Friday, July 17, 2009

Keeping Good Company

I have a trumpet-playing friend who has not been shy about informing me of his dislike for Miles Davis. This has not impeded our conversations; but it does lead me to reflect, from time to time, over whether or not he has some good points to make. Ironically, the last time we had one of our exchanges, it came about after I had been writing about Gil Evans; and, while I would not call Davis' participation in his sessions with Evans "incidental," there are certain elements of those sessions that depend far more on Evans than they do on Davis. I found myself thinking about this "collaboration factor" this morning, while listening to some of the Columbia recordings from the sixties, such as the live recordings from Lincoln Center and the Plugged Nickel; and I realized that I was beginning to develop an appreciation of what seemed to be bothering my friend. I suppose one way of putting it is that there was a tendency on Davis' part for introspection unto an extreme that began to block out both the music itself and the richness of conversation with the rest of his quintet.

Thinking more about this tendency, I realized that, of all the recordings I had, about the only ones that really stuck with me beyond the Evans collaborations were those with John Coltrane. For all of Davis' complaints about Coltrane's solos being too long, the two tended to bring out the best in each other. Also, these interactions seem to be at their best in works that neither of them composed. I am thinking most specifically of Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha," which is the sort of work I would single out for those looking for a first taste of both what Parker could compose and what seasoned performers like Davis and Coltrane could do with it. This is, of course, a judgment based entirely on my own highly subjective listening behavior; and some of that subjectivity may have to do with my being far more interested in where Coltrane went after the two of them broke up than I am with Davis' progress. Another possibility is that, even when Coltrane went into the direction of free jazz, bebop remained part of his worldview, while Davis moved in a direction of shedding his bebop roots, so to speak.

Back at the beginning of this year, I speculated over whether or not Peter Sellars may have had a detrimental influence on John Adams, suggesting that it may have become time for Adams to keep "better company." Davis had the good fortune to keep some really excellent company in his early years. I have to wonder how his music might have developed had he not departed from that company.

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