Now's The Time

Miles Davis on Blue Note

Miles Davis recorded three sessions for Blue Note Records in 1952, 1953 and 1954; the label released three ten-inch vinyls from those sessions at the time: Young Man With A Horn, Miles Davis Vol. 2 and Miles Davis Vol. 3. The recordings – plus a handful of alternate takes – have been reissued in several forms in the years since.

As part of Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, the legendary label has released a series of commemorative reissues, including Take Off: The Complete Blue Note Albums from trumpeter Davis. It’s an attractively packaged set, with iconic Francis Wolff photographs, a nice booklet featuring notes from Kirk Silsbee, and complete discographical information. The novelty of the set is that for the first time since the original releases, it sequences the cuts in the order of the old ten-inch records (with alternate takes tacked on at the end of the second compact disc). A minor quibble: this is not really the “complete” Miles Blue Notes: the label also released a recording of a 1951 Birdland live performance, not included here, featuring J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. That set would have complemented these studio recordings nicely and made for a more definitive collection.

We will be listening to Take Off during August as our Miles Davis record for the month. It’s a great pretext to focus on this era in Miles’s career. The early fifties were a time of personal troubles and uneven artistry for Miles, largely fueled by drug addiction. Framed at either end by the artistic heights of the Birth of the Cool Nonet (1949-50) and bebop mastery of the Miles Davis-Tadd Dameron group, on the one hand, and the formation of the First Great Quintet in the mid-50s, featuring John Coltrane, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the other, early-50s Miles requires a more selective ear. The relatively sparse Blue Note material is perhaps better than contemporaneous recordings Miles made for Prestige and in other musicians’ groups, perhaps because the label paid for rehearsal time, unlike its competitors. Miles’s Blue Note recordings reflect the musical concerns that were on his mind: the crazed harmonic architecture of bebop, and whether it should be embraced or rejected; the crystallization of the post-harmonic, post-song modal jazz, already hinted at in the Nonet recordings, that would flower in Kind of Blue (1959); and the blues, in which Miles saw a way forward away from bop and toward the modal sound.

The three sessions represented on this disc occurred in three Spring dates, each about a year after the previous one. The 1952 date highlights ballad playing (“Yesterdays”); the 1953 grapples with fast-paced bebop numbers (“Tempus Fugit”); and the 1954 date, the first with pianist Horace Silver, debuts the blues-inflected hard-bop sound that would prove so influential on many a Blue Note artist in the mid-50s. 1954, in fact, proved to be one of the greatest in Miles’s career, with fantastic sessions that have mostly been released on Prestige; the year marked his definitive return to form.

Now’s the Time August Records

In August, we’ll delve into two new releases by Now’s the Time favorites Shabazz Palaces and Meshell Ndegeocello. Our Miles Davis album is a new two-CD compilation of (most of) the trumpeter’s releases on the legendary Blue Note records label, with sessions from the early 1950s.

Shabazz Palaces, featuring Palaceer Lazaro – once known as Butterfly (a.k.a. Ishmael Butler), in the canonical hip-hop brother- and sisterhood Digable Planets – has taken hip hop underground. Deep, DEEP underground. Early sneak previews of Lèse Majesty, their second full-length release on Sub Pop Records, suggests that they have gone further down. It’s well-suited to the post-midnight time slot of this, your faithful radio program. As is our custom, we’ll dip into the Shabazz Palaces – and why not, the Digable Planets – back catalogs.

If that were not enough, singer-bassist-songwriter-force of nature Meshell Ndegeocello has a new record, Comet Come To Me. It’s a “light” album: light, in that it is not as baroquely layered as her keyboard-entrenched 1990s masterpieces, given instead to folk-inflected, guitar-led songs of heartbreak; light, also, in that it’s not clear there are any one-ton masterpieces like on the earlier albums. But then again, the more I listen to this new record, the more the songs grow on me. Let’s listen together and make our minds up. And, oh yes, let’s generously sample Meshell’s back catalog and sideman (sic) credits while we’re at it. I’m thinking Joshua Redman and Joe Henry, to start. Deep grooves are guaranteed. Two hours will not be enough to contain each episode’s mixtape eclecticity.

Finally, Miles’s early-50s Blue Note dates are like the starting point of a scavenger hunt that takes us backward and forwards in the trumpeter’s musical career.

And, yeah, I know, “eclecticity” is not a word.

Miles’s chromatic funk

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During July, our Miles Davis album is Star People. Recorded live and in the studio in 1982 and 1983, the Columbia release features a couple of bands that included, among others, guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern, bassist Marcus Miller, saxophonist Bill Evans and drummer Al Foster. Eighties Miles is not everyone’s cup of tea, but even if you feel that way, this disc merits a close listen. In the indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz, Richard Cook and Brian Morton write:

Star People has long been a favourite of ours. Though never a big critical or commercial success, it stands out in this period as one of the first unambiguous signs that Miles was trying to re-inscribe himself in a jazz tradition. Punctuated by pre-recorded organ interludes, it mixes swing-era choruses over Motown riffs, dark blues shapes and passages that seem to hark all the way back to Buddy Bolden. An astonishing performance, marred by cluttered arrangements and a fuzzy mix.

As for looking back at his jazz past, it’s interesting that Star People is produced by Teo Macero and features arrangements by Gil Evans and liner notes by Leonard Feather, all of which might make you think we’re describing an album from 1957.

About those Evans arrangements: for this record, Evans would transcribe elements of the sidemen’s solos – typically guitarist Scofield’s — that were particularly tasty, and build them up into a composition. Thus during the 10 July broadcast, we listened to “Speak,” based upon a Scofield riff. We also heard “That’s What Happened,” from the 1984 recording Decoy, which was arranged by Evans from a Scofield riff on “Speak”… We’ll hear more such compositions all this month. The technique of creating a melody from a transcribed solo was employed famously by George Russell, who subjected Davis’s canonical solo from “So What” (1959) into a a big-band arrangement for his 1983 album of the same name. (Now’s the Time listeners heard the Russell piece, picked out of KUSP’s vast vinyl vault, during a May broadcast.)

Paul Tingen, the author of Miles Beyond, an authoritative analysis of the trumpeter’s electric years, calls this composition-arrangement technique “chromatic funk”. Check out Tingen’s website for a wealth of electric Miles material.

Hot fun in the summertime: July records

It’s a new month, and there’s a new set of featured albums for the radio program.

First up this month: the first record by France’s National Jazz Orchestra under the leadership of its new musical director, Olivier Benoît, entitled Europa Paris. Benoît, a guitarist from Lille, has assembled a great band and with this album and has established a coherent sound, melding elements of rock (the electric guitars! the energy! the drums!), jazz (the arrangements, the collective enterprise) and contemporary classical (violins and texture). The double-CD is a six-part suite, most of which we will listen to during the July programs. We’ll also probably dip into the back catalogue of the Orchestre National de Jazz under previous musical directors, including bassist Daniel Yvinec and vibraphonist Franck Tortiller.

(Why France? you ask. Why so much French music on the program? Well, while your host has deep roots in the Monterey Bay area, extending back to his early childhood, he has also wandered in the wildnerness. He has also apparently picked up the habit of referring to himself in the third person. Anyhoo, he lived in Paris for seven years before returning to Santa Cruz and established a deep love for the jazz scene, new and old, in that city, which he still follows. And it’s his joy to bring you highlights on this radio program.)

Second new record is NY/LA-based Japanese-New Zealander pianist Mark de Clive-Lowe‘s CHURCH. The record is named after the amalgam of musicians and co-conspirators convened by de Clive-Lowe and heard on the record. The pianist describes the musical project as “equal parts jazz club, electronic remix experiment and dance party.” Which most definitely belongs on this radio program.

And, as every month, there’s a Miles Davis record. This month, it’s Star People, recorded in concert and in the studio in Summer 1982 and early in 1983. This is a strong record from early in Miles’s return from his five-year sabbatical in the late 1970s. It features the loud electronic sound that Miles would seek during this last decade of his artistic output, influenced by the 80s pop sounds he was hearing (including Prince). But it’s also very much a jazz album, with strong blues throughout. It’s the last of the trumpeter’s records to be produced by Teo Macero, and arranger Gil Evans played an important role in the arrangements. The band, finally, is solid: saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern, bassist Marcus Miller and the great drummer Al Foster among them.

June 2014 featured albums

This month on the radio program, we’ll feature two new records, as always.

First up, it’s the new album from The Roots, with its Romare Bearden cover and its enigmatic title: …and then you shoot your cousin. The record explores some of the territory familiar from the magnificent How I Got Over (2010): bittersweet piano, as much singing as rapping, a philosophical bent. But it’s darker, terser, harder to assimilate than the group’s previous work; a kind of post-hip-hop. The Roots have referred to …cousin as a “concept album,” though the concept in question is a little elusive. It appears to be about what the band perceives to be a moral (if not aesthetic) crisis in hip hop. For more on that, read Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson‘s provocative six-part series of articles for Vulture entitled “How Hip Hop Failed Black America.” (Here’s a link to the first installment to get you started.) Listen all month, and you’ll hear the whole thing. Plus, we’ll use this pretext to generously sample The Roots’s rich back catalogue.

Next up, it’s a trio date led by Brooklyn-based pianist/organist Jamie Saft, together with electric bassist Steve Swallow (who’s been heard with Gary Burton, Carla Bley, Art Farmer and many more) and drummer Bobby Previte (a veteran of the 80s NYC experimental downtown scene). Saft himself is a protean polymath, who’s worked with the Beastie Boys and John Zorn and a lot of people in between. Entitled The New Standard, the record is a lot more conventionally piano-jazz than some of Saft’s recent projects (which we’ll get to if we have time this month). The trio cavorts in that delightful format: as will we, when we listen to it.

Then, regular listeners know, we focus each month on an album from the Miles Davis oeuvre. This month, it’s Kind of Blue (1959), the most celebrated album in the Davis catalogue, possibly the most celebrated jazz album of all time. In fact, a contender for most celebrated album, period, of all time, right up there with Sgt. Pepper and Frampton Comes Alive and Thriller. A tad obvious, you might say. Why not focus on lesser-known and appreciated Miles releases? Well, that’s what I’ve done every month since we started. But I thought, why not have a go at the Moby Dick, the Mt. Everest, of the Miles discography? It’s a fantastic album. Those who know it by heart will relish hearing it brushing up against The Roots and the other surprises I have in store for you this month. Those who have never heard it are in for one of the pinnacle experiences of their music-listening lives: Oh, how I envy you!

Who knows how much longer we’ll have this Wednesday at midnight meeting time together? In that spirit, let’s seize the day and enjoy Kind of Blue while we still can.

Miles Davis Bonus Disc


After carefully crafting four Miles Davis-themed programs for the month of May, each dwelling lovingly on a particular phase of the late trumpeter’s storied musical journey, I learned something surprising: this May there are FIVE Thursdays, and therefore five episodes of “Now’s the Time.” I’d need a fifth Miles tribute program to finish off the month in style.

I look at this week’s program like one of those bonus discs that sometimes accompanies a box set of CDs: it’s all the weird stuff I didn’t get time to play during the month. The methodology is the same as all of this month’s programs: music from Miles, the music that surrounded Miles – that influenced him, that he influenced, that was in the air. The compositions he made famous, many of them here interpreted by others. It’s a whirlwind tour, a two-hour ride from November 1945 – Charlie Parker‘s “Now’s the Time,” with a 19-year-old Miles on trumpet – to as close to 2014 as we can get.

A brand new twist with a whole heap of mystic

All this month, I’ve been paying tribute to trumpeter Miles Davis, the center of this radio program’s musical galaxy. We’ve dwelled on three moments, three moods: the mid-50s, the mid-60s, the hot summer of Bitches Brew. This week, the fourth and final moment: Doo-Bop (1991). Doo-Bop was Miles’s last album – indeed, he died before it was finished, leaving it to producer Easy Mo-Bee to weave together the recordings into a finished product. The record marked yet another new direction for Miles, one that he would unfortunately not be able to pursue: the marriage of hip hop and jazz. It’s that intersection in which the 22 May broadcast of “Nows the Time” will wallow.

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There’s lots of music in this intersection, and regular listeners to this program will have heard a lot of it here in the past. But I’ve been waiting a long time to dedicate two hours to this rich confluence of musical elements and, well, now’s the time.

First, there are those hip hop artists who have sampled jazz records – like Gang Starr with “A Night In Tunisia,” Digable Planets (pictured) with “Watermelon Man,” Common with “Dolphin Dance” (an Ahmad Jamal version). The title of this blog post is taken from A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Jazz” (which samples “Green Dolphin Street”): “so low-key that you probably missed it.”

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Then, there are jazz artists, like Miles, who have appropriated hip hop elements, like pianist Robert Glasper (pictured) today, pianist Herbie Hancock in the 80s, saxophonists Greg Osby and Branford Marsalis in the 90s, and more.

All that, and a little of Miles’s late-period funk.

Speaking of Hancock: Watch this clip of rapper Snoop Dogg rapping over Herbie Hancock‘s “Canteloupe Island” at last year’s Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Hancock. At the end, Snoop says, “Herbie, we love you. Thank you for creating hip hop.

Snoop said it.

Next week, a fifth and final Miles program — more details in this space soon!

Miles: Four Moments, Four Moods, all Month

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You could say that the musical DNA of this radio program is the vast and varied work of trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991). Just about everything I play can be connected — backward, forward, sideways — to the music of Miles. Of course, I play a lot of Miles himself — every month I highlight one of his albums, and those have ranged from 1947 to 1991, so far.

Miles would have been 88 this May, and so we dedicate the four programs all this month of May to four moments, four moods, of Miles. (You will note the ample alliterative possibilities.) Sort of chronological, but not entirely. Four moments in the long trajectory of Miles’s career, each punctuated with influences, those influenced, and contemporaneous sounds. Each episode is named after an album, but is not really about that album; each episode shares its name with a Miles Davis song, too, but is not devoted (only) to versions of that song.

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First up, “Round About Midnight”. The fecund mid-fifties, between Miles’s return to form in the early part of the decade and the revolution of Kind of Blue (1959). Hard bop, languorous blues, the classic first quintet (John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones) and the first glimmers of the modal bag.

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Next, “E.S.P.” The transcendental second quintet (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams); many fellow travellers and a deep legacy. “Controlled freedom,” they called what they did.

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Third, “Bitches Brew”. Miles plugs in; rock, funk, and far out jazz. Miles’s penchant for extended performances gives way to nearly infinite blocks of sound. The dramatis personae expands – Joe Zawinul, Bennie Maupin, Lenny White, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and more – without sounding crowded.

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Fourth, and finally, “Doo-Bop”. Miles’s last record, the fusion with hip hop that he would be unable to oversee himself. But, oh, you can be sure that I will fill two hours with hip-hop influenced jazz, jazz-influenced hip hop, and plenty of Miles and confrères.

Herbie and the Reverend

Two of the brightest stars in the “Now’s the Time” firmament celebrate birthdays in the days ahead: the Reverend Al Green, born 13 April 1946 in Forrest City, Arkansas, and Herbert Jeffrey Hancock – named in honor of vocalist Herb Jeffries – born 12 April 1940 in Chicago.

Accordingly, the 10 April broadcast will be devoted to marking these happy anniversaries, with lots of music from both musicians, big hits and little-known rarities alike. That, and our April featured albums by Ambrose Akinmusire, the Souljazz Orchestra, and Miles Davis live at the Fillmore East in June 1970.

If this were a round-the-clock radio format, I would listen to nothing else. You can experience it for two hours, if you join me this week.

In February and March, Hancock was the 2014 Norton Lecturer at Harvard University. Check out the first of his lectures – “The Wisdom of Miles Davis” – here.

And here’s Green performing “Jesus is Waiting” on Soul Train:

April Records


April brings three new releases from solid-gold “Now’s the Time” favorites. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire‘s third release (his second on Blue Note Records), comes nearly three years after its extraordinary predecessor, When the Heart Emerges Glistening. The new disc, the imagined savior is far easier to paint, meets the high expectations that awaited it. There are elements of continuity – most of the telepathic ensemble from the previous record is back, burning with the same incendiary musicality on the long, live closing number that will recall Akinmusire’s transcendental set at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2012. There are innovations, too — guitar, strings on a pair of numbers, three (very varied) vocalists. This is a record to throw excitedly into the CD player, but also a record to savor slowly and in small doses. We’ll do both this month.

Ottawa’s Souljazz Orchestra follows their 2012 globetrotting Solidarity with a more jazz-oriented Inner Fire. Their steez (as Gangstarr would put it) remains a unique capacity to meld world styles without smoothing out the edges. This outing sounds more rooted in the Afrocentric, spiritual, seventies jazz mold of artists like Pharoah Sanders, the Pyramids and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, some of whom we will play alongside the new release.

Finally, this month’s Miles Davis record is also a new release: the complete concerts recorded at the Fillmore East in New York in June 1970, spread over four compact discs. These concerts were originally released in 1970 in a severely edited form on two vinyl LPs, under the evocative title Miles Davis At Fillmore. The group includes saxophonist Steve Grossman, duelling electric keyboardists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira. I’ll have more to say about this one in this space, if I can find the time!

Join me, I beseech you, for fine late-night music.