The appeal of Miles Davis and John Coltrane
July 26, 2004 7:03 AM   Subscribe

I love music. All kinds of music, from rock to disco to country to classical to jazz. I'm trying to build up my jazz collection and I've picked up some Miles Davis and John Coltrane. My question is this: I don't understand the love that many people have for electric Davis (I've listened to many of his electric works, but I'm specifically referring to A Tribute to Jack Johnson) and Coltrane's A Love Supreme. While the music (usually) isn't hard on the ears, I simply don't hear what people find so attractive about these two artists. Explain.
posted by ashbury to Media & Arts (19 answers total)
You don't like it and other people do? There's no explaining why some people like one sound while others don't.
posted by agregoli at 7:09 AM on July 26, 2004

i'm starting to listen to more jazz, too. i probably know less than you, but one thing i've noticed is that i have to play albums many times before i start to hear them as a whole. at first they sound way too complicated - just a jumble of notes and sounds. it's only after listening many times that i start to hear recurrent themes, melodies, etc.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:25 AM on July 26, 2004

It's okay to be a little critical of electric Miles, even if you're a consummate jazzhole. Miles went to a Hendrix show and Hendrix told him how much $$ he made per concert. The rest is history ;-)
posted by Shane at 7:45 AM on July 26, 2004

Oh, Shane.

It took me a long time to even want to hear this era of Miles's music, but I like it best now, so let me take a shot.

I grew up with the idea that "Fusion" was terrible by its very definition. There's so much crap out there passing itself off as "jazz-rock" or "expressive whatever" that people have a tendency to dismiss the entire genre as worthless.

It has all the urgency and groove of Hendrix or the MC5, with an semi-improvisational structure that lets the pieces breathe and unfold. (It didn't hurt that he had the very best musicians out there at the time: Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Teo Macero, there's no point in quoting them all.)

Miles' work of that era is as expressive and urgent as any I believe I've ever heard. Jack Johnson is not the best example of that time, though I like it fine; if you can pick up Agharta or Pangaea, you'll get the full impact of what he was trying to accomplish in the early 70's. The melodies are multilayered but easy to focus on, the playing is nuanced and holds together as a coherent whole, and it really does rock.

That said, I don't know many people who really like it when I put it on.

Think of it this way, if I may troll for a second: it's all the great bombast of Led Zeppelin without the distracting histrionics of that screeching clown Robert Plant.

I'll go get me some coffee and go hunting for some relevant links later.
posted by chicobangs at 7:59 AM on July 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'm not a huge fan of electric Miles, but Pangaea is definitely good stuff. And A Love Supreme is . . . well, it just is.
posted by yerfatma at 8:52 AM on July 26, 2004

What andrew cooke said. A number of my favorite artists and albums sounded impenetrable the first time I heard them. (Cecil Tayor is a perfect example.) Like chicobangs, I cut my teeth on the idea that fusion is awful and went along with the electric-Miles-sucks crowd. Then I actually started listening, and quickly came to love both Jack Johnson and In a Silent Way. I would suggest that if people you respect (like, in my case, the Penguin Guide to Jazz CDs) rave about something you hadn't been interested in, you give it another try. Listen to it a few times with as open a mind as you can manage, and see if it doesn't start sinking in and making itself at home. Doesn't always work, of course -- I don't expect ever to be fond of Coltrane's really "screechy" stuff, like Ascension. But I eventually fell for A Love Supreme, and I hope you wind up doing so too. If not, no problem -- there's plenty of other great jazz!
posted by languagehat at 11:00 AM on July 26, 2004

[aside on the idea of listening - i have a theory that it's a sub-sconscious process. if i listen to music at work i normally hear about half the first track and then only notice the music again when it finishes. yet that kind of listening seems to help "understand" the whole album. but this is just vague speculation on a very small sample...]
posted by andrew cooke at 11:49 AM on July 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Hmph. Maybe I'm crochety and knee-jerk contrarian, Chico, but I don't hear it. "Concierto de Aranjuez" or "Saeta" from Sketches of Spain for me, thanks. (Perhaps I'll have to borry something off ya.)

(but I do love A Love Supreme. Go figure.)
posted by Vidiot at 11:58 AM on July 26, 2004

there's plenty of other great jazz!

Amen to that.

However you take it, jazz is complex, nuanced, and in many instances subtle. My experience is that I've listened to many recordings over and over before I really even began to hear them. Many of Coltrane and Davis' works have aged well over the years, and for good reason. However, like any other acquired taste, it takes a while to get a palate for it.

And just as a backdrop, very few session musicians could even play backup on this stuff. The rhythms, harmonies, and technical aspects to what these guys were improvising are amazingly complex. Yet, somehow they made it accessible and personable. That being said, you're essentially hearing what very few people, if any, could faithfully recreate, or even emulate.
posted by jazzkat11 at 12:00 PM on July 26, 2004

One of the incredible things about Miles' career (aside from his prodigious talent) was that he went through so many wildly different phases. From starting as a star in what was essentially a big band, to the Birth Of The Cool years, through Sketches of Spain and his work with Gil Evans, to his Hendrix-&-heroin-fueled innovations in the early 70's, and then his late-era kinder, gentler stuff at the end of his life, he had more chapters than most schools of philosophy.

One of the great things about jazz is that there are so many more colors in the rainbow. Rock and Roll has a palette, Opera has these colors over here it can work with, the blues, bluegrass, all have artistic restrictions they work within. But jazz, especially at its best, works from a bigger creative range than any of them. It uss all of them to make itself. When done properly. (Of course, like David Byrne said, nuclear weapons can wipe out life on Earth, when used properly. But still.)

So if you don't like a particular era of Miles as much as, oh, I do, well, you're clearly wrong and should try harder. But really, what's the difference if you prefer Kind of Blue or the Gil Evans stuff to Agharta?

It's like literature, man. You'll probably like different stuff as you age, just like Miles himself.
posted by chicobangs at 1:43 PM on July 26, 2004

I started listening to jazz, heavily into the 1950s sound. It took a bit of time to acquire a taste for the New Thing. Part of it is that many print histories of jazz stop about 1970 after many players had died (Coltrane and Eric Dolphy), and many others had left for Europe or retired.

A lot of the New Thing, as they called it, of A love Supreme (and Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Saunders, Cecil Taylor) was coming about in the early sixties. Other artists were using similar chaos: Harold Pinter's sparse dialogue in his plays and the splatter painting of Jackson Pollock. And there was revolution, too, riots in the cities and student movements in the late sixties. Then suddenly the New Thing seemed real to me and the 1950s sound almost old fashioned.

And Miles' electric stuff. I also suggest Pangea. Side One opens with a groovy guitar cat fight and side two opens with an attractive Sonny Fortune flute melody. When I herad it, I was amused that Miles continued to have a smiliar sound, his trumpet playing was recognisable even though it was in a radically different contexts from Sketches or Kind of Blue, playing his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal.
posted by philfromhavelock at 3:17 PM on July 26, 2004

I simply don't hear what people find so attractive about these two artists.

as others say, you can't judge miles and coltrane by any single portion of their work. the majority of modern fans were introduced to their work by Kind of Blue, and that's probably a good strategy for non-jazz heads. it's pretty far removed from the records you're not getting into, and a lot closer to the main stream of jazz up until miles and coltrane (and ornette) changed the ball game in the 60s.

if Kind of Blue's too mainstream, though, a good place to start with acoustic miles is Ascensceur pour l'Eschefaud, which exemplifies the dark and haunting aspects of miles' technique and outlook. when people talk about miles' playing (as opposed to his incredible influence as a bandleader / tastemaker / organizer, an innovative shepherd of such new styles as cool, modal, & fusion) they use words like terse, plaintive, stark, probing... you should also consider his playing in relation to monk's solo style, whose use of silence, outburst, and repetition are the biggest influence on miles (outweighing, i think, the parker influence on his melodic sense)

my favorite of his electric lps is on the corner, the real love it or hate it one. i am really getting into the 80s stuff, which i thought would never happen. my favorite right now of his acoustic sessions is the cannonball adderly lp "know what i mean", which is best described as a slightly sunnier, slightly more swinging version of kind of blue.

as for coltrane - very few jazz neophytes get him on their first listen. [it'll be even worse when you get your first ornette coleman and AEOC records, though]. this is because the harmonic openness he was pioneering is a bit confusing at first. just keep playing it, it will start to make sense after a while - the same cannot be said for free jazz - some people will never get it, no matter how much they try; not that there's anything wrong with that. giant steps is the next one by him to get - it's where he first really let his new thing (sheets of sound) dominate the proceedings, and is an incredibly catchy set of songs at the same time.

nb: if you're gonna buy pangea / agharta, be sure to spend the extra dough on the japanese versions, or wait until they get around to doing the reissues.
posted by mitchel at 4:31 PM on July 26, 2004

Response by poster: I've owned Agharta for years and years, and only played it a handful of times. I simply never got what he was doing - the wildness, the silences, the seeming distances that he went with his music combined with the sometimes intense closeness. When I say I never got it, I mean that I never understood the purpose of it, of what he was trying to say. I can appreciate various aspects of his music and the amazing complexity that he and his musicians achieved (John M's guitar in particular - whoa!), but as to what they were trying to convey...I'm in the dark.

And A Love Supreme is . . . well, it just is.
posted by yerfatma at 8:52 AM PST on July 26

Exactly. It just is, but I need to know what it is at the same time, and why it's called "A Love Supreme", why jonmc somewhere says it's one of the best things he's heard, to paraphrase, and to quote, "It's all about the rock."

I'll be the first to admit that I like pretty music. I've never had a thing for punk, metal, fusion, hardcore, techno, etc unless it had a melody that I could get into, and then hopefully a beat that tapped my toe. Davis, Coltrane, Coleman, etc are definitely not "pretty guys playing pretty music", yet they are revered, and I'm trying to understand.

Thank you everybody for your answers, they've been very helpful.
posted by ashbury at 5:35 PM on July 26, 2004

Where does the name come from? "A Love Supreme" is about Coltrane's relationship with God. I believe it was his first recording after he found religion and got off heroin.
posted by Monk at 6:49 PM on July 26, 2004

And if you look at the liner notes, Coltraine did really believe that he had found a spiritual secret in that music, that it was a literal, direct expression of god. (They play it every mass at the church of John Coltraine in San Fransisco. (Coltraine is the St. John.)
posted by Tlogmer at 1:18 AM on July 27, 2004

I done fucked me up some HTML. They play it every mass at Saint John's African Orthodox Church in San Fransisco.
posted by Tlogmer at 1:19 AM on July 27, 2004

Cool thread. I too, have just recently (almost a year actually) started exploring Jazz. I always felt my lack of exposure to it, my lack of understanding or any real appreciation for Jazz, was a personal weakness or deficiency... and that I was somehow denying myself one of the truely finer things in life. I still believe that.

I went the same route as you... Miles and Coltrane. I'm still digging my way through Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way and Sketches of Spain... plus A Love Supreme and Something Else (Cannonball Adderly). I really like all of them, a lot.

What I found helped me most, in trying to digest all this "new" music, was to listen to them at different times of the day, in different moods... in the house, in the car, in the morning, in the evening just when the sun starts going down, sober as a rock while cleaning house, with a liquor buzz, etc. I had a bunch of friends over for cards one night, and while the rock music was the expected entertainment, I committed to all jazz - all night... things like that. You're never ("never") going to get all there is to know from sitting down and pawing through the liner notes while listening to the record front to back. I'm no expert, but that's my advice.

I really loved Ken Burns' Jazz too. It's a (long) documentary worth watching. I found it inspiring. After watching the program, I felt like I owed it TO jazz to give it a listen.
posted by Witty at 5:28 AM on July 27, 2004

ashbury, if you like "pretty music" (I do too) you should seek out The Water Is Wide, by the wonderful saxophonist Charles Lloyd. After you've heard that you'll want more, but that's the place to start. Ravishing stuff. Oh, and listen to Charles Mingus's rendition of "Memories of You" (from the album East Coasting) -- it'll break your heart.
posted by languagehat at 7:40 AM on July 27, 2004

Incidentally, your taste is just that -- your taste. You can educate yourself w/r/t what you're listening to, but sometimes you just may or may not dig something, and that's okay. Sometimes you might be in the mood for the far-out stuff, and sometimes you might not.

I listen to Sun Ra occasionally (and I just don't get the late-period Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, but I'll admit I haven't listened to it much), but what I'll throw on the stereo of an evening is much more likely to be Mingus, Brubeck, or the Modern Jazz Quartet.
posted by Vidiot at 8:13 AM on July 27, 2004

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