Tuesday, January 14, 2014

THE NEW “BIRTH OF THE COOL”

 
 
The other day my son told everyone to shut up before he loaded this “old CD I found” in a used book and record store. Dylan prefers “vinyl – first pressings.” He slipped in the CD and the first notes of Birth of the Cool played.

“That’s Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis,” he explained to his poor, under jazz-educated parents. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d thrown away the vinyl I owned of that one back in 1994, when I decided moving my 1000 albums from one NYC apartment to another was just too laborious a task. I didn’t want to prove to him how absolutely crude and dumbass I really am.
The cool came first. Miles Davis, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, with his nonet, created, the Birth of the Cool (with the help of arranger and collaborator Gil Evans). It was a breakthrough in jazz as much as it was also a cultural breakthrough for African-American musicians and performers.
“The command of the poetic emotion made Miles Davis the greatest player of romantic songs to emerge since World War II and the innovations of Charlie Parker. By the mid-'50s, he had come into his first period of maturity and developed a style in which his lyricism was so revealing that it brought unexpected pleasure to his listeners. Davis' improvisation testified to his willingness to share the facts of very introspective feelings. And none of what he did seemed easy,” opined controversial and highly-acclaimed jazz critic Stanley Crouch in Slate.com. “Listening to that side of Davis' talent is like a form of eavesdropping. ..Davis became a matinee idol in the mid-1950s when dark-skinned men were beginning to break through the barriers that kept them from being seen in romantic roles or thought of as superb interpreters of love songs. Davis shared this moment with Sidney Poitier and Nat Cole...”
“Miles was very sharp and at different points he would take an overview of the whole jazz scene, who was heading in the direction he was wanting to go in… he was often the second guy, the guy who popularized movements not who started them. Kind of Blue did that for modal jazz, and the guy he brought in with the sound he wanted was pianist Bill Evans,” wrote Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame, but equally well known as a serious and insightful jazz critic) in the Austin Chronicle about Davis.
With “Birth of the Cool” and “Kind of Blue” Davis and his nonet set the jazz world on an entirely new course. With their “cool” new sound, they set a standard and created a music that would change jazz for a generation and create music that would live and thrive well beyond their lifetimes.
So too was it that GI’s returning from war in Europe brought home a thirst for the wines they had drank in France and Italy especially. These were medium bodied and light bodied wines. From the heavier but elegant, notes of Bordeaux, to the wonderful, complex wines of Barolo and Chianti, to the light, delicate notes of Burgundy, the wines service men began to want were complex, well-balanced, with lots of different, soft notes, much like the cool jazz Crouch wrote about of the same period. Bright cherry and ripe cherry as well as raspberry, plum, and hints of cassis or black berry epitomized these wines, with alcohols that ranged from 11-13%. They were great food wines. They rarely over-powered meals, and were designed to be part of the meal. As the Greatest Generation matured, they craved more of those wines, and importers did not disappoint. The great wines of France and Italy were brought over in droves and set a standard for the entire industry. Men like Frank Schoonmaker and Frederick Wildman and others trumpeted estates and regions, and made icons of these long established wine houses large and small. These wines dominated the wines lists of major American cities for decades, virtually unchallenged. Their dominance was so secure it was thought to be unquestionable.

But stasis creates a void in the world of art.

In 1970, Miles Davis released Bitches Brew, a jazz-rock-funk hybrid that rocked the jazz world all over again. “Miles' music continues to grow in its beauty, subtlety and sheer magnificence. Bitches' Brew is a further extension of the basic idea he investigated in his two previous albums, Filles De Kilimanjaro and In A Silent Way. In a larger sense, however, the record is yet another step in the unceasing process of evolution Miles has undergone since the Forties. The man never stops to rest on his accomplishments. Driven forward by a creative elan unequaled in the history of American music, he incorporates each successive triumph into the next leap forward,” read the review in Rollingstone magazine. “In its current form, Miles' music bubbles and boils like some gigantic cauldron. As the musical ideas rise to the surface, the listener also finds his thoughts rising from the depths with a new clarity and precision.”

“What Miles wanted from the music industry—and record buyers—was even more serious money that he merited for being so singular. Before Bitches Brew was made, I remember Miles saying of the rockers that “these white boys are making a lot of money with that, and I could do much more with that music than they can….” But that was not the primary reason he kept exploring rock, funk, and anything else that challenged him to transmute whatever interested him into Miles music,” explained jazz critic and reporter Nat Hentoff in Jazz Times. Hentoff opined that rock and the other new music stimulated Davis and helped reinvent himself and the others playing with him. His new direction, like the one before, catapulted a fledgling backwater of studio musicians into a whole new industry. Purists, like Crounch, did not like the new direction, and criticized it heavily, but the fusion movement thrived like a fright train.

And thus it was with wine. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, winemakers in California decided they too would express themselves. They originally thought to emulate the great masters from Bordeaux and Burgundy which resulted in the famous Tasting of 1976, when the American wines showed extremely well compared to their European counterparts. New voices joined the growing chorus of celebrants chanting the success of these wines. They came from odd places, new slick wine magaazines and small newsletters, alien to the traditional print world - Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Stephen Tanzer, and Robert Parker were among those glorifying the old world wines as well trumpeting the new ones as the thirst for more wine began to grow. And there were new wine regions associated with this movement, such as California, Chile, Argentina, Australia and South Africa. They were warm climate regions, whose grapes were reaching exceedingly high sugar content allowing for higher alcohol and a hint of sweetness to offset that alcohol.

Eventually by the 1980s tastes were starting to change in the wine industry as well. The new kind of wine was extolled – the Fruit Bomb. A fruit bomb was an immensely big wine, with big dark fruit up front – generally characterized by blackberry, black currant, blueberry, and dark cherry. Its brawny shoulders carried new alcohol highs. Some were almost like port. They were heavily concentrated and the darker and more opaque they were the better. Deep purple wines with dark red rims. The more muscular these wines were, the more impressive they seemed. What news highs could be reached? The rewards for the winemakers were high praise from the chorus, especially Mr. Parker. A winery needed what became known as a “Parker Fruit Bomb” to ensure a good score to bouy their list. Winemakers who specialized in the beefy wines were called in to “consult” and voila! a sensation was confirmed. No doubt wine buyers bought into the craze, and American (and some foreign) collectors scooped up these wines. I myself collected a number of these huge wines. It was part of the zeitgeist of the 1980s and 1990s. The New Guilded Age. So great was the tumult, and the rush for sales, that winemakers who made beautifully balanced wines were fired if they could not create these “new” wines. Tim Mondavi the winemaker at Robert Mondavi was the most notable of these instances. These were show wines. They were imbibed in tasting rooms and seemingly meant to be drank alone…to be shown off. They were most-often paired with giant slabs of marbled, charcoaled steaks, grilled Portobello mushrooms, and big, heavy pasta dishes. Always a lot of fun. I drank a lot of them! And I still have a lot of them to drink.
Now, something new is going on. Influences are waning, and the wine collecting crowd is changing. Some of them have gotten older, and looking for something that is not quite so heavy.

Think Of One
But like Stanley Crouch, I am a classicist. With the appearance of Wynton Marsalis, a young jazz trumpeter from an old line jazz family, there was a return to classic trumpet fare and classic jazz. He released his first classical recording Trumpet Concertos: Haydn, Hummel, Mozart. Becomes the first and only artist to win both classical and jazz GRAMMY® Awards in the same year for Trumpet Concertos: Haydn, Hummel, Mozart and Think Of One.
Marsalis is the perfect metaphor. He is a return to classicism, as well as classic jazz. I return regularly to the The Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue. I find those compositions enhancing and not over powering. I am not so into raw and loud as I am into smooth and soothing. I am not alone.
And now there are also new regions of wine, especially those from the east coast and mid-west where the trend is to make wines fruit forward but with a less heavy sense of fruit. There is a return to more moderate shades of red fruit, there is less alcohol, and the wines are meant to be had with all foods.  Older wine drinkers are returning to these wines. Younger wine drinkers are discovering for themselves these wines for the first time – and liking them. New regions like New York (which was long a winemaking region, has finally matured), as well as Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, even New Jersey, and other areas through-out the east coast. New voices are rising up from non-traditional formats alien to the established media – bloggers and tweeters. The Virginia Wine Mafia, the New York Cork Report, and many others, including even this publication.

The day of the fruit bomb is over. The fruit bomb is dead. It is cold hard fact. Yes, some are still being sold, and some being collected, and some being imbibed, but more and more the old dark fruit elixir is losing ground. It is the NEW Birth of the Cool.

Lenn Thompson recently asked in a facebook discussion, ‘what is a cool climate wine?’ Cool-climate wines, as they are commonly referred to, are often considered to be wines grown in cooler climates. That’s not always the best way to think of them. I think cool climate wines are described as much as by what they are not, as much as by what they are. Cool wines aren’t 15% alcohol. They are not overpowering. In general, they are not fruit bombs with heavy purple fruits up front. They pair well with many foods. Obviously some pair better with others. But they are not big, grapey wines, super concentrated wines. The “new cool” tend to be made by winemakers who prefer an non-interventionist slant. They tend to shun concentrators and manipulation. They tend to prefer a stonieness in their wines – red and white. Can a cool climate wine be made in California? Absolutely! They did it for years! Am I saying that big, concentrated wines are bad? Or that California wines are bad? No. I am simply saying there is a trend going on.
And the birthplace of the “new cool” wine movement was the east coast. Argue what you will, but with the ascension of New York and Virginia, the temperature in the room began to cool. The “new cool” started on the east coast, a smaller region than California to be sure, but nonetheless this new region rose as a challenger, supplied a consumer base looking for less alcoholic, overpowering wines, and helped mold that discussion. Even some regions of California are professing “cool climate” styled wines…and they are!
But the “new cool” wine movement isn’t just about style. It’s about place. And the burgeoning wine industry that is growing up around the US, especially on the east coast, are producing more medium bodied wines. These wines are gaining in popularity. The ascension of popularity of New York and Virginia, and their tremendous growth, have helped to spawn a new awareness in wine drinkers. And in wine writers. And the “new cool” wines have caught the eyes of established newspaper veterans like Eric Asimov and Dave McIntyre, as well as Dan Berger and others. Suddenly the “new cool” is becoming the main stream!

Well balanced, complex wines, with acidity and tannins, will always be appreciated. There is a whole new movement afloat to reward these winemakers. Because of their acidity (which cuts through and compliments fat), they tend to be much more food friendly. And the lower alcohol is easier the consumer as well. Hell, even my son is listening to Birth of the Cool and Almost Blue. It’s good to be cool again.