Tag Archives: jazz

On Jazz, And Love Supreme


On Bill Evans, Jazz And Heroin

I have been listening to the music of the jazz pianist Bill Evans. He was white, and brought a lyrical, almost Western classical influence to the music. He also had an awful life, dogged by repeated battles with addiction, mainly heroin.

It seems bizarre that some of the most sublime music of the 20th century should have been created under the influence of the worst narcotic known. Heroin, though, was almost as prevalent as alcohol in mid-century jazz circles.

You will almost certain have heard Evans, even if you did not realise. He plays on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz album ever, if you ignore crossover hits like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

He was best known for his work with just bass and drums – Evans pretty well invented the piano trio that has become the staple of the genre, through artists such as Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau. Go onto Spotify or YouTube and listen to Re: Person I Knew, probably one of the most tuneful compositions in modern jazz. Or Waltz For Debby.

Heroin was so prevalent that it would be easier to list the musicians who weren’t users. A number, including Evans, died of hepatitis, one of the complications of their addiction, especially when mixed with alcohol.

Charlie Parker, Chet Baker – who lost his front teeth and, temporarily, his ability to perform after a drug deal that went wrong. More modern musicians such as Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, who once ascribed his fitness to having to walk up flights of stairs in apartment blocks to reach the dealers who often lived at the top.

It is worth asking why heroin had such a hold. Some have said jazz was a black man’s music, and that as the underdog black musicians were more likely to turn to drugs for comfort – except that Evans was white, and suffered a degree of rejection when he replaced Red Garland, who was black, in the Davis band.

Some have blamed the influence of Charlie Parker, who was a demigod among musicians of his generation and seemed able to function without any hindrance from his addiction.

Some have talked about alcohol suppressing the left hand of the brain and allowing the more creative right to emerge. A good excuse, that. Some have blamed the Mafia, who after the War were able to import quantities of heroin.

Jazz musicians were on the outside of society, and were more likely to be in places where drugs were available, like the clubs where they performed. Their lifestyles were understandably different from the mainstream population. The final factor, I suspect, was that the dangers of heroin were as yet improperly understood.

A study by the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at 40 of the greatest performers from 1945 to 1960. It found that a disproportionate number had a family history of psychiatric problems, while more than a quarter were alcoholics.  It is tempting, though I suspect wrong, to see some link between mental illness and creativity.

Go and listen to Re: Person I Knew, though, and wonder how something so beautiful can be the creation of such a disordered mind.

On Music, And Drugs

A study by a professor at Cambridge University has found that people with enhanced musical abilities are more likely to take drugs.

On the face of it, this should not surprise. People who are gifted musically are more likely to make a living playing music, and musicians, jazz or rock, have tended to live on the fringes of society, where drugs are part of a non-conformist lifestyle. (As far as I am aware, this is not true of specialists in early lute music or the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Though who knows?)

QED then. Except that I think there is more to it than that. Music is an attempt to induce and inhabit an altered state of mind. This is as true of Scarlatti as in the mosh pit at a Linkin Park gig. Rock music, and to some extent jazz, certainly in the latter’s early days, is Dionysian. It attempts to break the shackles of everyday life, often by subsuming the ego within a group, and by means of wild, irrational, cathartic behaviour.

Again, think of that mosh pit. Or, perhaps, Scarlatti, if a more peaceful performance in a concert hall can be seen to serve the same function, of subsuming the individual within a mass experience.

No surprise, then, that religions have so often used music to enhance the religious experience, again among a mass of worshippers. The first primitive forms of music, comprised of rhythmic drumming and crude bone pipes, would have been used by shamans to allow early people a way of escaping, for a time, their difficult everyday lives. Drugs were often a feature of such ceremonies, in cultures as far apart as the original inhabitants of North and South America and the ancient Scythian steppe nomads.

(The writer Mick Farren, who knows a fair bit about the subject, once wrote a book that drew parallels between a music festival and a mass religious event.)

The Cambridge study set me wondering, though. To what extent is music affected or influenced by the particular drug fashionable at the time. Or, to what extent does the style of music influence the choice of drug?

I do not use drugs and believe the world would, on balance, be a better place if they did not exist. Except for my drug of choice, which requires a corkscrew to access it. Call me hypocritical.

Bebop: a frantic, jittery form of jazz, highly stylised. Drug of choice: heroin. It kept musicians going through the antisocial hours they kept. Did it influence that jittery, restless style? Possibly.

The Mods: fast, frantic, short songs, influenced by American soul. Choice of drug; amphetamines, in pill form. These, initially developed to keep combat pilots awake, were ideally suited to the Mod lifestyle. And the music.

Psychedelia: and LSD, under whose influence 20 minute song cycles about purple lizards eating the sun probably make perfect sense. The sound effects, heavy reverb, phasing, echo, were designed to mirror the LSD experience. Or so people who have tried it tell me. See also prog rock.

Along comes marijuana. This has the effect of distorting the time sense. Minutes seem like hours, or pass immediately. Ten minute guitar solos? Any form of drum solo? Case proven.

Cocaine: imparting a sense of invulnerability, and a tremendous sense of self worth. Creating some of the worst monsters in the history of drugs or music as a side product. Pretty well any 70s dinosaur band playing to a stadium of 60,000 people, then. Bombastic, huge, overwhelming. Point made.

Fast forward, very fast, to punk, and bathtub-produced amphetamine. Very fast, very short songs, using two or at best three chords. Case proven again.

 Then we come to the second Summer of Love, and commercially produced MDMA. Which induces a state in which long, simplistic, repetitive music can be endured and danced to for hours at a time. Which engenders strong feelings of affection for strangers within the group experience, the rave.

I once asked a schoolfriend, whose experience of drugs sat somewhere between mine and Keith Richards’, what sort of drug early rock and roll should ideally be accompanied by. He thought for a moment. “Alcohol.”

(One day I shall write my piece on the influence of technology on musical styles.)

On Current Music

I normally regard blogs about music, and what the writer is currently listening to, as deeply self-indulgent. But a follower of mine on Twitter has requested my current playlist, so here goes. You don’t have to read it.

Last CDs bought: John Coltrane, Live At Birdland. The classic quartet. Tyner, Garrison, Jones. I think I probably have enough Coltrane, though a colleague has just recommended More Lasting Than Bronze. Then again, at a price of £2.99 from HMV, why not?

Er, The Best Of The Monkees. A request from the Chief Executive, and only about five songs worth hearing. They were, admittedly, great songs. Written by the likes of Neil Diamond, eg I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A little Bit You. Mike Nesmith, after the inevitable split, turned out to be a rather accomplished songwriter in his subsequent career. Try Different Drum, one of the great break-up songs. “So goodbye, girl, I’ll be leaving/I see no sense in you cryin’ and grievin’/We’ll both live a lot longer/If you live without me, babe.”

Still trending: Melody Gardot, The Absence. Latin, bossa nova tinged jazz singing. Open the French windows, let it drift out.

Steven Wilson: Hand. Cannot. Erase. A bit prog, but sometimes we need a bit of prog in our lives.

Susanne Sandfor: Ten Love Songs. Norwegian, voice like a ringing glass, house beats. Classy.

Mies Davis: Bitches Brew, Live. Dug up from the vaults, and the non-inclusion of Wayne Shorter on the first three tracks, from the little-recorded Chick Corea quintet, is a shame. Apparently he was held up in traffic. Sound quality lousy, but historic.

Alison Krauss and Union Station: Paper Airplanes. Best known for working with Robert Plant on Raising Sand. Her solo work veers towards MOR, though Away Down The River is a deeply moving song about death and resurrection. Listen to it. (Religion warning.) Her work with Union Station is more rootsy, with a proper country/bluegrass band. Not for those who dislike country and bluegrass, of course.

Carla Bley: Trios. Astringent chamber jazz from this Californian pianist and composer, with her long-time partner Steve Swallow and Bristolian saxophonist Andy Sheppard. An awfully long way from her mad, sprawling jazz/rock/world music operetta Escalator Over The Hill. Utviklingssang and Vashkar are among the most melodic jazz compositions ever. See also her The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu.

The War On Drugs: Lost In The Dream. Slacker US indie. A war almost certainly lost, I fear, from the sound of it.

Syd Arthur: On And On, or Sound Mirror. Psychedelic prog. The bassist is Kate Bush’s nephew and plays a bass given to him by the late Hugh Hopper. Enough said.

Robert Wyatt: Different Every Time. Just finished his biography, same title. This is a compilation of his solo work, plus collaborations with the likes of Elvis Costello and John Cage. Again, enough said. Try his cover of Chic’s At Last I Am Free.

Sia: 1,000 Forms of Fear. The Boy is outraged I should be listening to this. “This is modern music, Dad.” I liked her work with Zero 7. Horribly overproduced, though Chandelier, about her misspent youth, is a stand-out. Great back story.

The National: Trouble Will Find Me. US Indie, clever, tuneful, sharp as a paper cut. Still playing it several years later, and Daughter is a convert. Great baritone voice.

Jennifer Warnes: Famous Blue Overcoat. Leonard Cohen, filtered through AOR. Still timeless. Does anyone know what First We Take Manhattan is actually about? A Sixties radical coming in from the cold?

John Murry: The Graceless Age. Descent into madness, addiction, hell. Try  Little Colored Balloons, about how he clinically died on the streets of San Francisco. And was brought around by paramedics.

Jason Isbell: Southeastern. Another rehab survivor, another bundle of laughs. The Elephant, a song about his best friend’s death from cancer.

Plus, I am still working my way through Daughter’s latest two mixtapes. Her tastes tend towards mine, to the extent that we occasionally overlap. Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car? Bought it four decades ago, on vinyl, probably, actually. The Civil Wars? Tick. A country duo who appear to have recorded their last CD slap bang in the middle of a messy divorce. Try The One That Got Away. As in, I wish you were the one that got away… I wish I’d never, ever seen your face. Sung in perfect two-part harmony. One for romantics, then.

Daughter introduced me to Bastille, and Beirut. In return, I offered her The Smiths. About even, then. From her latest mixtape:

Obadiah Parker/Hey Ya.

Fyfe/Solace. Chilled electro.

Hozier/Take Me To Church. Nu folk.

The Last Bison/Switzerland. Ditto.

Ni Oui Ni Non/Zaz. Plainly confused French chanteuse.

Ed Sheeran/I See Fire. The Kygo Remix, obviously.

That’s enough music for now.

On Horace Silver

Horace Silver has died. Not exactly a household name, but one of the founders of the form of jazz known as “hard bop”, a rather formulaic style in which players took it in turns to take solos over a robust backing rhythm. As it happens, I bought a couple of his CDs at the weekend, usual silly price from FOPP in Cambridge.

You will know his best known tune, “Song For My Father”. At least if you were alive and sentient in the early 1970s, you would. It was abstracted, shamelessly, as the backing rhythm to Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”. In those days, we didn’t call it sampling, we called it plagiarism. The Becker/Fagen writing partnership were well versed in jazz and would have known the tune. No harm in it, though. It’s a good song.

The number of successful legal actions for musical plagiarism are remarkably few, probably because in previous years the average judge had difficulty telling one pop song from another. Rod Stewart accidentally recycled a Brazilian tune, “Taj Mahal” by Jorge Ben, for “Do You Think I’m Sexy”, probably heard it in a Brazilian bar somewhere. If you heard it, you’d have no doubt of the connection.

George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was reckoned to have been based on an old 1963 hit, “He’s So Fine”. Led Zeppelin were recently accused of lifting “Stairway To Heaven” from an old instrumental by the West Coast band Spirit.

You’d know “Song For My Father”. Or at least the opening notes. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum…

On Modern Jazz

“There is so much to say about this music. I don’t mean so much to explain about it because that’s stupid, the music speaks for itself.” Ralph Gleason, US critic, original sleeve notes to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

I have been buying an awful lot of modern jazz. Specifically, anything recorded from about 1960 to 1970, often on labels such as Blue Note or Impulse!

There are two reasons for this. I am trying to wean myself off the sort of miserabilist alt-country that has been dominating my listening of late, to the detriment of my general state of mind. “Excuse me while I break my own heart tonight.” No, ideally not.

The second is that it is startlingly cheap to build up a substantial collection. Those who have never heard of the following, excuse me. But I picked up six John Coltrane classic LPs, in omnibus CD form, for six quid. I wanted Oliver Nelson’s Blues and The Abstract Truth. It was available as a single CD, for a fiver or more, in Fopp in Cambridge. Alternatively, you could have eight Nelson LPs, originally issued on Impulse!, including Abstract Truth, for eight quid.

(Fopp, for those who do not know it, is a chain that inhabits an alternative world where there are prices, but not as we know them. There is a big branch in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, packed with baffled looking tourists carrying baskets full of CDs and trying to work out what the catch is. It is not all cheap, but many of the back issues can easily undercut Amazon.)

Fopp’s Cambridge branch has a large rack of original Blue Note issues, at £3 each. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, before they went electric, Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams before he went electric. Freddie Hubbard. Hank Mobley. Lee Morgan.

All classics. Barely a duff one among them. Blue Note and Impulse! were largely the creations of several committed individuals who produced all the albums and hired the studios, often at night. Some of the recordings were all made in the small hours, when rates were cheap. Jazz musicians keep funny hours.

Some of the best record labels creatively, Sun or Chess, were run along the same lines. ECM, the Munich-based specialist in chilly Nordic jazz, is a more recent example. If Manfred Eicher, who owns it and produces everything, doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get produced.

Blue Note specialised in more commercial, groove-based jazz. Some of it will be familiar from adverts or elsewhere. You would recognise Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man, or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. The bass and piano line from Horace Silver’s Song For My Father was stolen, shamelessly, by Steely Dan for Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.

The Blue Note sleeves were artworks in their own right, moody, stylised and often, indeed, tinted blue. You really should play a Blue Note on a turntable, for the sound of the stylus hitting the groove, and the anticipation therein. Older readers will know what I am talking about.

Impulse! was the scarier, screamier, more difficult end of the spectrum. Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, Albert Ayler. Archie Shepp. Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, one of the dozen best jazz albums ever recorded. Not much of this made it onto lifestyle adverts.

What the two had in common, along with other jazz of the period, was a sense of freedom, and of possibilities opening out. Much of it was made by black men, who were emerging from that early, bright Technicolor jazz of New Orleans and elsewhere into a kind of music that, in terms of harmonic sophistication, rivalled the best of Western classical music. And they wore sharp suits. And the playing was astonishing, of course.

This is why near-racists such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin despised it. They liked their black music a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’, music that knew its place.

There was also a strong sense of spirituality, and transcendence. Coltrane was a Christian, of a particularly African-American, evangelical variety, and his A Love Supreme, another of those dozen best, is explicitly devoted to his religion. Others were Muslim converts, shaking off the religion of the slave masters.

Looming over it all was Miles Davis, a man who reinvented jazz once. And then did it again. And again. Possibly four times. Depending on whether you rate his later, more difficult work, such as Agharta and Pangaea, as truly revolutionary or the product of a mind at the end of its tether.
There was still Sketches of Spain, The Birth of the Cool, Porgy and Bess, half a dozen LPs by the second great quintet, Davis-Williams-Shorter-Hancock-Carter, In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew.

Yes, yes, Miles Kind of Blue too. We all know that one. Theme music to a few thousand dinner parties. But there is so much more to this music than that.