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Miles Davis – blind listening test (noisemademedoit.com)
245 points by mactac on July 18, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

Here's the flipside. Some people are never satisfied with the work of others, and it's exactly this dissatisfaction that can drive them to hone their own endeavors. Obviously, Miles Davis doesn't hate music and it's not as simple as saying his expectations are too high. You can tell by the way he reviews these things that when he listens to these records, he hears them as a jumble of good bits, missed opportunities, and garbage.

He's not satisfied hearing missed opportunities, so he is "forced" to compose and perform on his own terms.

> Either you play a whole chord against it, or else . . . but don’t try to play it like you’d play, ah, Walkin’ the Dog. You know what I mean?

> They move up in triads, but there’s all those chords missing – and I never heard any Spanish thing where they had a figure that went

> and you’ve got to have the rhythm section along; you just can’t keep on playing all eighth notes.

Imagine that every time you listen to music, there's something else you want to hear. You have to get better at making music, or else you'll never get to hear that thing you want to hear.

Personal anecdote: I was reading the other day and started to get disappointed, angry even, at the kinds of stories I was reading. I kept feeling that the stories were laden with missed opportunities for exploration, drawn out tension that couldn't carry the weight it was given, and hackneyed philosophy.

I got a bit frightened that I might "have to" become an author. I'm not that good at writing, to be honest. But in order to read the story I want to read, I might have no other choice.

(And of course, I'm glad Miles Davis was a musician and not a critic.)

I seem to recall a Knuth anecdote describing how he'd sunk so deep into the study of fonts that he'd go to a restaurant and pick up the menu, and only much later remember about the food.

Well said. I think it's true of any field really- when you start to get good, its frustrating to see/hear the missed opportunities and shortcomings in other's work. I wonder if the primary driving force behind any creative endeavor is really just "I want this", and there is no other way to get it than to make it.

This is profound.

I think there might be a difference between enjoying a discipline and needing its produce.

I definitely code for the latter purpose and envy those who have both.

To bring it closer to a HN topic: if you look at any successful software product in depth, there are flaws and things you'd do more elegantly. We love to hate things like php and C++ even if they are objectively successful.

Very few authors start out that good at writing: they almost all have a million words of bullshit they have to weed through before they start to find enough good stuff.

Very interesting. Watch the progression:

(1) "I like Louis! Anything he does is all right....That's Bobby Hackett, too; I always did like Bobby Hackett - anything by him. Jack Teagarden's on trombone. I'd give it five stars." September 1955, on Louis Armstrong's _Ain't Misbehavin'_

(2) "I don't know who that was, Leonard. Sounds good in spots, but I don't like that kind of trumpet playing....It's a good little number except for that interlude and that tired way of playing trumpet. I'll give that three stars." August 1958, on Don Elliott and Rusty Dedrick's _Gargantuan Chant_

(3) "Clark Terry, right? You know, I've always liked Clark. But this is a sad record. Why do they make records like that? With the guitar in the way, and that sad...piano player. He didn't do nothing for the rhythm section - didn't you hear it get jumbled up? All they needed was a bass and Terry." June 1964, on Clark Terry's _Cielito Lindo_

(4) "I don't dig that kind of , man, just a straight thirty-two bars, I mean whatever it is....It's formal, man, and scales and all that....No kind of sound, straight sound - no imagination. They shouldn't even put that out....Freddie's a great trumpet player....if he's directed, because he must have other imagination, other than this. I wouldn't even put that on a record." June 1968, on Freddie Hubbard's _On the Que-Tee_

It's unfortunate that the submitter chose the most negative of the 4 to submit. Reading all 4 paints Miles in a much more balanced light.

For people interested, I made a Spotify playlist with as much of these songs as I could find (only 17 out of 34): http://open.spotify.com/user/timotheeb/playlist/05rxkOr1UWrP...

Admittedly, I might not have always picked the exact version but it's sometimes hard to tell. Also, it's for the 4 different sessions as linked by jeroen: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4258777

Out of curiousity, what is leading people to upvote this? It's a guy I've heard of but don't particularly listen to slagging on a whole bunch of other guys I haven't, and praising a few others I haven't. This is an honest question, not a "this doesn't belong on HN" because I assume there is something here I'm missing? I mean, yes, he's a master of the field and this is certainly an interesting link for somewhere, but what's the HN hook here?

You said it yourself, he's a master of the field.

I think it's in everyone's interest, and especially HN's[1] to learn as much as possible about, and from, all masters in their fields. Anything that can broaden your horizon can give you a better perspective on not just culture in general[2] but your life as an individual.

Thanks to this article I found a fantastic song in "Desafinado". Maybe one day I'll happen to be in conversation with a jazz buff and I'll be able to discuss it with a modicum of intelligence.

One should never argue that learning in any field (especially from the masters) is "irrelevant" (not saying that you are), as any and all learning is precious.

[1] I'd posit that HN is less about software, programming, startups, etc, etc than it is about enlightening people to become entrepreneurs and taste makers within our individual fields (which happen to be computationally based) while encouraging a general thirst for knowledge.

[2] As entrepreneurs and people who hopefully deliver value to customers, knowledge about the culture we live in is tantamount in delivering a product that resonates with our target market.

Try Desafinado without Getz - Joao Gilberto is another master.

We've discussed Miles Davis on a number of occasions here at HN. It's exactly up our alley...or, at least, the upvotes seem to indicate it is, and I agree that it is.

Here's why I think he's interesting:

1. He was an astonishingly good businessman in a time when black men were rarely given opportunities in business, even in the music industry. He is nearly unique even in the jazz world (which was better for black folks than most other industries of the time) for the level of his business success.

2. He was a great leader. He's regarded as one of the best jazz band leaders ever. He helped nurture multiple generations of jazz greats. If you can name a jazz legend from any time until his death, they probably played with Miles before they were a legend. An executive at a startup would do well to learn from him how to pass on skills and help develop even greater talents than their own (many people who played with Miles ended up being better musicians than Miles, and pretty much all became better than they were before they played with Miles).

3. He's interesting. Which could be enough. Nerds like interesting people and things.

the "great businessman" things are nice to believe. have any links to substantiate?

I "know" Miles from his younger days with Diz and Bird. A middle class kid from KC - one or both parents dentists who weren't planning on a musician for a son. Much talent at a young age - he toured w the creators of Be Bop, fer cripe's sake. Think he rescued Bird on the road more than once.

All of this is recalled from Phil Schaap's Bird Flight on WKCR. It'd be great to know Miles was a briliant businessman in addition, too.

Quoting from one of the last articles before he died (he was still working up until the year of his death):

"And the Prince of Silence is still being royally rewarded for doing it. His Highness's treasury is overflowing. Money is every bit as important to him as creativity. Or rather, they are inseparable. Obliging record companies, promoters and broadcasters to pay top dollar also commits them to saturation promotion, which encourages business and maintains the price. Money is a symbol of reality, even - especially - money for nothing.

Miles said he could put together a better rock band than Jimi Hendrix. He advised young musicians to learn rock, rhythm and blues and funk tunes rather than jazz standards. "I have to change," he said. "It's like a curse." Miles goes to the money, but it's more complicated than that: The money comes to him.

He has been paid millions to expand frontiers, to reflect the best of our urban experience, to do exactly what he wanted to do and did better than anyone else - to "play what's not there." The artistry with which he relates to money is an art in itself, an integral part of what makes him - whether he likes it or not - a living legend. His multimillion-dollar mansion in Malibu is one of his greatest hits. Miles Davis plays money with as much conviction as he does the trumpet.

After college, I worked in my family's business. Jealous of Miles for making money and music, I compensated by eating and drinking. Coming out of the Russian Tea Room after a three-martini lunch with Bethlehem Steel one afternoon, I crossed Miles stepping out of his Ferrari on the way in. Wearing a Savile Row suit, a Billy Eckstine shirt collar and leather driving gloves with belts on them, he punched me harder than playfully in the stomach and said: "You're getting fat, Mike.""

Ok all that is great I am still not seeing the connection to HN.

"anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity"

Found in http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

I'd say this definitely gratifies my intellectual curiosity, though I can understand if you don't feel the same.

An article that has nothing to do with technology, programming, computers, computer science, and barely anything to do with business. Actually sounds like it falls into the off-topic category:

"Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon. Videos of pratfalls or disasters, or cute animal pictures. If they'd cover it on TV news, it's probably off-topic."

It is an interesting article and I love Miles Davis but it doesn't belong on HN. Stop trying to fool yourself. Almost anything could be considered to satisfy one's intellectual curiosity. That is a silly cop-out.

Then you haven't been here long enough. Give it time.

I agree with the points you make, but I really don't see anything but (unscientific) opinions in the linked article.

This article says nothing about why Miles was a good businessman or expound on his leadership skills. All it gives us is insight into his taste in composition styles. That, coupled with the fact that music is a highly unscientific endeavor and the reasons he gives for disliking some of the works might be the exact reasons why others might love those very works, makes this article completely useless IMHO.

I found it interesting. And, I see parallels to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Both of whom are merciless critics.

Does that make it "HN-worthy"? I dunno. It got voted up. I don't consider that a sure sign of worthiness...memes and jokes would also get voted up if they weren't ruthlessly removed by mods, and they definitely aren't HN-worthy. But, I suspect this has something to teach us...or at least provides interesting conversation fodder in areas that most people here probably previously had none. I studied jazz at a high school for fine arts and in college, and Miles Davis is a huge part of a jazz education; I still feel like this gave me some knowledge about Miles that I didn't quite have before (I knew he was a merciless critic, and extremely forthright, and occasionally an asshole; but I don't think I'd ever read it straight from his mouth...I'd read what his band members had said about him).

The fact that his band members were still loyal to him also parallels Steve Jobs: even though their character is often described as unpleasant, these people still retained their allies.

Also see this econtalk episode: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/06/jonah_lehrer_on.htm...

> And I thought about the following. Jobs and Dylan had something in common, which is they blurted out often cruel things to people around them, which we often call--as adults we call it selfish. [...]

> [Jonah Lehrer]: It all comes back. No, no, it's a fascinating question. What really interests me about that is, especially in terms of Steve Jobs, because I think we've got this epic biography of him at this point, is the way it complicates our traditional notions of self-control. I think we often think of self-control as domain-general : If you've got self-control, you can exert self-control in every facet of your life.

Lord help us if everything unscientific is useless.

On the contrary, anything unscientific is great. I am a musician myself and I find proof based scientific discussions very claustrophobic at times.

All I am trying to say is, in this case, the article is a bunch of opinion from a Jazz musician about fellow Jazz musicians and bands. How does this fit in with other HN threads?

I would say that something like Frank Zappa on censorship [1] [2] is much more suited to HN discussion than this link.

[1] http://www.joesapt.net/superlink/shrg99-529/p51.html#fztesti...

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ISil7IHzxc

" I am a musician myself and I find proof based scientific discussions very claustrophobic at times."

How do you rate the musicians you play with?

I have to make judgements about students and (at this time of year) prospective students in terms of which course and which level to allocate them to.

I imagine that the founders of a startup who are responding to a sudden increase in use/market have to make judgements about their colleagues when scaling up the responsibilties.

The way Davis is making judgements about his peers and the particular recordings shows something about his approach.

How does this fit in with other HN threads?

But not everything ought to fit in! The mandate is simply to be interesting and not lame.

I'm over my meta quota now.

p.s. I like your use of the word 'claustrophobic' there. Very nice.

>All it gives us is insight into his taste in composition styles. That, coupled with the fact that music is a highly unscientific endeavor and the reasons he gives for disliking some of the works might be the exact reasons why others might love those very works, makes this article completely useless IMHO.

You seem to conflate "unscientific" with "anything goes".

Honest answer, I upvoted it because I'm sick of reading the typical banal stuff on HN.

It's quite refreshing to see, too.

One interesting thing about Miles Davis is that he never stopped inovating. Several times in his career he could have comfortably sticked to what he was doing and just enjoy the fame and money, but he pushed on. This kind of self-sincerity is quite inspiring regardless of the profession.

I agree. He was tirelessly innovating, and he was rigorous about it by always choosing the best players and letting them influence him as well. He also wasn't afraid of calling out other musicians on their crap, or praising others for playing brilliantly ("motherfuckers" he called them in his autobiography).

I believe his contribution to music was more profound because he kept evolving and maintained his no-bullshit attitude. I admire that as both a musician and a software engineer. I'm grateful for this link showing up on HN too!

As an amateur musician, and a longtime fan of Downbeat magazine's "blind listening" tests, this was an interesting read for me. But I concur that it seems out of place here.

P.S. That recording of "Desafinado" that he comments on is one of my favorite songs of all time. All of that Bossa stuff that Stan Getz did for that matter.

As a huge Miles Davis fan I was very tempted to upvote this but refrained from doing so. My general rule of thumb is to not upvote/comment on anything unless it is absolutely relevant to HN's outlook (I'm obviously making an exception for this comment). Anything it takes to keep HN the way it is.

HN is eclectic the way it is. The guidelines call for anything of intellectual interest. The bar tends to be higher for atypical material, that's all.

This piece is good because it's a great artist speaking frankly about his craft. It's surprisingly vivid. I'm not a jazz fan and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

You can learn more from a great artist in a different field than from an average worker in your own.

Agreed, but I'm heartened to see that some subset of HN shares at least one of my life-long interests. I found this highly entertaining.

And really, I don't think it's much of stretch to liken a great jazz musician to a great developer. The flow, improvisation and interpretation in the music. The way notes and bars can come together to become something greater than the sum of their parts. You can find all that in great code too :)

I enjoyed the great style with which he slagged on everyone. When you have a deep understanding of a field you notice every minute flaw, even in your own work. This hyperattention to detail makes your own work better. I got a kick out of it because he sounds like every other jaded craftsman stuck in a world of idiots.

For me: I played a little bit of jazz band in college, and every single semester 30% of the band was made up of engineer students (my comp sci friends were comp sci students/jazz band members).

Miles was one of my first loves in high school. RE this article, he praises some of my favorites, and slams some of my favorites, so the upvote is because I never knew his take on these songs and players, so it's very enlightening!

Perhaps it was editorial, but in this interview if Miles likes it he knows exactly who did it, and if not, why he doesn't like it. It could be that he just didn't like things he wasn't familiar with, but it's likely that he had a clear sense of style and was versed enough to know his industry.

If he were a modern programmer he would hate Rails, but know exactly why the bad decisions were made.

I can absolutely assure you he was very familiar with each of the people he heard, they are all famous even today...

Even when he hated it, he seemed to be able to figure out who it was.

If he were a modern programmer he would hate Rails

oooh, them's fightin' words...

If languages were music, Rails would be something gloriously bombastic like Dream Theater's live performance of Six Degrees on their Score album. C would be BB King - timeless and simple yet complex. I think Perl would be that guy with the funny haircut who sounds like a modem

This made me smile, but I think Perl is more like Robert Pollard/Guided by Voices. Both seem like kind of a mess to the uninitiated (and even the initiated). Both hit their stride in the mid-90s. And both are still around, remain influential, and are just as productive today, even if they have a lower profile.

It's interesting that this sort of thing is seen as a guy slagging records rather than a man just giving his (educated and experienced) opinion, like many others who are dedicated to their craft tend to do.

We can't be that bogged down with fake sincerity/showmanship that this is seen as novel or particularly harsh, can we? I don't know. There's nothing pompous about this. He sounds like me when I listen to a thing or read a thing or watch a thing, though I'll feel a little guilt about thinking those things at times since I haven't exactly reached Miles Davis status.

Yes! Many commenters here seem to assume he is being hyper-critical of minor details. But to me it reads like someone who legitimately thinks many of these recordings are really sad attempts at playing jazz. I'm not far enough immersed in jazz to be able to tell if I'd agree or not.

But it feels very much like the criticisms I hear all the time in the Irish traditional music scene. I recently listened to a bunch of sound samples from a duo recording by two top Irish musicians. It sounded like two great musicians playing at the same time, rather than an actual duo. The difference was probably all things that someone who wasn't experienced with the field would never notice. For instance, the tiny internal rhythms of the tunes were not syncing up.

My guess is that Davis is hearing things like that in the recordings and legitimately complaining about them, rather than just being hyper-critical. Especially the "What am I supposed to say to that? That’s ridiculous. You see the way they can fuck up music? It’s a mismatch. They don’t complement each other," comment on "Caravan". He sounds really disappointed that three musicians he loves aren't making better music together.

Edited to add: I believe the album in question is Money Jungle. Just listened to a sample from that track. I think I can hear what Davis is talking about, but that might be the power of suggestion. That said, the album as a whole has lots of really favorable reviews on Amazon.com...

Yes, that's interesting....

Just because something is creative, or created, doesn't mean it is worthy of uncritical adulation. You actually have to critique to improve; assuming perfection limits your capacity to learn from the flaws. Considering a work and grasping what it seeks to be, then understanding where its missed the mark - that can produce learning and drives the question, "How can I improve? How can I incorporate this knowledge of the gap into my own work".

Miles Davis has recorded some BS as well, lest we not forget. That made his comments about why did they put out that record or record companies this or that into some perspective. Perhaps it was part of his frustrations of his own shortcomings at the hands of record labels.

Music performance is one of the hardest things to be satisfied with every time... I recommend this book. It talks about perfection and fear and inadequacy. Just took it off my bookshelf to random-access read again.


That was required reading at the conservatory I went to years ago. (Not by the teachers, among us classmates. We made everyone read that we interacted with)

Got to play with Kenny at a jam thing a decade ago. Absolutely amazing experience.

There is so much that I can extrapolate on this subject, but I believe the greatest hurdle for a serious musician is that after you master all the dexterity, independence and music theory, the biggest hurdle is your own fucking self.

> Music performance is one of the hardest things to be satisfied with every time...

Even the greatest Jazz legends would typically say they only had a handful of performances in their career where they were really satisfied and where everything came together and worked perfectly. And these were musicians who practiced hours on end each and every day, on top of performing. Truly humbling.

Pretty neat to read Davis' thoughts on other players but this would have been so much better if the recordings could have been embedded so we can hear what he heard.

If that helps, I made a Spotify playlist for some of songs of the 4 different sessions (17 out of 34) that were linked by jeroen: http://open.spotify.com/user/timotheeb/playlist/05rxkOr1UWrP...

Thanks for compiling this. It helps get a bit more depth out of the article and at least strive to hear what Miles was talking about (although some of it honestly still alludes me).


Very similar article featuring guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. I'm not sure you could paint Malmsteen in the same well-rounded light as Miles, however, from a guitar players perspective, it's quite entertaining to read.

You might also enjoy The Wire's ongoing feature "Invisible Jukebox." Amazon carries the anthology, featuring Steve Albini, Philip Glass, Sonic Youth, et al.:


Sounds very interesting, thanks for the link!

>> Each month a star guest is played an eclectic and provoking series of records which they are asked to identify and comment on, with no prior knowledge of what it is they will hear. The conversations that ensue are often controversial and always entertaining.

If you'd like a different perspective, read "The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958" by John Litweiler. Litweiler is a huge proponent of free jazz artists like Cecil Taylor and quite dismissive of Miles Davis fusion records.

That was so great to read, detailed poetics from a real master. I listened to some of the stuff he felt was "sad shit". I sure agree with him on Cecil Taylor!

Miles telling it like it is. He really dug Hank Jones's piano playing and chose him for Cannonball's "Something Else" and some live gigs, but if it ain't working on the Clark Terry album he says so.

I think its clear he is a dick, but its nice to hear someone be brutally honest about people that most people wouldn't venture to criticize. He could do it because he was the michael jordan of jazz at the time, I guess. Most of us have to watch our mouths because you can't hate on people that are better than you...

Also, I felt a sick pleasure hearing him rip apart eric dolphy- I have never liked that guy! why did coltrane play with him?!?!

Apologies: I stopped reading the moment I saw the words "Miles David".

You missed out because of a typo. Congrats.

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