Playing it cool

Ralph Miller and Bill Martin are members of the nonet who will play Miles Davis’ Birth of the...
Ralph Miller and Bill Martin are members of the nonet who will play Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool tonight. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Dunedin’s new jazz club is taking on one of the great albums, writes Tom McKinlay.

So, for his gig tonight, Ralph Miller has to play like Miles Davis.

How does he plan to approach that?

Miller thinks. Then considers the question for a while longer.

The phrasing is important, he says.

"It’s hard to put into words," he adds, for clarification.

"Miles Davis always clamours for doing less, playing fewer notes but playing the better notes," he says in the end, choosing to use just a few well-considered words to capture the essence of it.

He could have said the "cooler notes", because tonight Ralph Miller is Miles Davis — as they might say on an episode of Stars in Their Eyes, which this most assuredly is not — playing the entirety of Birth of the Cool, the jazz legend’s 1950s landmark. He won’t be alone, but he will be Davis.

It’s music that "went straight from cult to classic", an "indelible achievement" that redesigned jazz, according to those who know, further establishing the reputation of the young Miles Davis, still in his 20s — moving him along the road to becoming the coolest man on the planet.

The album, the product of those recording sessions in 1949-50.
The album, the product of those recording sessions in 1949-50.
Miller’s a pretty handy sort of player, principal trumpet with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and lead with the Dunedin City Jazz Orchestra. But this is not the sort of assignment to be taken lightly.

"So I’ve spent the last couple of months immersed in it," he says. "Getting to know it inside out, really appreciating the uniqueness of it."

There’s been lots of time "with the trumpet on the face".

He admits to being not entirely cognisant of what he was getting himself into when he agreed to take part.

On the other end of that invitation was Bill Martin — jazz pianist, composer, arranger — founder of the Dunedin Jazz Club, where Davis’ tracks will be played tonight.

Birth of the Cool is something Martin’s long wanted to do, since some time after picking up a cheap copy of the album — vinyl — in a Sydney record shop.

"It was the first album that I connected with that had a big-band sound to it — a larger ensemble," he says. "I began to appreciate the textures of those arranged jazz recordings, rather than just genius soloists."

Putting it on stage was a matter of having the players to do it.

"It is music that brings people together and requires a special collaboration," Martin says.

Both the shape of the group that coalesced around Davis and the instrumentation were unconventional for the time; nine players, lots of brass including tuba and French horn, and no tenor saxophone.

The compositions they devised were a departure from the frenetic bebop popular then.

"The players were playing soft; they weren’t trying to blow you away with sound," Martin explains of the Cool approach. "For that reason that solo trumpet voice is very clearly heard above the rest of the ensemble, because all of the other players are playing quite softly and sensitively."

There were still elements of bebop and big-band jazz, but Davis was playing in a much more laid-back and conceptual way, he says.

"Every voice is important," Miller adds.

"There is some technical stuff in there and, obviously, being a smaller group, everyone has to carry a bit more of the playing."

The album was first released in 1957, though Davis and company had actually made the recordings over three sessions in 1949 and 1950 — the record label releasing some of them in various configurations in the intervening time. The music wrong-footed many listeners at first, its impressionistic nature causing some to declare it wasn’t jazz at all and it didn’t immediately sell well. However, it’s been consistently making lists of the top albums of all time since.

While it’s Davis’ name in lights on the cover, and it was his vision, the recordings were made in a very collaborative way with a collection of genius New York musicians, Martin explains. That included the likes of Gil Evans, who was changing the way jazz arrangement was going, writing harmonies with additional voices. It was his basement apartment where the players first began to meet.

Alongside Miller, Martin — who will look after piano duties — has lined up some experienced hands. He hasn’t tried to match the classic Birth of the Cool instrumentation precisely but rather drawn on the strengths of the local jazz community.

"So, for instance, ... we have Mike Gaches playing flugelhorn and he is covering the French horn part. I could have just got a French horn player to do it, but Mike is an experienced jazz trumpeter, so by playing it on the flugelhorn we have another soloist in the group.

"We will take the arrangements and the essence of the album but we are expanding on the improvised aspect of it," he says.

American Gaches comes with a background in college bands in the US.

It’s just the Dunedin Jazz Club’s second gig, after the opener last month featured local jazz songstress Molly McGee and Christchurch-based composer and saxophonist Michael Gordon.

"It was a case of wanting to provide a professional stage to inspire young musicians but also to really showcase the talent that we already do have in Dunedin," Martin explains of his motivations for initiating the club. Young trombonist Finn McKinlay features from the Dunedin Youth Jazz Orchestra, another of Martin’s projects.

"And also, by putting jazz in a concert setting, with a grand piano and proper acoustics, it makes jazz attractive to a whole different range of people."

Birth of the Cool is a nice entry point, he says.

"The harmonies are really sweet. There are some dissonant harmonies but they are interesting, and that’s balanced by quite luscious chord changes and textures in the horns, which are just pleasurable to listen to."

Martin’s own trio will play a short support set.

The gig

Rebirth of the Cool with the Ralph Miller Nonet

Hanover Hall, 65 Hanover St, Dunedin

Tonight (Saturday April 17) 7.30pm-11pm

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