Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Listening to Sorcerer

Phew, long post here, but the topic merits it. Let's listen to the Miles Davis record Sorcerer, with his famous 60s quintet including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. I bought it around 1987 as a vinyl reissue— I never heard of it before I saw it at the store, and was real excited to find another Miles record with Tony Williams on it. 

Recorded in 1967, mostly. Several of the tunes appear in the original Real Book, but are not often played. Among records by this group (and the George Coleman iteration) Sorcerer is a little bit of a dark horse— compared to Nefertiti, Miles Smiles, Four & More, for example. Maybe there's more stuff music students get excited about on the other records.  

Overall the frame here is very loose, very open— nobody's nailing down the time for much of it. The time modulations of the earlier records have evolved into a general floating feeling. Much of it is straight 8ths, but we're not yet getting into the rock direction we hear evolving on Filles de Kilimanjaro and Miles In The Sky. This one is more about time areas, sketched out by everyone together— the time often seems like it's somewhere in between what everyone's playing. Same with the form. 

Lots of beautiful playing here, individually and as an ensemble, my focus here is on what I'd be thinking if I were playing or learning these tunes.

Put on your record, or run this, and read on: 

Prince of Darkness
16 bar tune, played twice. Tempo is about 239. Nominally a samba, played with very open modern jazz language. You can broadly hear the form going by, but they're handling it in a very open way, no piano comping, and not a lot of firm markers being played. It kind of hangs off those dotted half note accents in bars 11 and 13— listen for who suggests that during the solos. Wayne Shorter wrote some tunes like this— El Gaucho is another one— very concentrated, distinct forms. Like Giant Steps but way more interesting, speaking as a drummer.

Ron Carter's foundation groove is a samba rhythm, but much of the time he's playing off of dotted quarter notes or half note triplets. Tony is supplying the regular pulse, but a lot of angular stuff too. Texture opens up on Herbie Hancock's solo.  


Pee Wee
I forget if Tony Williams actually composed this, or if Wayne did, and they wanted to give Tony a writing credit. Low key waltz, tempo is about 124. 21 bar form. This may be the most commonly played tune on the record? Miles don't play at all on this track.

Phrased 8+7+6— though my hear hears the melody itself as 6+9+6. It lays across the chord structure in a funny way. But it's 8+7+6— on the blowing there are two measures of the same chord at the end of the first 8 bars, and a big change in bar 9, beginning the odd phrase. The key spot is in bar 16, the one measure that has two chords in it— it's easy to hear even if you're lost the whole rest of the time, and easy to finish the form from there. It's worth listening through a couple of times just listening for bar 16, while not otherwise keep tracking of the form. The change at bar 9 is also distinctive, get that in your ear. 

You see how my mind works on these things. I don't want to count, and I don't want to fight my ears, I want to know how to recover from getting lost. Learning this tune, I would first learn to orient myself around what's obvious to my ears, however feeble, and then learn to hear the parts where I don't know what I'm doing— which I've here narrowed down to bars 13-15. 

Tony plays light time and textural stuff with brushes through the first chorus of Wayne's solo, after which he switches to sticks. Mostly plays off a quarter note pulse, double timing and playing off a dotted quarter pulse in a few spots. Phrases are broad swells or arcs, both in dynamics and density. 

The very dramatic 2001 recording of this tune on Wayne Shorter's Footprints Live! is possibly more famous now, with Brian Blade on drums, channeling the whole world's love and enthusiasm for this band. Very loose playing from everyone here, but there is a clear tempo and they mostly follow the form... with modifications.

The tune is a modal ABA, with a short form that is very drawn out. Played with a straight 8th feel. Below is a chart from the Jazz Ltd fake book, illicit pdfs of which are widely distributed digitally. The choice to write it in 4/2 is strange to me, playing it I would count it in 4/4— one measure of 4/2 on the chart = two measures of 4/4 @ 134 bpm. 

The first line is the intro, the second line is the A section, and the third line is the B section. The last A section is indicated by the “D.S. (first 4)” at the end, and by the sign at the beginning of the second line, and by the fine at the end of the second line. So the form is 4+3+4 bars of 4/2, or 8+6+8 counted in 4/4. The whole thing is played in the key of G. Phrygian, except the B section. On the blowing Ron also implies a change in bar 4 of the A section.


The intro is very loose, with Tony playing free, and settling on the tempo as the A section begins.

During the blowing, except on his own solo, Herbie always hits the first dotted quarter figure in the last bar of the B section— Ron hits it during Herbie's solo. That really sounds like the end of the form, and sometimes it is treated as the end of the form. Like the last chorus of Miles's last chorus is just AB, then Wayne's solo's begins with a fresh ABA. 

The end of Wayne's solo gets a little flaky; Herbie drops out at the beginning of his last chorus, from there they seem to play AB+AB+mystery phrase. Herbie's solo starts very fluidly, though it's still in time and still adhering to normal phrase lengths. At some point the bridge is cued, and they finish it on the form from there, including a final A section before going into the head out— where the play AB-AB and out, with no horns on the second AB.    

If you get lost in space on the A sections you should be able to hear when they go to the B section; at least the end of the B section is always 100% clear. And the top of the repeated A sections is clear as well— they don't just play 8 (in 4/2) bars of vibe. And you can hear the implied chord change in the last bar of the A section as well. 

Listening to it I would learn to first hear those markers when they happen, and notice how they're handled. Sometimes they're the one definitive thing in the phrase, other times they're touched lightly, sometimes dramatic, sometimes not. Generally not everyone is hitting them at once. 

The Sorcerer

Uptempo through-composed Herbie Hancock tune, 16 bars, AB, 8+8. On the blowing Miles and Wayne trade 8s, then play the head again, twice. 

Form-wise, there's not a lot for me to grab onto, aurally— the chords don't really allude to the melody, and we never feel like we've arrived anywhere, which is deliberate. From my perspective it might as well be free bop. You can't play it looking to resolve to a big down beat, because it's not going to be there, you have to leave everything open. Counting 16 bar phrases from when they play the head after the trading, the horns come in with the head out on bar 9, so something off the form happened there.  

In terms of learning this tune, I would listen to the version on Herbie's record Speak Like A Child. It's still real ambiguous, but they play more conservatively, and there are some arranged figures on the head that give you a little more to hang onto. 


Another taken from the Jazz Ltd book— who knows how similar it is to how Wayne wrote it. Form is basically 8 bar AB, with two extra beats in the middle. Kind of a funny choice writing it the way they did; on the head Tony plays a fast 3, based on the quarter note triplet on the written chart (listen to his hihat), then on the solos they go into that double time samba like on Prince of Darkness. They play a medium 4/4 on Herbie's solo, then back to the fast 3 on the head out. Tempo is ~ quarter note = 123.  

The 2/4 bar and the chord changes every two beats suggest that this could have been written as a fast 2/2, or a fast 3/4, with one chord change per measure, 9+8 bars long. That's probably how I would think of it. 

Figuring out how closely they're following the form on the blowing takes better ears than I have. There is harmonic movement, but they might as well be playing totally open, if they aren't. They bring it around to some semblance of the form on Herbie's solo. It takes some nerve to try to do what Tony's doing here— it's well beyond routine combo intensity. 

Cool walking ballad by Wayne Shorter, I can't locate a chart for it online or in my books. Too bad. 

The form is 14 bars long, let's call it AB, 8+6. Bar 4 of the B section is in 5/4. 

Rubato on the head, Miles plays the first half, both horns play the second half. On the solos they play a medium 4, and Tony makes the interesting choice of playing the solos on the snare drum with sticks. Miles and Wayne solo, Herbie gets two half choruses, with the horns playing the head on the B sections, ending the tune on the second chorus.  

Great tune, maybe I'll write a chart for it. 

Nothing Like You
Recorded in 1962 with the singer Bob Dorough, who was very much in the Blossom Dearie/Dave Frishberg cute/hip mode. With Jimmy Cobb on drums, arranged by Gil Evans. I like the opening, Jimmy Cobb is all over that. He has a real particular sound, that's very staccato and on the front of the beat, distinct from other players like that— maybe Roy Haynes or Charli Persip, or Alan Dawson.  

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