Miles Davis, E.S.P.

Album of the Week, June 11, 2022.

In Miles in Berlin, we heard Miles’ new quintet in action on his standard repertoire, but that’s only a part of the story of this new group. The compositions on E.S.P. , recorded less than a month after Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, brought new vitality to the sound of the group and spurred higher levels of performance and contribution from all members. 

The title track, “E.S.P.,” provides a strong sound out of the gate and a sonic link to Miles’ immediately proceeding studio albums, with a memorable melody comprised of a concise downward triad that’s immediately repeated, then followed by a sketch of a different chord. It’s a memorable, simple melody but one one that provides chordal space for the group to explore. Indeed, throughout Miles’ solo, Hancock exchanges chordal fragments in response to Miles’ bursts of melody, blurring the edges of the melody and shading the performance further toward free jazz without ever losing the curve of the melody. It’s an astonishing performance, displaying the telepathic playing that famously provided Shorter with the track’s name. 

The next tune, “Eighty-One,” is credited to Ron Carter and Miles Davis, and shows one of the few hints of soul jazz crossover in the group’s repertoire. The tune is again memorable and melodic, and at first reads as an eight-bar blues — only the repeated sections are only two bars each rather than the normal four. The dramatic “hit” on the horns at the end of the second two-bar pattern shows unexpected humor, particularly in later live performances when the band would sometimes lay out an entire measure after the horns! Carter plays a loping bass line that keeps the rhythm for the group, leaving Williams free to add fills in different patterns around the soloists, including following Miles into a brisk swing partway through the trumpeter’s solo. Shorter’s solo uses sixths and ninths to stretch the harmonic series and also adds a swung section. Hancock takes a short solo of only two choruses, exploring melodic patterns and calling out the blues of the track in the second chorus. After a recapitulation of the melody, Carter and the rhythm section play a coda that brings the track to a close.

Herbie Hancock’s “Little One” follows. The slow ballad shifts in tonality through the first few chords and a melodic pattern in minor from Shorter before Miles enters with an inversion around the relative major of the key. Shorter follows with a modal gesture in a higher octave and Davis chases him around the key. The ballad then kicks into a brisker three with Davis exploring the tonality sketched out by the opening. Carter provides a consistent ground in the tonic, leaving Williams to underscore the tempo on the cymbal with both brush and stick. Shorter’s entrance finds different melodic and rhythmic paths, with Hancock following him closely throughout. Generally on this album but especially here, Shorter finds a different voice. If earlier solo works like “JuJu” could strongly bring Coltrane to mind, his playing here demonstrates a more wistful, meditative side that is quite distinct from the elder tenor. Hancock’s solo turn explores the tension between the triple meter and the more straight ahead melody, and is accompanied by some unique support from Williams, who plays brisk rolls on the snare. The track ends with a recap, with Davis and Shorter finishing each others’ musical thoughts, followed by another short outro from the rhythm section and a final recap. The overall performance runs from a tender, impressionist melody to a more articulated yearning, thanks in no small part to Shorter’s solo. The tune would remain in Hancock’s solo repertoire; we’ll hear it again.

R.J.,” which closes out the first half of the record, is another Carter composition, with Shorter and Carter jointly stating the gnarly theme over a free accompaniment by Williams, before Miles takes the first solo. Again, the playing is free, but returns to the same progression of six chords from Hancock in different inversions, rather like striking chimes in an unusually tuned carillon. Shorter’s solo follows Miles’ patterns but picks up the second half of the theme, repeating the descending motif before passing the ball to Hancock. Herbie elaborates the chordal pattern around the repeated chord clusters before Shorter and Carter jointly close the track out. It’s a bravura performance.

Miles’s “Agitation” opens the second half, beginning with a massive drum solo from Tony Williams. It’s been observed that the Second Great Quintet flirted with rock sounds long before the band electrified, and Williams’ solo provides evidence of that, with the drummer dropping in and out of meter before settling into a rapid alternating beat on the cymbals, keeping pace with Carter’s brisk bass accompaniment. Miles’ solo states the melody, sounding rather as though it’s stumbling downhill on a rocky slope before picking up velocity, dropping into a half-time restatement over a swung beat from Williams and Carter, and handing off to Shorter. Wayne’s solo chases the melody through some sheets of sound before briefly restating the melody in quarter notes, establishing a brief ground, and yielding ground to Hancock, whose solo lays bare the alternating chords under the melody in a series of arpeggios. The entire track is both playful and ominous, as the return to the melody is rendered somewhat claustrophobic.

Wayne Shorter and Miles’s “Iris” follows. A ballad that infuses the harmonic experimentation on the rest of the record with a palpable longing, it finds the band in high telepathic form, with the interplay between Hancock and Williams under Miles’ solo especially remarkable. Miles is in tender form here, though some of the agitation of the prior track persists. Shorter echoes the descending pattern that ends Miles’ solo, and steers the ballad into a more plain spoken territory. It’s worth noting that while Miles famously encouraged his sidemen to subtract unnecessary notes and embrace space in their playing, here it is Shorter whose solo seems to breathe, taking the track new places. Special attention must be paid to Carter’s bass line under the final statement of the melody by Shorter; an apparently simple ground reveals flights of countermelody on closer inspection. 

Mood,” another Carter composition, begins with the bass pattern that ended “Iris,” but finds the group more terse, slowly oscillating between F major and C minor in a slow three. Miles almost whispers as he sketches the outline of the chords, and Shorter whispers back, playing around the edges of the melody. On another record it would have been showstopping; here, coming after “Iris” and “Little One,” it feels like a recapitulation, like the band is restating the ideas throughout the album before gathering their energy for a big step forward.

It would be another year before the band returned to the studio for that step. Miles’ personal life would force a pause, as he had hip replacement surgery that had to be repeated after a fall later that summer. Also, his temper, famously erratic at the best of times, would finally spur Frances Taylor Davis, his first wife and the model on the cover of the album, to divorce him. But the members of the band weren’t idle; next time we’ll hear how E.S.P. pushed Herbie Hancock to his own mid-1960s Blue Note masterpiece.

You can listen to the album here.

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