My Favourite Album

My Favourite Album – Lutz Eitel

September 10, 2012

My favourite record of all time: Miles Davis, Someday My Prince Will Come, 1961. It’s not open for internal debate, really. I first heard it close to 30 years ago, listened to it innumerable times and never once took it off, or later out, of the player. It was one of the first records I bought for myself after I had my own record player at 14 or so, and the first one I got with the explicit purpose of widening my musical horizons. I can remember how I bought it: I wanted something by Miles, and maybe Coltrane, so this had both…still the front cover scared me off a little, it showed a woman with much hairspray and the rim of a tablecloth skirt. But on the back, Miles looked incredibly cool, studying an unwieldy score through his knitted brow (though somehow I have trouble believing it’s the music for the record at hand), with a microphone leaning in not to miss any sound the man might make during his thought process. I trusted in that back cover.

I even remember my first listen, or rather just one moment of it. At the end of a tune, Miles played a last phrase, very slowly, so I could process where things would go in real time and anticipate the final note to be expected. Then the third from last note dragged on a little longer than it would, and then the last but one really started lingering until I realized he might just keep it there and skip the final one altogether and it would be awesome, and the note went on for another microsecond and I started praying that he wouldn’t resolve, please don’t resolve, and then he doesn’t, and just eaves the whole thing open-ended, and since then I’m in love with the man’s music.

You might of course remark that this is not even close to Miles’ own best record, and I can see what you mean, getting more excitement out of Dark Magus or Black Beauty these days. But then it’s ten times as good as the official best jazz record of all time, so what do you want. Kind of Blue. I never took to that, not even before I knew it was supposed to be great. It’s just a blowing session: head, solo, solo, solo, solo, head. There’s no drama in the front line, just cleverly assigned role play: smart trumpet, funky alto, tenor claiming stakes. Nobody ever steps on anybody’s toes. The rhythm is exceedingly well-bred. No risk, no group mind, just highly competent playing. Which is okay, and the moods are nice, but that’s not what makes a great Miles record. (Had I bought Kind of Blue on that fatal day nearly thirty years ago, would I ever have learned to love music?)

Okay, so let’s listen to the record once again, I’m taking notes:

Title track… 3/4 time, starts with the bass thumping on a single note as an intro. Then it stays there eight bars into the melody, which is a brilliant move, giving everybody space to open up into, and a narrow fold which to return to. Miles’ solo is hilarious, micro mood changes every couple of seconds, he paints across the beat with wide smears, then a short staccato rasp signalling everybody to lock in, and for two and a half bars they’re the tightest group ever, before Miles gets lost in a pensive thought and everybody’s searching for the lost note. Wynton Kelly is incredible, enhancing or opposing, framing or blocking out every move the soloist makes… Now for the Hank Mobley solo…

…and I guess this needs an aside. Miles must have given Mobley a very hard time in the band, making it clear that he was just the replacement (until he got a sax player of Coltrane’s stature again). On a live double album from the same phase, Mobley’s playing isn’t much to speak of, just like his string of utterly forgettable hard-bop albums for Blue Note. They are only remarkable for the fact that he insists on acting tough with lots of riff-based playing, though it was clearly not a persona he could credibly pull off. Not least because he always plays a half foot behind the beat and with a rather smallish sound. Now for some reason, and despite the fact that Miles usually would pick his saxes for contrast, here Mobley goes in the opposite direction and sort of wimps out, light brittle sound, no riffs to speak of, spinning little melodies, then interrupting himself and second-guessing his strings of ideas while they are still under development. He’s encroaching on the master’s territory that way like no other sax player I can think of – what gave him the courage? did he fall or was he pushed…my guess is on the latter, and as I write this…

Mobley ends his solo with a rising phrase like a rhetorical question, and, for what seemed like an eternity to small me (and presumably also the player), nobody answers. Finally Kelly strikes a couple of bell-like notes, after which Mobley draws a curt bar of conclusion. Was there something they had arranged between themselves, and Kelly had forgotten? This has always been a favourite moment.

Then Miles takes the tune home and we’re finished. Except we’re not, because it’s a touch-and-go landing and suddenly John Coltrane steps in. Legend has it he was sort of accidently in the room and thought ideas lurked around unexpressed and so took out his sax to take care of things. (Somehow I don’t believe in proper chance during a Miles Davis studio session, though, and I guess the take was planned this way, so they could still use the first half if a Coltrane guest spot didn’t work out musically or contractually.) His solo sounded rough, impenetrable and sort of monolithic to me when I was little. Heard today, though, he couldn’t play sweeter, his sheets of sound spaced out wide, with lots of room to breathe through, and after some convolutions he for once knows the exact right moment when to take the sax out of his mouth.

Then we go out with the piano over a single bass note again, folding up slowly, dying down until the final sound, a clear and loud click like from the control booth (oh how I loved that they had left such throwaway stuff from the studio floor in. Or maybe they put it in? The ballad up next has one moment where a trumpet phrase is so perfectly answered by a creak of the stool that I suspect an overdub.)

Old Folks now… Miles after the theme plays into the next chorus in double time, picking up momentum and building enough inspiration so that Mobley has to fall back on a pretty stock phrase only after half his solo. The end sort of comes apart, like a collective spontaneous hunch that one day could become a head arrangement, but is unformed and therefore uneasily overstated as of yet.

Pfrancing… Starts off with fingersnapping, then a riff tune, only it’s eight bars a canon and then eight bars just a single held trumpet note – totally askew. Miles’ solo is all strangled ideas, minimal wrangling of half riffs or stray single mid-range notes. He deliberately plays against expectations, you want him to build towards a high-note climax which gladly never comes… During Mobley’s solo, Kelly once saves his ass: when the sax starts sliding towards cliché the piano immediately grounds the phrase by resonating the first note of it in an octave, making it seem like they build out a new tonal centre. Kelly himself solos with incredible authority…where often there’s a sort of hole after the horn solo in jazz – when the piano comes in and has to shift the two-handed comping to the left alone, so things start in a lurch – when Kelly solos the group actually pick up from the first note…

Drad Dog…a ballad again (is that a name for a ballad?). This is my most nostalgic listening experience, I have strong memories of the sound of the harmon mute that would reverberate along with the radiator or, depending on needle condition, turn into the most deliciously noise, changing character from note to note. Also, the record had a pressing defect here, so for half the track it sounded like clouds of static galloping by once per revolution. I didn’t hear Mobley’s solo until I got the CD. He sounds like Stan Getz with absolutely nowhere to go (and that’s a good thing).

Teo… (Great sequencing, by the way, because this track, with Coltrane as sole saxophonist, is positioned next to last on the lp, like his solo in the title track.) We’re in 3/4 again, Someday My Prince stripped of the changes but with vaguely exotic toms added. A little modal thing serves as a theme, then there’s a Spanish middle section, Miles doing double stops like he were blowing castanets, it’s a bit over the top (making fun of Sketches in Spain?). At one point he gets into some knotty Trane mood himself. Trane plays so pretty here, and everybody is so accepting of him, only a few months earlier, as the live recordings tell, Coltrane was absolutely at loggerheads with the group. Now after the divorce, they look each other in the eye again. (Btw, it’s interesting but too huge a topic, that Miles sort of buried himself in a rut during Trane’s tenure with him. Did he sort of delegate the experimentalism to the sax player and not feel responsible himself? I feel he grew immensely as a soloist in the years after, when he didn’t trust the sax to come up with something worthwhile.)

I Thought About You… That passage in the melody where Miles holds a note, then changes valve position and with a little crack continues on the same note just a hunch higher. That short double-time passage for a few measures in the second half of the theme. Miles playing half into the next chorus again, and then the best Mobley solo, where he hums the notes he doesn’t play, leaving spaces, breaking lines because for once he’s completely up to the challenge…

(P.S. The CD offers an alternate to the title track. All musicians make lots of stupid decisions. I’ve heard the record for decades and will testify that this was just not how history was supposed to go down.)

Ok. Yes, I am somewhat worried, now that I played the record to show it off, that its charms might be too subtle. It’s probably not a good sign that my notes don’t mention Jimmy Cobb (or Paul Chambers) by name. I had seemed to remember that the subtleness was more in-your-face… You might think it’s a nice, relaxed jazz record. Mellow. But there is a freedom of detail, of individual mood within the overall group mood that I know from no other record. Partly it’s because the group do not try to project their interplay towards an audience (though of course this kind of veracity effect was very carefully groomed by Miles, something he had done since the four 1956 albums he made for Prestige on two dates to get out of a contract). While the rhythm is smooth and swings hard because everybody gels so easily they don’t need to do anything to achieve that, everybody’s still very much on their toes, tossing out little ideas and seeing what floats, sinking the rest. Miles solos are full of implication, subverting the structural build of solos, and here he can freely do that because in his role as a trumpeter he doesn’t have to build anything. He plays with an abstraction that seems as natural as whistling in the dark. The record sits at the beginning of the moment where Miles started to slowly move out again, and the strong group mind with the instant mood switches is something the second great quintet would do to the extreme in its early days some years later, especially the 1965 live recording (with George Coleman, not yet Shorter) on My Funny Valentine, where there’s playing against the beat, players dropping out, etc. But by then, Miles again sounds like he has something to prove, while on Someday My Prince Will Come, he’s free.

So would this record today be in my top 20 of best albums ever recorded? I don’t know, it doesn’t need that kind of recognition from me. It’s still my favourite album ever.

Lutz Eitel writes the excellent To not fall asleep blog.

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