August 2023

Liner Notes: Diamonds & Diptychs

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

It pays to read an album's liner notes.

I've written before about this modern sub-genre. Sometimes you discover unexpected personnel on a track (David Crosby's uncredited backing vocals on some of Sgt. Pepper's) or how a song riffs on an earlier melody ("Rikki Don't Lose that Number" opens identically to Horace Silver's "Song for My Father") or the story of a song's genesis (as well as being an ode to his first wife, Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman" was his attempt to craft a tune in the style of Gordon Lightfoot.)

And sometimes you get dealt a fundamentally profound insight into the music which permanently informs and improves your listening.

A while back I picked up a CD re-issue of Kind of Blue, generally regarded as not only the best album Miles Davis ever made but quite possibly the finest Jazz LP of all time (from a sales perspective it's #1 in both

Bill Evans, pianist in that now-legendary sextet which recorded the record, wrote the original liner notes for the LP release in 1959, a beautiful piece called "Improvisation in Jazz." Let me give you a taste of how refreshingly renovating liner notes can be. Here's Evans beginning his short, epiphany -packed essay:

    There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural
    or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.

What an an exquisite paragraph! And so apposite to the art which he and Miles practiced. I strongly suggest you read the whole thing.

The CD re-issue of Kind of Blue has liner notes by renowned music writer, clarinetist, and saxophone player Robert Palmer. He approaches this masterpiece from an altogether unexpected angle, one which yields diamonds of newfound appreciation:

    Playing gigs at the Fillmore East during the sixties made it easier for you to get in and catch other bands, even if tickets were sold out. As a young saxophonist in a rock band, I played there several times and attended numerous concerts; the one group I never missed (unless I had to be on the road) was the Allman Brothers Band. Specifically, I went to see their guitarist, Duane Allman, the only "rock" guitarist I had heard up to that point who could solo on a one-chord vamp for as long as half an hour or more, and not only avoid boring you but keep you absolutely riveted. Duane was a rare melodist and a dedicated student of music who was never evasive about the sources of his inspiration. "You know," he told me one night after soaring for hours on wings of lyrical song, "that kind of playing comes from Miles and Coltrane, and particularly Kind Of Blue. I've listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven't hardly listened to anything else."

    Earlier, I'd met Duane and his brother Gregg when they had a teenage band called the Hourglass. One day I'd played Duane a copy of Coltrane's Ol茅, an album recorded a little more than a year after Kind Of Blue but still heavily indebted to it. He was evidently fascinated; but a mere three or four years later, at the Fillmore, I heard a musician who'd grown in ways I never could have imagined. It's rare to see a musician grow that spectacularly, that fast; I'm not sure there's any guitarist who's come along since Duane's early death on the highway who has been able to sustain improvisation of such lyric beauty and epic expanse. But the influence of Kind Of Blue, even to the point of becoming a kind of obsession, wasn't unusual at all; it was highly characteristic of musicians of our generation, mine and Duane's. Of course, listening to an album isn't going to turn anyone into a genius; you can't get more out of the experience than you're capable of bringing to it. Duane brought something special, even unique to the table, but it seemed that everyone was sharing the meal. This was true among musicians categorized as "rock" or "pop" as well as among those labeled "jazz." In fact, the influence of Kind Of Blue has been so widespread and long-lasting, it's doubtful that anyone has yet grasped its ultimate dimensions. We know Kind Of Blue is a great and eminently listenable jazz album, "one of the most important, as well as sublimely beautiful albums in the history of jazz" in the words of Miles biographer Eric Nisenson. But there is more to it than that.

I love that conversation with Duane! And when I read it I instantly thought of one of his greatest performances (live or in the studio) and said: "Of course! 'In Memory of Elizabeth Reed'!"

I also strongly suggest you finish Palmer's wonderful essay, so full of enriching details and warm regard for the splendor of Kind of Blue. But another way to understand Palmer's insight is to listen to two songs back-to -back, a musical diptych. I want you to play "All Blues" from Kind of Blue and then chase it with "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" (keep it studio with the version on The Allman Brothers Band second LP, Idlewild South.)

I don't know if I would ever have connected those two songs—or those two artists—but for Palmer's wonderfully instructive liner notes. It really pays to read an album's liner notes.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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