If you want to play in the big leagues you need a lot more than a fastball. Today on Shift we look at the musicians who shook off the signals again and again, threw the change up and stayed a step ahead of the crowd.
In 1909 Igor Stravinsky was a sad and lonely composer living with his recently widowed mother in St. Petersburg. A year later he was the world famous composer of the ballet The Firebird, the toast of Paris, and regularly staying up all night with Marcel Proust and Sarah Bernhardt.
If that weren't change enough, three years later he became music's enfant terrible when his massive and savage score to the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps caused a riot at its premiere.
Perhaps most remarkably still, five years and a world war later, Stravinsky had changed once again, with the hyper-efficient The Soldier's Tale (seven players, three actors and a narrator) and two years on, based the ballet Pulcinella on a set of dainty dances from 18th century Italy.
It's worth noting that all of those radically different pieces were big successes, so by the time the ultra-rich American Robert Woods Bliss asked him for a 30th anniversary gift for his wife, Mildred, Stravinsky could do whatever he wanted, and did. The result is the jaunty Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.
Igor and Miles
If there were ever a jazzer who understood the lessons of Stravinsky, it was the coolest son-of-a-dentist New York City has ever seen: Miles Davis. Miles knew that what was cool was what was happening next, but unlike the rest of the world, he didn't wait for anyone else to decide what that was. He just did it first.
Davis's key albums tell the tale very well:
1957: The Birth of the Cool made with the brilliant Canadian arranger Gil Evans, the album was released 7 years late but still way ahead of its time.
1959: Kind of Blue blew away bebop's harmonic density and flights of fancy with open, spacious grooves and a bluesy modality that changed everything for everyone -- especially the album's stellar band.
The temptation for many artists, after lodging that kind of stellar fame, would be stay in the groove, to just keep cranking out gently groovy jazz from then on, and let the lolly roll in... not Miles.
1970: Bitches Brew made every other of Davis's many changes seem trivial. The album not only announced the careers of Joe Zawinal, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, among others, it created the genre they all would mine for the rest of their careers.
Herbie's Big Break
Even if we look at Davis as nothing more than a talent scout, his achievements are stunning, with a list of proteges that would make an entire record store blush. One of his most successful discoveries was Herbie Hancock.
When it came to the change up, Herbie learned well from the master, notching a pop hit of his own in 1962 with "Watermelon Man."
Then, 11 years later, Hancock blew it and all expectations away with a pseudo tribal electronic funk jam on the same tune on his proto-fusion album Headhunters.
There's one in every crowd
Now, in the name of balance, we think it's important to note that there are musicians who succeeded wildly by doing precisely the opposite: who found a formula and stuck to it, taking the same path for the rest of their lives, all the way to the bank. Dave Brubeck fits that bill to a certain extent, as did, with hundreds and hundreds of concertos that could at times be mistaken for each other, Antonio Vivaldi.
If we're being unfair in either of those cases, let us know in the comment box below.
Who are the other master changers, or one-trick-ponies of the music world?
We've chosen artists from the classical and jazz world, but pop is rife with both master changers and master, er, people who stayed doing the same thing.
Prince is often mentioned as a chameleon, but was his later stuff so far removed from where he started? What about Sting? And when it comes to artists who learned how to write silly love songs and did little else, while earning vast, vast fortunes, well, I'm guessing you know who I'm talking about.
Is that just criticism? Who have we missed?
on May 08, 2012