Miles Davis, Miles Smiles

Album of the Week, July 9, 2022

When Miles finally re-entered Columbia Studios with the Quintet, in October 1966, it would be poetic to say that they picked up where they left off. In fact, the group had to rebuild some of the telepathy they had showed on E.S.P. due to the long period of time between their performances at the Plugged Nickel in December 1965. Shorter had followed up his time in the studio with Bobby Timmons to cut Adam’s Apple and to appear on Lee Morgan’s Delightfulee. Herbie Hancock had recorded a movie soundtrack, Blow-Up, for the film by Michelangelo Antinioni. Tony Williams had recorded his first album as a leader for Blue Note, the avant-garde Spring. Ron Carter had recorded in sessions led by Shirley Scott, Bobby Timmons, Pepper Adams, Eddie Harris, Wes Montgomery, Gábor Szabó, Stanley Turrentine, Chico Hamilton, and (just three days before these sessions) Oliver Nelson. But, despite the triumphant return of the Quintet at the Plugged Nickel, Miles didn’t get them back into the studio until the fall. What emerged out the other end of the two days in the studio was like nothing that had ever been heard before. 

If you listen to the finished record, which features studio chatter and what sound like a few glitches and false starts, it’s easy to imagine you are listening to the quintet jamming live in the studio, first take after first take. However, thanks to the release of Freedom Jazz Dance in Columbia’s Miles Davis Bootleg Series, we now know that the quartet sweated each arrangement, with “Freedom Jazz Dance” itself requiring more than ten takes to get right. Small wonder. This is music of high complexity that sounds effortless and joyous. 

Some part of that sound of effortlessness comes from Miles speaking to the producer, Teo Macero, after several of the takes. Macero had worked with Davis from the beginning of his Columbia days, but Miles had avoided working with him following the failure of the sessions for Quiet Nights with Gil Evans in 1963.

The very first track, “Orbits,” a Wayne Shorter composition, sets the tone for the album as the two horns state a complex figure in unison, but freely, without meter, over a descending bass line by Carter. When the whole band comes in, they sharply swing into meter, with Miles playing an unhinged solo. A notable feature of the work is what’s missing: Herbie Hancock does not appear until several bars into the song, and he plays only a right hand melody. The other instruments are left to sketch out the chords via the melody and improvisations. It’s an unusual approach but one the quintet visited a few times during this album.

The next track, “Circle,” is a Miles Davis ballad that may be his tenderest performance on record. Peter Losin notes that Davis based the tune on the chords from his own “Drad-Dog,” from Someday My Prince Will Come, but taken out of order. Herbie Hancock has much of the heavy lifting, opening the ballad with arpeggiated chords and later playing a version of the Bill Evans inspired piano that reinforces the influence of classical piano technique on this generation of players. In between, Wayne Shorter’s solo opens with what is almost a bridge section, with his first eight bars in the relative major key (F to the opening D minor). But he too comes back to the opening tonality, then pivots between the two, as though he is literally circling the key. It’s a stunning – and highly melodic – solo. Carter stays suspended above the tonic for large sections of the solos but again brings complex melodic statements alongside Shorter and Hancock, and Williams performs some of his most delicate brushwork to date underneath all. Listening to the outtakes and rehearsals from the recording sessions, we learn that Teo Macero stitched the album version together from two complete takes of the song, with the final solo and descending line from Miles coming from a later take (along with his voiceover at the end of the track, “Let’s see how that sounds, Teo”).

The next track might be the most written about from the sessions. “Footprints” is a Wayne Shorter composition that originally appeared on his album Adam’s Apple, recorded in February 1966. On Shorter’s album the track is a slow ballad in six-eight time, with a main theme stated in a structure that appears inspired by classic twelve bar blues (AAB).. Here the arrangement is different, with Carter opening with the main theme on the double bass, Hancock entering with different chords, and the horns playing the lead melody at approximately double the tempo of the original version. But the thing that gets you, and gets this track written about, is the drumming. Williams plays a complex polyrhythm throughout that plays the triple meter against the duple, underscoring the tension between the two meters in the 6/8. He opens in a swinging three and switches to two at the end of the first chorus, pivoting back and forth on the cymbals and emphasizing the rhythm of the main melody on the rest of the kit. It’s wild, constantly shifting, and somewhat hypnotic. Carter plays the opening progression (5-1-5-1(octave)-3(minor octave)) throughout the entire work. Shorter states a countermelody at the opening of his solo in the relative major, then explores the corners of the minor melody until he hands off to Hancock, whose chords sketch the space around Carter’s bassline. The horns return with a restatement of the melody that purges almost all of the swing feeling of the original tune, repeating it three times before leaving it to the rhythm section. Williams and Carter take a turn before the horns come back for one more statement of the melody, then the rhythm section joined by Hancock finishes the track. Miles says to Teo, “You can take any part of that you want.”

The second half of the album opens with Shorter’s “Dolores,” which is a freer composition formed from a statement and two inversions of a melodic pattern (112351216). Following Shorter’s exposition of the theme, he and Miles restate it, trading off on the melody, then Miles is off. Carter and Williams underpin the action throughout, but Hancock is not heard until he takes a solo following Shorter—again, played only in the right hand, with no chord voicings heard. The band repeats the theme over and over, with Williams getting increasingly frantic underneath and Hancock dropping an occasional chord for emphasis, until Miles plays an ascending scale and Williams brings it to a end with a drumroll. It’s an astonishing, albeit brief, display of casual perfection.

Freedom Jazz Dance” is something else again. Before “Bitches Brew,” before Miles’ later explorations, I would argue the deeply syncopated descending bassline that Carter plays throughout qualifies this as Miles’ first funk song. Eddie Harris gets writing credit here, but the quintet rearranged the song in rehearsal and across eleven takes, inserting space at the end of each melodic statement in the chorus so that the rhythm section can be heard. During Shorter’s solo he and Carter trade melodic lines back and forth, and Williams alternates playing a straight rock-like 4/4 and funky New Orleans style drum patterns enlivened with lots of cymbal. Herbie Hancock puts a pin in the bassline with a single chord on each repetition of it in the chorus, and finds a second melody in his solo statement that always reminds me, just a little bit, of “Sesame Street.”

The closer, Jimmy Heath’s “Ginger Bread Boy”, has a similar feel in the melody, but lacks the funky rhythm underneath. Instead, the final track feels brisk, as though Miles is determined to sum up the ideas that the quintet has explored elsewhere. Wayne explores the descending pattern at the end of the melody in his solo, finding a place in the melody where he halts time briefly on a high blue note. Again Herbie limits himself to exploring the melody in the right hand with his solo, this time with both Carter and Williams breaking into a straight 4/4 pattern before resuming their brisker rhythms. Interestingly, Herbie avoids playing the root of the scale in his melodic exploration. One wonders whether Miles had made a comment to him (along the lines of the infamous “butter notes” episode) prior to the solo. The horns return to restate the melody three times, then Williams and Carter play the final pattern out for another minute.

The last sounds we hear on the record are Miles’ voice: “Teo, play that. … Teo … Teo … Teo…” The whole thing is a brilliant exploration of the chemistry between the players, and while fully rehearsed sounds fully spontaneous. Miles Smiles is one of the jazz albums that I return to over and over again, and each time hear something new.

You can listen to the album here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.