Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oleo, June 1954

The melody for Oleo was, at least partially, composed on the spot by Sonny Rollins for this Miles Davis session, now issued on "Bag's Groove" (this version of the song not to be confused with that on the later Prestige session, "Relaxin").
According to Davis, Sonny would tear off scraps from paper found in the studio to write down his ideas, which also included two other songs that became jazz standards, Doxy and Airegin.

This song, as composition and in this particular performance, broke new ground somewhat analagous to the concurrent infusion of Zen thought and poetry into "Beat" culture. Here, a direct simplicity is achieved by paring down to essentials.

Oleo ia played over I Got Rhythm chord changes, as were countless compositions of the bop era. In most cases the melodies for the typical bop "heads" based on these changes were close to improvisations themselves, but with slight adjustments for compositional continuity. Rollins' melody, by contrast, is based on a shorter offbeat rhythmic "burst" motif, an urgent telegraph popping up from the melody stream - an energy pocket, a musical photon carrying an electromagnetic force. The improviser - or listener - uses this seed motif to fuel his own storyline. There are echoes of the deceptive simplicity of Monk and also the "cool" compositions from Davis' own Birth of the Cool sessions - check out "Deception" (Miles' revamp of George Shearing's "Conception") from there.

Oleo, rhythmically, bears some similarity to Charlie Parker's
Relaxin' At Camarillo - composed and performed not long after his release from the California state mental hospital of that name. Parker's tune, built on blues changes, also carries a threaded rhythmic motif that propels the tune along.

The arrangement of Oleo is also unique; the only constant is Percy Heath's spry walking bass line. In the statement of the "head" Miles Davis' Harmon-muted trumpet and Sonny's tenor in play unison over the bass-line with Kenny Clarke's understated drums and Horace Silver's melodic chordal comping coming in for the bridge. During the solos this arrangement remains basically the same although Clarke's drumming comes in, subtly, during the A sections and with a little more panache in the B.

Miles' solo is a gem of understatement - the first few bars are dashed off like a child's rope skipping song with a brilliant sweeping bop line here and there; predominately on the turnarounds.
While Miles's phrasing is already sparse and punctuated by empty bars, in Sonny's solo the phrases are more explosive but, in his first chorus, he leaves as much 2 or 3 bars empty. In the second chorus, after short, abstract jabs he pauses in and gathers himself before jumping into an extended line punctuated with accented peaks; picture a childlike figure cut at odd angles on paper folded in layers and then suddenly unfolded, a neo-bop daisy chain with sunlight pouring through each section differently.

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