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September 2008

Howard Mandel
Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz

Author Howard Mandel assumes many roles here—elucidating critic and devoted fan, knowledgeable listener and Boswellian acolyte, evangelist and champion of the avant-garde—all taken on with infectious enthusiasm. Of Miles Davis’ last years: “He arrived at much more transporting music live in concert and on his ’80s studio albums than he did dull dead ends.” Ornette Coleman “always leaves me feeling upbeat, healed and relieved.” Of Cecil Taylor’s music: “I know for sure there’s more to it, much more, than I’ve yet come close to absorbing.”

Of course, much of what is said or implied in those three quotes clashes with conventional critical wisdom. But the triumph of—and pleasure in reading—this book is how ably Mandel makes his case for the musical importance of his three subjects while also conveying his profound appreciation. Yet this is no straight critical study, even though Mandel occasionally employs the jargon of the aesthetic/arts scholar, i.e., “One of [Miles’] most telling modes of signification involved his appropriations of popisms and repurposing of them to his own specifications.”

Mandel recounts how he first encountered his three heroes as a teenager—“stoned” in the case of Miles—in vivid language far from academese. Miles’ electric band in concert in 1969: “warped, distorted, fuzzy-edged, searing sounds … seemed to bounce off every surface of the hall … mostly like chaos. I wasn’t turned off at all—I was delighted.” On Coleman: “Ornette’s sound grew on me gradually ... [he] played his music without seeming to worry about it overmuch, after all, and I noticed he got those around him to do the same … Free Jazz is a rare feat and noisy joy.” And of a moment akin to St. Paul’s on the road to Tarsus on finally “getting” Taylor’s album Unit Structures: “[It] suddenly—unexpectedly—miraculously?—irrevocably—clicked. I have never recovered from this revelation.”

Mandel’s approach to each of his subjects is different, shaped by both his experiences of them as performers and as interview subjects, acquaintances or friends. There’s much more interview material in the Coleman and Taylor sections (not always a good thing), while the Davis includes more close critical listening, even dissecting, of the actual music. He’s especially cogent on the post-acoustic recordings, making a case for In a Silent Way as “an erotic masterpiece” and defending the mixings and splicings of Teo Macero and others as creating a “new, infinitely more commodious soundscape ... through studio manipulations. Most of Miles’ ... subsequent expeditions don’t light out in surprising new tangents, but detail, consolidate, colonize and maybe even settle territory already won.”

He tempers his praise of those late records a bit when he admits, “What was always compelling ... was [Miles’] personal line, variously wary, bold, romantic, wry, base and candid. His trumpet pulls one up and out, and then inward.”

The Coleman section quotes the subject and some of his band members grappling with definitions of “harmolodics,” with no clear success. Coleman, suggesting his roots in the childlike, intuitive philosophies of Rousseau and Blake, praises what a little girl told him, paraphrasing: “If you apply your feelings to sound, regardless of what instrument you have, you’ll probably make good music.”

But Charlie Haden sums it up best: “It’s about the moment right then [playing with Coleman], and if you capture it, great; if you don’t, you’re in trouble ... [At its best it is] so magical and rewarding and fulfilling.” Mandel obviously enjoys Coleman’s music and his sometimes “gnomic” utterances. Taylor he ponders, making heroic attempts to clarify his music through both listening and quoting Taylor’s gnarly, arcane phrasing. Mandel’s and other interviewees’ analyses of Taylor’s “logarithmically multiplying complexities” are clearer than the pianist’s own words.

Mandel may go overboard in his praise here, and in his embrace of the avant-garde impulse no matter where it leads, i.e., “leaving real-time improvised musical collaboration an activity of the past”—no, I don’t think so! But he backs himself up with admirable critical explication, so much so that he might even convince readers to give some of those records they’d dismissed as unlistenable another shot.

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