Miles Davis, Nefertiti

Album of the Week, July 23, 2022

1967 was a fruitful year for the Miles Davis Quintet. After a quiet period in the winter and early spring (during which Wayne Shorter recorded Schizophrenia), Miles entered Columbia’s New York studios with the quintet to begin recording on May 9, 1967. He would be in the studio for a total of ten sessions between May 9 and July 19, and recorded material that appeared on three albums, of which we’ll talk about two in this column. The first four sessions yielded tracks that ended up on the underrated Sorcerer album, which sadly isn’t in my vinyl collection. But session number five yielded two tracks: one that would sit unreleased for years, and the title track for the group’s next album, Nefertiti.

After Miles Smiles and the subsequent tours, Miles increasingly featured Wayne Shorter’s compositions on his albums, and Nefertiti has three. It begins with the title track, which moves around so many modes in its opening statement that it’s hard for sure to say what key it’s in (C sharp?). It pivots between keys, in a trick that we’ve seen Shorter do before in tunes like “Miyako.” Here the trick is that the horns repeat the melody over and over again while the rhythm section improvises beneath, the well-honed rhythmic experiments of Williams supporting the increasingly elaborate melodic explorations of Hancock. The session reel (released on the Columbia “bootleg” set Freedom Jazz Dance) captures the dialog between the band after the first take:

MILES: “Hey man, why don’t we make a tune … with just playin’ the melody, no play the solos…”

WILLIAMS: “Right, now, that’s what we’ve been doin’…”

A similar vibe pervades the next track, Shorter’s achingly lovely “Fall.” Here there are solos, quiet introspective moments from both Miles and Shorter and limpid romanticism from Hancock, but they are brief and the band returns again and again to the chorus. Ron Carter’s bass anchors the melody, which seems to spiral around a fixed point in itself like a leaf in an updraft. And Tony Williams’ drums punctuate the shifts in sound as the band goes from one chorus to the next, in search of something unnamed.

The moment of endless search is brought to an abrupt end with the opening notes of Williams’ “Hand Jive.” A slightly more conventional straight-ahead post-bop number, the tune burns from the start, with Miles taking the first solo over Carter and Williams and crafting a melodic statement from a chromatic line that rises and falls. Wayne Shorter picks up the rising and falling motif to begin his solo, and follows it around the block and down the street just to see what happens with it. Ultimately what happens is a sort of recapitulation of the melody, before Herbie Hancock picks up the melody with a solo in the right hand that returns to the opening progression, punctuating his solo with two chords in the left hand before the horns restate the chorus. It’s an exploration that takes the sound of the band to a completely different place.

They continue exploring this new sound in “Madness,” a Herbie Hancock composition that finds the horns opening in unison over stabbing chords in the piano. Miles’ solo finds him in similar territory to “Hand Jive,” once again soloing over Carter and Williams alone. Hancock’s entrance presages Shorter’s, who again picks up an idea left by Davis and takes it forward. Here the interplay between Shorter and Carter, who picks up and restates ideas from Shorter within a bar of their first utterance, is the thing to listen for. When Hancock enters next, Carter and Williams step way back; it’s as if Hancock’s entering chords briefly stop time, before a series of repeated runs in the piano restarts the clock. The final restatement of the chorus comes over Hancock’s repeated chords, but this time instead of an insistent stabbing they are more of an ebbing throb as the madness recedes.

Riot”’s melody is stated in the horns over another distinctive melodic hook from Hancock. This time Shorter takes the first solo before passing to Miles, but Hancock’s insistent chords continue underneath. Eventually Miles mimics Herbie’s rhythm, then lays out as the pianist plays a compact and muscular solo. The final chorus ends with Hancock repeating the main figure by himself again. The whole thing takes only a hair over three minutes—possibly the shortest work in the Second Great Quintet’s book, certainly the most terse.

The transition to “Pinocchio” is a study in contrasts. Easily Shorter’s most playful composition for Miles, the opening motif of four descending notes repeats over and over again, descending and ascending dizzyingly as the horns seem to careen around the corner over Herbie’s chordal statements. As though preparing to repeat the experiment of “Nefertiti,” the horns play the chorus unmodified four times as the rhythm section builds in intensity, before the piano and saxophone drop out and Miles plays the first solo. His statement briefly underscores the melodic development before returning to the main chorus. Then Wayne Shorter finds a similar path through the chord progression, before returning to that four-note motif. He repeats it six times, in five different keys, before returning to the chorus. It’s a brilliant trick and one that he would subsequently use to open the arrangement in live performances. Herbie’s solo calls out another rhythmic motif before the quick return to the chorus and a fade out on a vamping, repeated chord.

A measure of the alchemy that this band had together can be grasped when listening to the alternate take that is included in the 2000s remaster of the album. It’s played at about half tempo, and sounds a little like “Nefertiti,” with similar improvisation by the rhythm section. One can imagine Miles suggesting that they apply the same trick they did to “Footprints” on Miles Smiles and speed it up to increase the energy. However they decided to get there, the finished version is one of the most spectacular tracks in the Quintet’s repertoire, with the players grasping ideas from each other at breakneck speed.

All in all, Nefertiti is a uniquely satisfying album in the output of the Quintet. Not as experimentally untethered as Miles Smiles, not as grim as Sorcerer, and more assured than E.S.P., it finds the quintet at the height of their collective power. But things were about to change in the next batch of recording sessions, beginning with the instrumental sound of which the quintet was composed. We’ll hear the first exploration of that sound next time.

You can listen to the whole album here:

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