Goodbye, Jeff Healey

Jeff HealeyBlues guitarist and jazz enthusiast Jeff Healey passed away yesterday of cancer. He was 41.

Read the full story here.

Besides some songs he had on Canadian radio at the end of the 80s, the thing I remember best him from was the 1989 movie Roadhouse in which he played, and wasn’t it a stretch, a blind blues-rock musician.

Here’s a performance of the title song from that movie, first made famous by the Doors: “Roadhouse Blues“.

Healey would expand his palette in more recent years as a jazz DJ, playing rare tracks from his own collection of music, many cuts taken from the original 78s.

‘Bye, Jeff.

Image courtesy of ckaiserca.

Jazz

I came to appreciate jazz firstly through pop music. It’s is an unlikely connection, as much of pop music stands in direct opposition to the world of jazz, which is known as being musicians music, as opposed to material for radio, and for those of such tender years as myself at the time. I had heard the name Duke Ellington through various channels, one such channel being Joe Jackson’s 1982 “Night & Day” album, where the Duke was quoted in the liner notes. Joe Jackson was known at that time for his song “Steppin’ Out”, surely a far distance from, say, “Mood Indigo”. He was to embrace the more complex brand of instrumental music much later, but had incorporated a lot of Afro-Cuban styles on that album as well as demonstrating a considerable talent for jazz piano.

It opened my mind for the time I was rifling through my Dad’s record collection, for whatever reason, and found a copy of The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s now out of print “Jazz Goes to Europe” record, in all of its watermarked and tape hiss glory. On paper, I really shouldn’t have been that impressed. It certainly wasn’t the music I had associated with at the time, mostly being made up of British Pop synthesizer bands like OMD and China Crisis. But, there was something warm about it, something in the rhythms, the warmness of the double bass sound, which was a bit of an alien sound to me in the age of the Linn drum. There was something else too. I could hear that the musicians were really having fun, playing in poly-rhythmic time and incorporating little snippets of old standards as they stretched out their improvisations – possibly an early example of sampling! One of the reasons I am drawn to any music is the aspect of entering into a world which is different to my own in some cases, and this new music, having been recorded a good fifteen years before I was born, seemed to be a ticket to a new vocabulary of melody, of chord structure, of a different way of listening. It challenged me without being pedantic about it, with a beauty there which stood as an island to the mainland of my pop interests.

But soon, it took over.

In 1986, our school band went on an exchange to Newport Rhode Island, the home of the Newport jazz festival. Now, I had no idea about the festival at that time, and my knowledge of jazz did not extend much further than Brubeck, whose records I sought out at Sam’s in Toronto, my musical Mecca at the time (that’s another story). In going, I thought I would thrill the crowd at the Rhode Island school with my sophistication. No more Tears For Fears for this boy! It was all about the rhythmic complexities of “Blue Rondo A La Turk” for this trip. Little did I realize that my host, whose home I would be staying for my time there, would forget more about jazz than I would ever know! When it came down to it, I had never even heard of Charlie Parker, the Dylan of Jazz. I had limited knowledge of most of the key figures of the tradition – who was Coltrane? Miles who? My dreams of impressing my musical compatriots ended up being about my own education, and a trip to a local record shop, where I picked up Charlie Parker’s “Bird With Strings” on vinyl. “You can’t leave Rhode Island without a Charlie Parker record,” said my host. I also couldn’t leave Rhode Island without trying the “Chowda” either, for which I was woken in the wee hours of the morning to try a spoonful of on my last day there. New Englanders are passionate about music and clam chowder, it seems. It was an important cultural exchange – jazz and “chowda” for Newfie jokes.

Upon my return, My trips to Sam’s were even more fruitful – The Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Paul Desmond, more Charlie Parker, more Brubeck – so much so, that it was hard to know where to begin. I was like an archaeologist having found some lost city, standing in the middle of some ancient citadel, with crusty towers rising all around me. Who should I check out first? Should I stick to early recordings, or try to check out some of the later ones? Should I buy one artist’s work to get to know them in detail, or should I cast my net wider? In many ways, my passion for music as something essential to life and by no means a frivolity or luxury, began here in earnest. These searches, this self education, were self-defining pursuits and helped me to realize just how rich a cultural tradition could be, and that I could take part in it just out of my own appreciation.

Since then, my circle of appreciation has widened, and yet still over the course of the years, and through out my musical meanderings, I feel that I have yet to scratch the surface of this idiom which stretches back over the course of centuries. No one really knows how old this music is, and I suppose the mystery is an intriguing one, lying between the lines of the music of King Oliver, to Louis Armstrong, to Coltrane, to Miles, to the Marsalis’s. Jazz, like rock music, is a varied genre, and some of it remains inaccessible to me. But it renders a certain satisfaction on listening which cannot be reproduced by any other, the best of the music revealing itself differently on each listen, like a gem catching the light at different times of day.

Epiphanies in Jazz – Miles Davis and ‘Kind of Blue’

Miles Davis Kind of BlueThe main thing written about this gathering of jazz giants was that it was the beginning of what was called “modal” jazz, which later became “the new thing” in the next decade. Talking about that aspect of things would require me to know something about the difference between improvising around scales and improvising around chord changes. I’m sure a musicologist would be able to write a book on why Kind of Blue is such a groundbreaking benchmark in the development of jazz. But, I’m not a musicologist. I’m just a fan. I am just a person who heard “So What” once on a cheap Columbia compilation album and was musically grabbed by my lapels and shaken to my shoes. I am a person who never knew that jazz could be this cool, in every sense of the word. It is music that is both cerebral because of its complexity, and visceral because of its ability to swing. It dances on the knife’s edge of intellectual pursuit and irrational, ineffable feeling.

The parties involved are legends in their own right; the equivalent of Elvis, The Killer, The Georgia Peach, Buddy, Chuck and Bo swinging by a studio and making a record together. But where the morass of egos may have short circuited any hope of such communal greatness from the rock world of the time, the jazz equivalents seem to be able to put the music to the forefront, while infusing it with something of their own personalities at the same time. You hear Miles’ trumpet and you can imagine it skimming on the surface of the next big movement, daring the others to join the chase. You can hear Trane’s darkness and spiritual turbulence. You can hear Cannonball’s affability and playfulness. You can hear Bill Evans academic and stolid anchor in musical theory playing in and out of the blues-devoted rhythm section of drummer Jimmy Cobb and session stalwart bassist Paul Chambers. Everything is in its place, no one element being more important and prominent than the other, despite the magnitude of the persons involved. It’s there in every note and pause and nothing is wasted.

The opener, “So What” builds from Evans’ impressionist piano lines, bolstered by Chambers almost menacing bass. When the horns enter the scene, they are not the frenetic voices of the be-bop days of old; they are lilting and minimalist, adding to the building tension that has been established in the intro, as elements and not as dominant lines. The urgency of bop and the bombast of the big band sound are subverted and turned on their heads in turn, answering dexterity with efficiency, grandiosity with musical subtext. Where a solo may have once been measured by its ability to reinforce a theme, it serves here to build on what has started from nothing. It would not supplant the need for melody, but it would open the possibilities for musicians to bring out many melodies, some heard on first listen and others heard after years of hearing the record.

It is in this respect that Kind of Blue is timeless. In the expression embedded in the solos, the moment is conveyed, the spark of creativiMiles Davisty of artists gathering together is communicated, and you’re there too within the conversation as you listen. The romanticism of Bill Evan’s “Blue in Green”, the mischievous waltz time of “All Blues” (which is nothing of the sort!), the exotic flavorings of Flamenco Sketches, and the easy-going “Freddy Freeloader” all come together as simple yet eloquent exchanges between musicians with considerable sonic vocabularies. They make it sound so easy, and as listeners we are drawn into it, not realizing that a revolution has just taken place until we think on it after the record is over. Then, we want to play it again, just to be sure we’ve heard everything there is to hear. Of course, we don’t. We can’t. There is lyricism, personality, emotion on various levels, and some can only be heard when a listener is paying attention, and some can only be absorbed when the listener is not. One might expect a record where melody and chord changes are secondary to be nothing but egotism on the part of the musicians, but the opposite is true. It involves you. It marks you and raises the bar in what you come to expect from the form. It comes as no surprise that the results would take jazz in directions that many within that world as well as outside it feared to go in the next decade – to freeform, to electric instruments, and back to Africa where it was born. It is no surprise, that these musical conversations between giants should start a revolution as all revolutions start this way – masters talking in a room with a unified vision, unafraid to embrace the future.

Further Listening

  • Something Else by Cannonball Adderley. A year previous to the Kind of Blue sessions, Miles played on alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s classic album , which showed some of the more relaxed, lighter side of Davis’ playing. In many ways, it foreshadowed the tone of KoB – relaxed, cool, and playful. This is a great place to start for a jazz newbie.
  • Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis & Gil Evans. This isn’t technically a jazz record, although it certainly incorporates jazz improvisation. Evans arranged Concerto De Aranjuez, and a selection of pieces similar in tone, for a small orchestra and invited Davis to add his own improvised lines. The result is a sensual, slightly menacing, and ultimately triumphant effort which stands as a career highpoint for everyone involved.
  • In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. By the end of the 1960s, Davis’ musical curiosity took him even further away from where he’d started in hard-bop and cool. IASW is a stand alone record in many ways – a rest stop between the jazz of the past, and the development of jazz fusion of which Davis was a prime architect. This record, like Kind of Blue, cherishes feel over structure, texture over shape. The approach results in a record that is a celebration of the use of space in music; an atmospheric, dreamy ride that comes off as the first hints of Ambient.

Hear Miles Davis and John Coltrane play ‘So What’.

Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the viewing window, click the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!

Miles DAvis