slim volume of McComb’s poems: Beautiful Waste, again edited by Coughran and Lucy, with introduction by fellow West Australian poet John Kinsella.

—reviewed by Des


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