Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jimi and Miles On Fire

When you have kids you learn to tread lightly on the "in my day" theme. I resented it when my father told me that the artists I idolized in the 1960s couldn't hold a candle to Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, so why lord Jimi Hendrix and Cream over my kids' infatuation with Nirvana, Also, I'm absolutely a "glass half full" kind of guy, so I root for the possibility that artists half my age will develop long and fruitful careers. I relish the (few) times when I've made a good call, such as my early championing of trumpeter Dave Douglas. When an artist like Vijay Iyer or Jason Moran emerges, I'm delighted.

I also have a good friend, Alan Stanbridge—an academic at the University of Toronto—who writes and lectures passionately and persuasively about the folly of professing a "golden age" for any artform. So, again, I tread carefully; he makes that good an argument.

Setting all that aside, I have to say that the two box sets I've been listening to this week make an equally good case that the late '60s produced some of the best popular music in the history of recordings.

I had never bothered to pick up the various bootleg versions of Hendrix's 1968 concerts at San Francisco's Winterland, although the guitarist's music dominated my listening for the better part of a decade. There was too much good stuff of his to get through without dealing with high prices and dodgy sound, I figured. So, I welcomed the official release of three complete concerts from his Winterland stand, as part of Sony Legacy's work with the Hendrix estate.

Being a longtime Hendrix fan, I figure I know what to expect from him, but the Winterland recordings have thrilled me with the energy that Hendrix brought to that stage and the joy with which he was exploring new possibilities on his guitar. We all know how quickly and depressingly the story turned, but at that point in time anything seemed possible.

Miles Davis' live concerts from 1967 are recordings I've pursued and collected, but it has been a decade or so since I've spent much time listening to them. That heightens the experience of hearing those concerts, and a previously unheard one from Copenhagen, collected in one set (Sony Legacy again). The elasticity and risk-taking inherent in Davis' quintet of the day—with, need I write it, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams—are stunning, electrifying. To watch them interact, on a previously issued, but unseen in its entirety by me, DVD is even better. In particular, watching Williams create waves of sound from a bare drum kit is akin to the first time I watched the Hendrix at Woodstock video and realized that a passage that I had listened to a hundred or so times was played with utter nonchalance.

Pulling these two recorded documents together, of course, is the fact that Davis was checking out Hendrix around the time of those Winterland concerts, and planning his next move, into the music that became Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew.

I was too unaware and poorly connected to catch Hendrix on that '68 tour (his sole Ottawa date has also been issued on CD) and never had a chance to see Davis live prior to his 1991 comeback, and now I'm only too aware of what it was truly like when giants walked the stages.

A golden age? Maybe not, Professor Stanbridge, but certainly some golden moments here.


Alan Stanbridge said...

I said no such thing.
(No, but seriously though folks, it's good to know that some people - well, James at least - listen when I talk. My primary concern with Golden Age theories - in common with my concerns about established musical canons - has more to do with what gets excluded, rather than what's included. Classic Hendrix and Miles? Golden Age material, for sure. Looking forward to hearing these discs...)

James Hale said...

Well, you know, if you repeat something enough times it sinks in.