Miles Davis

Blackened Cities, Melanie De Biasio (Play It Again Sam/PIAS, 2016)  

Personnel: Backing Vocals [Backings] Bart Vincent, Double Bass – Sam Gerstmans, Drums – Dre Pallemaerts Piano – Pascal Mohy, Synth [Vintage Synths], Backing Vocals [Backings] – Pascal Paulus, Voice [Chant], Flute – Melanie De Biasio 

« Blackened cities, rumble, strangers stroll and lovers stumble »

Inspired by the urban, in every sense and three cities in particular – Detroit, Manchester, Charleroi (the Belgian city where De Biasio spent the first 18 year of her life) – Blackened Cities marked a striking departure from her popular 2014 release, No Deal.  

It is difficult to categorise Blackened Cities, as a jazz record or even – as I’ve seen online – rock, the latter being a particularly strange designation for this work: one single 25-minute track that weaves in and out, both De Biasio’s vocal-line and the various melodies. In tone/conception it reminded me, possibly and even I’m not sure, of the Dirty Three (even if the origin of their music is much more southern, earthier and folk-driven). Jazz, in all its imperfections, is a better fit, let’s say in the Miles Davis sense of the term. (It is beautiful, has extraordinary presence and speaks to the heart, whatever it is). 

This review by Thom Jurek from AllMusic covers it all for me: 

'When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal in 2014, it was embraced by jazz critics, DJs, and club audiences simultaneously. Gilles Peterson was so taken with its monochromatic ambient textures, stark arrangements, and clever improvisational intimations that he commissioned an album of remixes.

Blackened Cities is not a conventional follow-up, but an adventurous endeavor rife with risk. The release consists of a single 24-minute track that unfolds like a suite. The conservatory-trained Belgian vocalist and flutist and her longtime musical associates -- Pascal Mohy on piano, Pascal Paulus on analog synths and clavinet, and Dré Pallemaerts on drums (with guest double bassist/cellist Sam Gerstmans) -- deliver a full-scale sonic drama that crosses a wide musical expanse and evokes an encyclopedia of stylistic references, yet comes across as a totally original whole.

Its title comes from impressions of postindustrial cities De Biasio visited on her international tour: Detroit, Manchester, her native Charleroi; each has a storied past and a devastated façade, yet reflects its own unique beauty and tenacity.

Recorded live in the studio, Blackened Cities began as an unfinished three-minute idea brought in by the singer and left open for group interpretation. It starts with a whisper, a single organ-esque chord followed by a cello, before its lone guidepost enters: Pallemaerts' nearly constant, always inventive drumming -- shuffling, syncopating, circling -- is the pulse that signals each wave-like segment. (The spirit of Tony Williams on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way is redolent.)

The musical reference points are wildly diverse: Nina Simone (the cover of "I'm Gonna Leave You" on No Deal was a watermark), the piano vamp from the Doors' "Riders on the Storm," Julie Tippetts with Brian Auger, Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, Simin Tander, Annette Peacock, Portishead, The The's "Uncertain Smile," Judy Nylon, and more come and go unhurriedly.

The work gradually builds and then builds some more, without ever ratcheting up in intensity. Even at its most improvisational, Blackened Cities retains its moody, spatial, and spectral sense of groove. De Biasio delivers her lyrics in flowing extensions and deconstructions; the instrumental themes emerge from and vanish into them. Her unique phrasing employs the same maxims of silence and space that her musicians do. Even her own flute break uses an economic palette, elastically balancing harmony with breath ...

This aural travelogue's sensual cool, brooding tension, and elegiac tenderness are inseparable from one another. It is complete, but even at this length Blackened Cities ends all too soon.'

Related article: In a silent way, Miles Davis (Columbia Records, 1969)

Coda: 

'Werdz'/'Unmentionable' Flying Pupa, from 12" single (Guntez Records, 2000) & Miles Davis 'Sweet Pea'

Bringing together three well-known Canadian MCs – Kardinall Offishall, Choclair, Saukrates – and two Japanese producers (Dj Ando and DJ Yujiro) these two tracks from a 12” single offer up interest in the way the music purposefully under-uses the various elements.

For the opener, the lower notes receding, there’s a kind of sleepiness to the sound, despite the dominance of the beat and an overall gentleness to the production despite the lyrics (which are kind of straight-forward, very familiar - reflecting an era, a style, a way of presenting - appropriate and what you’d expect with so nice touches, like the play on ‘stereo’ and the line: ‘work, vision, innovation, sensation’).

But I especially like the way the producers allowed the trumpet to be barely there, using a Miles Davis sample ‘Sweet Pea’ from his 1967 Water Babies album …

in a way that favours modesty and a very smooth lack of momentum, allowing the music to just be there. Track two: the instrumental ‘Unmentionable’ is really lovely for me, meditative and surprising in parts.

Take, for example, the section that runs from 5’20” onwards; the beat and three-note sample is allowed to take centre-stage, to be joined by a kind of submerged swirling sound and the piano that when it re-appears seems disorganised, lacking focus and messy. Found in all of this is a manipulation of notions of density and lightness right up until the end.

Versions: 'You don't know what love is'/Saxophone Colossus Sonny Rollins (Prestige, 1956)

This is one of my favourite pieces of music (of.all.time) because of the stunning contrast between the ponderous sax and then the other key elements, the moment when the pianist, Tommy Flanagan comes in so quietly, with such gentleness and the percussion section provided by the masterly Max Roach.    

But there is another reason to love this piece of music, for the essential dynamic that is held within the performance of Sonny Rollins; as even though it is carried along by the deep, soulful inflections it often sounds as if, on occasion, he is having a conversation as he plays (as if he is offering asides, or commentary on the essential message). 

Certainly this performance by Miles Davis from his 1954 Walkin' release is special too, as you would expect, but it somehow lacks the intensity of the Rollins' version two years later.

Much the same could be said about Mal Waldron's version from his 1960 record, Left Alone - that while beautiful lacks the emotional rawness that can be felt in the less orderly take on the standard by Sonny Rollins. How then does Chet Baker compare? 

For me, it's only when Nina Simone offers her interpretation that we find some competition; her take, as to be expected, is beyond words and heart-breaking - pure and elemental.