'Envoi': a Postcard to Miles Davis

10th November 2021

Features Club Inegales

Peter Wiegold, Artistic Director of Notes Inégales, writes about the influence of the Miles Davis on his musical philosophy in the context of their new release Envoi. Listen to preview tracks from the album which is an homage to Davis recorded in the mountains near Montreux, Lake Geneva, where he gave some of his final concerts.

Everybody has their favourite Miles Davis quote. “What do you do if you play a wrong note?”

"Play it again".

In one way, this is the everyday pragmatism of a jazz musician, but beyond that its a magical ability to turn every moment on its head, to find renewal in every note.

Miles said, "you’ve got to get them before their commenting minds begin". He wanted to keep his musicians alert, in a kind of pristine state to be able to catch them by surprise. All musicians easily revert to comfortable, safe habits, in their sound, in their working methods, and are often complicit with one another in that. Miles knew musicians' minds might wander, even John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Jack de Johnette!

I’ve often used the phrase "evoke don’t describe". Once you start describing to a player, "a C sharp, followed by a gliss, followed by copying the clarinet"… their heads go down, you’ve lost them. But three words, one image, two notes, can bring invention back to the moment, the immediate, the present.

I read an interview with Herbie Hancock where he said words to the effect of, "Miles listened. You would think that all musicians listen...but actually very few really do". Miles heard everything, I would like to think; the minds, the room, the weather – he heard all that was there, present.

His artistic projection for a piece might be driven from just one phrase, such as the opening scale in Spanish Key. Or a very grounded riff, as in Sivad.  Ground was important, a solid centre, about which an infinity of notes and players could spin. Three keyboards, two basses, no problem.

Of course, Miles was very influential in his openness to instruments and style. He sidestepped the jazz orthodoxy. This might be keeping an open ear for new ideas. I feel it is also a stance – this music will always approach the edge.

Miles listened. You would think that all musicians listen...but actually very few really do.

I heard a fascinating talk about the recording of Kind of Blue. It was in the famous Columbia Studios in New York. Previously Dave Brubeck had recorded Take Five there, and had set up in the middle of the studio, as most bands did.  But Miles set up in a corner, putting screens round, creating a kind of club, an intimacy. The closeness of that Kind of Blue band is extraordinary.

He invented new ways of recording and editing, especially alongside producer Teo Macero. Keeping the red light on, often not doing overdubs, then spending much time editing the results in a crafted editing process. A really natural way to use a studio.

He could, as we know, be rude. Play a penetrating semitone on a keyboard all through someone’s solo. Perhaps this was just bloody-mindedness. But maybe it was also a shout, a reminder – stay focussed, stay present, don’t indulge. He was increasingly famous for turning his back on the audience or wandering off-stage, but even with this, there was rarely a loss of presence. He held a kind of thrall, albeit a free-spirited one.

Above all, he brought music-making to the moment. There may have been scraps of scores, he may have taken ages to edit a recording. But he glued the creative process to the moment, and never let go.

We all have our icons, our musical lodestones. For me, I always come back to Stravinsky, Berio and Miles Davis.  Not only for producing the most visceral, striking material, but material that at the same time challenges the time and place, the moment in history. Able to contradict the very material they were using.

He glued the creative process to the moment, and never let go.

I long wanted to make some kind of homage to Miles. I aspire to that sense of nowness in the room, making things live, the chance a player will do something completely beyond their normal paths.

We made versions of the Bitches Brew track with some of the original members of Notes Inégales, including David Purser (trombone - the co-founder), Melinda Maxell (oboe), Christian Forshaw (sax), Oren Marshall (tuba), Sam Walton (percussion) and two wonderful musicians who have since sadly passed away, Duncan Prescott (clarinet) and Corin Long (bass).

Then we started a project called ‘…brew’. Inviting composers to send us postcards from/to Miles. Some striking ideas came from Richard Barrett, Claudia Molitor, Colin Riley, Tim Garland, Andrew Poppy, John Lunn, Charlie Piper, Martin Butler, Joel Bell, Phillip Cashian and others.

Then, as a climax to this project, after a brief tour of Switzerland we were privileged to be able to record Envoi in a studio in Montreux, near where Miles did some of his last concerts. As an homage to Miles. We began with just two short scores then, in his spirit, just played all day.

Keep your eyes peeled for Part 2 of Peter telling the story of 'Envoi'

NMC's Discover platform is created in partnership with  ISM Trust.

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'Envoi' album launch event

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