Category Archives: Miles Ahead

The Cover Story: Sometimes,It Really Was About Races

cover-story

All eight of the late 1950’s to mid 60’s album covers have two things in common. All of them feature white people’s faces on the cover. And all of them are by black artists.  This topic first came to my attention when my father purchased a coffee table book called 1000 Record Covers by former DJ/record company exec Michael Ochs. One section of the book specifically featured a series of album covers by black artists with the faces of white people on them. It even pointed out how,in general in the case of Motown,other albums by black artists featured cartoons on the covers.

Mister Ochs book brought up the reason for this-one I’ve generally accepted as the most prominent truth. During the late 50’s and halfway into the 60’s,the civil rights movement in American was making it clear for the 20th century that black lives did matter. Yet the American South in particular were concerned that albums by black artists would sell better to the area’s more heavily racist population if the artists faces weren’t pictured. This was done in many different ways. The reason why putting white faces on covers stood out so much for me is because it went along with a similar matter of the day: cover songs.

In the 1999 PBS documentary Record Row: The Cradle Of Rhythm & Blues,the topic of white artists covering songs from black artists was brought up. In that docu,the late Jerry Butler and Dick Clark gave counterpoints on the matter. Clark pointed out that most radio stations in the early civil rights era wouldn’t play original versions of songs by black artists. So,for example it was more common to hear Pat Boone’s infamous cover of “Tutti Fruiti” than Little Richard’s original.  Clark contended that this was a big deal over nothing as the original artists eventually got their due.

Jerry Butler’s comment on that issue was that it was easier to feel a personal injury was less severe is one wasn’t experiencing it themselves. He cited the higher levels of sales by white cover versions of R&B/soul songs by black artists. And the economic/racial schisms behind it. So taking all this together,the elimination of a black presence on 50’s and some 60’s R&B/soul/jazz/doo-wop songs and album covers comes across as yet another method by which white Americans subsidize black Americans,their accomplishments and creative innovations.

Is any of this shocking today? In doing research for this article,it would seem this matter is rarely discussed online. Even as part of America’s musical history. There are some personal observations I have about the matter though. Seeing a white infant on the cover of a James Brown album was particularly eyebrow raising. Especially in light of JB asserting he was black and proud eight years after said album was released. As far as the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart Of Mine? That album came out in 1966,the same year as the founding of Oakland California’s Black Panther Party.

Miles Davis is especially interesting in this case. His autobiography with Quincy Troupe made it clear many times that he resented,as he stated “white people always trying to take credit for what black people did”. I know some who cite Miles as being a reverse racist for saying such things,in fact. He was known to have vocally objected to having a blonde white woman on the original cover for his 1957 release Miles Ahead. This lead him to fight Columbia records for his wife Francis to appear on the cover of his 1960’s album Someday My Prince Will Come. In the end,Miles’ point was entirely reality based.

One topic Henrique Hopkins and I often discuss is the rap segment of Michael Jackson’s song “Black Or White”-where the rapped bridge states “its not about races,its’ about faces/places”-even saying “I’d rather hear both sides of the tale”. As of this writing and the presence of president elect Donald Trump and a strong resistance to the idea that racism is still a problem has me thinking a lot. Sure there are many people who feel blackness in America can stand up for itself on its own terms. At the same time,people should understand history so it doesn’t repeat itself (in some form) in the future.

 

 

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Filed under 1950's, 1960's, 1966, Blogging, Dick Clark, Jerry Butler, Michael Ochs, Miles Ahead, Miles Davis, racism

“Nina” and “Miles Ahead” – Flawed but fascinating – Improvisations

Nina & MilesMiles Ahead/Nina: Flawed but Fascinating

Improvisations

By Ron Wynn

After recently seeing Cynthia Mort’s “Nina” a few weeks in advance of viewing Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead,” both seem to me flawed but fascinating. Each has a magnetic lead performance, neither attempts to provide the kind of substantive portrait that a documentarian would seek, and depending on your agenda, you can find them satisfactory, decent or atrocities. That there have been folks who’ve devoted lots of words and space while differing in their assessments is another indicator of just how difficult the whole biopic field has become.

Mort’s “Nina” was embroiled in controversy almost from the beginning, in large part due to the casting of A-list actress Zoe Saldana to portray the dynamic, often controversial NIna Simone. Charges of “colorism” were launched, and those cries became even louder when word surfaced about the alleged use of skin darkening makeup and a fake nose to enhance the facial contrast between Saldana and Simone. Add the presence of another international star in David Oyewolo to portray her manager Clifton Henderson, and many critics branded this little more than stunt casting designed to get Hollywood backing and major market circulation.

Mort’s response did validate, to a degree, the casting charges. She acknowledged that there were others considered for the role (though she wouldn’t list their names) and also said Saldana initially turned down the part, returning only because she truly wanted the film made. But the bottom line on “Nina” is that it is a far better film than some claimed. Saldana does a marvelous job of communicating Simone’s very complicated, mercurial personality, though it only skims the surface as far as truly documenting her artistic versatility. However it does spotlight her integrity and determination to do the music she cared about rather than what would be the most commercial, and it also highlights a fierce dignity, cultural awareness and solidarity that were unquestionably at the core of her music.

What “Nina” isn’t, and this is the implicit weakness in any biopic, is an exhaustive cinematic summation of Simone’s career, a breakdown of what made her unique and distinctive as a stylist, or a thorough recitation of all her career highlights. Folks who look to Hollywood productions for that kind of detail will always be disappointed, and “Nina” is no different. It has to condense and take shortcuts, and sometimes the juggling of exact and reworked for creative impact details tend to blur to the point that no one should take for granted that everything they see her actually happened. Netflix’s Oscar-nominated Simone documentary would be the place to go for those who want a comprehensive look at Nina Simone. As a work of dramatic intensity with some biographical elements, “Nina” succeeds despite its weaknesses.

If the evaluation is based wholly on acting skill and storytelling impact, then Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” also can be deemed a success. It was understandable that with a career as majestic, extensive and varied as Miles Davis, no biopic that was only in the two-three hour range could fully do it justice. Plus Cheadle announced from the very beginning he had no desire to even attempt some kind of career-spanning epic. So, despite learning to play the trumpet to ensure accuracy, Cheadle instead opted for a work that focused on Miles Davis off the bandstand, while still giving you glimpses of what made him such a star on it.

You do see in the various “gangster” episodes of Miles Davis the things that also came through in his music. These include an adventurous spirit, a desire to never do what’s expected, a character who could be obsessively selfish one minute and remarkably kind the next, and someone who never felt they were treated the way that they should have been by those in positions of power, whether they be music executives or police officers.

As a lifelong Miles Davis fan and someone well versed in his various adventures, musical and otherwise, Cheadle’s portrayal was quite credible in many ways. But where “Miles Ahead” didn’t quite click was in communicating the greatness of his music, which since it didn’t set out to do that anyhow, is probably an unfair criticism. Only in the jam session portion at the end does some of the wonderful energy and vitality that was in all Miles’ great music come across on screen, and then it’s as much due to the assembled group as to anything else coming from the film.

The standard Hollywood biopic will never really satisfy the hardcore music fan, because they are about exaggerated personality and dramatic conflict first and foremost. Even those that do come close to also revealing what made the central character so important like “Ray” or “Get On Up” still have to focus more on things that will hook audience members who are casual listeners or in many instances totally unfamiliar with the music of the person being profiled, especially if we’re talking about non-rock or pop musicians. It is unrealistic at this point to expect the sort of adherence to fact and concern about technique and artistic evolution in a Hollywood biopic that you’d routinely demand from something on even the History Channel, let alone a stand-alone documentary.

Thus, in terms of the job that they were required to fufill, both “Nina” and “Miles Ahead” are basically serviceable works considerably elevated by outstanding lead performances, and augmented with some scenes from key moments in both performers’ lives that everyone should know. Given the general state of 21st century cinema, that qualifies as the best one can expect when commercial studios are in charge of any production.

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Filed under 2016, biopics, David Oyelowo, Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, indie movies, jazz history, Miles Ahead, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Ron Wynn, Zoe Saldana

Miles Again: Don Cheadle and Robert Glasper Being Very Musical About Selim Sivad

Miles Again!

Miles Davis was possessed of a character that was elusive to biographical translation. When Don Cheadle began work on his largely crowd funded motion picture Miles Ahead,the best approach to Miles’ story would be more a personal ambiance than informational. Cheadle imagine Miles Davis as he would like to have seen himself. Along with bits of half remembered personal history and playing witness to fragmented pieces of himself.

Robert Glasper is a modern day pianist who feels exactly the same as Miles did about music in general. That the improvisational art of jazz consistently has to be re-invented with new themes,new standards all the time. And that’s it’s the musician, not the writers/ critics, who sets that tone. Since Cheadle worked with Glapser on  the music surrounding the film,it seemed appropriate to explore the full spectrum of this musical project.

Miles Ahead-Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Over the years,I’ve generally avoided soundtrack albums. It seems all too easy for someone to simply pile a series of songs onto the CD and call it a soundtrack. Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead takes a more cinematic approach to the Miles Davis attitude as opposed to being a straight biographical narrative. Cheadle was joined by 80’s era Miles alumni in drummer Vince Wilburn and the defiant pianist Robert Glasper in terms of producing this album. The selection of songs for the project could’ve been exhaustive-considering the breadth of Miles’s recorded catalog of music. So instead of going with the traditional method of soundtracks that keeps me away from most,this takes another sort of approach.

Songs that represent Miles’ modal period such as “So What” flow along into “Solea”,the uptempo “Seven Steps To Heaven” and “Nefertiti”. These represent his acoustic period on this collection It goes from there into what Miles referred to as his “directions in music” with songs like “Frelon Brun” and the 6th take of “Duran”. His full blow fusion sound is represented by “Go Ahead,John”,an edit of “Black Satin” and “Back Seat Betty” from 1981. Glasper provides the sax heavy jazz-funk of “Juniors Jam”,the orchestral electric piano heavy ballad “Francessence”. “What’s Wrong With That?” is a flowing fusion/funk jam with Cheadle actually playing trumpet with the surviving members of Miles second quintet of the 1960’s.”Gone 2015″ ends the album with an big horn fanfare of a jazz/hip-hop number from Glasper and rapper Pharoahe Monich.

This album traces the musical legacy of Miles Davis from 1959 through his early 80’s comeback-the time period dealt with in the film. What really makes it a standout motion picture soundtrack is that it takes the Spike Lee approach in telling a story through the full album format. Moments of Cheadle portraying Miles’s famous quotes and statements are put into the mix as interludes between songs. This allows for the soundtrack to feel like a journey one is taking through the mind of Miles. Which essentially reduces down to an audio version of the films intent. Ending with Miles inspired new numbers from Robert Glasper makes this perhaps the sonic film soundtrack experience of 2016.

Everything’s Beautiful/Miles Davis & Robert Glasper 

Over the last several years,Robert Glasper has been seeking to change the vocabulary of jazz. His approach has always seemed to me very similar in that regard to the late Miles Davis. He often has made similar references that jazz needed to look outside itself for new standards on which to create new improvised art. From what I’ve heard of Glasper,he’s largely looked to hip-hop as a musical medium for the nu jazz sound of which he’s a major player. He ended up being the musical directer behind the new Don Cheadle film Miles Ahead. So it was very exciting for me to see Glasper create an entire project based on the man whose musical ethnic most shaped his own.

“Talking Shit” opens the album with a rhythmic sample of Miles’ 1969 discussion with drummer Joe Chambers that sets up the album title-the trumpet players view on music itself basically. “Ghetto Talk” features the soaring vocals of longtime Glasper collaborator Bilal and while “They Can’t Hold Me Down” brings in rapper Illa J. These songs all have blunted hip-hop beats with jazzy funk atmospherics. “Violets” brings in the Foreign Exchanges’ Phonte in for a brooding,slow swinging piano based groove. “Maiyshia (So Long)” has Erykah Badu dealing with an electronic bossa nova with a sassy rhythm. “Little Church” and “Silence Is The Key” deal with a modern electronica reboot of Miles’ classic modal sound.

“Song For Selim” takes on the same effect of re-imagining modality in a current context while Georgia Anne Muldrow sizzles up the electro swing big time for a makeover of “Milestones”. “I’m Leaving You” is one of my favorites here-thick bluesy funk sampling Miles himself with Ledisi’s vocal leads and John Scofield’s guitar. Stevie Wonder comes in for the closer “Right On Brother”-looking Miles’ solo from “Right Off” into a synth bass heavy funk/house context. Glasper didn’t want a trumpet based tribute to Miles here. He knew the man wouldn’t have wanted that. Instead,he showcased Miles Davis’s influence on musicians as a whole. And did so by again re-inventing the nu jazz sound in the most funky possible manner.

Everyone involved in both of these projects understood very well the creative daring and self absurdness that defined Miles Davis’s music during his lifetime. When it came to Robert Glasper creating his own music based on the Miles attitude and musical school,he did so with the maximum amount of strong,extended melody and funkiness wherever it was needed. So for what would’ve been Miles’ 90th year of life,this is a special occasion.

 

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Filed under 2016, Amazon.com, Don Cheadle, hip-hop/jazz, Jazz, jazz funk, jazz fusion, Miles Ahead, Miles Davis, Music Reviewing, nu jazz, Robert Glasper, Soundtracks, trumpet

Anatomy of THE Groove: “I’m Leaving You” by Robert Glasper w/ Miles Davis,Ledisi And John Scofield

Robert Glasper shares a lot in common with another musical free spirit in the late Miles Davis. The Texas native got an early start in dealing with the jazz hip-hop style which of course Miles was beginning to embrace during his final years. While in high school,he met neo soul singer Bilal. This led to gigs with other jazz informed hip-hoppers such as Q-Tip,Talib Kweli and the late J Dilla. He made his debut album in 2004,and his major label debut for Blue Note a year later. On his album Double Booked,he began moving towards a more electric sound. But that was only the beginning as it turned out.

In 2012 he released the first in what’s been two separate volumes of his Black Radio series. The subtext for this,which I read in interviews Glasper gave to a music magazine of my fathers, went for the Miles Davis angle that the jazz genre needed to improvise over new standards. Both volumes of this album contain covers of songs such as Sade’s “Cherish The Day” alongside his own material. This year,Glasper appeared with surviving members of Miles’ 60’s quintet in the Don Cheadle film Miles Ahead. And one of the grooves on his upcoming Miles tribute album Everything’s Beautiful is called “I’m Leaving You”.

Drums playing at a five beat pattern with a break between each rhythm lay the bedrock for this song. The bass comes out as a round,ascending bottom while the very scratchy guitar samples play as a purely percussive element. Also on that groove,Miles’ trademark horse speaking voice is re-sampled saying “wait a minute,wait a minute” throughout the song. A reedy whistle,a wah wah guitar and Scofield’s bluesy guitar assist Ledisi’s soulful vocals. On the bridge,Scofield takes a full guitar solo after which Ledisi responds to her own backup vocals while the bass line and drum fade the song out in a silent way.

Having not heard a lot of Robert Glasper, this is by far the funkiest song I’ve ever heard him do. The musical bedrock of John Scofield,who of course played with Miles Davis, is held down by a core rhythm section. As well as what sound like metallic rhythm guitar looped from Miles’ 1972 song “On The Corner”. During his lifetime,Miles tended to deal with funk as rhythm vamps to solo over. Here Glasper takes samples of Miles’ music,voice and puts them into a more structured hard funk context. I have a feeling the late trumpet player would’ve found this groove one that came at people with plenty of attitude.

 

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Filed under 2016, Don Cheadle, drums, Funk Bass, hip-hop jazz, jazz funk, John Scofield, lead guitar, Ledisi, Miles Ahead, Miles Davis, Nu Funk, nu jazz, Robert Glasper, Sampling, wah wah guitar