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Joe Lovano, Returning to 'The Birth of the Cool'

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Joe Lovano, Returning to 'The Birth of the Cool'

Joe Lovano, Returning to 'The Birth of the Cool'

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:

Finally tonight we move from the streets of New York's gritty present to a moment from that city's fabled musical past. Jazz musician Joe Lovano has revisited some of the most beautiful orchestrations ever committed to jazz records, the Miles Davis sessions known as the Birth of the Cool.

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ELLIOTT: On his new CD, Lovano has re-recorded three of those famed compositions in the form of a suite. The Miles Davis Nonet first played this music in the late '40s. Gil Evans, a frequent Davis collaborator, arranged some of the pieces. Lovano's new recordings were arranged and written by Gunther Schuller. Tom Vitale takes a look at the creative process that led to the original Birth of the Cool, and Lovano's reinterpretation.

TOM VITALE: Fifty-three-year-old tenor sax player Joe Lovano says he decided to record three tunes - Move, Boplicity and Moon Dreams - made famous by Miles Davis and Gil Evans more than half a century ago, to see if he could say something new in this music he grew up hearing and loving.

JOE LOVANO: I was trying also to answer the question, what did the Birth of the Cool give birth to? It gave birth to the conceptions and the approaches that I take as a musician. You know that was an important period about orchestration and where did it come from? You know, where did Gil come from? What inspired him to hear all those sounds and to try to write in such incredible voicings and counterpoint?

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VITALE: The Birth of the Cool grew out of informal jam sessions at Gil Evans's apartment on 52nd Street in the late 1940s. Some of the best young beboppers in town showed up, including piano player John Lewis, drummer Max Roach, alto player Lee Konitz, and the late baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. In a 1980 interview at his home in Darien, Connecticut, Mulligan said the musicians used to have long theoretical conservations about how to incorporate the new small combo bebop sound pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk into an orchestral setting.

GERRY MULLIGAN: Through these conversations and the number of people, the musicians that wandered in and out of Gil's place, it was really a great period for exchange of ideas, and the creative atmosphere was highly charged, you know? The thing that came out of that was the instrumentation of the band that came to be known as Birth of the Cool.

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VITALE: The creative atmosphere in Evans's 52nd Street pad was charged by more than conversations. Gerry Mulligan said the remote sound of cool jazz also grew out of the musician's addiction to heroin.

MULLIGAN: And a lot of the things wouldn't have been accomplished if there hadn't been for the addiction. In the end, it was a very destructive force, but I think one of the things that it helped the musicians accomplish was an isolation with themselves. It was like cutting themselves off from the mainstream of society and making our own microcosm of social connection. And I suppose that that is reflected in the music as well.

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VITALE: The Nonet's subtle harmonic shadings marked the beginnings of what came to be known as the cool sound in jazz. Among the musicians was a young French horn player, Gunther Schuller, who played on four of the band's 12 78-rpm records. Schuller, now 80 years old and a world-renowned composer, says today the recordings are considered masterpieces, but when they came out the reception was different.

GUNTHER SCHULLER: They were a total flop. I mean with everybody, even musicians who should have known better. And we had almost no live engagements except one in 1948 when I was not yet in the band, and then one in 1950. And we played to empty houses in Birdland. I mean you could have shot deer there; you know, there was nobody there. So that's how much of a failure it was when in fact this music is some of the greatest music in the history of jazz.

VITALE: The irony wasn't lost on the late arranger Gil Evans. In 1983, Evans sat in his cramped basement apartment on the Upper West Side, puffed on his pipe full of marijuana and told me that innovators always have a terrible time at first.

GIL EVANS: They enter the scene when another sound is the main one, is the traditional sound, and everybody's so comfortable with it. They say, what do you want to change the sound for when the sound is so great? So there's a tremendous rejection that goes on with an innovator at first. But then these people who are saying that, their children grow and they like the new one, right? So all the sudden there's an acceptance. And sometimes they're swung from total rejection to total acceptance so fast that it's - it makes you dizzy, right?

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VITALE: For Joe Lovano's new recording, Gunther Schuller didn't mess with the jewel-like perfection of the Gil Evans arrangements. Schuller made only slight adjustments to accommodate Lovano's 12-piece orchestra, adding flute and tenor sax parts. Schuller says the original arrangements still sound modern today.

SCHULLER: For example, Gil Evans made this incredible - it's more than an arrangement. We call it a re-composition of a piece called Moon Dreams, which was written by Glen Miller's pianist, Chuck McGregor. But Gil Evans just re-composed this piece in his own, much more advanced style, and he started the arrangement with a chord that is not in Chuck McGregor's original tune. It's more what we call a bitonal tune, you know, in two keys. It's a modern chord.

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VITALE: What Schuller added to Move, Moon Dreams and Boplicity is new connecting material in a suite, preludes and interludes in a modern compositional style. Schuller used Evans's opening chord for Moon Dreams as the basis for his own atonal prelude to the piece for Lovano's ensemble.

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VITALE: Joe Lovano says his intention in revisiting The Birth of the Cool was always to explore the music created by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, not to copy it.

LOVANO: Those beautiful tunes are beautiful structures of harmony that every player that explores is going to try to say something different. Now, if I try to play what Miles played on it and it sounded like I was sounding like Miles on a bad day, then I wouldn't do it. That's the beauty in the history of jazz, is that each player has an opportunity to be himself, stand on his own two feet, and say something in the music.

VITALE: The Birth of the Cool suite is on Joe Lovano's new CD, called Streams of Expression. Lovano says he'll perform the work on a European tour this fall and at the Village Vanguard in New York. Gunther Schuller is artistic director of the Tanglewood-Berkshire Music Center. Gerry Mulligan died in 1996. Gil Evans died in 1988.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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ELLIOTT: You can compare Joe Lavano's work with the original Miles Davis recordings at our Web site, NPR.org.

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ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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