North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

A Jazz fusion guide to the NBA finals

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One of my favorite basketball clichés is that ‘basketball is jazz’. It’s an especially apt one for middle-aged sportswriters to make since both seem to involve improvisation on top of a structured bottom; what good would Kind of Blue been if Miles Davis hadn’t just come off the more structured Porgy and Bess?

Like all clichés, there is a kernel of truth. So let’s take that cliché and bust it out to the breaking point – what albums correspond to the major players in this NBA Finals?

Ron Artest : Miles Davis – On the Corner

Poorly received when first released, On the Corner is probably the most confusing of all of Davis’ albums – no easy feat! It’s a collection of strange rhythms, of beats and samples and repetition and, like Artest, it’s maddening at times. Why is there a sitar? What does that blast of noise at the start of Black Satin mean? And why does Miles play so little on one of his own albums?

But give it a few listens and it grows on you. It’s heavy beat-first sound anticipated the direction music would go in the next decade. Between the odd shifts and beats were snippets of something great, something awesome. Wayne Shorter’s sax, John McLaughlin’s guitar. This album is best experienced when it sneaks up on you, surprises you with something unexpected and, frankly, really good.

Sounds a little like Ron, doesn’t it? He’s frustrating and hard to anticipate. He makes strange, inexplicable decisions – like jacking up a three with almost the whole shot clock left near the end of game five of the Western Finals. But then he does something out of the blue, like bursting up from the ether under the basket, hitting a game-winning layup as the clock expires.

Kevin Garnett: Miles Davis – Live Evil

Unstoppable and ominous, Live-Evil is a real beast. Spilt nearly in half between freewheeling live recordings and studio cuts, it’s one of Davis’ most compelling albums, but it one of his most confusing too.

It’s almost like a puzzle with too many pieces – it starts midswing,with the band in full flight, then jump cuts to an electric piano/guitar jam, a radical change in pace. There’s a moody, spooky-sounding cut with whistling that sounds like something off of a western. On first listen, you have almost no idea where it’s headed at any moment. It’s almost schizophrenic.

That’s what KG has been like this postseason. At time, he’s shown flashes of brilliance, but has vanished in other games. In the second round alone, he posted three double-doubles; in the rest of the playoffs, he’s had just two. He’s almost like two players – one who (as Bill Simmons usually says) still has some gas in the tank and one who is at the end of his career. He’s limping, coming off knee trouble and, for one, not sure which KG will show up in the final round.

But I almost feel it’s that flaw that makes him all the more compelling. For years, KG toiled away in relative obscurity; for years, Davis was playing his stuff mostly for one kind of audience. But by the late 60s, venues like the Fillmore or Family Dog started booking Davis. He wasn’t just playing to a whiter audience, he was all kinds of new sounds and tools in his disposal; but his definitive album was long behind him.

It’s kind of the same with KG. His best years are long since past, but he’s never had a team quite as good as these Celtic teams have been. He can’t simply dominate like he used to, but he’s got experience on his side. Like what Davis did when he went electric, I’m curious to see where he will go from here.

Rajon Rondo: Weather Report – Heavy Weather

Heavy Weather came out at a weird time in music. By 1977, rock’s passing flirtation with jazz had more or less ended. Dinosaur rock, as exemplified by self-indulgent, plodding prog-rock acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer – a band that toured with a full Moog synth and an orchestra -that were more keen on arty, pretentious music then anything else were dominating the landscape.

And then came Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, an album featuring tight, poppy arrangements of quick, fun tunes like Birdland or Teen Town. The band had been around for a while, but it was newcomer Jaco Pastorius that really pushed the album over the top – his bass harmonics on Birdland, his steady, pulsating playing on Teen Town. Although Pastorius had previously been two tracks on Report’s previous album (and had a solo album to his name, too), Heavy Weather was the one that really pushed him into the stratosphere.

Like Pastorius, Rondo has been around for a little while, too. He was part of the 2008 Celtics team, but was behind the Big Three, only occasionally showing flashes of something larger – a 20 point, 13 assist game against Cleveland, 21 point, eight assist, seven rebound performance in the clinching game over LA.

This postseason, though, he’s really began to shine. His triple double (29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists) in game four of their series against the Cavs was his Teen Town, his moment where everybody took notice of the potential and excellence. His PER of 18.4 is a team high, as are his 2.4 Win Shares. He’s averaging a double-double (nearly 17 points and 10 assists per game), too.

Like Heavy Weather, this could not only be an excellent performance, but a coming out party too. Fans already knew both were good going in, but this is something else, this is pushing excellence to the mainstream, making a statement for all to see/hear.

Kobe Bryant: Frank Zappa – Hot Rats

Improvisation doesn’t happen all on its own, you know. Realize the hard work that goes into something as polished and shiny and excellent as Hot Rats (one of my fav albums ever, by the way). Between the shorter pieces of almost-baroque jazz are three extended workouts, each with long gaps of solos and improv, each something great in their own way.

But it’s a little misleading to think that Hot Rats is an example of anything but hard work and dedication. After disbanding the Mothers, Zappa hired a bunch of studio hands (and a couple friends in Ian Underwood, Sugar Cane Harris and allegedly Lowell George) to put together his first instrumental masterpiece. Don’t let the jams fool you – this was an album Zappa laboured over, layered with edits and overdubs and extra tracks. Putting together an album this good was the result of a lot of work.

So is Kobe Bryant. All the stuff he does, the little things that he makes look so easy, are the result of great basketball skill, but also of a lot of hard work, hours spent in a gym. Like Zappa, Kobe is almost all business – he’s in it to win it.

Take his last-second shot against the Suns in game five of the Western Finals. With less the five seconds left, after the Suns just came back and tied the game on a three – their third attempt at a game-tying basket. Kobe wasn’t rattled by this comeback, like I would have been. And even though everybody – I remember seeing something like 15 billion tweets all saying something like ‘here comes Kobe’ coming all at once – knew who was getting the ball, he wasn’t effected. He dashed to his right, moving away from the basket, took the inbound pass and – in one motion – jumped, spun around 180 degrees and shot. It was on line, if short, but I still think getting it that close under those circumstances is really something – shades of Larry Bird last second three in game four of the 1987 Finals.

So yeah, like Zappa’s second solo album, Kobe is a polished example of hard work leading to something great. Maybe it seems a bit souless – I wouldn’t be the first to think that Kobe doesn’t play with the same emotion as, say, KG – but that’s hardly a real criticism.

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Written by M.

June 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm

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