Revisiting the "Birth of the Cool"

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Bass player Kevin Martinez leads a celebration of the birth of the most important figures in jazz, Miles Davis, Friday evening. To mark the occasion Martinez will front a ten piece ensemble that performs music from one the trumpeter’s most important early recordings, known as the “Birth of the Cool” sessions, in 1949 and 1950.

Martinez’s relationship with the recordings dates back to high school when a music teacher suggested that he listen to them. “I was a young bassist, so I was looking to listen to the bass parts, but those aren’t totally present on this record. What struck me, however were the unusual harmonies. It sounded different, sometimes a little bit stranger than bebop,” Martinez said.

What Martinez heard was a collection of pieces the trumpeter made with a nonet ( a nine-piece band) that helped change the shape of jazz. The recordings grew out of series of informal late night meetings at the apartment of arranger Gil Evans. Evans, Davis and a small group of other players were looking to create a sound different than the bebop-style that dominated jazz at that time.

“Miles was quoted as saying he wanted the group to sound like it had the qualities of the human voice,” Martinez said.

In order to achieve that sound, Davis, Evans and the two other musicians who arranged pieces for the date, pianist John Lewis and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, agreed on several concepts that would shape the sound of the ensemble. Those concepts included the addition of French horn and tuba to create a rich, yet light musical texture. Also, musicians who played with little to no vibrato were selected for the ensemble. Arrangers crafted charts that often featured background figures to be played underneath a soloist, which helped blur the line between them.

Audiences were confused by what they heard during the band’s two week run at the Royal Roost in New York City in 1948. The recordings which were originally released as singles didn’t sell well. However musicians listened to it and liked it. The influence of the music that Davis and his compatriots recorded made its presence felt not only in the trumpeter’s own orchestral work, but also in bands led by Mulligan, Lewis and Evans. The West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s also owed much to the “Birth of the Cool” sessions.

Martinez marvels not only at the music that the players recorded to make the “Birth of the Cool” dates, but that musicians so young were capable of creating work at this high of a level.

“You’re hearing all these people near the beginning of their formative years. Miles was 21 when this stuff was recorded. It’s so impressive that Gil Evans was the elder statesman at 35.

The rest of the musicians were essentially college-age kids making this beautiful forward-thinking music,” Martinez said.

Bass player Kevin Martinez and his ten piece group will perform the music from “Birth of the Cool” Friday evening at 8 at Blu Jazz in Akron.

Listen for Dan Polletta’s interview with Kevin Martinez Wednesday, May 24th at 12:33 pm on 90.3

 

 

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