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Music Review: Miles and Coltrane – A Tao Tribute To Teo Macero

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The triad, Jing, (energy), Qi, (the flow of energy), and Shen, (the spirit), are the Tao of all that is. The fundamental of Taoism is the nature of the universe and in this there can be no light except by comparison with darkness; there can be no joy without the existence of sadness. Every action causes a counter action – all of life is a dichotomy; all distinctions are relative comparisons bound together by their mutual reference. In nature, there are no two-headed coins – love is on the other side of hate. In Taoism, there are no principals to learn, no canons to remember, no rituals to practice. Ultimately, it is useless trying to understand Tao; for it cannot be expressed in words. It is shapeless and formless. It is, what is unknown, but instinctively adhered to.

Yet, the March 1961 Miles Davis recording of "Someday My Prince Will Come" which features a tribute to saxophonist, composer, record producer Teo Macero called simply Teo is, for me, an example of glimpsing the unknowable – an audible revelation of Taoism dichotomy, an exposure to the supreme search being acted out. John Coltrane’s solo is so innovative, it’s akin to hearing someone pray a prayer that convinces you that it is, at that very moment, being received by divinity.

Mile Davis composed the tune "Teo" in honor of his long time friend, record producer and fellow musician Attilio Joseph (Teo) Macero. Teo was born October 30, 1925 in Glens Falls, New York and died February 19, 2008 after a long career as a musician, record producer, and film and television soundtrack composer. Teo was a producer at Columbia Records for twenty years and produced the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, which at # 12, is the highest-rank jazz album on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list and is the best selling jazz album of all time. Teo Macero graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in 1953 with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Teo also worked with Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus. He scored the 1970 Muhammad Ali documentary, aka, Cassius Clay and produced the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s film The Blues.

So it was fitting that such an accomplished soul was given the tribute that Miles Davis bestowed on his music collaborator and one can only surmised that it was providence that inspired the musicians to such grand heights. This Miles Davis Sextet is comprised of Miles on trumpet, Hank Mobley and John Coltrane on saxophone, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul chambers on bass, and Billy Cobb on drums – all of whom went on to head bands of their own. There are six tunes on the album which has one of Miles’ several wives on the cover. The cut Teo which last nine minutes and thirty-two seconds is totally enlightening and John Coltrane’s solo is its spiritual core.

The tune Teo starts with a few bars of a bass introduction then it is joined for a few bars by the entire rhythm section before Miles began the journey with a calm call and answer that slowly evolves into a delightful bounce of notes that dance with themselves. Then there are a series of shape notes that jars the mood, repeats several times and then develops into the resolve of Miles’ hymn of preparation. Miles blow a series of defiant images which ends with a series of notes that seem themselves to want to prepare the path to the Way (As in Tao is the Way). All the while, the rhythm section is keeping up a driving orderliness – with special attention to the orderliness in order to contain within its perimeter what’s to come. There is a short rhythm section interlude that builds anticipation before Coltrane burst into consciousness.

And then it happens; John Coltrane enters like a screaming storm, melancholy and self-possessed, pleading for harmonic equality. There are echoes of the turmoil of the times – a musical declaration of freedom – We Shall Over Come. This feeling builds and become elaborate, convoluted and twists over and over and turns into repeated screams, and turns dark, then chaotic – and there you have frenzied images bubbling within the framed orderliness of the rhythm section. It is here that the sacred happens, a chaotic tidiness that is the oxymoron of Taoism infused into this tribute to Teo and links itself to the search for the mathematical equation physics seek that would reconcile Elbert Einstein’s harmonic General Theory of Evolution with the anarchic reality of Quantum Mechanics, that’s called the String Theory – The Theory of Everything. And listening to Coltrane there is no stretch between the search for the Taoism Way and the search for either the string theory or the righteousness of black Americans’ quest for social justice. They are all an expeditions to awareness.

Coltrane is still blowing.

When I first heard this recording in 1962, at the age of 20, I identified it with the movement towards social justice that was taking place in the streets. To me, it sounded like a fitting exhortation for the energy of Malcolm X or an anthem for the Black Panthers. As I grew older and became armed with other knowledge, I realized that there was also something more universal going on in this music. These cats were visionaries, far ahead of me – they could combine the contemporary with future expectations and talk about comprehending the cosmos – a thing far in the future, and a thing that had as much to do with the nature of Taoism as it had to do with the String Theory of Everything. Understanding is at the core of every quest.

Coltrane is breaking free of the turmoil and glides down to earthly realities where Miles can handle the transfer. Miles comes on exhausted from the energy spent translating the logic of Coltrane’s solo and it takes a few bars for him to regain, once again, the confidence of his own instincts which now collaborates with, or, may even now be born from the Coltrane performance – it is all one now and when Miles blow his last note, the rhythm section, alone, closed the curtains.
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and teacher wrote once, that he seek to do with the English language what African American jazz musician had done with European instruments – mole and bend them until these instrument could tell their saga in an epic universal language. Nowhere in the annals of music is that statement clearer than in John Coltrane’s performance in Teo. Perhaps this is why he is one of President Obama’s favorite musicians.

Note: This recording is available on YouTube.

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About Horace Mungin

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz Alan Kurtz

    Mr. Mungin, please accept this in the spirit of helpfulness rather than nitpicking. On the Amazon listing for your book Sleepy Willie Sings the Blues, the first word in the second sentence of the Product Description should be Reminiscent, not Reminiscence. Anyhow, thanks for the review of “Teo” with Miles & Trane. Don’t get no better than that, man.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Alan, I do suggest you take a look at Mr. Mungin’s literary output, in particular The Phantom Culprit – there, I linked it for you!

    Don’t you ever make a grammatical mistake of any kind, Alan, or I’ll come down on you mercilessly, since you’re your own harshest critic and editor as well. You were born and raised in a boiler room, Alan, no other way to explain it.

    And what’s that “Don’t get no better than that, man” turn of phrase? Where did you learn your English, boy>

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz Alan Kurtz

    Roger, I am eternally grateful for your link to Horace Mungin’s “The Phantom Culprit.” It is far and away the finest piece of writing I’ve yet read on Blogcritics, and that includes my own stuff, of which I am as you know inordinately proud.

    And you’re right about my having been born and raised in a boiler room. It was in fact the very same boiler room as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where his unnamed narrator works in a factory that makes white paints. (I’ve always cherished that steamy irony.)

    Finally, please bear in mind that my phrase “Don’t get no better than that, man,” is meant to be spoken in the hoarse rasp of Miles Davis, as when he listens to the playback of Take 1 and declares, “Don’t get no better than that, man.” In 1956 Miles, Trane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones recorded four albums’ worth of material for the Prestige label in two marathon sessions in order to fulfill Miles’ contractual obligation and allow him to switch to the higher-profile Columbia label. There were practically no retakes. Every song is a gem.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, Alan, you beat me to the punch with Ralph Ellison, because he was going to figure in my next comment. There are definite parallels here in terms of style, subject matter and let’s face it, experience; though Horace’s piece (because of its brevity, no doubt) comes through as very intense, it really shines. One wonders though how Ellison managed to maintain his unique voice throughout the whole book. But that’s true of all great writers. Experience is always the bedrock. It takes you out of the range of literary musings and makes you come out with works that are truly immortal. I am blessed with genuine concern, for which reason my writing is decent; but I lack Horace’s experience – the experience of a black man living in a segregated South, or some other such set of circumstances to result in a personal trauma or the life of living hell, to take my writing to another level. Experience in the sense I’m using includes genuine concern but it doesn’t reduce itself to it; it personalizes it. Think of the great Southern writers; for many it was a culture shock, for others, like Capote, an alternative lifestyle. South can be very unforgiving. Flannery O’Connor has some useful things to say on the subject.

    As regards the idiom, I know you weren’t trying to endear yourself to Horace. I was just baiting you.

    As an aside, a few days ago, Dreadful compared Mark Twain with Harper Lee; he argued that Twain’s literary output in terms of range and sheer volume surely made him a “superior” writer than our “one hit wonder.”
    That was no occasion for me then to contest such a view, but now there is. I’d rather be known for Harper Lee’s masterpiece, or that of the master stylist’s Flaubert, than for Mark Twain’s body of works. I don’t know much about Twain’s circumstances, but he was a journalist by trade; writing was expected of him. Perhaps it does affect the quality of one’s work, perhaps it does not, being subject to the American cookie machine. I don’t know and I’m not going to make informative judgment.

    On the other hand, take Albert Camus as a shining example.