Album #3: Miles Davis, ‘Big Fun’

At some point toward the end of my senior year of high school, I acquired a bootleg of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium. I was not happy with my purchase — it was unlistenable, with screaming fans all but drowning out the music.

Fortunately my friend Jim was a Beatles collector, and he suggested a trade. He’d give me his new copy of Miles Davis’ “Big Fun” in return for the Shea Stadium album. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I agreed. I had heard of Miles, but I didn’t know anything about him except that he played trumpet. “Big Fun,” released in 1974, proved to be life-changing.

Before I get to the music, let me try to describe how cool the packaging was. The front cover featured a nude woman in front of a horn. The inside gateway was given over to a massive photo of Miles, looking down slightly, wearing a serious expression, wraparound sunglasses, a sparkly top of some sort and a polka-dot kerchief. He was holding his trumpet, to which was attached a pickup and a cord. All of this made a huge impression on 17-year-old me.

And the music lived up to the packaging. “Big Fun,” as I now know, was a hodgepodge, pieced together from several sessions over the previous few years. But what a hodgepodge. The original album comprised four tracks, one on each side (the Spotify version features extra tracks). Two are absolutely brilliant.

“Great Expectations” is a riff on “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” It is repetitive and trance-like, with a huge band anchored by Harvey Brooks on bass guitar and Billy Cobham on drums. There’s not a lot of improvising as Miles tries out different sonic approaches to the same theme. That segues to an entirely different passage as things slow down, Ron Carter takes over on bass (in fact, the track is a spliced-together pastiche) and Miles plays a melody that’s been altered so that it almost sounds like two trumpets, one slightly behind the other. The percussion in the background sounds like someone crying. Although the liner notes don’t say so, this is actually a different piece, Joe Zawinul’s “Orange Lady,” also recorded by Zawinul’s band Weather Report. Trust me: Miles’ version is much better, deeper and more keenly felt.

The other highlight is “Go Ahead John,” featuring guitarist John McLaughlin. In some ways this is a real period piece: Jack DeJohnette’s drums and McLaughlin’s broken-speaker solo are both processed through what you might call extreme stereo, with the audio switching back and forth between speakers. But the piece is so great that it transcends such touches. What’s more, the entire middle part consists of Miles playing a gorgeous two-track solo. This is astonishing music.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: “Big Fun” isn’t Miles’ best album — although I do think it’s better than “Bitches Brew,” his 1970 album that gave birth to the jazz-rock genre. I still love “Big Fun” and listen to it after all these years. And even though I later came to appreciate just about everything Miles ever recorded, “Big Fun” remains an underrated classic from a career that extended from the 1940s to his death in 1991.

Although it’s hard to choose, I think my other favorite Miles album is “’Round About Midnight,” released in 1957 with his classic quintet of John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Two years later a slightly different lineup of musicians would release “Kind of Blue,” still the best-selling jazz album of all time. But “Midnight” has more variety to it — and the title track, by Thelonious Monk, is simply the best version of that song ever recorded.

I had the privilege of seeing Miles twice — at Paul’s Mall in 1974 with the aforementioned Jim (we got to shake his hand!) and then at Kix Disco with my wife, the first show of a 1983 comeback tour. Miles didn’t play much at Paul’s Mall, even leaving the stage when he wasn’t soloing. But he was Mr. Entertainment at Kix.

He was a great artist, one of the towering geniuses of 20th-century music. You can listen to Miles endlessly and never get to the bottom, always surprised and delighted by new discoveries. Lately I’ve found myself thinking there’s a decent chance that the trumpet solo on “It Never Entered My Mind” is actually the voice of God. I’ll let you know if I find out.

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Remembering Danny Schechter

Danny Schechter speaking at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Danny Schechter speaking at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

One of my proudest moments as a journalist took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the spring of 2009, when Danny Schechter and I both spoke out on behalf of Yevgeniya Plakhina, a young reporter who was fighting for freedom of speech on the Internet.

Danny and I were in Almaty to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum, an annual gathering of journalists and academics that is essentially sponsored by the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

When Plakhina disrupted a panel to protest the arrest of several of her fellow activists, Danny started demanding answers. Sadly, what he wrote at the time is no longer online. But I interviewed Plakhina and wrote an article about it for The Guardian. (And in case you’re wondering what happened to Plakhina, she is alive and well, according to her Facebook page.)

Danny died of pancreatic cancer in New York on Thursday at the age of 72. The news that Danny was gone hit me hard, as it did a lot of people I know. He was someone I had admired since I was a teenager and he was the “News Dissector” on WBCN Radio in Boston. Listening to Danny and reading alternative weeklies like The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper were what led me to pursue a career in journalism.

We weren’t especially close, but I considered him a friend. I interviewed him on occasion and reviewed a few of his books. (Here is an index of the posts I wrote about him for this blog.) In reading some of the tributes to him on Facebook last night, he seemed David Carr-like in how many lives he touched. He was certainly Carr-like in his energy, fearlessness and kindness toward others.

You can read all about his career in this obituary by Don Hazen at AlterNet.

Schechter was, among many other things, perhaps the leading Western journalist in reporting on South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Which leads to another story about Danny.

A few years ago Danny and I were talking about “Sun City,” an anti-apartheid music video produced by Artists United Against Apartheid, founded by Steve Van Zandt and producer Arthur Baker. Schechter was deeply involved in the making of “Sun City.” Everyone wanted Miles Davis to be included, but no one wanted to contact the notoriously difficult musician. Schechter agreed to do it, though not, he told me, without a considerable amount of trepidation. As it turned out, Miles agreed immediately — and Danny was hugely relieved. (That and other stories about “Sun City” are told in this Wikipedia article. And if you’ve never seen “Sun City,” stop what you’re doing and click here. Link now fixed.)

Danny and I in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Danny (right) and I in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Back to Kazakhstan. It was because of Danny that I was invited to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum — he’d attended previous forums, and he recommended me to moderate one panel and participate in another. It was what you might call a semi-legitimate event, held, it seemed, to bolster the image of the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is in charge of the forum every year.

Some of the journalists who attended struck me as nauseatingly obsequious to their hosts, but not Danny. Taking his cheerful defiance as my inspiration, I left the hotel (something that was not encouraged by the organizers) to interview Adil Nurmakov, an editor for Global Voices Online and a member of the political opposition.

Danny was especially delighted at the outdoor party that ended the forum. As scantily clad young women danced to loud, vaguely Kazakh-sounding music, Danny yelled in my ear, “This is a nominally Muslim country!” He kept repeating something one of the Kazakh attendees told him about the display of female flesh: “Ach! This is nothing!

Danny’s father, Jerry, died just six years ago at the age of 90. Unlike Jerry Schechter, Danny was not granted the gift of longevity. But he packed a lot of living into his 72 years and touched many lives. Today my heart goes out to his family and friends, including his longtime business partner, Rory O’Connor.

Danny Schechter was a giant of journalism and of progressive politics, demonstrating that the two could be combined with passion and integrity. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.

This article has been reposted at WGBHNews.org and Common Dreams.

Some worthwhile online videos about Nelson Mandela

Since learning of Nelson Mandela’s death a few hours ago, I’ve watched:

  • The New York Times’ excellent video overview of his life.
  • The speech he gave after his release from prison.
  • A report from WGBH-TV’s old “Ten O’Clock News” on Mandela’s 1990 visit to Roxbury.
  • A clip from an interview Mandela did with Bill Moyers in 1991.
  • And, for good measure, Artists Against Apartheid’s video for “Sun City.” Where else can you see Miles Davis, Lou Reed and Miami Steve in one (virtual) place?

What I haven’t watched is any television coverage. It’s a new world, isn’t it?