Monday, April 25, 2011

Miles Dewey Davis III, Time After Time

Most jazz musicians adopt an existing style. The best of them find their own personal voice within the style they adopt; many among these are musicians with no more than a local reputation and following. A small number of musicians have contributed to the creation of a new style: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, and so on. A very few manage to make signal contributions to more than one style.

Miles Davis is one of those. He came up in the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and found his way to a so-called cool style: One. A decade later he went modal and even free: Two. And then he went fusion: Three.

That last move was the most controversial of his career. Many jazz fans and critics accused him of selling out. Of going commercial. Maybe.

Trouble is, he could was still one of the most soulful musicians around. Here’s an out-take from Beethoven’s Anvil about the electric Miles:
Just yesterday I was listening to a Miles Davis recording of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” a ballad performance recorded on June, 5, 1989 in Chicago, Illinois. That performance brought tears to my eyes. There were no musicians to be seen in my apartment, no one to identify with, no way for visual empathy to trigger my tears. Only the sound of the music itself, that’s all that was there to move me.

And yet perhaps that is not quite so. That was not the first time I heard Miles play “Time After Time.” The first time was a live concert in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall in 1987. I was visiting cognitive scientist David G. Hays to work on some intellectual business--he had once been my teacher and now had become a collaborator--and he had gotten us tickets to see Davis. A long-time jazz fan, and sometime trumpet player myself, I was thoroughly familiar with Davis’s career. Like many, I was not particularly thrilled by the funkified electronisized direction Miles had taken in this, the last phase of his career, but I was certainly willing to hear him out. Hays was a jazz neophyte and knew relatively little about Miles Davis, his music, and his place in jazz.

The band was hot, the performance was stunning, and Miles and his band left the audience in grateful shock. “Time After Time” was the strongest song in a set of strong performances. The tempo was slow, very slow, and the dynamics were low, mostly, for there were times when the sound swelled to fill the hall. But the music was so powerful it filled the hall no matter how loud or soft the sound. Even at its softest, which was very soft, Miles’ sound was so intense that you’d think it could suck sound right out of the air. When Miles and the band had finished performing “Time After Time” the audience was completely and actively silent. It took us a few moments to return sufficiently to ourselves so that we could offer up the customary applause.

That was one the finest concerts I’d ever attended. Perhaps the memory of that performance was working on me as I listed to that recording the other day. Yet I don’t remember having been moved to tears by that performance, though I certainly might have been. But the recording moved me to tears, and the memory of that live performance played on my mind as I bought the recording. As a practical matter, that recording is inextricably linked to my memory of the performance I had attended over a decade ago. Thus that past occasion may well have had as much to do with my present emotional response as the musical sounds I was actually listening to. My present response to this recording was conditioned, to use a psychologists word, by associations to past experiences.

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