Victor Feldman - Part 3: Miles & Beyond
“ ...the true, primary and sole author of 'Seven Steps to Heaven' ...was Victor Feldman, as I heard him play it many times in a variety of trio settings (including one with Frank Butler) before he recorded it with Miles. ”
"His keyboard technique is above reproach and is matched by his brilliance on vibes and drums; his knowledge of rhythms and meters, and the possibilities inherent in combining melodic lines with percussion expressions, greatly expounds the sounds of any group within which he works." (Philip Elwood, The San Francisco Examiner)
These eloquently phrased words of high praise for Victor Feldman were shared by no less a jazz luminary than Miles Davis, who sought out Victor to perform and record with him during his April 1963 sojourn to the Left Coast.
"Ironically, Victor closed his June 1963 Downbeat interview by sharing the following anecdote with John Tynan:
"The other day I was fortunate enough to record with Miles Davis. When I was 16, I went to Paris with a friend of mine. Charlie Parker was supposed to play; he never did play there. But meanwhile, we'd walk along the Paris streets and I'd be singing Miles Davis solos. We'd learnt them off the records. I never ever thought I would record with Miles."
The details for Miles' trip to California in 1963 are well-documented in a number of sources, including Jack Chambers' Milestones 2: The Music and Times of Miles Davis Since 1960 (New York: Morrow, 1985, pp. 54- 55).
It seems as though the first quarter of 1963 was a time of troubles for Miles when, for a variety of reasons, pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers, and ultimately, drummer Jimmy Cobb, too, left Miles. Miles claims these departures came about abruptly. They asserted that they gave him sufficient notice, but that he refused to accept the fact that they wanted to leave.
Whatever the actual reasons for this falling out, they are beyond the scope of this piece. But the fact of their departure meant that Miles had to hastily put together a rhythm section for upcoming appearances, including those at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and the It Club in Los Angeles. Pianist Harold Mabern went on the band for a preceding date, but as the time for the Jazz Workshop gig was approaching, it was becoming apparent that things weren't working between him and Miles.
Miles always had a tremendous respect for Cannonball Adderley, and it was he who suggested to Miles that he might turn to Victor and see if he was available to help out during these West Coast gigs.
I recall Victor sharing that when the call came in from Miles' booking agent, he was recording a Viceroy cigarette [do they still make these?] radio jungle [with lots of bombastic percussion], composed no less by Marty Paich, at the RCA sound studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
During the rehearsal, someone from the recording engineer's booth came down and passed Victor a message. He excused himself to make the call and soon came back with a "cat-that-swallowed-the- canary" look that had everyone curious.
With the expensive recording studio meter running, everyone had to wait until they were packing up before he told them the good news that Miles wanted him to come up to San Francisco for the Jazz Workshop gig.
The bad news was that Victor was on the Hollywood ABC TV staff orchestra at the time and was forced to tell Miles that he could arrange with the show's contractor to get a few days off " ...while you try to get someone else."
As Victor recounted in an interview with Les Tomkins while in England in 1969:
"It was enjoyable, although I didn't know any of the things we had to play. And Miles doesn't tell you anything, which bugged me a bit. It's inconsiderate but, on the other hand, maybe it was a compliment and he figured I could pick up very quick. Everyone seemed to be happy, anyhow. Then a few weeks later Miles came out to Los Angeles to do an album, and I was to be on it. Before the date I used to go up to his hotel room, and we'd come down into the lounge lobby, where there was a piano, and talk about various tunes."
In what Jack Chambers refers to as "the Hollywood ballad sessions," Victor [piano] would join with Frank Butler [drums] along with Miles, George Coleman [tenor sax] and Ron Carter on bass on April 16, 1963 at the Columbia Hollywood Studios to record four ballads: I Fall in Love Too Easily, Baby Won't You Please Come Home," "So Near So Far" and "Basin Street Blues."
Although "Joshua" and "Seven Steps to Heaven," two originals by Victor, were recorded the following day, Miles re-recorded them a month later as features for Herbie Hancock [piano] and Tony Williams [drums]. These two tunes plus three of the ballads were released as Seven Steps to Heaven [Columbia/Legacy, 1963). [Although re-united on the CD version, "So Near So Far" wasn't originally issued until 1981 by Columbia.]
As a point in passing, it should be noted that as the composer of "Seven Steps to Heaven," Victor Feldman created the vehicle that introduced to the world the drumming brilliance of Tony Williams.
In the concluding paragraph to her article on the piano prodigy, Matt Savage, that appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Corina da Fonseca-Williams states: "Seven Steps to Heaven was a pivotal recording in the history of jazz...[and] the title tune is a piece that insists on the primacy of harmony."
Although co-credited to Miles, I know for a fact that the true, primary and sole author of "Seven Steps to Heaven" and the advanced harmonies that it employs was Victor Feldman, as I heard him play it many times in a variety of trio settings [including one with Frank Butler] before he recorded it with Miles.
Keeping the melody of "Seven Steps to Heaven" in mind, one could re-read the Philip Elwood quotation that opens this piece [repeated below] and easily come to the conclusion that Victor, not Miles, had the predilections of mind necessary to compose such a tune.
"His keyboard technique is above reproach and is matched by his brilliance on vibes and drums; his knowledge of rhythms and meters, and the possibilities inherent in combining melodic lines with percussion expressions, greatly expounds the sounds of any group within which he works." [Philip Elwood, The San Francisco Examiner]
"Joshua," however, may have been more of a joint effort, as Victor recalls in the following section from the 1969 Tomkins interview:
"Miles said: 'Write something.' Just like that. So I went home, messed around, and wrote 'Joshua.' Actually, I think I finally finished that one day prior to the recording. In between, I'd go to the hotel and we'd take the tunes that we were going to do, he'd suggest certain changes and I'd say: 'How can that be?" But sure enough, a lot of the time what he'd suggest would turn out fine. The only thing, he'd sort of put you in a frame of mind where you really didn't know what you were doing; you were groping. I sensed that he was looking for something, but he didn't know how to tell me what he wanted. The feeling he gave you of searching, this finally brought out the chord structure for the arrangement. We'd been experimenting with the tune and it was: 'Not this wayno, that way,' until we molded it into shape."
"Basin Street Blues," one of the tunes on Seven Steps to Heaven that author Jack Chambers categorizes as one of the "Hollywood ballads," was a traditional Jazz, 16-bar blues that Victor had been intrigued by for years. Once, when I asked him why he was so interested in the tune, I remember him replying: "I just like the way it lays out [unfolds melodically], and it has such a lovely melody. I get picture in my mind of what jazz in the early days down in New Orleans might have sounded like."
When I first heard him fooling around with it, Victor played it in a slow, measured manner and as a solo piece. He was also constantly taking the song's rudimentary changes and re-harmonizing them in a manner that became increasingly stylish and more and more sophisticated over time.
It was this slow, refined version of "Basin Street Blues" that Victor introduced to Miles for the Seven Steps to Heaven album. Although perhaps unaware of this background, Jack Chambers alludes to it in the following excerpt from Milestones 2: The Music and Times of Miles Davis Since 1960:
"'Basin Street Blues' written by Spencer Williams...was part of the standard repertoire of New Orleans bands in the earliest days of jazz history and subsequently passed into the repertoires of revival bands. Traditionally, it was played as a medium-tempo paean to the city that the musicians had left behind them when they moved north along the Mississippi...
"Davis plays it as a kind of requiem, slow and mournful, emphasizing the elements of nostalgia which in traditional versions exists only as an undertone. His deliberate, wispy tone makes a striking reinterpretation of the content of the original song." (p. 55)
"Bill Milkowski made these comments about the playing of "Basin Street Blues" in the insert notes to the Seven Steps to Heaven CD:
"Miles' melancholy muted trumpet sets a dark tone on this rendition. The combination of his velvety smooth lines alongside Feldman's gentle touch and sparse comping recalls the intimate mood that Miles and Bill Evans had conjured up on "Blue and Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" from Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959).
Concluding about his association with Miles in the Les Tompkins interview Victor said:
"Miles Davis brought out my creativity. Before working with him, I'd heard a lot of stories about him. But I never believe things people tell me about anybody like that. ...Everyone has a quality within themselves that's beautiful: who are we to set up standards about how a person should act? I enjoyed playing with Miles and I enjoyed meeting him. He certainly seems to be very straightforward; he says what he wants to say... That's the way he playsin a very honest way. Whenever you play with him, you get a feeling of starting afresh, and wiping the cobwebs away. He creates an atmosphere round him that helps you steer clear of clichés.
"In fact he gets on my nerves sometimes, in a way, because he gets hold of a piece and wants to change it around so completely that I think he takes it too far. Then, on the other hand, maybe it's a good thing to do thatto really tread new ground."
Although I have emphasized Victor's relationship with Miles to underscore his status as a major Jazz player and to reflect on what might have been, the fact was that Victor was increasingly busy in his own right on the West Coast Jazz scene before and after his time with Miles.
He had made albums as a sideman with Frank Rosolino (Turn Me Loose!, Reprise/Collectibles), Barney Kessel (Music from "Breakfast at Tiffany's, Reprise/Collectibles), Curtis Amy (Way Down, released as part of a 3-CD Mosaic Select set), and Joe Maini (Joe Maini Memorial, Fresh Sound)all of which were released in late 1962 prior to his April 1963 dates with Miles.
Through a family connection, I had a brief involvement with Reprise Records during its early years. As a result, I was able to attend the November, 1961 Turn Me Loose! recording session that marked Frank Rosolino's debut as a vocalist. I remember Frank commenting that he was so pleased that Victor could make the date which also included Chuck Berghofer on bass and Irv Cotler on drums. Frank said of Victor:
"I worked with the man for about two years and he swung his a** off every night at the Lighthouse. His comping keeps the time so alive. And his solos are always so driving and full of fresh ideas. Vic is one of the best kept secrets in LA."
Curtis was so impressed with Victor's work with Cannonball that he hired him for his Pacific Jazz Way Down (Pacific Jazz, 1962) session and featured his name on the album cover. And, in May, 1963, the month after recording with Miles he was in the Columbia Hollywood studios recording with Paul Horn (Jazz Impressions of Cleopatra (Columbia, 1963) before commencing two albums with his own trio of Monty Budwig [bass] and Colin Bailey [drums], both released on Vee Jay in 1964: Love Me With All Your Heart and It's a Wonderful World.
Bassist Chuck Israel, who played on the Paul Horn Cleopatra date with Victor along with Colin Bailey on drums to form the rhythm section, wrote the following to me in a 1997 E-mail:
"Aside from this early association with Victor in LA, when we moved to San Francisco in 1981 (Margot was singing with the SF Opera) Victor had a number of performances for which he hired me... He was a fine player and a good composer...a gifted musician who could not do anything un-musical."
Victor talked at length about his trio and his two Vee Jay recordings in an earlier interview that he gave to Les Tomkins that coincided with a February 1965 appearance at Ronnie Scott's Club. He also had some deservedly complimentary things to say about his new "mates" in this same interview:
"I have a trio in the States consisting of Monty Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums. Colin is from Swindon, Englanda terrific drummer. What I've done is brought over music that we play. But we've played it for months and months. I'd never worked with Rick [Laird, bass] and Ronnie [Stephenson, drums] before and I think it's marvelous the way they picked it up so quickly. Unbelievable, in a way. But naturally, Colin, Monty and I feel that the three of us have got kind of spoilt, because we've got such a good thing going. Which is inevitable, after the right combination of people have played together for a long time. We really seem to have empathy for each other's playing...
"We've recorded for Vee Jay, and I'm very excited about the album we did. Most of the tracks weren't more than three or four minutes long. At one time, I never used to like making short jazz records and I still think doing so just for commercial reasons is a drag, actually. But, in another way, I find that to keep on playing a long solo, when you've said what you have to sayI don't think that's too good, either. In these albums I've managed to stay away from that. I approached it from the standpoint so that we'd have some cohesion through the whole thing. To be honest about itsome of them were short because they could be made into singles, of course. But I felt it was as much of a challenge to condense what you have to say into capsule form. A few of them I didn't allow to be cut down, because it would have lost the whole point of the piece.
"I find the trio context very satisfying. I'm always looking for new tunes. I don't find it easy finding tunes that I can mold to the way I want to play, but I'm sure there are a lot around that are suitable. The trouble is, I've never been one of those peopleI don't think I know the lyrics of one tune. I don't know the authors of many tunes, I'm ashamed to say. Now it's becoming annoying to me, because I think it would help to find new material if I knew more about what standard tunes have been written by various people. We have about 60 tunes that we play with the trio, and that's quite a lot, really. But we need new things to rehearse... You have to start hearing new phrases and playing in a different way."
Leonard Feather, long a champion of Victor and his music, offered these thoughts about It's a Wonderful World [Vee Jay VJS2507] in his liner notes to the album which was released in 1964:
"The maturing process in a musician is far easier to trace today than it was a few years ago and infinitely simpler than before the advent of LP records. Not only has the quantity of recorded output increased, but as a general rule the artist, at least if he is respected by the recording companies with whom he is associated, is granted a substantial measure of freedom in the selection and interpretation of his material.
Victor Feldman is a case in point. In the ten years since he arrived in this country, or more particularly in the eight years since he made his first album as a leader, his style both as a pianist and vibraharpist has been observable in a series of performances that offer a portrait in depth of his evolution during this period.
The setting selected by Victor for the present sides is the one that usually shows off a jazz pianist to fullest advantage, offering him as centerpiece of a trio in which bass and drums fulfill something more than a mere accompanist function. The material is a carefully selected and intelligently programmed series of standards and originals...
In sum, these two sides offer a splendidly rounded picture of Victor Feldman as pianist, vibraharpist and combo leader. ... It is Feldman music, and for anyone familiar with what these two words have meant in recent years that should be all the categorization required."
As has been established throughout these pieces, Victor's playing has always had a tremendous emotional impact on me. I view his solos as being beautifully crafted and usually expressed with a driving sense of swing; not that he couldn't be lyrical as well. Usually his playing in almost any context was rhythmic and forceful or what Cook & Morton note as a "... characteristically percussive touch" in their 6th Edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD.
In this same work, these authors also put forth the following observation about Victor's playing:
"It's an interesting aspect of his solo work that its quality seems to be in inverse proportion to its length. Feldman was a master of compression who often lost his way beyond a couple of choruses."
Needless to say, while I would agree with their contention that "...Feldman was a master of compression," I take serious exception to the claim that "... he often lost his way" in longer solos (a contention for which Cook & Morton offer no examples). There are many examples of miniature masterpieces in the form of shortened solos contained in the Feldman discography, and since the "master of compression" point is not in dispute, I won't belabor it here.
But I would like to underscore its significance with the following excerpts from Gene Lees' interview with pianist Junior Mance that appeared in hisJazzletter [March, 1997, Vol. 16, No. 3, p. 7]. In an aside to his discussion about Mance's time with Dizzy, Gene explained:
"Groups get hotter as the evening wears on, but Dizzy's groups always 'started' hot. I once asked Dizzy how come; how did he do that. The group would swing on the first tune of the first set. I said, 'What's the secret?' Dizzy said: 'Play short tunes.'
Later in the interview with Gene, Junior comments:
"Dizzy never played more than three or four choruses; very condensed. A lot of older musicians, the old masters were the same way. ...[Charlie Parker would] say, 'Listen, if you can't say it in three or four choruses, you're not going to say it. Wait 'till the next tune... Lester Young said the same thing. Some cats would get to that fifth or sixth chorus, he'd say, 'Save some 'till later.'
One thing Dizzy told me when I first joined the group that really stuck with me: he said the sign of maturity in a musician was when you learned what not to play, what to leave out."
Perhaps, Victor learned this lesson well early in his career?
Although not released until over 30 years later, the 1965 appearance at Ronnie Scott's Club resulted in Victor Feldman: His Own Sweet Way and this recording offers 11 excellent examples of Victor's skill with extended solos. And yet, even here, while the tunes may be longer in overall length and Victor may take longer solos, he shares the spotlight with the bassist and the drummer, keeping the group ethos paramount.
Ironically, in many ways this most comprehensive and expressive recording of Victor's playing available was recorded by an amateur on a portable tape recorder! As such it's a fortunate audio documentary of The Return of the Prodigal SonIndeed, All Hail the Conquering Hero!
What was commonplace to those of us who had occasion to hear Victor's trio in various Los Angeles venues throughout the decade of the 1960s is captured on this recording made by combining performances that took place at Ronnie Scott's on the evenings of February 8 and 10, 1965, respectively. The eleven tracks come together to form an almost perfect 78-minute set. It's all here.
Victor's original "Azule Serape" is played as an up tempo cooker with a marvelous Latin lead-in involving four bar exchanges between Victor on piano and some expert drumming by Ronnie Stephenson. The alternating two- chord tag which takes the tune out builds into an excitement that is almost palpable before Victor intrudes to introduce Rick and Ronnie to the most appreciative audience that was fortuitously at Ronnie's to hear this glorious music first-hand.
Another Feldman original"Too Blue"was for a time was Victor's theme song. It offers an absolutely brilliant vibes solo based on eight superbly crafted blues-inflected choruses. And, following Rick Laird's bass solo, Victor comes back with four more choruses before taking the tune out! He must have been in the mood to play the blues as he also contributes another original blues"Alley Blues"to the set.
"A Fine Romance" makes an appearance as do magnificent treatments of "Autumn Leaves" and "Swinging on a Star," all unfurled by way of medium tempo, intricate arrangements that feature extensive solos by Victor who at times, alternates between piano and vibes during the same tune, adding color and depth to these performances. Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" is also on the bill and the trio joyously plays the heck out of it. There's even a 'slow-roasted' rendition of "Basin Street Blues" on hand to close the set [although Victor can't resist double-timing it in places].
The elaborate and extended solos by Victor on this album are the complete antithesis of the short-track Vee Jay album that chronologically preceded it and are an example of a musician at the top of his form and who has more than adequately found his way through longer more elaborate musical formats.
To close this segment on the career of Victor Feldman with excerpts from Les Tomkins' liner notes to Victor Feldman: His Own Sweet Way:
"Although he was only to be seen at Ronnie Scott's club for one weekhis shortest showing yetVictor Feldman made a greater impression than ever. There was a general acknowledgement that Victor is a great in his own right. New factors of the Feldman performance: the predominance of piano, the exclusive use of arrangements. Appreciation was also voiced for the overall bass/ drums integration of Rick Laird and Ronnie Stephenson.
Vic Ash enthused: "To me it's like a breath of fresh air, after some things I've heard recently-some good, some not so good. After this trip I'm even more convinced that Victor is one of the finest of all jazz musicians. At one time it was mostly his vibes that I listened to, but now I think his piano matches it easily. He's the complete musicianjazz wise and technically. And Rick and Ronnie have been giving him beautiful support."
Comparison between British and American environments was made by drummer Benny Goodman. "You can only get so much here. His approach has widened considerably since his exposure with people like Cannonball and Miles. He has greater confidence now. His music is much more academic-and I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. Everything is well set-out. He pays a close attention to detail without losing the basic swing. Being in the States has made him very conscious of the sound and the mechanics of the music. This trio sounds like it's been playing together for monthssuch close rapport. I experienced the high musical standard of his arranging when I did some TV with him. He really gets the best possible out of you. He's tremendous."
As a pianist Michael Garrick found many pleasing virtues in Victor's playing. "The thing that impresses me about him is his sheer professionalism. This is emphasised by the fact that he uses arrangements now. Rick and Ronnie worked in superbly with him, adding to the glitter and sheen of the whole presentation. Victor has become a 100 per cent showman. He knows exactly what he's going to do, where his climax is going to be placed. And he never puts a foot wrong. Someone like Sonny Rollins goes out on a limb, and perhaps tends to draw the audience after him more. In the case of Victor, it's as if an excellent, finished product is being demonstrated before our eyes. There's no risk of disorganisation. This probably comes from the vast amount of session work he does.
"I particularly liked his changing from 3/4 to 4/4 on" Fly Me To The Moon." And his arrangement of "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" pleased me and involved me very much. I loved the way he used this repetitive melody line to present one or two rhythmic surprises. At the point of the harmony change towards the end of the tune, he extended the repetition of the main phrase about four bars, so that you were wondering when the final phrase was going to come. He cleverly built up your expectations, and fulfilled them at the last minute.
"'You hold your breath when he jumps from vibes to piano and comes in right on the beat. He creates the effect of there being two separate musicians on the stand. He has complete familiarity with both instruments. And he plays vibes quite differently from piano. The technique doesn't overlap.
"Watching Victor, I can see the dualism of the professional musician on the one hand and the soulful jazzman on the other. The two sides seem to be pulling against one another. But this doesn't prevent him from providing peaks of excellence and engaging the attention of the audience.
"To these expert comments I can only add that I'm very glad I was there to preserve some of these magic moments, that prove conclusively that Victor Feldman was an all-time great."