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Blend a little whisky and jazz to make the holidays special

Jazz was born in a whiskey barrel

Jazz was born in a whisky barrel — so said jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw. When scrutinizing whisky and jazz some interesting comparisons may be made. Both were crafted under the suppression of a neighboring majority that looked down upon the craft as well as the craftsmen. The illicit stills in the Highlands paradoxically flourished due to the English suppression and eventually produced the most appreciated, most powerful expression — the single malt. Jazz was born out of traditional folk music brought by African slaves to the Americas and first considered a raw and uneducated form of “noise” by the majority of the white population in the U.S., only decades later to be embraced by that same crowd.

Where jazz and whisky blend

There’s something very specific about jazz and whisky. The one has swing at its base; the other has grain. Lack thereof does not deliver the true product. Different rhythms occur and different streams run. How to assemble them is the true art. A bad solo can ruin the piece whereas a bad cask can do the same with the whisky inside. The same applies to the opposite: A good solo and a good dram create true pleasure to the ear and the palate. However, they do not exist solely by themselves. Solos have to be welded into the song, blended with the other instruments on the stage. A single malt only can make a reputation for itself by being compared to others, preferably through a tasting enjoyed in good company.

Both whisky and jazz are acquired tastes, both products created by professional and dedicated craftsmen. On a micro-level it’s about a single malt whisky blended with an individual musician’s performance. A deeper dive into the life and times of those great individuals might deliver even more comparisons and show a true blend of music — and one specific musician — and whisky. Let’s taste a fine blend now.

The musician

His website sums it up perfectly: “The Picasso of Jazz, reinventing himself and his sound endlessly in his musical quest. He was an artist that defied (and despised) categorization, yet he was the forerunner and innovator of many distinct and important musical movements.” At the age of 13, Miles Davis took lessons with a local trumpet player who happened to hate vibrato. Every time his young pupil would use this technique distinctively, the teacher would slap his knuckles with a ruler and can therefore be credited with pressing Miles to play the clear notes that would become his signature throughout his entire career.

In 1944, Miles moved to the Big Apple (the moniker actually invented by jazz musicians in the 1920s), and ran into Charlie Parker who invited him to play in his bebop quartet. Three years later Miles formed his own band, experimenting with new instruments to jazz at the time: the tuba and the French horn. Around 1950 he developed a style that would signal The Birth of the Cool. Miles used the stage to launch aspiring young musicians and was one of the first to advocate playing in a racially mixed ensemble. In 1959 he recorded a truly historic album when he set out to create a new style, called modal jazz. The result was Kind of Blue — the best-selling jazz record worldwide to date.

Collaborations with Gil Evans around 1960 led to a mixture of classical music, jazz and film scores, of which l’Ascenseur sur l’echafaud is one of the best known. On Sketches of Spain, Miles’s trumpet may be heard against an orchestra performing the classical piece Concerto d’Aranjuez, originally written for guitar and orchestra. At the end of the 1960s, he would spearhead the evolution of jazz rock fusion and invited musicians like Chick Corea, Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin to the bandstand. The cooperation resulted among other recordings in the famous double album Bitches Brew.

In the late 1960s Miles would become fully immersed in electronic music using wah-wah and other distortion techniques on his trumpet. He also ventured into the pop realm, in the 1980s, covering songs from Cindy Lauper and Michael Jackson. He continued to re-invent himself with Tutu, a record with samples and synthesizer, by some critics described as the modern counterpart of the classically oriented Sketches of Spain. Miles also kept composing film scores and even played a little role in two movies, Scrooged (1988) and Dingo (1991). The latter movie would be his swan song. He died on September 28 that year.

The distillery

With money from his late brother William III, Barnett Harvey set out to build a distillery for the legal heirs, his three nephews William IV, Robert and John. Most distilleries at the time were extensions of farm buildings, but not Bruichladdich, which was purpose built, as can be seen in its current layout. The Harveys would own Bruichladdich Distillery until 1938. A takeover by a small consortium started a merry-go-round of owners coming and going until Murray McDavid acquired Bruichladdich in 2000. They appointed Jim McEwan, formerly at Bowmore, as production director. He is known as one of the true living legends in the Scottish whisky industry. He has been responsible for releasing an astounding series of different, often innovative expressions of this elegant Islay single malt.

Bruichladdich is proud to show its working environment and has installed several web cams throughout the distillery. Once the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) was browsing the web for terrorist activities and, encountering the distillery web cams, thought they had discovered a chemical weapons plant. The reports of this story show that Bruichladdich knows how to create rumor around the brand!

The blend

Miles Davis will always be remembered as not shying away from musical styles, finding his own interpretation of jazz, not necessarily always appreciated by his audience. He emerged in the bebop era, instigated the Birth of the Cool, invented modal jazz and ventured into fusion and electronic pop music, eventually returning to straightforward jazz. He constantly reinvented himself, and his style of playing was ever lucid, regardless of the surrounding bands. His output of recordings is stunning.

Bruichladdich Distillery has been led by a man who is as inventive in making whisky and marketing the product as Miles Davis was in jazz. Jim McEwan was tireless in bringing the Laddie to the attention of a wider audience. He poured out so many expressions that collectors and drinkers alike almost started to protest. The distillery not only caught the eye of the aficionado, but also of the British Ministry of Defense and the DTRA. Bruichladdich though never forgets its primary concern: making whisky, regardless of the fact that not all of its product launches were met appreciatively.

Both whisky and jazz have proven to be survivors, no matter what drink or what style of music became the fad of the day. And these two survivors met, time and again, since whisky was and will probably always stay a favorite drink among many musicians.

Slante mhath,

The Whisky Couple

Editor’s note: If you want to read more about blending jazz music and excellent single malts, please consider buying a copy of Hans’s beautiful coffee table book Whisky & Jazz, published by Evening Post Books, via the Charleston Mercury, in 2009; you may find this awesome Christmas gift at Buxton Books.

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