Miles Davis My Funny Valentine (Columbia 1965)

As the development of the Civil Rights Act reaches its climax in 1964, Miles Davis records My Funny Valentine, sophisticated masterpiece of his Second Great Quintet.

Miles Davis - My Funny Valentine


Miles Davis (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums)


on February 12, 1964 at Philharmonic Hall of Lincoln Center, New York City


as CL-2306 in 1965

Track listing

Side A:
My Funny Valentine
All Of You
Side B:
Stella By Starlight
All Blues
I Thought About You

Elation and awe fight for first row. You know what I mean what happens when listening to My Funny Valentine, Miles Davis speakin’ his piece in 1964 with his Second Great Quintet, which features tenor saxophonist George Coleman (the ‘iconic’ 2nd would include Wayne Shorter), pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. In the year of 1964, on the day of February 12, two days after the long-awaited Civil Rights Act was set in motion, Miles Davis, significantly, records for release My Funny Valentine, not his first and not his last beautiful example of black jazz, a statement at once refined and sleazy, haunting and down-to-earth, entertaining and thoughtful. It is commonly overlooked that the performance at The Philharmonic Hall of Lincoln Center in New York City was co-sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality.

At the milestone date of February 10, the Civil Rights Act was passed by the House of Representatives. Delayed by a filibuster (the democratic right to oppose against a proposal by means of endless strings of speeches in the Senate – Frank Capra’s great movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington starring James Stewart gives an enlightening and riveting view of the filibuster process), the Act was finally approved by the Senate on June 19 and on July 2 was signed into law by President Johnson, who had taken office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the fall of 1963.

The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin and constituted a defense mechanism against voter discrimination, racial segregation in schools and public places, and employment discrimination. It was an extension of CRA 1957, which powered by the case of Brown vs Board of Education rendered segregation in schools unconstitutional and protected voting rights.

Legends goes that John F. Kennedy was a driving force of change. President Kennedy was admired by the Afro-American community. Musicians paid homage. Alto saxophonist Andy White named his band The JFK Quintet. Booker Ervin lamented his passing on A Day To Mourn on his Freedom Book record. Even Miles Davis, usually not so generous with applause, remarked in 1962: “I like the Kennedy brothers. They are swinging people.”

Why put cigarette paper between those two sentences by the Dark Prince? If anything, the young and energetic Kennedy’s indeed had plenty of style. However, the truth is that it was only after severe pressure – the Birmingham Campaign, protests, lobbies, the March on Washington – that JFK became supportive of new legislation. Moreover, there actually is very little evidence that Kennedy showed any sign of action on his part concerning the betterment of the standard of living for Afro-Americans in the years preceding his presidential career. He may not have been a bad cat but fact is he slept through the major part of the afternoon. The Afro-American love for JFK is sincere but speaks volumes about the standard of alternative political leadership.

To think that, during the tense zeitgeist of the mid-sixties, no one took care to pay Davis’s young crew of George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams for their services on the special night of February 10. Nada, zip, zero!

Two LP’s were culled from the Miles Davis Quintet’s performance: Four & More and My Funny Valentine. Four & More is fast and furious, My Funny Valentine is slow to medium-slow and supple. Both are killer achievements, though the former album, consisting of up-tempo tunes (taken up a notch) offers no relief and that is one of the reasons I prefer My Funny Valentine.

No album titled My Funny Valentine could consist of breakneck speeds. The only tune with a reasonably fast tempo is the Davis staple All Blues. It is a typically organic group effort and includes a solo climax by Miles Davis that makes the children jump off their stools in the circus tent. Does not somehow this music of the Second Great Quintet prefigure that great flexible band of Woody Shaw featuring Carter Jefferson, Larry Willis and Stafford James in the mid-1970’s? Just a thought.

The ballad readings of the flexible Davis quintet are exquisite. Listening to the quintet is like following a sailboat in an Olympic event that anticipates the differing weather conditions, which range from calm to breeze to gusty wind. Captain and crew are quite the match on the gulfs of Stella By Starlight, All Of You and I Thought About You, all of which are developed, interestingly, without unisono ensembles and Captain Davis stating the melody. Tension between vulnerability and chutzpah is a Davis forte and developed to the max during All Of You, which is marked by ever-so-slight trumpet whispers and Davis’s patented pastel colors. The captain invites an eager response from the crew and climaxes with an upward, fearless cadenza.

The thoughtful but solid lines of George Coleman contrast nicely with the brooding fantasies of Miles Davis. It was said that Tony Williams felt that Coleman’s style was too polished and conservative and that was the reason Coleman hit the dust. Coleman always maintained that it was him that flew the coop and that it was only after reading the Miles Davis autobiography that he learned about Williams’s opinion. In his autobiography, Davis by the way stated that Coleman was damn well able to play rough and free if he felt like it and once sustained a wild avant ride during the total course of a concert just to thumb his nose to the young lions in the band. Coleman eventually integrated some avant techniques but only if they were to the advantage of his purely melodic and balanced style. That is why I love George Coleman. Eventually, his style has proved rather influential.

Coleman’s ending of his solo of the title track, the pièce de résistance of this great quintet, sounds like a violin, a touching tag to a lovely, balanced story. No small feat, considering that he followed one of the finest Davis solos on wax. Davis’s kaleidoscopic colors and bends stay close to the melody but at the same time are played in such a way that you see My Funny Valentine in a new light. You hear at work not someone who plays changes but an architect of sound and emotion.

Instead of smashing his notes through the wall of the fortress, Miles Davis seduces the gatekeeper such that he opens the gates totally bedazzled and entranced.

Funny Valentine’s looks are laughable, unphotographable. Yet, she’s his favorite work of art. Brave high notes end the impressionist painting of Miles Davis, full horn climax that ignites subtle and smooth and propulsive swing. Special evenings require special bands and this eager incarnation of the Second Great Quintet beautifully performed its duties.

Herbie Hancock Takin’ Off (Blue Note 1962)

With the authority of a seasoned jazz personality, Herbie Hancock delivered his Blue Note debut as a leader in 1962, Takin’ Off.

Herbie Hancock - Takin' Off


Herbie Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Dexter Gordon (tenor saxophone), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Billy Higgins (drums)


on May 28, 1962 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as BLP 4109 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Watermelon Man
Three Bags Full
Empty Pockets
Side B:
The Maze
Alone And I

Astunning hard bop debut that hinted at post bop things to come. Around 1962, front-line hard boppers, particularly at Blue Note headquarters, were steadfastly developing an ear-catching dialect to the language of jazz. In hindsight, it is beautiful proof of the all-inclusive nature of jazz that these developments, plus gospel-drenched hard bop, plus the major happenings of the day (the envelop-pushing of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans), ran a simultaneous course. The stakes were raised and young Hancock wasn’t about to perform below par. His confident playing and composing amidst a bunch of top-rate, contemporary players, including ‘comeback’ legend Dexter Gordon, is striking.

A year later, Miles Davis, another major jazz force, would ask Hancock to join his group, the stellar one which included Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Jazz at a peak, not least because of Hancock’s innovative harmony, voicing and rhythm. During his period with Miles Davis, as is well documented, Hancock himself would deliver albums on Blue Note that defined the post bop style and remain influential to this day, notably Empyrian Isles in 1964 and Maiden Voyage in 1965. A succesful career path was laid out that would include the fusion of his Mwandishi group, the jazz funk of Headhunters and much, much, celebrated more up until the 21-st century’s schizoid present.

Clearly, an experimental spirit had fared into the bespectacled Hancock who peered at your open zipper on the cover of Takin’ Off. It depicts a gentleman whose attire oozed the impression of a kid that fills his evenings with chemistry tests in his granny’s attic. At the dawn of the sixties, the prodigy was taken under his wings by trumpeter Donald Byrd. Prior to Takin’ Off, Hancock debuted as a recording artist on Byrd’s Royal Flush, followed by the Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams Quintet’s Out Of This World and Byrd’s Free Form.

Takin’ Off’s opening cut, the gospel-tinged groover Watermelon Man (turned into a hit by Mongo Santamaria soon after Hancock’s release), sounds as fresh today as in 1962. Many highlights: for one, the infectious rhythm of Billy Higgins is unforgettable. A gritty vibe without the use of the backbeat. Could it be that the island blood in Higgins’ veins accounts for his inventive rhythm? (Other drummers had Carribean ancestors, among them Denzil Best and Mickey “Granville” Roker) Billy Hart (coincidentally, the drummer of Hancocks Mwandishi group) offers a welcome view in an interview with Ethan Iverson on his Do The Math blog. Hart remembers asking Billy Higgins repeatedly about the ‘Higgins island flavor’. Higgins always answered matter-of-factly: “I studied with Ed Blackwell, you know.”

Dexter Gordon’s carefully crafted, behind-the-beat blues story is also a big treat. It blends well with Hancock’s ready and able piano comping, while Hancock includes in his poised solo a number of gorgeous, rollicking cadenzas suggesting both Earl Hines and Maede Lux Lewis. The sound of the piano is round, transparent and upfront, as if Hancock’s playing beside you at the bar. Splendid acoustics at the high-roofed joint in Englewood Cliffs, courtesy of the recently deceased master of modern jazz engineering, Rudy van Gelder.

The inclusion of Dexter Gordon on Takin’ Off has been an obvious delight to many, yours truly included. Gordon, fresh in the act of an iconic comeback on Blue Note in the early sixties after a troubling, preceding decade that was largely wasted on stints in prison (with early May dates Doin’ Alright and Dexter Calling in the pocket) hits a homerun in The Maze, a tacky tune that swings while incorporating McCoy Tyner’s orchestral voicings. This period saw the influence of John Coltrane on Gordon, whose early sides, strikingly, had captivated Coltrane. Insidiously, Gordon’s resonant, fluent solo in The Maze reaches boiling point. Majestic. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is his usual sizzling self, raising the stakes with spirited, virtuoso playing. In the ensembles, the forward motion of Hubbard and the nonchalant beat of Gordon create a pleasant, edgy tension that blends well with Hancock’s old-timey yet sophisticated delivery.

Strong points of a flawless, immaculate debut. The chemistry kid had arrived.

Donald Byrd A New Perspective (Blue Note 1963)

Besides honing his craft as one of the premier hard bop trumpet players of the day, Donald Byrd had other things on his mind, chief among them the exploration of new forms. A New Perspective, Byrd’s intriguing, daring dive into spiritual music, doesn’t bring the gospel in broad slices but instead presents it with delicate, hymnal strokes, with pathos lingering in the background.

Donald Byrd - A New Perspective


Donald Byrd (trumpet), Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Donald Best (vibes), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Butch Warren (bass), Lex Humphries (drums), Duke Pearson (arranger), Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (choir direction)


on January 12, 1963 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as BLP 4124 in 1963

Track listing

Side A:
Beast Of Burden
Side B:
Cristo Redentor
The Black Disciple

In hindsight, of course, everything sticks. Firstly, the jubilant Pentecostal Feeling from Byrd’s adventurous album Free Forms pointed in the direction of A New Perspective’s spiritual concept. Free Forms was recorded a year earlier on December 11, 1961, but the album was shelved until release in 1966. Quite amazing that such a high quality session was sent to Blue Note’s dungeons. However, Blue Note sometimes shelved sessions from their most prolific artists to avert market overflow.

Secondly, A New Perspective takes its logical place in a career that was highly diverse. Byrd not only recorded prolifically as a leader (and as co-leader with bariton saxophonist Pepper Adams) but was extremely productive as a sideman, courtesy of Byrd’s immaculate chops, versatility and a big hunk of funk. The list is endless. Check out some of the world-class albums Byrd appeared on: Kenny Clarke – Bohemia After Dark (1955), Art Blakey – The Jazz Messengers (1956), John Coltrane – Black Pearls (1958), Sonny Clark – My Conception (1959), Hank Mobley – The Turnaround (1963), Herbie Hancock – My Point Of View (1963), Dexter Gordon – One Flight Up (1963). Then, solo-wise, onwards from 1969’s Fancy Free Byrd explored fusion and r&b, which culminated in the 1973 hit album Black Byrd. A career move Byrd was as much derided as applauded for. In any case, it was an unusually succesful turn of events for a jazz musician. Finally, everybody remembers Byrd’s equally succesful cooperation with hiphop artist Guru on 1993/1995’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 & 2.

The story of how it took me years to finally shake off my resentment towards the clean, smooth choir of A New Perspective is not something I’m going to bore you with. More preoccupied with introspection than with the act of driving out demons, more cultivated than red-headed, Byrd’s pieces may not possess the grittiness that’s usually associated with the black gospel, they have a charm all off their own. Mellow doowop voices flavour Beast Of Burden, a piece with a lopin’ tempo that includes an understated, minor blues-drenched solo by Byrd. Hank Mobley’s relaxed, smokin’ solo is a gem. The angelic choir of Cristo Redentor exudes high drama and brings about the soothing feeling of a dirge. The opener Elijah is upbeat and includes a Hit The Road Jack-type bass cadenza, but Byrd is in a restraintive, pensive mood.

After the propulsive hard bop mover, The Black Disciple, follows the mid-tempo Chant. Byrd sounds joyful, employing a more open ‘round’-toned approach. Herbie Hancock, who was mentored by Byrd at the start of the decade and whose recording debut took place on Byrd’s 1961 album Royal Flush, spins beautiful, long lines. Hancock’s impressionistic playing, completed with lithe, sparse blues phrases, contributes greatly to A New Perspective’s characteristic mood. A cerebral mood that grows on you.