|The investment books most likely to improve one’s abilities to invest successfully will not be the ones providing recommendations of what stocks to buy, and right now. Most valuable are books providing information to help guide intelligent decision-making.|
The investment books most likely to improve one’s abilities to invest successfully will not be the ones providing recommendations of what stocks to buy, and right now. Nor will a book simply offering models of fund-centric portfolios based on the age, temperament or any other attributes of their intended audience. Most valuable are books providing information to help guide intelligent decision-making. Though the classic works of Benjamin Graham and Philip Fisher are often recommended, their extreme technical orientation serves mostly to alienate less obsessive investors. Below are some suggestions for the less rabid, but no less enthusiastic investor looking to get smarter.
A great place to begin is Winning the Loser’s Game by Charles Ellis, originally published in 1985. It is far too easy to be blinded by success stories like those of Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch. The simple reality – clearly demonstrated by Ellis – is that few people (or mutual funds and their managers, or individual stocks) manage to consistently beat the market over time. His explanation of how people can appear to be great investors when in fact their success is due to statistical survivorship bias is eye-opening. Understanding the damage we inflict on ourselves through preventable mistakes, high-risk gambles and most significantly the fees we choose to pay as investors is vital if we want to be successful as investors. How could have taken over thirty years for this message to sink in?
A personal favorite from 2012 and one, it should be noted that several Invest-Notes readers have been less impressed with, is Antifragile by Naseem Taleb. This investment book is a refinement of his first work, Fooled by Randomness, published about twenty-five years ago. Taleb goes way beyond the idea of a “Black Swan Event” (a term he coined, and title of his best selling book, though not a favorite of mine) and discusses not only how to avoid unexpected events, but how to benefit from them when, not if they happen. As Taleb cleverly explains: experts aren’t; things that can’t happen will; and like physical exercise, stress can be harnessed for self-improvement. Don’t let his arrogance distract you from the invaluable insights being offered. Taleb’s most recent book, Skin in the Game, published earlier this year is also terrific – but more valuable if read after Antifragile.
Another good primer is the original edition of The Millionaire Next Door published in 1996. That some of the book’s conclusions have been shown to be faulty does not take away from the value Millionaire can offer would-be Warren Buffett’s. Short of winning a lottery (and that includes the genetic lottery), fortunes are most likely to be built over time, through luck, hard work, and patience. The many stories discussed in Millionaire provide practical examples of how to make the most of our current situation. This includes the single best thing anyone hoping to accumulate significant assets can do: Live beneath your means. It also helps explain why on lists of the wealthiest Americans over three-quarters are self-made, having created a fortune rather than inheriting one. Yes, you can be the millionaire next door, just not right away.
While The Essays of Warren Buffett is on many lists (and is on my bookshelf), there is another text providing a more insightful overview of how great investors operate. This book from 2000 also demonstrates beyond any doubt that there is no one single path leading to success. Money Masters of Our Time, by John Train, provides provocative insights into the thinking of seventeen of the most successful investors of the 20th century. It is here you will see that Buffett’s earliest successes came with risk most of us would never consider and that he has never repeated. Also worth noting is that several of these investors, among them some of the richest people on the planet, don’t use their wealth as anything but a scorecard. If there was ever proof demanded that having all the money doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness, this book is it.
Finally, More Money Than God by Sebastian Mallaby can do more to explain hedge funds, what they do, and how they work than other investment books you can read. The U.S. financial system, and the Wall Street crowd, in particular, have never met a good idea that couldn’t be abused and corrupted. Read in tandem with Money Managers, the world of investing will look very different when you’re done. The origins of these curious investment vehicles (and the people who created them) are fascinating, with many of the concepts still applicable, even for the individual investors reading this note.
|Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.|
Half listening to the radio, my full attention turned suddenly to a song I hadn’t heard before. After a couple of minutes, I guessed it must be from a new album from Kamasi Washington. Turns out there is a recent release from Washington, Heaven and Earth, that came out in June. Though relatively new to the scene as a leader, there is a lot of personality in Washington’s music. His sound is distinct, much more so than many other musicians with a larger jazz catalog.
There was tremendous hype, even internationally, surrounding the release of Washington’s 2015 album The Epic. I found it to be a huge, chaotic, sprawling and often frustrating work. Clocking in at almost 3-hours, the range of his music touched on everything, from old jazz standards to Debussy’s Claire de Lune, from free jazz to musically challenging sounds hard to classify. Whether you find his music exhilarating or exasperating, it demands attention. So, it was a surprise to read a review of Heaven and Earth in a mainstream jazz publication that sounded more like a critique of Washington than his new album.
Washington’s sensibilities are clearly on display with this new album.
Brash horns and choirs often fill curious corners of his music. In some ways, it is difficult to think that Washington even has a “sound” since the music stretches to include so many styles and motifs. And yet, there I was certain this song was by Washington and must be something new, rather than a song from his other post-Epic release, Throttle Elevator Music IV (which includes music recorded during the Epic sessions). Of course, he has a sound, a big one, and it is recognizable.
Yet the gist of the review article was a complaint that Washington wasn’t adding anything new to the “jazz canon.” There was, it claimed, no new insights being delivered, just variations on existing themes with the juxtaposition of straight ahead, free jazz and everything in between giving the impression of “new things.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Washington’s jazz mash-ups are attention-getting because of their sprawling sounds. We do hear old things performed in new ways that sound interesting because of their often odd juxtapositions. I can’t speak to cannons – other than to say their sound might make an interesting punctuation in some of the more aggressive Washington recordings.
The Kamasi Washington Sound.
A comparison of Washington’s rendition of Cherokee with those of widely respected players provides for a striking example of his “sound.” Listen to versions of the Ray Noble jazz standard by sax players Charlie Parker in 1942 (which he remade into KoKo) and Stan Getz in 1960, or from a vocalist like Dee Dee Bridgewater in 1998. Nothing in Washington’s version sounds derivative that I can tell.
Then, right after you play Cherokee, listen to Washington’s Miss Understanding, also from The Epic, and the range of his musical vision is clearly on display. Seemingly, every song needs its own “sound” and Washington strives, and mostly succeeds, in putting a personal touch on every number. Even when that personal touch is at odds with other songs sitting in the same queue.
In a significant way, Kamasi Washington reminds me of Dizzy Gillespie.
For folks outside of the jazz orbit, the image of Dizzy embodied the spirit of jazz. The beret and goatee, the puffed-up cheeks, the boisterous laugh and welcoming personality. Yet even hardcore jazz fans can be challenged by some of his more aggressive music – “jeez, how does he get to a register that high? And why does he play so shrill for so long?” Salt Peanuts was important but is also an acquired taste. People talked about the man, not so much his music.
It now feels like for many Kamasi fills the role of what jazz should look like. A review of The Epic in The Economist and a more recent interview this summer in Monocle, heralded this new savior of jazz: The big man with the big hair and even bigger sound, facing the world head-on and coincidently plays jazz. But Washington’s music doesn’t get much discussion in these conversations. Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.
|Eric Fischl does a fabulous job explaining not just how he goes about the creative process, but how his creative process came to be what it is.|
Eric Fischl’s 2013 autobiography, Bad Boy, is quite the piece of work – literally. His name was familiar to me, though his paintings were not. One of the New Kids that came of age, and fame, in the early 1980’s by putting figurative back into contemporary art. Julian Schnabel and David Salle being his contemporaries. The book is split pretty evenly between his personal history, professional life, thoughts on art, and making for often-uncomfortable reading. Finding some modicum of peace in this world depends on ensuring your personal demons don’t get the upper hand. Mr. Fischl seems to have fought the hard fight and won.
The reason to read this book, though, is the fabulous job Eric Fischl does in explaining not just how he goes about the creative process, but how his creative process came to be what it is. While it has been argued (mostly, it seems, in reviews of the book) his self-introspection borders on navel-gazing in the worst possible sense. That view is completely wrong-headed.
Eric Fischl’s conviction of the artist as a storyteller resonates strongly with me. To hear the artist as a young man was motivated by the works of both Mondrian and Max Beckmann is a testament to his longstanding desire to understand art in all its richness, contrast and complexity. Though disagreeing with, for example, his assessment of artists like Sol Lewitt, Fischl still makes a solid case for how the ideas of what really good minimalist artists were trying to say were hijacked by the intellectually lazy.
In contrast, Fischl is adamant to a degree harmful for many of his personal relationships, that the artist must have something to say. More important, the artist must have something to say that someone else actually wants to hear. The failure of Art to retain its place of pride as a shared cultural touchstone is correctly blamed on hubris. On page 341, Fischl makes the following comment, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard artists saying, ‘Fuck the audience.’ But I thought: Why fuck the audience? Why not involve the audience?”
The many, brilliant passages where Fischl discusses his creative process, for both individual works as well as his overarching philosophies, are illuminating, and oddly familiar. In 1983 the author Umberto Eco published a very small book, Postscript to The Name of the Rose. In the fifth chapter, Eco uses almost identical words to describe almost identical examples of how an author goes about creating an interesting narrative – interesting for both the writer and the audience. A touchstone for the creative process?
|“Like his more celebrated contemporary Miles Davis, Giuffre remains a musical chameleon, a distinctive stylist who constantly feels compelled to change his sonic setting.” -Ted Gioia |
Jimmy Giuffre: The Headstream of Divergent Tangents
Jimmy Giuffre is not much heard these days. In fact, I’ll argue that the handful of jazz chroniclers who even dwell on his work are mostly focused on the wrong music. Much is made of Giuffre “anticipating forms of free improvisation” through his thoughtful experimentation within the jazz idiom. Specifically, his work with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow are consistently mentioned as a seminal moment in jazz; an anticipation and then foundation-setting music associated with the later works of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. It is not clear this emphasis on the free jazz aspect of Giuffre’s career isn’t more a case of sources repeating each other, rather than a result of critical listening to his music. This work is not so interesting to me.
The most intelligent and sympathetic discussion of Jimmy Giuffre and his life in music will be found in Ted Gioia’s terrific book, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 and originally published in 1992. Giuffre’s music included many strikingly distinct periods, many difficult for even a hardcore fan to appreciate. Stories emanate from a stint at North Texas State, when the school was in its formative years in becoming a beacon of jazz education, followed then by the heady influence of a religious mystic (a decade before it was the trendy thing to seek). Later would come Giuffre’s early success as a composer, rather than player, with Woody Herman providing some interesting context for the career that would follow.
Jimmy Giuffre Goes Experimental
The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet from 1956 is a touchstone for understanding Giuffre’s development as a player and composer. The controlled transition from straight ahead to a more experimental style of jazz is what makes it sound so rich. Thirteen musicians participate on this album, but none play on more than three of the songs. No more than six musicians are ever included in a single track. And the first number, “So Low” is a solo piece, featuring just a clarinet and leather shoe. Only the third album with Giuffre as the leader, the future begins to come into focus. Here is a crisp, quiet, somewhat dissonant sound that is unique to the time. Even the pop music covers convey a special interpretation.
Next in line was The Jimmy Giuffre 3 also from 1956, when Jim Hall joins Giuffre, along with bassist Ralph Pena, who now comprise the entire ensemble. This music, without piano or drums, and such limited orchestration, offers a surprisingly full sound. The distance between the numbers “The Song is You” and “Forty-Second Street” is long, though not hard to follow. The music is experimental but still filled with playfulness and jazz motifs easy to digest. While other fine music from Giuffre, in the vicinity of these two recordings would appear, his desire to explore moved inexorably into uncharted waters.
|The late hard-edged paintings by both of these artists inform each other, but the calligraphic-like images show another alignment of thought leading to a similar solution.|
While reviewing some black and white photos of painting exhibits from the late 1930’s that featured the work of Piet Mondrian, I was struck by the resemblance of the paintings from this period to calligraphy. Frankly, it appeared to be very much in the genre of Japanese art where the calligraphy is the art. In these old photos, the blocks of color become black fill for horizontal and vertical lines of varying widths, with many appearing to be some unknown and cryptic alphabet.
The similarity to work by Ad Reinhardt from 1948 to 1951 was pretty striking, and not something I had noticed before. The late hard-edged paintings by both of these artists inform each other, but the calligraphic-like images show another alignment of thought leading to a similar solution. With so much focus on Mondrian’s later, iconic work, other than a 1987 catalog from a Mondrian exhibit in Japan, his calligraphic works don’t appear to have been much reproduced. Nor have I seen examples on display at museums with respectable collections of Mondrian’s paintings.
And while we’re talking about curious similarities between artists, Piet Mondrian created a series of paintings in 1919 that appear to me as precursors to work by Sol Lewitt. Specifically, Composition with Grid 1 and Composition with Grid 4 (called lozenge paintings; a square canvas with the corner oriented to the top). For Mondrian’s development, these paintings are the bridge between earlier geometric paintings and the later, more famous paintings of irregular grids with blocks of primary colors.
As Mondrian was trying to reconcile the linear depictions of ocean waves and building facades with his irregular blocks of colors, this series provided a more satisfying result than paintings like Composite in Kleur B from 1917. Yet these Mondrian works can be difficult to associate visually with the later and more famous paintings he is known by today. Similarly, it can be argued that Lewitt’s early efforts with strict cube forms also led to later works featuring pyramids and random forms, far removed from the dogmatic images associated with minimalism. Interesting that Mondrian moves from loose, figurative works to precise geometric paintings of lines and grids while Lewitt moves from precise black and white works informed by the cube to loose, color-filled images of wavy bands and irregular shapes.
|As Einstein taught us during the formative years of these two important artists, nothing can be analyzed in and of itself, but only in comparison to other phenomena.|
Jackson Pollock has always appealed to me more in theory than practice. The idea of an Action Painting is intellectually stimulating and supportive of the notion that the thoughts behind a work can be more significant than the final outcome (an idea Sol Lewitt took to beautiful extremes). Yet then there’s that awkward moment, when confronted by one of Pollock’s major drip paintings up close and personal, magic happens. The painting comes to life, a beautiful example of practice fully manifested and theory be damned. An encounter with Greyed Rainbow from 1953 is a forceful reminder of how powerful some of Jackson Pollock’s paintings are.
A new twist on enjoying that painting was the opportunity to compare the Pollock to a work by Willem de Kooning, Excavation from 1950, while both were on display a few seasons ago at the Art Institute of Chicago. Roughly the same size, the two paintings made a stunning pair. Though both are considered paragons of Abstract Expression, the aesthetic and intellectual underpinnings of their work are not easily reconciled. Nonetheless, they still manage to deliver stunning similar results, but through different means of execution.
The deliberateness of de Kooning’s strokes provides an interesting contrast to the splash and drip of Pollock. That this Pollock also includes touches of a pale yellow that also permeates the de Kooning allows for thoughtful comparison. Viewed as a pair the two paintings serve as bookends to the notion of how an Action Painting is created. As I seem to recall from art school days, early on Pollock sometimes started with a figurative entity then layers on the paint until the subject was obliterated. A return to using figurative elements late in his career was accompanied by a much darker color pallet. de Kooning, on the other hand, never fully abandoned using figurative elements in his works – especially representations of the female form (sort of). de Kooning also tended to offer a brighter overall appearance (once past the black and white paintings of the 1940s).
Indeed, on close examination, it is not hard to look at the de Kooning as a sky filled with clouds that can be imagined as objects (sort of). Whereas the Pollock can only be viewed as an exercise in pure abstraction (paint for paint’s sake). Yet both land firmly, and reside comfortably, in the world of Abstract Expressionism Action Paintings. As Einstein taught us during the formative years of these two important artists, nothing can be analyzed in and of itself, but only in comparison to other phenomena.
|“All card playing is not gambling, all stock purchases are not investing…”|
– Jim Paul, What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars
What the heck is an investment plan? Open a brokerage account or interview a financial planner and you get handed a questionnaire intended to help determine what kind of investor you are – or will be, as a new client. But how do you answer a question like “Rate your tolerance for risk on a scale of 1-to-5?” A person willing to blow $1000 at the blackjack table while on a vacation in Las Vegas could be appalled at losing that same $1000 on a stock purchase. The glib advice – embarrassingly repeated at Invest-Notes on occasion – that everyone should have “An Investment Plan” isn’t really much help.
Investors must know themselves
Creating an investment plan is not complicated, but it does involve some critical thinking. First, acknowledge we have no control whatsoever over the movement of investments like equities, real estate or gold. There is no way to know if a stock is going to go up, and if it does, how high it can go. On the other hand, how much money you are willing to lose is entirely up to you. In essence, your investment plan is simply a set of rules to ensure that you never lose more money than you can afford.
As an investor, you can tell yourself that the stock you just bought is going to double in price, but that’s just a guess. Deciding that you are not going to lose more than, let’s just say 20%, while waiting to see if your guess is correct is the purpose of a plan. Conversely, suppose you are right and the stock does go up 100%. A decision made in advance to sell the stock anytime it drops more than 20% as the price goes up ensures you turn some of those paper profits into real ones. Prudent investors manage risk by making sure they never let emotions influence their decision making.
Second, you have to decide who you are every single time you make a transaction involving invested capital. You will not always be the same person, and if you become someone new in the middle of an investment episode your odds of failure grow exponentially. Along with a decision on what you are willing to spend in pursuit of a gain, you need to consider who you are. In the final analysis, it’s deciding in advance whether a piece of real estate, a stock, or a poker game (there are successful professionals in this field) is an investment, speculation or a gamble.
Privateering as an Investment Strategy
(Hint: The Only Yields are Literary)
By: Gerry Scott
A friend’s generous and thoughtful gift of a print depicting a late 17th century sailing ship led me to consider what I might contribute to his site by way of a thank you. Since the site deals with thoughts on art, jazz, and investments, and frequently discusses books that deal with those subjects, I thought bringing his readers’ attention to three books on the unlikely union of high-seas adventure in pursuit of wealth and English literature might be appropriate.
In the early 18th century there was a great deal of interest in England in the possibility of reaping financial reward from trade with what was then known as the South Sea, on the model of the success of British trade with the East Indies. At the time the South Sea comprised the southern Pacific Ocean that washed upon the shores of South and Central America from Tierra del Fuego (and Cape Horn) as far north as California. While there was indeed wealth to be made in trade with the region, there was a major flaw in the scheme for British investors in that it overlooked the strict proprietary interest the Spanish Crown maintained over its colonies. So, despite the formation of the South Sea Company along the lines of the Honorable East India Company, and the extraordinary investment in it that ultimately led to the financially disastrous “South Sea Bubble,” it was highly unlikely that there would be much financial gain for British investors in the company’s stock.
There was, however, another tried and true way for loyal Britons to reap financial rewards from Spain’s colonies on the South Sea. This method was known as privateering, in which a civilian ship captain would outfit a vessel as a warship, similar to that shown in the print, and sail it on behalf of the British government against the sovereign’s foes, seizing enemy merchant ships and plundering them along the way. While this might sound like piracy, it was made perfectly legal by the ship captain obtaining a Letter of Marque from his government. It was a plan that adventurous English sea dogs had followed since the days of Sir Francis Drake.
It was this second scheme of investment that a group of London merchants decided to follow when they banded together and outfitted two vessels as privateers, the Speedwell, and the Success. The resulting voyage of the Speedwell was to ultimately play a role in the creation of one of the best-known English narrative poems of the 19th century, while the voyage of the Success would present a brief moment in time, only recently discovered, when history and literature intersect in an extraordinary way. Each of the three books dealing with these vessels has a role to play in recounting the events.
Of the three, the account written by one of the privateer captains is especially engaging. A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World by George Shelvocke has been reissued in the Seafarer’s Voices series by Seaforth Publishing. If you are unfamiliar with the series but are interested in accounts of life at sea told by those who lived it, then this series is well worth your notice. Each volume is an abridged and edited version of the original, with footnotes and a useful introduction. Vincent McInerney, who served in the merchant marine and worked for the BBC, provides the notes and introduction to Shelvocke’s account.
Shelvocke, who had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy before undertaking his privateering voyage, originally published his account in 1726, four years after his 1719-1722 voyage. He did so largely to counter legal charges (including piracy, ironically) brought against him by the Gentlemen Adventurers after his return to England, and to refute the character assassination job done against him by the former commander of marines aboard the Speedwell, William Betagh, who had published an account the previous year.
Shelvocke’s work is an interesting tale of lashing storms, a troublesome and untrustworthy crew, outlandish battles fought at sea and ashore, great privation and near starvation, and even a shipwreck on a deserted island, the same island that Alexander Selkirk – the model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – inhabited. But Shelvocke’s work is more than an adventure story, for he takes pains to include descriptive passages of the things he has seen that address natural history, anthropology, and geography, helping to place him in the category of the literary gentleman-scholar and appealing to Europe’s keen interest in reading travel literature describing the wider world at the time.
What gains Shelvocke’s real contribution to literature, however, is a brief passage in which he records that while rounding Cape Horn, his second in command, Simon Hatley, in a melancholy fit, shot a solitary albatross that has been accompanying them for several days. Some seventy years later, William Wordsworth was reading Shelvocke’s book at precisely the time that his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and was in need of a deed that would render the protagonist of his poem cursed.
The second book of the three is The Speedwell Voyage by Kenneth Poolman, who served in the Royal Navy during World War II and went on to work for the BBC. Poolman blends Shelvocke’s narrative with that of the antagonistic Betagh and the journal of George Taylor, Chief Mate aboard the Success to give a fuller account of the voyages of the two vessels. While the differences in the interpretation of events between Shelvocke and Betagh, as each strives to tarnish the other’s image as much as possible, is unresolved, the harrowing stories of both vessels make interesting reading. Additional insight is also given to the curious relationship, or lack thereof, between Shelvocke and the commander of the Success, Captain Clipperton, who may likely have been unhinged.
The third book to deal with the voyage is The Real Ancient Mariner, Pirates and Poesy on the South Sea by Robert Fawke. The author has set himself the task of trying to flesh out the life and career of Simon Hatley, Shelvocke’s melancholy second in command who gains his place in history by potting the unfortunate albatross looking for companionship in desolate seas. And, remarkably, he succeeds in putting quite a bit of flesh on Hatley’s bones. In doing so, he casts a wider historical net describing earlier voyages, the privateering literature of the day, and discovering, along the way, that during the brief time that the Speedwell and the Success cruised in company, Hatley was aboard the Success to represent Speedwell’s interests and so were the models for two other literary characters, Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, and William Dampier, whom Jonathan Swift used as inspiration for his Gulliver.
For interesting nautical reading with a literary flair, these three books each pay dividends.
Electricity was in the air when trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd heard a buzz. Miles was first to noticeably respond to the stimulus with his 1968 release, In A Silent Way. Though George Benson had appeared on one cut from Miles previous album, Miles in the Sky (“Paraphernalia”), it was on In A Silent Way that the electric guitar of John McLaughlin made Miles’ jazz start to rock. The impact of McLaughlin being turned loose on Bitches Brew – along with three electric keyboards, and one electric bass – reverberates among jazz aficionados even today. No need to run down that voodoo here since the story of Bitches Brew and its aftermath is an oft-told tale.
Donald Byrd was also moving away from hard bop at this time, recording some exciting music equally as controversial if less remarked upon. With the 1970 release of Fancy Free (recorded in the spring of 1969), Byrd uses an electric piano (played by Duke Pearson) for the first time. Subsequently, it is often suggested that Byrd was mostly emulating what he heard on Bitches Brew with his exploratory album Electric Byrd in 1970. I disagree.
Miles Davis and Donald Byrd’s Drawn Influences
That many of Byrd’s sounds from the addition of electric instrumentation reflect some influences from Miles at this time is certainly correct. Yet Byrd was moving in a very different direction than Miles, as a critical listening of their music reflects clearly. Not only was the composition of the band’s instruments distinct, more important is the way each went with their subsequent output. And the case can be made it was In A Silent Way that Byrd referenced while recording Electric Byrd. Bitches Brew was released less than a month before Byrd recorded Electric Byrd, hardly enough time to have been an influence.
Much is made, especially by Miles himself, of the impact musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone had on Miles’ music of this period. Yet for a guy who was reputed to have fired band members for “practicing” between gigs, Miles’ music doesn’t really reflect the sound of a Sly Stone or James Brown number, just their attitude. Byrd on the other hand, actually plays the groove, rhythm and funk heard on Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Which, it should be noted, came out in 1971.
A quick look at “who played what instrument” on the two albums, Bitches Brew and Electric Byrd, make comparisons difficult to support. Byrd credits nine musicians, with one flute player appearing on a single song. Again, Duke Pearson on electric piano is the only electric sound. Though it could be argued that Airto, an artist appearing on many Miles recordings, brought a certain sensibility influenced by Miles. Yet it only takes a couple of minutes to get past the space-rock to find a funky jazz groove in “Estavancio”, Electric Byrd’s opening cut. Then along comes two flutes, reverb notwithstanding, to fully ground a jazz fan and later provide a Latin tinge. “Essence” plays with some of the Bitches Brew tropes, but without ever getting lost in them. The closer, “The Dude” speaks to what comes next in Byrd’s output.
The title cut of Bitches Brew has an entirely different sensibility. Nearly three times longer than “Estavancio”, “Bitches Brew” covers an extreme range of velocity and timing without ever finding a groove. Uncomfortable at times, the song glorifies an improvisational method that verges on cacophony as each musician blazes his own trail. Three electric pianos and a bass with McLaughlin again on electric guitar drive this crowd of thirteen. Oh yeah, and two drummers. The music on this album is magical, maddening, often incomprehensible and cannot be hummed. The biggest difference between these two pivotal albums is what happened next.
A variance in approach
Miles chased his electric bunny down a hole most people had a hard time fitting into. His next recording, Jack Johnson, remains a personal favorite and is a more listener-friendly effort likely for being a movie soundtrack. As for Live-Evil and On the Corner, 1972 and 1973 respectively, history has not been so kind. I listen to a lot of jazz with a lot of jazz enthusiasts far more sophisticated than me, and I cannot ever recall somebody playing either of these two albums, even during Miles music marathons. Frankly, these albums don’t sound so good today, just harsh. This was not music for the hoi polloi, an audience Miles sought, but instead suitable mostly for the jazz cognoscenti and die-hard fans.
In contrast, Byrd next released Ethiopian Knights, where groove and funk moved back into the forefront. The addition of Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land helping to move the dial back toward a more approachable jazz sound. In 1972 Byrd managed to find a sound that would drive his next musical phase with the release of Black Byrd. This album, panned in the community of traditionally minded jazz fans, went on to become for decades the biggest selling album in the Blue Note catalog. With help from the Mizell brothers, Byrd started playing a music everyone seemingly wanted to hear – except hardcore jazz-heads.
Interestingly, a look at the time demonstrates that the 1969 album In A Silent Way was also a likely influence for other terrific musicians like Freddie Hubbard and Carlos Santana. Hubbard’s 1970 Red Clay is widely considered one of his stand-out efforts and features Herbie Hancock on electric organ and Ron Carter on electric bass. Santana’s 1972 release Caravanserai is considered a turning point in his career, jazz sensibilities clearly on display. In 1973 Santana recorded an album with John McLaughlin (famous for his edgy work on Bitches Brew) called Love, Devotion, Surrender that couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the electric guitar McLaughlin played while with Miles.
Donald Byrd understood that it was incumbent upon musicians – whether jazz, rock, or pop – to create pathways to their music using every means possible. Miles made music for his muse, ultimately at the expense of many fans. As he stated on the cover of Bitches Brew, his was new “Directions in Music.” For Byrd, this period was about bringing future jazz enthusiasts into the club, with a kind of music that’s inclusive, not exclusive.