Natural Music


The other day at my trumpet bar in midtown NYC I was playing Miles live at the Plugged Nickel when another musician stopped by, and informed me that Miles was done after Someday My Prince Will Come. After a moment of shock and disbelief, I wanted to hear why, but all he would say was that Miles lost his way, and doubled down that Barry Harris could validate his position. Of course, one could wonder how could anybody say that everything Miles did after 1961 was irrelevant. Going deeper this is yet another situation where a musician is being told not to play music without a very specific book of rules that you’re forbidden to break. At least Wynton, when he was listening to Cecil Taylor with his son, who was into the music, told him he had to choose what kind of music he wanted to play. The bop or bust school doesn’t even allow a choice, other than the choice to sign on. I understand that some people need a rule book to structure their lives. Some people need and want to be told not to listen to Miles after 1961, or not to listen to late Coltrane. I subscribe to learning how music works before you try to challenge the process of creating it. Hold on, though–Somehow in all of this are musicians trying to figure out just who they are, and what their natural music is.


It’s the early days at Smalls, and I’ve been haunting the 2 am till dawn nightly session. This week I’ve come armed to the teeth after shedding What Is This Thing Called Love? I’m fully prepared to try and speak the language I’m told I must speak in order to be a jazz musician. After the head, I leap at the first solo, eager to discover what I’ve got. The piano player to my right responds by putting his entire forearm on the keys and pounding out every note at once, total crunch chords. The drummer respondes with three massive bombs. I looked at them like they were crazy. Hold up guys! I’m here to play these damn changes. After two choruses I tapped out in defeat. The next night I came back and tried to play totally free with guys that wanted to play changes, and one of the guys wanted to fight me over it. All of this whiplash stuff really needs to stop!

My point in my flashback is that back then I didn’t know who I was musically, and in truth, I don’t think any of us playing had any idea who we really were. I had no idea that after of years of trying to speak the language I was supposed to learn, that I would be tasked with finding my own language by Ornette, and that I would find a whole community of musicians who were fearless enough to play their own natural music.

This year at Rutgers, Dr. Lewis Porter had a Miles Davis seminar, which proved to be a fascinating journey through jazz history. The apex for me was indeed a confrontation with what I call natural music. For me, it all comes down to a comparison of Miles with Sonny Stitt, to Miles with Sam Rivers.

Sonny Stitt spent six months with Miles after Trane finally left. What Trane had played with Miles was a supreme example of a musician in pursuit of himself. In live concerts, Trane was climbing the walls of the house that Miles built with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, but was free to do so. When Stitt joined, he was hanging pictures of Bird up on those walls.

With Stitt, Miles became the out cat, and now Stitt was the traditionalist in a role reversal. Miles played very openly and created wide open spaces, painting abstractly, possibly still reacting to Trane even though he was no longer there. Stitt being the here’s the structure, here’s every clear change guy, Miles treated him with respect. On his feature Stardust, Stitt is either total melody or total bop, he’s great at both, but he doesn’t integrate himself. When they play So What, Stitt’s confrontation between his natural music and Miles natural music becomes more evident. Stitt starts his solo in relation to Miles, but then quickly switches to himself. He’s from miles past, and his playing made me wonder what if Miles never moved past bop? Stitt tries to reference both Cannonball and Trane at points, searching but finding no connection. At one point he even falls back on a Lester Young pound it out JATP turnaround, which feels especially out of place. In the end, Stitt is a guest in Miles house. He played a lot of tenor, but either way, superimposed bird doesn’t work for me. What’s missing is the natural fluidity that bird had, his always in the moment playing. The deeper issue is that Stitt is not bird. It’s another man’s language, unnatural in a way. At this point in his life, Stitt was fully formed and couldn’t be altered by miles. Trane was in process, and Wayne would eventually venture deep into Miles world while maintaining himself, developing an intense musical and metaphysical relationship.  After all of this, leave it to Miles to strut and swag his way through Autumn Leaves.

After George Coleman had left Miles, Sam Rivers did a tour with him in Japan in 1964. Miles had built an entirely new house by then with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Miles younger crew was eager to respond to the Ornette reaction flowing through jazz at the time. They pushed Miles to bring in Sam Rivers who was an outside player. The question remained how would all of them respond to this group confrontation? I find the results not only fascinating but a key moment in jazz history. Here are some of my observations.

In a live recording from a concert in Tokyo, Miles opened with his old standby from the Prestige sessions, If I Were A Bell. Sam comes out constrained, but still with hard energy. He checks himself and reels it in, with an overly short solo. It feels like a somewhat awkward handshake and introduction, or like dipping your toe in the water to see if it’s too cold to swim.

Miles follows with My Funny Valentine. An entire study should be done on Miles renditions of this piece, where he opened up into abstract expressionism. I see each version as a new painting, with this one being especially poignant. On Valentine, Miles seems to try and create a new moment of emotional discovery every time he plays it. Each version is a new adventure into a different chamber of his heart. At 3:16 Miles plays perhaps the most lyrical moment of his entire career. In Response, Rivers plays abstract whirling and swirling sub tones, unlike anything anyone has ever heard in jazz. He plays abstract but not out. The room Miles created was too fragile, delicate, and vulnerable to open up windows and let a storm come in. This was not the time or place to go out, and Rivers respects the space.

So What was the time to open up, and Miles opens the door energy wise to free playing. Sam finally crosses the line with late Coltrane level improv. Neither Trane nor Wayne ever went this out with Miles. Rivers seems to abandon the modal concept entirely and is all in, blowing. Tony joins him and almost overpowers him bashing away looking to break all form and structure. At this point, they have torn down one of the walls in Miles house.

On Walkin’, Tony solos after miles, breaking the routine. Did he have so much energy he could no longer be restrained? Rivers responds with incredible dynamic control–he can play fast and quiet as a way to be more in, and he contributes amazing subtone fast playing. When he gets louder and challenges the rhythm, Herbie and Tony look for ways to hook up, but the problem is they can’t break the time. Sam continues to ask the band to break it all apart musically, but Miles house must stand. Rivers maintains his space at the line in the sand starting a phrase in, but able to end the phrase out. The effect is jazz itself having a genuine identity crisis. Herbie and Tony do find one moment to hook up with him at the same time, demonstrating that Sam could have been integrated into the band.

On All of you, Miles sets up his Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb Strolling in style vibe. Herbie, Tony, and Ron are compelled to keep the house clean, but Sam leads them out in the first chorus. Herbie agrees with Sam in musical conversation, but for the most part, they have to stay out of his way here. Sam is the guy going off in a conversation where you just have to listen to what they have to say. He questions the subject matter itself. It’s hard to bombast and stroll at the same time, though I’ve been trying to for years. After a gentle Miles ending there is a short Ron Carter solo. I think Miles called this tune and vibe to rebuild the wall previously torn down as his house is now standing tall. Miles band with Rivers never got the chance to develop a group concept.

Once Wayne joined the band, Miles second great quintet was born. Wayne could play all the way in and play out without crossing totally into Rivers ocean beyond. When Wayne would cross the line so to speak, you could still hear clear melody and ideas. I would love to do an entire study on Wayne with Miles, but for now, I’ll suggest listening to Stella By Starlight on disc one from Live at the Plugged Nickel. Despite Miles chops being off alignment, he creates an entirely new universe on the bridge at 1:11. Herbie goes through the door with him and asks him to enter another door inside, finding Miles reluctant to leave. Wayne later responds by doing what he could do better than any other tenor player with Miles. Wayne enters the mystery behind Miles sound. On a journey through Miles house, Wayne shows us all these other doors that exit to unknown places, yet he doesn’t go through them. True science fiction, and I believe Wayne’s natural music.

Once you know who you are in music, it makes it possible to play with some and impossible to play with others. Knowing who you are and who other people are with honesty on both sides is required. Listening is the key. For me, speaking bop or hard bop exclusively makes it hard to be creative on deeper levels. It’s fun to swing, but what happens when your ideas and feelings are beyond the environment your in? Some musicians are naturally in, and others are naturally out. Miles said that sometimes you have to play for a long time to figure out who you are. For me, it’s imperative that musicians are encouraged to discover their natural music as a matter of the highest priority. I’m constructing a jazz philosophy class in my mind to help people find out exactly that.

For brother Josh Benko. Rest in Peace my friend.

TBC New Years Eve with the 12 Houses

2017 has to be better than 2016



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