In addition to my regular dose of all things vile and extreme in metal, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of jazz lately. A few weeks back I was spinning Miles Davis’ record My Funny Valentine, which is a live concert recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in early 1964. One of the great pleasures of listening to live music, but especially to jazz, is following the back and forth of communication between the band members. The particular track which stopped me dead in my tracks was the quintet’s run-through of the Cole Porter jazz standard “All Of You.”
Here is the audio (in two parts) of that same quintet playing “All Of You” in July of 1963, which appears on the album Miles Davis in Europe. I couldn’t track down easily accessible online audio of the version which appears on My Funny Valentine, which is unfortunate, but this rendition still gives great insight into the near-telepathy of the band – especially the astonishing rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.
Tony Williams is an incredibly active, almost aggressive drummer here; check out his ability to highlight Miles’ most strenuous phrases without stepping on them (from about 3:00 to 4:15 on the first half of the track). But what really gets me hooked listening to the band play this tune is the lightning-fast communication between Carter on bass and Williams on drums while Hancock is laying down his piano solo (this is the majority of the second half of the track, all the way until Miles comes back in for the chorus around 5:30 or so).
If you’ve got yourself a copy of My Funny Valentine at hand, I prefer the version on there, but both versions demonstrate the single-mindedness of the ensemble. All of this got me to thinking, though, that the type of collective improvisation on display with Miles’ quintet is an exceeding rarity in heavy metal.
Of course, improvisation plays a fairly large role in many types of heavy metal. The most obvious example of this is the guitar solo. We know, too, however, that not all guitar solos are improvised – if you see Metallica playing “Fade to Black” or Slayer playing “Raining Blood,” I think there’s an expectation on the part of the fans that the solos, which may at one point have been largely improvisational (though I have my doubts about that), will be played more or less true to the way they have been burned into their brains through years’ worth of listening.
Still, the guitar or other instrumental solo break is the most obvious example of improvisation in heavy metal. In the classic structure, the guitar solo is a type of compositional break, used much in the way a pre-chorus or bridge is used to transition from one part of a song to another. A solo will often occur on top of a basic riff structure which has already been introduced in a verse or some other section of the song. It serves, in this way, to introduce novelty within an already-recognized framework. The essential structure of the song would be unchanged by the removal of the solo, in most cases.
Then, of course, you get into all sorts of avant-garde stuff, with manipulated feedback, distortion, and the detritus of found-sounds and other oddities. I don’t think most people going to see Merzbow or Skullflower, for example, have exactly the expectation of hearing recognizable “songs” from these groups/dudes. In these cases, then, improvisation is less a decorative addition to a predetermined structure (as Hammett’s whammy-fondling is to a Metallica jam), and actually becomes the basis of composition.
Both of these models, however, are entirely separate from what goes on with Miles Davis’ group from 40-odd years back. Certainly, there is a basic structure to the piece. The melody of the original tune serves as the most skeletal reference, but the essential building blocks of the song are the tempo and the chord changes. Beyond that, however, as you can hear in this recording, pretty much anything goes. Sure, there’s a design in the order of solos – Miles introduces the theme, then launches off into a fantastic deconstruction of it, before it gets handed off to Coleman on the tenor saxophone. After the tenor break, Herbie Hancock takes over on piano, before Miles comes back in at the end to revisit the melodic theme and bring the piece to a close. By that description, then, it would seem that this follows the first model of improvisation, where there is a predetermined structure upon which soloing sits as a purely decorative flourish.
But to interpret the collective improvisation of Miles’ group here as a rote reading of a standard tune with traded riffs on the theme would be to do them a great disservice. The crucial thing to follow in this live recording is the absolute vibrancy of the communication between all of the different members. I find it easiest to pick out when following the interplay of the rhythm section – bass, drums, and piano – which is especially vital during Hancock’s solo break. See, whereas the Metallica tune would be played exactly the same way without the solo included, if you remove any one of these three lines from “All Of You,” you would miss out on how these three guys are structuring and restructuring the rhythm and melodic texture of the song as they play it. When they slip into a half-time swing beat for just a few measures, and then seamlessly back into the regular tempo, you have to wonder: If one of those components were absent, would it have the same impact?
The crucial element of the improvisation which goes on in “All Of You” is precisely that it is a collective improvisation. There are five guys up on stage, and they are essentially having a conversation with each other. Miles brings up the topic and swishes it around in his mouth for a while to see how it feels, but then he opens up the floor for comments. Coleman agrees with Miles, for the most part, but elaborates on a few points. It goes on like this. The timing of Williams’ cymbal hits is dependent on what he hears Carter playing on the bass, or how he imagines Hancock will shake up his rhythm in the next two bars. Carter walks his bass along quite amiably, but listens for Williams’ emphasis, and tracks along with him when it feels right. If you take away one of these speakers, the conversation crumbles. Balance is lost. The nays have it.
To extend this somewhat-tenuous metaphor further, most guitar (and other) solos in heavy metal are basically like some guy yelling while everyone else carries on a conversation. Take out the dude’s yelling, and the conversation continues apace. You might be getting the impression, by the way, that I don’t at all care for guitar solos, which is not actually my point. I think guitar solos can be pretty rad, and I enjoy a face-melting shredfest just as much as the next metal fan. What I’m trying to stress, though, is that heavy metal might find itself expanded in interesting ways if it made room for this type of collective improvisation that one is likely to find in good jazz.
If I had to take a stab at figuring out why this is the case, I suspect it has something to do with the aesthetic of transgression and personal triumph which is so widespread in heavy metal. The lyrics and topical concerns of much heavy metal are about strength, overcoming adversity, having the courage to be different, and so forth. Obviously, these themes are expressed in vastly different ways, whether we’re talking about the hardcore youth gang pep talks of Hatebreed, or the motif of Nietzschean haughtiness and individual superiority common in black metal. When it comes to expressing these ideas musically rather than textually, a fairly obvious way to do so is by highlighting the virtuosity of individual musicians.
For the most part, the closest one might come in heavy metal to collective improvisation is with dueling guitar solos (or dueling guitar-keyboard, guitar-bass, or whatever else). The problem is, these flights of multi-musician fancy don’t typically involve the same type of musical conversation as in jazz. Instead, if you see Dream Theater live, for example, you will find John Petrucci doing a back-and-forth with Jordan Rudess on keyboards, where they trade off several bars, each trying to out-play the other. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that sort of coupled soloing; in fact, it tends to be quite entertaining. Still, the model remains that of the individual virtuoso (or of two individual virtuosos, in which case the number ’1′ remains a more important signifier than the number ’2′), struggling heroically against all odds to emerge victorious, having slayed all rivals with the intensity and sincerity of her skill.
As a sidebar, I don’t mean to play too much into the hands of those who believe that heavy metal is about nothing but virtuosity. I think that’s far from the truth, and that’s actually one of the main problems I had with the otherwise quite interesting book by musicologist Robert Walser, entitled Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Apart from seeming quite dated now (it was originally published in 1993), I think Walser relies too heavily on the notion that the primary mode of transgression in heavy metal arises from instrumental prowess. Still, it’s an interesting book, and one of the (very) few academic books on the subject of heavy metal, and may well be worth your time to wade through some of the overwrought passages to discover the musicological and critical theoretical insights. It’s available here from Amazon, and certainly plenty of other places, too.
Well, I’ve definitely banged on about this too much already, so I’ll try to wrap things up. I think where Walser has it wrong, and why I don’t want to overemphasize this highly atomized, individualistic reading of heavy metal as sheer virtuoso performance, is that there are plenty of metal bands out there that succeed precisely because they avoid emphasizing one musician’s skill above that of another, and instead focus on working as an entity. Neurosis comes to mind first, primarily because I’ve been rocking their new album Live at Roadburn 2007 recently. Here is a band, though, which seems less like a collection of individual voices, and more like a collective, through which different voices occasionally speak. That model is all fine and good, and obviously the amount of reverence shown a band like Neurosis is an indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
What remains un- (or at least under-) explored in heavy metal, though, is exactly this kind of collective improvisation, this quickly-shifting musical conversation between members of the band that I find so thrillingly present in these live recordings of Miles Davis and his band. I’d like to see metal bands able to move from these two poles of either playing completely as a pulsating organism (the ‘Neurosis Model’, say) or as a preconceived structure atop which the Nietzschean Over-Man dazzles with his unfathomable mastery (the ‘Metallica Model’, say – I’m not claiming that Kirk Hammett is the pinnacle of guitar wizardry, it’s just the example already in play). Instead, there remains this tantalizing third way, in which a band locks in the skeleton of a song structure – a set tempo, maybe, or a flash of half a guitar riff – and then launches into an actual conversation between equals.
This is, for the most part, far less flashy than a Steve Vai guitargasm, and requires more patience and closer listening than the monolithic heft of Neurosian song-mountains. It’s as much about listening as it is about speaking, but if the bands can learn to listen, and we listeners can learn to listen to the ongoing conversation, heavy metal can yet achieve a more intimate sense of community; a community not just of fans who listen to the same music, nor of individuals who gain access to community by virtue of technical merit. A community always in the process of creating itself; an improvised community.