It seems strange to single out “Move” from Miles Davis’ body of work, since Davis didn’t even write or arrange the song. But Birth of the Cool is a strange, fascinating record, and I love its opening track, which is something of a catchy gateway to the (slightly) more abstract songs to follow.
In 1947, arranger Gil Evans met with Miles Davis about forming a nonet that would reflect the sounds that Evans was hearing in his “salon,” a group of New York musicians trying something new. Jazz historian Ted Gioia wrote that “they explored new instrumental textures, preferring to blend the voices of the horns like a choir rather than pit them against each other as the big bands had traditionally done with their thrusting and parrying sections.” Though Birth of the Cool was released in 1957, its songs were recorded in 1949 and 1950 and released in those years as 78-rpm singles. As the record’s title implies, these songs helped usher in the “cool” jazz movement, a subdued style that incorporates atonality and somewhat conservative improvisation styles.
Cool‘s innovative approach to arrangement—instruments paired together for melodies, harmonies and counterpoints—works wonders on “Move.” Trumpet and alto saxophone handle the melody, trombone and French horn on harmonies, and baritone saxophone and tuba (tuba!) on counterpoint. The paired approach gives each note a slight discordance, much like two voices singing the same note would naturally produce a little bit of variation. Davis later said that he “wanted the instruments to sound like human voices … and they did.” The overall result is a meticulously arranged song with an unnerving, but exciting, quality. And it’s catchy as hell.
When the Miles Davis Nonet singles were released, they didn’t garner much attention. By the time of Birth of the Cool seven years later, however, the nonet’s influence had been widely recognized. Today, it sounds simply like jazz—which is a testament to just how important the Nonet, and its contemporaries, was.
Until four or five years ago, there were very few musicals that I liked. I thought that was the case, anyway—it turns out that I was really only familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber variety, the kind whose emotional maturity are … lacking. I didn’t know much about Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan, and I did not know a thing about Stephen Sondheim.
I’ve since learned the errors of my ways. I’ve learned to love Sondheim, especially; his mastery of the English language—in both formal and informal ways—is really amazing. He’s clever without being showy, and he can write some heartbreaking lines when he wants to.
Take, for example, “Somewhere,” which is, in my somewhat uninformed opinion, less lyrically complicated than other Sondheim works. The song’s goal is to portray hope and desire, in an aching sort of way: Tony and Maria are mired in the gang culture of New York City, and in “Somewhere,” they sing about a place nothing like the dirty, dangerous city where they live. They’re not sure what that place would even look like, they just know they want to be there. The language is simple—”There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us/Peace and quiet and open air/Wait for us/Somewhere”—and I think that’s a perfect choice for such a simple desire. It’s not simple to accomplish, but as desires go, there isn’t much to it: Get us out of here, to a place where we can be with each other.
In composing the music for “Somewhere,” Leonard Bernstein stole a little phrase from Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor” concerto. At 0:25 in this recording, you can hear that phrase, which shows up in “Somewhere” as the words “There’s a place for” (“us” is a little higher in Bernstein’s composition). I love that Bernstein’s love of Beethoven was so great that he even snuck him into a Broadway musical, and also that he had the sense to sneak it in at all. The interval between “there’s” and “a” is a minor seventh, one note short of an octave. That one-note difference gives the interval a sense of longing and loss, as if the song can’t quite reach the octave. It’s a fitting sound for a song about the perfection just out of arm’s reach.
“Somewhere” always makes me think of “Over the Rainbow,” a song that includes a full octave interval (on the word “somewhere”). I like to think that Bernstein was making a sly reference to that song, that he was using a similarly wide interval to communicate hope but lopping off a note to make it slightly discordant. Given his wide-ranging interests, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. (Bernstein pulled off another interval trick with West Side Story‘s “Maria,” in which the weird augmented fourth interval between “Mah” and “ree” in the title word makes for an off-putting, but appropriate for the song, couple of notes.)
It’s that minor-seventh interval that makes this song work so well, and it’s what makes “Somewhere” one of my favorite songs. This melody is one of the best in pop music (which “Somewhere” definitely is, especially considering its firm place in the pop songbook), and it’s one of Sondheim’s finest—and, incredibly, first—hours.
As I get older, I’m increasingly aware of how old people were when they did impressive things. Brian Wilson when he wrote Pet Sounds? 23. Francis Ford Coppola when The Godfather was released? 32. Ronnie Spector when “Be My Baby” came out? 20.
The most impressive statistic of all may be that of Buddy Holly, who was only 22 when he died. Think about that for a second: Buddy Holly, one of the most influential and prolific musicians ever, was only 22 when it all came to an end. Before he died, he helped create rock ‘n’ roll and released “That’ll Be The Day”, “Peggy Sue”, “Oh Boy!”, “Rave On”, and others. When I was 22, I had written a thesis paper about Irish poetry that was 50% bullshit.
Even more incredibly, Buddy Holly was a month away from his 21st birthday when “Not Fade Away” was released. The song was not only among Holly’s biggest hits but an enormously influential song: it helped popularize the “Bo Diddley beat” that became a cornerstone for rock music for years to come, and it gave a band called the Rolling Stones one of their first hits.
It also happens to be a fantastic song. It’s lean and spare both in arrangement and composition (it doesn’t get more direct than “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be”), and Holly is extremely confident in what he’s setting out to do. I also think the title “Not Fade Away” is brilliant. It’s a weird phrase, but by starting the title with “not,” Holly is immediately putting down some ground rules, and telling us what’s not going to happen. I wish I could write anything this concise.
“Moment’s Notice” is my favorite jazz song.
Granted, I don’t know much jazz, but I know I love this song. It’s the perfect amount of energy; any more pep and the thing would capsize. It has a melody that seems more at home in a Gershwin ballad than a hard bop track. Blue Train was only Coltrane’s second record as a bandleader, but you’d never guess it; the album is remarkably confident and subtle.
After Blue Train, Coltrane would tackle avant-garde and, of course, become one of jazz’s most influential figures. But “Moment’s Notice” is amazing enough for me.