How to open a jazz solo: Frelon Brun

Although I’ve known and loved Filles de Kilimanjaro for more years than I care to admit, it was only recently that the gem of a phrase that is the opening to Davis’ solo on ‘Frelon Brun’ has struck me.

CBS, 1968

The album itself represents a point in Davis’ career as he was changing from the more modal explorations of his second great quintet (with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter, bass and Tony Williams, drums) to the embracing of electric instruments and paraphernalia that would form the basis of albums from Water Babies (itself a collection of studio session ‘leftovers’ from 1967-68) through to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Filles marks a transitional moment, yet is full of the trademark devices that characterised Davis’ approach from Kind of Blue through to Silent Way.

The fourth track on the album, ‘Frelon Brun,’ is characterised by a shuffling percussion punctuated by a decisive rising-sixth figure in the bass and left-hand of the keyboard beneath a sparse melodic line in trumpet and saxophone.

Once the skeletal melody has been played, there’s a short section where the accompanying textures move to the foreground, before the trumpet solo begins. There is a pleasing symmetry in the way it ascends a scale of Bb major, beginning and ending on the fifth degree of the scale, and then peaks briefly on the sixth, hops and skips back down to the starting note, and then does a short decorative burst as it settles.

There’s also a wonderful way in which Davis repeats the skipping rhythmic figure of the first four notes, but misplaces the primary beat such that what began as a downbeat on the second beat of the bar begins the next four notes as an upbeat; the downbeat therefore falls on the first beat of the bar, turning the last two notes into an iamb (to borrow a poetic term) and a feminine ending.

Listen for yourself, as the solo starts at about 45 seconds.

Click to enlarge

The phrase shows the truth of the maxim, ‘Less is more;’ the simplicity of the arch-shape, scalic ascent and rhythmic repetition combines to create a striking opening gesture to Davis’ solo.

Going on for Miles: Tutu’s not that bad!

It’s very easy to criticise Miles Davis’ latter albums. The 1980’s  and early 90’s were a particularly unkind period for jazz, by and large; it went terribly saccharine, commercial, and the use of electronic drums and electric keyboards meant that much of the jazz from the decade has dated terribly. You’ve only got to listen to Kenny G’s Songbird or some of the Chick Corea Elektric Band, or the most sugary of David Sanborn, to hear it.

Davis’ comeback after five years of silence from 1975-1980 was marked with The Man With The Horn, which heralded the release of a batch of albums replete with keyboards and electronic drums; You’re Under Arrest, Star People, Tutu, Amandla, Aura. There’s the sank-without-trace soundtrack to Siesta, another partnership between Miles and bassist Marcus Miller.

And yet: I can’t help having a secret affection for Tutu. It’s terribly gauche to admit to such a thing amongst circles of jazz purists: mention it at parties and people suddenly see someone across the other side of the room with whom they must urgently speak, or need to refresh their not-that-empty glass from the kitchen all of a sudden.

I admit, none of the albums from The Man With The Horn onwards until the end, stand in comparison to greats from earlier in his career, such as Kind of Blue or In a Silent Way or…well, the list is almost endless. But there’s a cocky swagger to the album, a neat ducking-and-diving apparent in both Davis’ playing as well as in the music itself that sounds as though the music has a smile on its face. It’s winking at you, as if to say “Hey, I’m not as good as Filles de Kilimanjaro or Live at the Blackhawk but hell: I’m here!”

During his career, Miles had forged enough new directions, opened enough doors into new avenues for jazz to pursue, that he can be forgiven if, in the last part of his life, the records lacked the innovative spark of the earlier decades.

Star People and You’re Under Arrest, I can live without. But Tutu: I have a soft spot for it. Now go and refresh your glass.

(Preview tracks via LastFM).

Low down but not so dirty: the wonder of the bass clarinet

The bass clarinet often gets overlooked. Lacking the visual elegance of the usual clarinet, not considered a melodic instrument like its sibling, it often sits at the back of the orchestra unloved and forlorn.

A shame, because, in the right hands, it is more than capable of holding its own against its smaller cousin.

If those hands belong to British jazz multi-reedsman, John Surman, the bass clarinet is transformed; here it is adding a graceful, lyrical bass-line to ‘Roundelay;’

Or there’s the murky opening to Tansy Davies’ brilliant Wild Card, premiered at last year’s Proms, where the instrument blows raspberries in the background; the piece represents a journey through a deck of Tarot cards, and the opening ‘Devil’ card is full of implied menace as the bass clarinet looms and lurks underneath.

Jazz player Benny Maupin is another king of the instrument, as he demonstrates in the ominous opening to ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ on Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion masterpiece, Bitches Brew;

The bass clarinet’s darker-hued colour appealed to Ravel, who uses it in the opening to his orchestral dance of death,  La Valse, his paean to the vanishing world of the Viennese waltz.

The bass clarinet: subtle, lyrical and wondrously colourful.

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