01/09/2012

Birth Of The Cool

Miles Davis
1957

I first came across Miles Davis in the mid-eighties, when I saw the video for "Decoy" on the Video Jukebox (an awesome six and a half hour broadcast by John Peel and John Walters which introduced me to many other artists too, including Donald Fagen and Tom Tom Club) - although right up until just now I would have sworn blind that the track they played was from Tutu, which shows how unreliable memory can be.

Then when I was about eighteen I went through a brief period of "liking" jazz - before I realised that none of it moved me like rock and stopped being so pretentious (in this respect, anyway).The little I knew led me, inevitably, to Miles, one of the few jazz musicians known to non-aficionados. Having decided that I should like jazz, he was where I started, and Birth Of The Cool was in the shop, so I bought it - on vinyl (we're talking about pre-CD days here). So, of the thirty-six albums that make up my music of the fifties project, this is the one I have owned for the longest.

Birth Of The Cool is actually a compilation album; the individual recordings were made about eight years prior to this collection's release. They were, as the title suggests, the beginnings of the cool jazz scene, and some of those involved made careers out of it, notably John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Gerry Mulligan. Miles, predictably unpredictable, never played cool jazz again. By the time Birth Of The Cool came along he had made - amongst many others - four acclaimed hard bop albums (Cookin', Relaxin', Workin' and Steamin) and was starting an excursion into orchestral jazz with Gil Evans that produced classics like Sketches Of Spain and Porgy And Bess.

OK, we can throw around all these terms like "cool jazz", "hard bop", "orchestral jazz" ... you know what? Unless you're well versed in the micro-classifications of jazz, you'll be unlikely to hear the differences (just as someone unfamiliar with rock would have trouble making the distinction between indie, AOR, stoner rock, NWOBHM, thrash or any other sub-sub-sub-divisions), but that doesn't really matter. What's it like?

Well, it's jazz, so it swings and grooves. But the swing is more subdued than, say, Duke Ellington's "Festival Junction" (which actually is "swing", if you're keeping track) and the groove more subtle than something like Charlie Parker's "A Night In Tunisia" (bebop). It's a very considered, deliberate, muted and understated sound and seems more arranged than most jazz, which is founded on improvisation. It is also very cool.

Depending on your attitude to jazz, it's not hard to listen to, but I do find it tricky to distinguish between the tracks. They are clearly different to each other, but there isn't one that stands out or one that, if I heard it out of context, I could name or place. The first track, "Move", is one of the most up-tempo tracks and most recognisable, while "Jeru" has a really interesting riff at the beginning. "Moon Dreams" - the final track on the LP, although not on the CD which, oddly, has a completely different running order - is a dreamy arrangement that I would liken to chamber music (and in fact there is another sub-genre called "chamber jazz" which was influenced in part by Birth Of The Cool).

I've bought quite a few of Miles Davis's albums over the years, on the general principle that they'll be good for me, and although I've quite grown to like some of them, they are all works to be admired rather than loved. And so it is with this. Occasional listening for the right mood; a superb example of what it is.

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