Category Archives: Various

5 lessons from Miles Davis’s autobiography

Over the last year or so, I have been listening a lot to the discography of Miles Davis, while studying and trying to play some of his music. During this time I also read Miles: The Autobiography, a book full of provocative and stimulating thoughts about music and his tumultuous life.

Here are some key takeaways that can serve as both guides for aspiring musicians, as well as general life lessons:

Lesson 1: Knowledge is freedom

For Miles, there is no point in having access to knowledge if you don’t take advantage of it. As he puts it:

¨A lot of the old guys thought that if you learned something from theory, then you would lose the feeling in your playing. I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music.¨

Lesson 2: Music is about style

It his book, Miles acknowledges his influences from a very broad (and often extra-musical) cultural spectrum. ¨If I were to play with Frank Sinatra¨, he says, ¨I would play the way he sings, or do something complementary to the way he sings. I learned a lot about phrasing listening to the way Frank, Nat King Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice.¨

And when it comes to blues in particular: “If you play the blues you just have to play a feeling; you have to feel it.” Like much of Miles’s playing, his advice sounds deceivingly simple.

Lesson 3: There are no ”wrong” sounds

A famous Miles Davis quote is that ¨there are no wrong notes in jazz.¨ A profound insight into his overall approach to music, this is a concept that, for all its clarity and simplicity, remains exceedingly difficult to fully realize and apply creatively.

As he puts it in his autobiography:

¨Nothing in music and sounds is ”wrong.” You can hit anything, any kind of chord. Music is wide open for anything.¨

Lesson 4: Technology is not -necessarily- evil

On the issue of technological innovation in relation to music making, Miles is pretty clear: it’s not technology itself that causes trouble, but rather how it’s being put into use by the musicians themselves. As he writes:

¨Musicians have to play the instruments that best reflect the times we’re in, play the technology that will give you what you want to hear. All these purists are walking around talking about how electrical instruments will destroy music. Bad music is what will ruin music, not the instruments musicians choose to play.¨

Miles Dewey Davis III (1926-1991)

Lesson 5: It’s all about change

If anything, Miles’s entire career and life in music is a perfect example of constant evolution, experimentation and adaptation. In a nutshell: a prime example of constant change.

In his own words:

¨If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.¨

Let it be more Beatles: some notes on the ‘Get Back’ documentary

I recently finished watching the full Get Back documentary, directed and produced by Peter Jackson and released as a miniseries in 3 episodes. With a total running time of nearly 8 hours it may seem a daunting task at first, but true Beatles fans will most likely be craving for more once the viewing is over.

Although it draws material from the 1970 Let It Be documentary, Get Back is a far cry from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s earlier film. Meticulously going through 60 hours of film footage and over 150 hours of audio, Jackson and his team have produced an impressive work that accurately captures the subtleties and nuances of the band’s inner relations and tensions, their interaction with friends and collaborators, as well as the broader cultural climate of the era.

A fly on the studio wall

Following the band through 3 consecutive weeks in January 1969, we are literally being transferred inside the studio with the Beatles, following every little chat between the band members and seeing them unravel their musical and creative ideas. The experience is truly astonishing and, for once, exactly what the film’s trailer promises: unprecedented access to the most intimate footage ever shot of the band.

We get to hear Lennon’s hilarious quips and witticisms, see McCartney doing an impersonation of Elvis, or watch Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman chatting casually in the background. More intriguingly, we overhear the conservation between Lennon and McCartney as they are trying to handle a sudden crisis (caused by Harrison’s temporary resignation) via a hidden microphone planted inside a flower pot. Reality TV has rarely been more culturally meaningful or historically informative.

Breaking up can be fun

As the film goes on, we are gradually being immersed in the developments during the band’s fateful final period. And it’s actually a lively and rather joyous picture full of excitement, sparkly music, contagious laughs and that unmistakable Beatles humor, tied to their innate ability of having fun at all times while simultaneously making fun of pretty much everything – especially of themselves.

So, even though the band’s imminent break up is kind of hanging over Apple Corps headquarters like a specter, the boys are still having a great time and some magical moments are born despite, or -more likely- because of, the underlying tension. We watch them as they literally give birth to some of their finest music, going through sketches of songs like Across the Universe, Get Back, I Me Mine and I Got a Feeling (or ”I got a hard-on” as Lennon jokes), in between endless jams, impromptus, and casual conversations over tea and toast.

A particularly revealing moment comes up when keyboardist Billy Preston comes in and starts jamming with the band in the studio. Seeing the refreshing effect his presence brings to the band’s playing and overall vibes, Lennon says: ”I’d just like him in our band, actually. I’d like a fifth Beatle.” In what closely resembles a family discussion about adoption, Harrison agrees: ”We can do that.” McCartney, however, is quick to end the enthusiasm about getting extra band members: ”I just don’t, cause it’s just bad enough with four” (for a small taste of alternate music history, just listen to the amazing performance of Without a Song by Preston and the band during the end titles of the second episode).

To the (roof)toppermost of the poppermost

Along with a priceless view and uncensored access to the Beatles at work during their final days, the film also offers a unique glimpse of swinging London and the surrounding cultural milieu. We see the band discussing daily news, newspaper articles (often about themselves) and contemporary TV programs, while in the last episode the camera moves out of the studio and on to the rooftop that is about to become the stage for the band’s last public performance.

The film culminates with the famous rooftop concert, a show largely spontaneous and improvised, as can be seen by the band’s relaxed and playful attitude. With the blue-gray London skyline as a backdrop, the Beatles go through some of their new songs for an invisible audience, as people start gathering down the street and around the neighboring rooftops, unaware they are witnessing a landmark event in 20th-century cultural history.

The Beatles rooftop concert (Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is hard to miss the irony of the band singing ”Get Back” almost at the face of the police officers who are sent to restore order, ultimately stopping the performance due to complaints for ”breach of the peace”. Indeed, the Beatles had been disturbing musical peace from their early beginnings in Liverpool and Hamburg right up to their final public concert in the heart of London – a fitting epilogue to the band’s cataclysmic career that encapsulates some of the essential traits that made them great: their unique chemistry and charisma on (and off) stage, their unpredictability and unhindered creative spark, and of course an overwhelming sense of the sheer, pure joy of music making.

Fiery fingerwork: Django Reinhardt, Tony Iommi and the accidents that revolutionized guitar playing

The house is on fire (Django’s wagon accident)

The second night of November 1928 was a fateful one for Django Reinhardt, then a promising 18-year-old Romani guitarist who had recently made his first recordings. As he was going to bed with Florine “Bella” Mayer, a fellow Romani girl he had recently married, the wagon the couple shared went up in flames as a candle was knocked over by accident. They both escaped, but Reinhardt suffered extensive burns and had his right leg severely damaged.

Django
Reinhardt’s left hand

More importantly for his music, however, Reinhardt’s left-hand ring and pinky fingers had been badly burned: he was told he would not be able to play the guitar again. Through perseverance and meticulous practice, however, he did something even more incredible: by developing a unique technique focused on his left index and middle fingers (using the two injured fingers only for playing chords), he managed to achieve a level of technical and musical mastery that remains unparalleled and awe-inspiring to this day.

After his recovery, Reinhardt started to develop an interest in jazz and it was his meeting and collaboration with violinist Stéphane Grappelli that would define his musical career. Together they formed the celebrated Quintette du Hot Club de France, the foremost European jazz group at the time, and would go on to make several classic recordings that continue to inspire music enthusiasts, while setting the standard for jazz guitar playing ever since.

Django Reinhardt and the Quintet performing “J’Attendrai” in 1938 (Reinhardt’s only surviving film performance with sound)

Apart from its cataclysmic impact on the subsequent evolution of jazz guitar, Reinhardt’s accident would also have far-reaching consequences for the emergence of heavy metal, albeit in a less obvious way…

Heavy -sheet- metal (Tony’s factory accident)

Tony Iommi, a 17-year-old guitarist form Birmingham, was about to quit his job at a sheet metal factory and go play in Germany with his first band The Birds And Bees. His last day at work, though, would prove to be fateful: Iommi got injured, losing the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand. Doctors told him he wouldn’t be playing guitar again.

It was finding out about Reinhardt’s own accident and comeback that gave Iommi (who played left-handed) the courage to continue playing and make music. He went on to adjust his guitar strings and amp settings, thus creating a unique sound that would give birth to a whole new music genre.

Tony Iommi’s right hand with prosthetic tips added on two fingers

Just like Reinhardt, it was his disability that made Iommi explore new ways of expression and become more inventive. As he put it: “Of course losing my fingertips was devastating but, in hindsight, it created something: it made me invent a new sound and a different style of playing.”

Guitarist Tony Iommi talks about how he almost lost his ability to play guitar after a work accident

As the examples of Django Reinhardt and Tony Iommi so tellingly illustrate, limitations and even misfortunes can be a powerful driving force and boost creativity, as long as there is determination and inspiration. It is -literally- though fire and flames, after all, that guitar playing has been transformed from the era of swing to that of heavy metal.

Music of splendid isolation

Depending on external conditions, as well as one’s state of mind, listening to music can be a very intimate, self-reflective process. Some pieces of music, partly due to their esoteric nature, work especially well when experienced in private and attentively, with as little distraction as possible.

Below is a list of such works that are very dear to me personally, works I often turn to when seeking comfort and consolation – things particularly precious in days of self-isolation and “social distancing”…

Federico Mompou – Música Callada (Silent Music)

Grandson of a bell maker, Catalan composer Federico Mompou was fond of imitating the meditative sound of bells, something that can be heard in his masterful Musica Callada, a collection of 28 miniature pieces for piano based on the mystical poetry of Saint John of the Cross. Mompou’s magnum opus, this enigmatic work is reminiscent of Eric Satie in its crystalline simplicity and serene beauty.

Max Richter – The Blue Notebooks

Featuring readings from Kafka’s fragmented The Blue Octavo Notebooks and recorded in the aftermath of the protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, The Blue Notebooks was described by Richter as “a protest album” and a “meditation on violence”. A work fragile yet powerful and moving, it invites to confront our innermost feelings, doubts, and thoughts.

Arvo Pärt – Spiegel im Spiegel

A magnificent example of Pärt’s uniquely evocative style, Spiegel im Spiegel, like much of his music, seems somehow to make time stand still, offering us a glimpse of the eternal.

George Gurdjieff – Sacred Hymns

Written by Greek-Armenian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff in collaboration with Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, this genuinely spiritual music is better understood as part of Gurdjieff’s greater philosophical system, known as the Fourth Way or “The Work”. According to Gurdjieff’s teachings, musical structures parallel cosmic structures, music being thus able to to significantly affect and benefit individuals.

Keith Jarrett – The Köln and Vienna Concerts

Both of Jarrett’s great recitals (called simply The Köln Concert and Vienna Concert) are wonderful examples of his masterful improvisational skills. Moreover, one gets the impression that during these intriguing performances Jarrett is completely surrendered to the music, inviting us to follow him in his daring excursions as active listeners.  As Jarrett himself (who has also made an excellent recording of Gurdjieff’s music) has claimed, his goal when improvising is to “wake up” and keep listeners “alert”.

In Memoriam: Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)

A true hero and source of constant inspiration for generations of Greek musicians, Yiannis Spathas was one of the leading electric guitarists in Greece emerging in the late 1960s. Founding member of the legendary Socrates Drank the Conium, he was the driving force behind the band’s electrifying sound and a guitar virtuoso who managed to create a unique and original blend stemming from rock, blues, and traditional Greek music.

Born in 1950 in Paxos in the Ionian Islands, Spathas grew up in Piraeus, where he formed the band Persons (1966-1969) with Antonis Tourkogiorgis and Ilias Asvestopoulos. Together with Tourkogiorgis, they would soon after create Socrates, one of the the most emblematic Greek rock bands of the 1970s and early 1980s.

An early shot of Socrates Drank The Conium [left to right: Elias Boukouvalas, Antonis Tourkogiorgis, Yiannis Spathas]

As the lead guitarist of Socrates, Spathas developed an exceptional guitar technique and created a highly idiosyncratic style that brought together influences from artists like Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, John Mayall as well as traditional Greek music, which proved a deep and enduring influence on Spathas, both as performer and composer (according to Spathas, two of his greatest influences were Jimi Hendrix and Greek clarinet player Tassos Chalkias).

Spathas’s guitar playing in Mountains (from the celebrated album Phos, on which the band collaborated with Vangelis Papathanassiou) continues to serve as a testament to his masterful technique and profound musicality.

Following the break-up of Socrates, Spathas pursued a long and successful career as composer, arranger and session guitarist, collaborating with famous Greek artists such as Mikis Theodorakis, Vasilis Lekkas and Haris Alexiou. In 1999 he released the album Street Secrets, featuring several instrumental pieces where Spathas displays his virtuosity and compositional skills, as well as the excellent piece Half the Way with vocals by Haris Alexiou.

Spathas’s legacy as guitarist, arranger and composer remains varied and significant; his virtuoso guitar skills, iconic compositions such as Mountains and Starvation, as well as his overall contribution to modern Greek popular music are all facets of his immense talent and generous spirit.

Yiannis Spathas may not be with us, but there is little doubt his music and spirit will live on. The following words by Rainer Maria Rilke (written about the death of Socrates) may also serve as a fitting eulogy for the great musician:

His soul was thirsty for music. And with such premonition he put his lips, dry from the wind of words, on the cup of sounds. And perhaps the strength with which he faced death did not come from his past life and work,  but from that new anticipation; he thus marched towards death as if a new day was about to dawn with the feeling that would be the day of music.

Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)