Reviews of my musical collection.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Miles Davis' "Sorcerer"

 "Miles Davis Sorcerer" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
 Miles Davis Sorcerer is the first Miles Davis albums I owned. I went to the record store with the intention of buying a jazz album, so that I could learn about jazz. Miles Davis was one of the few jazz names I knew outside Louis Armstrong. I chose Sorcerer for two reasons: 1st being a college student with limited funds, it was the cheapest Davis album at the store & 2nd because I loved the cover with the profile of Cicely Tyson (not that I knew it was Cicely Tyson at the time). It has the classic lineup of the MD Quintet: Miles, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock & Tony Williams.

The first song, “Prince of Darkness” caught me off guard with Tony Williams’ propelling drumming that gave such life to the song. I don’t begin to know how to musically describe jazz, so I do it in literary devices. There is the refrain that comes forward like a theme that must be delivered on time, above the forward motion of Williams’ drumming. To listen to this lineup play on this album became something I obsessed over for some time in college. The compositions are so minimal, some refrain that is played for a period then solos that innovate & modulate on the refrain. Below is Tony Williams’ drumming, so many different elements creating the whole rhythm. What grabs me immediately is the softness, the coolness of the jazz even though it is so rapidly propelled. Besides Williams, Ron Carter’s bass is running around the sound-scape.

A friend who plays trumpet shared a thought about Miles that sums him up well. He was a bandleader, not a trumpet player. I’m don’t completely agree with the second half of that, but the first holds true across Davis’ career. Many of the most fascinating & original jazz players found their way into his bands at various times in his career: Coltrane, Jerry Mulligan, John Scofield, Keith Jarrett, Paul Chambers, George Foreman, Cannonball Adderly, Gil Evans, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinal, Bill Evans, the list could continue for several lines.

When I first heard this album, I had no context of Miles’ career, & so I had to evaluate it for itself. Now I know that it represented a transition period between his traditional acoustic jazz & his later fusion period. However, at the time, I felt that the movements of these pieces were leading me down paths I hadn’t explored before. If I sat and listened in quiet moments in my room, I learned how the interplay of jazz musicians created something unique and broad out of a rather simple or short refrain that was repeated occasionally. There are examples of the call & response of jazz music, especially in the title song, “Sorcerer”. In other parts I learned to recognize the interweaving of seemingly disparate sounds into a new whole. Coming from a small town in Oklahoma, the big city sounds weren’t there to help me. It was years later living in California that I began to recognize the cityscapes in some of these songs, as a Hancock piano movement could be a person wandering rapidly through foot traffic heading the opposite way, or Shorter’s sax being the sound of traffic flowing past.

So much happened in any moment of the songs that I was carried away by just trying to follow one of the instruments through the song. For instance in “Limbo” which begins with just Hancock & Carter playing, I followed the piano through the song, feeling as he set the pace & motion of the song, then provided a series of pillows that couched the solos of Davis & Shorter. Hancock’s playing is often just chords interspersed under the rest of the music, providing a bedrock of sound that allows the other players to take flight. At the same time if I listened to Tony Williams as he accentuated the solos with his impossibly complex drumming, the way he would just hit something with a rapid pace as the Shorter’s sax was careening nearly out of control, as if to push it back onto track or farther into the stratosphere. The cymbal work acted as not only a fast pace for the song but as crashing waves across the bow of Hancock’s chords as they progressed across the sound. Limbo, a place in Hell for the unchristened babes in Catholic doctrine, also a place keeping, a place where nothing happens but waiting. This didn’t sound at all like the limbo I knew.

The slower piece “Vonetta" let me enjoy Davis’ sense of the blues, which he makes into some of the loneliest music around. The sense of aloneness is syncopated by Williams’ martial-like drumming with its repeated rolls & marching cadence & Carter walks the sound along, down a winding trail as Shorter’s sax sails across your mind reaching highs & lows. The old album version ends with “Nothing Like You” which always jolts me out of the mesmerized mood with the vocal of Bob Dorough so jarring next to the smooth jazz of the song. The liner notes on the CD version tell me that this was recorded much earlier with Paul Chambers on bass & Jimmy Cobb on drums, & it has a different feel than the rest of the album. For a long time, it felt like a mistake, as though added to fill up space, but when listening now with more experienced ears (and having over 30 Davis albums to compare, more than any other musician of any genre) I realize that it shows the transition occurring throughout the album. For one thing, it is far more straight ahead ‘cool or modal’ jazz of the early MDQ albums like Milestones or Seven Steps to Heaven, while the rest of the songwriting at least has become much more fusion in its rhythmic challenges. These songs are much more like Filles de Kilimanjaro & Bitches Brew.

Many jazz musicians have laughed when I tell them that this is my first jazz album, usually with comments like ‘how obscure’ or ‘I’m surprised you kept exploring jazz’. It’s hard to say anything new about Davis’ classics like Kind of Blue or In a Silent Way, but there is something to be said for listening to the many albums that show the progress that this pioneer made over a career than spanned decades. I highly recommend exploring this album.

No comments:

Post a Comment