Miles Davis, Filles de Kilimanjaro

Album of the Week, August 6, 2022.

So we have now come to the last of the great albums of the Second Great Quintet. Although there was, chronologically, at least one more set of recordings from the group to come, and although many of the quintet members would record with Miles on one or more of his next albums, and although several tracks on the album feature a slightly different quintet!—still we must count Filles de Kilimanjaro as a significant milepost along the twisting road of Miles’ recorded output.  It is simultaneously the end and beginning of something, and in it you can hear how the polyrhythyms that appeared on Miles Smiles, the inversions in improvisational structure that he pursued in Nefertiti and the excursions into outright funk that surfaced on Miles in the Sky began to coalesce into something strange and new. It is also harder to write something new about Filles, for much the same reason, so I will have to settle for giving you a personal highlights tour, and you will have to agree to pursue with me my thesis, which is that Filles de Kilimanjaro discovers at least as much praise as is customarily heaped upon Kind of Blue.

The sessions that recorded Filles commenced four days after the last session for Miles in the Sky. Miles was restless, as we have established in the review of that album, and while one might assume that the funky lead-off track, “Frelon Brun (Brown Hornet),” would immediately follow the recording of “Stuff,” Miles and his band began with “Tout de Suite,” “Petits Machins (Little Stuff),” and the title track, all dense explorations of sound that bear strong family resemblances to “Footprints,” “Nefertiti,” and “Fall.” These sessions continue until June. There is a break, then a session on September 24 in which Chick Corea replaces Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Dave Holland sits in for Ron Carter. They record “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)“ and “Frelon Brun.” 

What motivated Miles to change up the personnel of the quintet? It may have been motivated by the members’ own restlessness. Carter apparently left of his own accord during the recordings, and Hancock was dismissed, supposedly for returning late from his honeymoon. One suspects, given the restlessness of Miles’ work, that he was also interested in incorporating new sounds, which he did with a vengeance from the very first track.

Frelon Brun” is a mighty funk, with the one-two punch of Dave Holland’s slightly pitchy electric bass line doubled in places by Chick Corea’s electric piano over an absolute tsunami of drums from Tony Williams. The chorus is almost insouciantly stated over the bass line by the horns, and then Miles takes a commanding solo that rips through and over the rhythm section. Miles sounds energized and vital, and plays off the sounds of the rhythm section. Wayne Shorter’s tenor solo brings the sound into a minor mode, but is no less propulsive for that, finding a moment of levitation over Holland’s bass line and Corea’s alternating chords. When the sax drops away, Corea gets a moment of relative calm to explore the minor tonality between the chords, in a way that pursues the melody right back into a recapitulation of the theme. The overall effect is something like showing up to a black tie event in denim and leather, which one suspects is what Miles had in mind. It was this track that was the first from MIles’ great quintets to grace one of my mix tapes, once upon a time, in no small measure due to the aggressive blending of genre that the track demonstrates.

By contrast, “Tout de Suite” is on somewhat more familiar ground, though high ground indeed. Instead of Corea’s edgy electric piano tone, we get the round, bell-like sounds of Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, in perfect lock step with bass and drums. The horns enter in a modal melody that might not have been out of place on Sketches of Spain. Ron Carter’s electric bass line leads the way through the chord progressions of the opening chorus, as the horns explore a high suspension that never quite resolves, which leads into a quietly agitated dialog for piano and bass, over which Miles improvises a solo that moves from the minor tonality of the rhythm section back to the major mode of the chorus and around again. As he explores different rhythms — an ascending scale here, a smeared tone there — they follow and support him until he exits on a long suspended note, a minor third above the tonic. Wayne Shorter’s solo explores some of the bursts of dialog between the piano and the bass, serenely rising to a recap of the melody over the churning explorations of the rhythm section, then fading away as they explore an extended solo section in the agitated rhythm before returning to the swing of the chorus for a recap. The melody of this track, with its alternating blues and searching melodic line, has been my post-concert driving music at Tanglewood for many years as my heart rate drops back to normal following a performance and I look skyward into the stars above Lenox.

Petit Machins (Little Stuff)” is, by contrast, simultaneously more straightforward and more complex, with an introduction in 11/4 that drops into a hard 4/4 almost immediately. The arrangement bears some of the hand of Gil Evans, who had been in discussions with Miles about incorporating some of the sounds of Jimi Hendrix into Miles’ repertoire. Marcus Singletary has written about the rhythmic complexities of the solos, but the track is remarkable for the continued forward melodic thrust, driven by the motif of the chromatic ascending four-chord pattern from the rhythm section. The track concludes with a second solo by Miles on the theme that he invented in his first solo, serving as coda to the tune.

This brings us to “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” whose circularity brings to mind “Fall” and “Nefertiti,” but whose sense of shifting meter, tonality, and insistent funk bass line situates it firmly as its own creature. The return to a major mode for the melody, together with the ascending melodic line in major fourths, fifths, and sixths, contributes to the sense of openness and exploration, while the continued descending motif in the piano and bass keeps the track grounded. It has the feel of a kaleidoscope constantly opening as the horns continue to return to the theme over and over again, bookending solos by Hancock, Miles, Shorter, and Miles again, who finds a second theme (which more than hints at the theme from “The Flintstones”!). Carter and Williams provide the constant pulse and ground over which the solos climb and descend. If this is the last statement, chronologically, of the second great quintet, it’s a worthy summation.

If the title track sums up what has gone before, “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry),” the closing statement of the album, seems to come from some glorious afterworld. The longest track on the album, the opening melody is in a straightforward major key, over constant polyrhythmic improvisation by Tony Williams. The tune, which has been identified as a free rearrangement of Hendrix’s “And the Wind Cries Mary,” circles around in the rhythm section for several minutes before the horns enter, as Williams enters in a dialog with Corea and Holland. A note should be made here of Williams’ total mastery on this track, moving from subtle brushwork to rolling patterns of three in the snare to dryly humorous and understated single hits on the cymbal to punctuate the other players, it’s a miracle of understated magnificence. Miles’ solo, when it eventually enters, is one of the purest bits of melody on the record. Unlike with “Filles,” the melodic improvisation carries on for several minutes, without the circular return to the chorus. When Wayne Shorter comes in, he is in a similar melodic space, with his tenor showing the same purity of tone and conception that he was soon to bring to his soprano sax playing. Both horns bring a sense of complete serenity to the performance.

All in all, Filles de Kilimanjaro lives up to its packaging: it is in fact replete with “Directions in Music.” For those who welcomed the Miles Davis Quintet’s exploration of the frontiers of post-bop, it is the end of a long journey but of course also the start of something new. Miles’ restless recordings would continue through the summer of 1968; we’ll hear the next fruits of their sessions, together with a last love note from the Second Great Quintet, next time.

You can listen to the album here:

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