Joe Zawinul, Zawinul

Album of the Week, September 17, 2022.

We last met Austrian keyboard player and composer Joe Zawinul when he arrived, seemingly from nowhere, to explore the unknown realms of in a Silent Way. On this appropriately self-titled album, Zawinul continues the journey, this time as leader and not merely as mystic guide. The album is a journey into outer space; it is also an instructive guide in the different ways to create jazz music.

Zawinul’s approach to this album was less group improvisation and more Gil Evans. The group features both Miroslav Vitouš and Walter Booker on bass, multiple drummers and percussionists (on different tracks, Billy Hart, Joe Chambers, Jack Dejohnette, and David Lee can be heard, usually in combinations of two or three), and a front line including Woody Shaw on trumpet (with Jimmy Owens on one track), George Davis on flute, Earl Turbindon on soprano sax, and Herbie Hancock on the mighty Fender Rhodes, alongside Zawinul on acoustic and electric pianos. One track features Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws, and Dejohnette in lieu of Turbindon, Davis, and the other drummers. And the whole group performs in through composed suites that are strongly reminiscent of Gil Evans’ style, though still keeping room for solos.

Doctor Honoris Causa” opens the album in a demonstration of this approach. The melody, written in honor of Herbie Hancock’s honorary doctorate from Grinnell University, is cut from the same cloth as “In a Silent Way,” with a slow chromatic drift of chords from the keyboards and the horns yielding to an insistent bass line supported by a steady backbeat. The front line then enters, with Turbindon, Shaw, and Davis playing the melody line with one voice as it circles the tonic before climbing up to a diminished sixth. There is a short break of around four measures before the second part of the melody returns, again in unison. Following the same arrangement pattern as some of Miles’ work on Nefertiti, the melody returns over and over again, with longer solos between. Shaw takes the first extended solo, his trumpet climbing over strong support from the Fender and Zawinul’s organ. Turbindon takes the next one, with his soprano sax exploring minor modes around the tonic and drifting away, with the Echoplexed Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock taking the next solo, reverberating through the cosmos. Zawinul takes the final solo, steering the group’s improvisations through turbulent air before gently bringing them to a landing. The work may celebrate Hancock’s accomplishments in title, but in execution it’s an evocation of flight.

In a Silent Way” returns to Zawinul’s iconic composition that lent its title to Miles’ pioneering fusion album. Here we hear the work in its full extended form. In doing so, he gives us an insight into Miles’ compositional methods. The original arrangement heard here takes us through an extended introduction in multiple modal chord changes before bringing us to the famous melody. In doing so, the work takes on a very different character from Miles’ wide-eyed, searching rendition. At the last Tanglewood weekend of this summer, I heard WCRB commentator Bryan McCreath point out that much of the power of the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony comes from the open fourths and fifths that constitute the opening theme, because of their harmonic ambiguity. Minus a third in the progression, they could either fall to a major or minor key. The same is true of the Miles version of “In a Silent Way,” which keeps its progressions open for as long as possible before finally revealing its mode. Zawinul’s original extended introduction, which pivots from major to minor with richer harmonies throughout, is more fully voiced, but the ambiguity is lost. It’s still a stunning performance, evoking the Swiss Alps of Zawinul’s youth, albeit with less mystery and more sentimentality.

His Last Journey” is a different animal altogether, a tone poem for bass, piano, chimes, and trumpet. The melody is played in the uppermost ranges of the arco bass over the second bass and a descending piano line, with the trumpet sketching an alternate melody around the edges. It’s a brief dream of a composition that is over all too soon.

Double Image” is the outlier here. Recorded in a different session in late August 1970 with Shorter and Laws, the work is more of a group improvisation than anything else on the record, with the two keyboardists and two bassists alternately working together and improvising separately, with the extended bass arco solo at the beginning exploring the outer reaches. (I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the players apart on these albums, but am not sure whether we’re hearing Vitouš or Booker there.) Zawinul takes the other solo on the track, with the horns and flute providing the echo of the melody in between. The energy level and level of abstraction comes closer here to the more frenetic tunes on Super Nova and Bitches Brew than anything else on the record; unsurprisingly, this is the one composition from this period that would later be recorded by Miles’ electric group on Live-Evil.

Arrival in New York” closes the album with something else again: a sound collage, with taped segments of bowed bass, organ, and percussion manipulated to evoke the cacophony of the New York streets, subways, and harbor as Zawinul remembered them from his arrival in the United States in 1959. As a composition it’s an island unto itself, but it would not be the last time Zawinul would embrace different studio techniques to discover new soundscapes.

So Zawinul points toward a different way to embody Miles’ searching while taking some of the great trumpeter’s collaborators in a different direction. He would continue working with Shorter and Vitouš; we will hear that collaboration next week.

You can hear the album here:

Miroslav Vitouš, Infinite Search

Album of the Week, September 10, 2022

We’ve been spending a lot of time with the members of Miles’ different groups in this thread. At first glance, the debut solo album of the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš would seem an odd fit. But there are a few reasons it’s the album of the week this week: there is substantial overlap with Miles’ sidemen, and because of what is coming next.

For his debut album on Embryo Records, Vitouš assembled an impressive list of musicians: Joe Henderson on tenor sax, John McLaughlin on guitar, Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums (all except the last track, where Joe Chambers fills in). The recording was made October 8, 1969, several months after the Wayne Shorter sessions for Super Nova, on which McLaughlin and DeJohnette both played. But the sound they produce here, absent Shorter’s soprano saxophone, is very different. I should say sounds, because each of the six tracks on the album inhabits a different soundscape.

We’ve already heard Miles’ take on “Freedom Jazz Dance,” on his Miles Smiles. Here, after the introduction by the full band, Vitouš takes an extended bass solo accompanied only by DeJohnette, with interjections by McLaughlin on guitar. A solo by Herbie Hancock follows, with the chiming Fender sound climbing up into the upper octaves, followed by McLaughlin’s solo, over an increasingly frantic rhythm section. When Henderson enters, Hancock and McLaughlin drop out and the frenetic energy lessens, but only slightly before he takes his own frantic turn. Closing out with the theme, Vitouš and Hancock turn the reprise into an extended coda.

Mountain in the Clouds” foregrounds Vitouš and DeJohnette in a short fragment of a composition, as if to assert the bass’s primacy as a melodic instrument. It works, but is so brief the tune never fully develops.

When Face Gets Pale” is another bass-led melody with chordal support from Hancock entwined by McLaughlin’s twisting guitar lines. The composition circles the same chord progression over and over again, creating a meditative mood.

Infinite Search” is the track on the album that feels closest to what we’ve heard before. Here the dominant tone is Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, in duet with Vitouš’s deep bass lines. Together they produce music that reaches both up to the heavens on clouds of Echoplexed reverb and down deep into the earth, grounded by the deep roots of the bass and supported by a two note repeated figure as a ground throughout. The composition wouldn’t have been out of place on Water Babies, and is insistently memorable.

I Will Tell Him On You” is introduced by a theme by Henderson in diffuse clouds of chords from Hancock, which is then elaborated by Vitouš before Henderson returns in a swirling solo, using a technique that he returned to throughout his recording career. If Coltrane had “sheets of sound,” rapidly descending arpeggios, Henderson had whirlpools of sound that circled the tonal center. This effect can be heard to good effect here. McLaughlin follows, neatly mimicking Henderson’s technique before adding flourishes and bent notes that claim the ground as his own. Herbie’s piano solo elaborates the theme with the chiming upper octaves of the Fender before DeJohnette takes a crashing, rolling drum solo. The reprise is followed by a coda by McLaughlin and Hancock. It’s a bracing performance.

Epilogue” is opened by an extended bass solo from Vitouš, supported by Hancock and a bed of chimes and drums. The mood continues through a solo by Hancock, never losing the mystery, until it disappears into a cloud of chimes.

So with his first solo album, Vitouš demonstrated his compatibility with the players in Miles’ orbit who were moving fusion forward, while also proving his own voice. Next time we’ll hear another musician claiming his own leading role in the new sound.

You can listen to Infinite Search here:

Herbie Hancock, Fat Albert Rotunda

Album of the Week, August 27, 2022

In 1969, NBC aired a half hour television special based on the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby. Focused on Cos’ stories of his childhood in Philadelphia, the special, called Fat Albert and Friends, was a low-budget affair, with the animators drawing directly onto the cels with grease pencils and using actual photographs of the streets of Philadelphia for backgrounds. While the special inspired the later Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids series, it has languished in the vaults since its release.

As Cos would say, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. Because, while the budget for the special was low, it featured a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock that stands as an early milestone of jazz-funk.

Herbie hadn’t been idle since leaving Miles’ quintet. He had already recorded The Prisoner, a concept album for Blue Note with a large group of players that included Joe Henderson on sax, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn, Garnett Brown on trombone, Hubert Laws on flute, Buster Williams on bass, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums. The album, his final Blue Note recording, features the same core group (minus Laws) that came together on Fat Albert Rotunda, but featured a very different sound.

The opening track, “Wiggle-Waggle,” underscores the difference. With a blast of horns over a jangling guitar for an opening fanfare, it quickly moves into a tight, funky chart over a fat bass line that would not be out of place on a James Brown record. The core group here was augmented by a large group of session players, uncredited on the original release but including Joe Farrell on saxophone and the mighty Bernard Purdie on drums. (We’ll write more about Joe Farrell soon.) Anchoring the swirling chart is the Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock.

Hearing this recording, it’s hard to believe that Herbie initially approached the electric piano reluctantly. The chunky sound of the Fender in the opening track seems made for this new jazz-funk sound. It also provides most of the improvisatory energy; most of the horns stay in the charts for the whole track. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the compositional technique that Miles’s quintet began to adopt on Nefertiti, with the core group bookending relatively brief solos with frequent reprises of the main melody, surfaces again here, where it is more easily recognizable as pop-music style verse-chorus-verse writing.

The album continues throughout in this accessible vein, resulting in some of the most remarkably joyous music to come from Herbie’s pen to date. “Fat Mama” is a slow crescendo of a track building from another Buster Williams bass line and foregrounding Herbie’s piano and some rare flute work by Joe Henderson against the horns. “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” might be the most inspired cut on the album, with Johnny Coles’ flugelhorn opening setting the stage for a tender ballad, while “Tootie” Heath’s brisk drum work keeps the heartbeat of the song moving as the excitement of the bedtime story builds and recedes. “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes!” is another funk workout, serving as a theme for Fat Albert.

The one tune that entered Hancock’s repetoire longer-term is the ballad “Jessica,” here given a relatively lugubrious treatment thanks to the thick horn arrangements. He would later revisit this tune in the late 1970s with an acoustic group—we’ll hear that album another time—that stripped away some of the heavy chord voicings to reveal a plaintive melody. Here, after the tender opening, the tune drags—there is simply too much going on in the chart. It regains life in the solo, though, as Herbie uses acoustic piano for the only time on the album in a simple trio setting to explore the melody.

Shifting gears once again, the title track revisits the themes in “Oh! Oh! Here He Comes” as a funk-inflected march, with a blistering sax solo from Joe Henderson providing additional urgency. The set closes with “Little Brother,” a jovial jazz-funk workout for the same extended set of players as the opening track. Featuring some tasty guitar work throughout by the uncredited Eric Gale and Billy Butler and solos by Farrell and Herbie over Purdie’s legendary “Purdie Shuffle,” the track is a fitting romp to an unexpectedly rich and playful album.

Herbie has publicly said that he made Fat Albert Rotunda as the first album for his Warner Brothers contract to give him the artistic freedom to make more adventurous music. Perhaps. It’s undeniable that the follow up albums, Mwandishi and Crossing, are completely different and serve more as spiritual successors to In a Silent Way than to this album. (We’ll hear another album in that lineage from a different member of Miles’ quintet next time.) Still, it’s hard to hear Fat Albert Rotunda as anything but an expression of joy in music-making, however commercial it may be.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way

Album of the Week, August 20, 2022

There are liminal moments in music history, moments that stand perched on the edge of a knife, where music stands to move one way or another. Where it can fall back and recapitulate that which came before, or fall forward into something strange and new. Miles Davis stands alone among 20th century musicians because he embraced these liminal moments, and his finest albums came from them. There may be no greater such moment in his lengthy discography than In a Silent Way.

We have heard him searching for a new sound through the last few weeks, with the addition of guitar on Miles in the Sky, the use of electric keyboards on Filles de Kilimanjaro, the use of two keyboardists on Water Babies, and throughout a shift toward songwriting that moved much of the complexity of the arrangements down into the rhythm section, leaving the horns free to embrace uncluttered melodic moments. Those movements in his writing came together as Miles continued to record through November of 1968, but none of the recordings would see the light of day until years later. However, the sessions added one important musician to the lineup on the second to last day, when the players were joined by Joe Zawinul on the organ.

Josef Zawinul was a Swiss-born musician and composer who had come to the United States in 1959 to attend the Berklee College of Music, but dropped out after a few weeks to tour with Maynard Ferguson. He came to the notice of audiences in Cannonball Adderley’s group, where he composed in a more harmonically advanced version of the soul jazz that Adderley was playing. He came to Miles’s attention and was asked to join him in the studio to contribute ideas. This swelled the number of keyboardists in the group assembled in the studio to three, since Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were still both working with Miles.

The group took a hiatus from the studio until February 18, 1969, where they came together with another new face: the English guitarist John McLaughlin, who had come to the States two weeks previously to play in The Tony Williams Lifetime. McLaughlin reportedly idolized Miles and was petrified to meet him in the studio. So these musicians, together with Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Dave Holland, formed the group with which Miles embarked into a new world.

The music that the group recorded on that day has the sound of exploration, but for years there was no way to hear the tracks as originally recorded, because Teo Macero was on hand to lend the finishing touch to the masterpiece by combining several songs into two album-side-long sonatas. (You can hear the individual tracks on The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, which I highly recommend.) Miles had paid close attention to the studio work of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix; this was the first recording where he embraced the studio as another instrument in the process.

Shhh/Peaceful” comprises the entirety of Side One, and opens with the sound of both new members at once: an arpeggiated chord in McLaughlin’s guitar over a suspended minor chord in Zawinul’s organ. From there the melody unfolds in the guitar over the three keyboardists, anchored by the relentless pulse of Holland’s bass coming up a fourth and by Williams’ consistently steady rock pulse. The group comes to a pause, a silence that’s broken by Williams and Holland, and then everything starts again, this time with Miles bringing a major-key melody to the front above all the complexity, over a bed of chords in the electric pianos and organ. The echoing effects created by Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes in particular lend a distinctive sound here, one that I’ve written about in the past as “jazz in inner space.” As with earlier works like “Fall,” the rhythm section circles around to the theme between solos, as Miles, then McLaughlin, and finally Wayne Shorter take a turn.

Because of Teo Macero’s work, when I first heard this music in my first year of college, I assumed that it must have been through-composed. How else could the musicians have recapitulated that opening so precisely? With the knowledge that the sonata form was constructed at the tape in the studio, rather than in sheet music, my astonishment at listening to the work is redirected to the brilliance of the improvisations that constitute the repeated sections. This is a group that listens closely to each other to produce those miracles of sound.

The second half of the album is a similar sonata, “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” constructed around two different soundscapes. The title song began life as a Joe Zawinul composition that was meant to evoke the sounds of the Swiss Alps. Translated into Miles’ horn and the electric keyboards and guitar, the music is less Alpenhorn (though that inspiration is unmistakable when you listen for it) and more Also Sprach Zarathustra. This is a statement of the discovery of a new world, and Miles is our guide.

Once Miles concludes his statement of the theme, there is a pause and a shift, and we are in a different place yet again. The “It’s About That Time” portion of the track is outwardly a more straightforward rock tune. But even here Miles plays against expectations, with the chorus shifting into a modal blues, in patterns of three measures stated in Chick Corea’s electric piano with support from Dave Holland and Joe Zawinul’s organ. John McLaughlin plays a free improvisation over the ground laid down by the rhythm section, and then Zawinul brings forward another counter-melody that locks into the groove.

It is at this point that Wayne Shorter steps forward with a dramatic solo, for the first time on record played on the soprano sax rather than the tenor. Wayne had started to play on the soprano in the very last 1968 recording session of Miles’s group, and it quickly became one of his signature sounds. Lines that in the tenor would have had a more searching, visceral quality here seem to float serenely, providing a powerful contrast to the rhythm section below. There may have well been a practical reason for the use of the soprano sax, as the higher register would have punched through the rest of the instrumentation more easily. Whatever the reason, Shorter’s work on the soprano sax became virtually synonymous with early jazz fusion. The improvisation draws to a close with Miles blowing an incandescent solo above the group motion. The side draws to a close with a restatement of the “In a Silent Way” theme, again cut together into the track by Teo.

In a Silent Way pointed the way to the sound of future Miles groups, while keeping one foot in the past with the yearning, open sound of the solos. In the early 1970s he would add additional percussionists, foreground the guitar more, and change the personnel frequently, but the basic combination of horns, electric keyboards, electric guitar and bass, and drums would be the instrumentation on which he built jazz fusion, starting with the very next album, Bitches Brew. My record collection is shy on Miles fusion recordings, though there will be one more before all is done. But we’ll hear from other members of the quintet, and other Miles alumni, in their solo recordings, starting with next week’s entry.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, Water Babies

Album of the Week, August 13, 2022

We’ve talked about how Miles and his band—er, bands—spent a lot of time in the studio between mid-1967 through 1968, recording the sessions that became Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. But those albums aren’t the whole story. There was enough material left uncollected from these sessions to fill several albums. And in 1975, Columbia Records began filling them.

At that point, Miles had retired—temporarily, it turns out—due to “health reasons.” In this case the euphemism was at least partly accurate. His hip pain, still present after the replacement he had done in 1965, was worsening. But he was also suffering from the rock and roll lifestyle that he embraced (spoiler alert) following Bitches Brew, and his addictions to alcohol and cocaine almost certainly played a role in the decision to retire.

Whatever the cause, Columbia started looking in its vaults and realized it had a huge number of unreleased tracks, so they queued up the process of releasing them. One of the first sets to come out is today’s album, Water Babies. Recorded in two sessions, one with the Second Great Quintet following Nefertiti and one with Chick Corea and Dave Holland joining Tony, Miles and Wayne following Filles, and with all but one track composed by Wayne Shorter, the album is a fantastic transitional document that sheds light on what the quintet got up to among the other sessions we’ve heard. (Note: this review was written from the LP, so omits “Splash,” another Wayne Shorter tune that closes out the CD and digital versions of the album.)

In the case of the title track, they were recording a masterpiece. “Water Babies,” recorded the same day as “Nefertiti,” is a tense modal waltz that features all the trademarks of the quintet: telepathic handoffs between the horns, brilliant solos, and a genius rhythm section that elevates the tune to the next level. Like some of Shorter’s other comppositions, this one was released in versions both with Miles and with his own band; we’ll hear a very different version of the track soon.

The same group recorded “Capricorn” six days later. It’s a looser track that ambles without rambling, somehow. Anchored by Ron Carter’s brilliant walking bass, both horns go far out in solos that are unanchored by chords, as Herbie lays out for all but the choruses and his right-hand solo. The stylistic approach is a more relaxed version of the quintet that both foretells the genial humor of “Pinocchio” and looks forward to some later

Sweet Pea,” the last of the numbers from the 1967 Nefertiti sessions, is a melancholy ballad that opens with Miles freely improvising over the rhythm section, and gradually moving into time, prodded by the accelerating exaltations of Tony Williams’ drums. Wayne Shorter’s solo is sublimely meditative in the spirit of “Iris” and “Miyako”; Herbie Hancock’s statement that follows is another in the series of proof points that the composer of “Blind Man, Blind Man” need cede no ground to Bill Evans or other subtle artists of the keyboard.

The second half of the album, recorded in a session in November 1968, features the Filles quintet, plus Herbie Hancock. At this point Miles had begun to explore the sound possibilities of multiple keyboard instruments, so we get to hear both Chick Corea’s chunky electric piano sound and Herbie’s Fender Rhodes under Miles’ initial free exploration of the harmonic space in the opening of “Two Faced.” An extended solo by Herbie follows, with the rhythm section leaning into a rock inspired riff by way of Tony Williams’ polyrhythms. A brisk Wayne Shorter solo follows over the sounds of the two electric pianos playing against each other, tossing riffs and sounds back and forth. When Miles’ trumpet returns, he and Shorter continue the duality theme by tossing phrases back and forth to each other, returning them extended, slurred, blurred, but otherwise still recognizable. Corea’s solo at the end seems to point the way to a different direction, with some of the atmosphere of Hancock’s electric piano but more of an incisive bite.

Dual Mr. Anthony Tillman Williams Process,” which is sometimes mislabeled as “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” on reissues, The solo non-shorter composition on the record, this appears to start as an improv by Miles and Williams passing bars back and forth, Holland and the rhythm section pick up on the idea and morph it into a blues that wouldn’t be out of place on a later Herbie Hancock record, as we’ll see in a few weeks. Miles doesn’t return to take a solo for another four or five minutes, and both he and Wayne lean into the blues. The track ends as a meditation on the theme by the rhythm section. It’s a brilliantly tossed off bit of joy.

For a “compilation album,” Water Babies hits some pretty high notes. Far from scraping the barrel, it appears to open the door to a vast storeroom of possible discoveries from this incredibly fertile period in Miles and the quintet’s discography. We’ll hear the next official release in that series next time.

You can listen to the album here:

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:

Miles Davis, Miles in the Sky

Album of the Week, July 30, 2022

Last time we checked in with Miles, he had spent weeks in the studio in June and July of 1967, following months of scattered recording sessions that produced other tracks, to record Nefertiti. Following the final July session which produced “Fall,” “Pinocchio” and “Riot,” the quintet took a break. They got back together for a series of European dates in October and November. But when they re-entered the Columbia Studio in December 1967 and January 1968, things were different, in a lot of ways.

First, the group that did the December 4 session, which recorded the track “Circle in the Round,” was a sextet, and the instrumentation was different. Herbie Hancock played the celeste instead of the piano, and Joe Beck joined the group on electric guitar. Beck returned for a session on December 28 that recorded a track called “Water on the Pond,” this time with Hancock on electric piano and harpsichord. A session followed on January 12 to record a song called, “Fun,” with Hancock still on electric harpsichord and Bucky Pizzarelli on electric guitar. (None of these tracks were released until years later.)

What sparked the change? It’s possible that Miles was explicitly influenced by rock music. He was clearly listening to it — he named Miles in the Sky as an homage to the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” But I think the changes in Hancock’s keyboards, which subsequent interviews with Hancock have made clear were at Miles’ instigation, show that Miles was sonically restless. He was looking for a new sound.

The next session of the group found them still recording with a guitarist; this time George Benson joined them on electric guitar, recording a track called “Paraphernalia.” The group recorded sporadically through January and February, and finally came back into the studio over three days in May, minus Benson, to record “Country Son,” “Black Comedy,” and “Stuff.” The first two featured the traditional instrumentation, while “Stuff” had Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Ron Carter on electric bass.

It’s this track that opens Miles in the Sky, the album eventually released from this string of sessions. And it’s a radical difference from what came before, sonically and compositionally. The Miles-composed tune, while still in a minor mode, is a much more accessible, even funky composition. And Hancock’s Fender Rhodes is the sonic ingredient around which the rest of the band gels. (I’ve written and put a mix together about the sounds Herbie could get out of that Fender Rhodes.) But there are unguessed depths in the track, and the genius of “Stuff” is the fluency with which it veers from straightahead funk that wouldn’t be out of place on some of Herbie Hancock’s early 1970s albums to timeless oceanic jazz and back.

The secret is that Fender Rhodes. Herbie has said, “One thing I liked about the Fender Rhodes electric piano: the drummer didn’t have to play soft for me, he could play loud and I could turn the volume up.” But there’s way more than just volume going on with what he does with “Stuff.” At the end of each chorus, there is a section taken out of time where you can hear the chords of the Rhodes going up and down a chromatic progression, and it sounds a little like outer space—even coming out of his own solo, which reminds the listener that this was the guy who wrote “Watermelon Man.” Miles’s solo grooves in a way that he hadn’t done in a long time, but Wayne Shorter’s solo locates more firmly in the free jazz of the preceding few albums. Ron Carter’s bass provides a constant heartbeat throughout, as Tony Williams’ drum patterns explore and float free under the horns. In a different world, with a different sax player, “Stuff” might tilt all the way over into James Brown flavored R&B. But this is thinking funk, and it’s all the more remarkable for that.

Paraphernalia,” written by Wayne Shorter, is the sole track on the album on which an electric guitar appears, courtesy of George Benson. You’d be forgiven for being underwhelmed. Benson’s role is mostly rhythm and texture, providing some of the crunch that the Fender Rhodes provided on “Stuff.” But it’s a novel ingredient in the sound, and it prompts a different approach from the players on what might otherwise have fit nicely alongside the tracks on Nefertiti. In particular, Carter locks in with Benson’s groove, leaving Williams free to pulse and explode throughout. During Benson’s brief solo, the piano drops out, leaving a guitar trio with bass and drums that wouldn’t be out of place on a Wes Montgomery album—until those horns bring back the transitional chords again. Shorter’s composition borrows the trick he used on Nefertiti of keeping the space for solos wide open but contained with frequent repetition of the chorus. As a result, the track feels like an exercise in synchronicity, with seemingly diverse approaches and ideas coming together in one briskly simmering pot. Or something.

Tony Williams’ composition “Black Comedy” opens side two, and is a more straightforward tune. But it’s a burner, and Wayne Shorter’s solo finds the core of the stuttering, stopping and starting melody. In fact, on both this track and Miles’ closer “Country Son,” the band seems to double in intensity. On the former, the core chord progressions keep coming back to raise the temperature of the band. “Country Son” seems to start in the middle of something (and may have been a segment of an extended jam), with the band coming in on a white hot tidal wave of sound, led by Miles’ muted trumpet. We haven’t heard Miles lean into the mute in many records, as that approach was largely left behind by the time the second quintet started, but here it’s back in force above a volcano of sound from Tony Williams. Then Miles seems to call the band to pause as he surveys the landscape, and they shift gear into a vibrant, swinging melody, led by Wayne Shorter’s sax. There’s another shift as Herbie Hancock takes the solo in a sort of gnomic piano trio, with flavors of Latin jazz, funk, and free jazz all coming together, shifting from one to the other at the drop of a hat. There was real telepathy among the rhythm section of the quintet, and hearing them exercise it here is remarkable. When Miles comes back, sans mute, the final statement of the theme is made over that Latin-flavored counter-melody. And there’s just a little taste of a melody that we’ll hear in earnest in a few weeks.

Miles wasn’t done recording after these sessions. The group was back in the studio four days after the final session for Miles in the Sky and would be there through the end of June. We’ll hear the fruits of those recordings, and the next big change in Miles’ group, next time.

You can hear all of Miles in the Sky here:

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:

Wayne Shorter, Schizophrenia

Album of the Week, July 16, 2022

Miles may have gone through some quieter periods between 1964 and 1966, but he and the quintet were now, it seems, determined to make up for lost time. We’ve entered a period of the discography where it’s difficult to cover the recordings in strict chronological order, between the albums that were all laid down in one session and the others that are made up of tracks from a variety of sessions, sometimes spanning several years. But before we commence the later part of the Second Great Quintet, there was still room for members of the group to record their own solo albums in between quintet sessions. And so we find Wayne Shorter on March 10, 1967, entering Van Gelder Studios once more for Blue Note, this time with a sextet: Curtis Fuller on trombone, James Spaulding on alto sax and flute, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums, to record Schizophrenia.

The album gets off to a strong start, with a Shorter original we’ve heard before, now in a fuller arrangement. “Tom Thumb” here benefits from Herbie Hancock’s sambaesque introductory statement, as well as James Spaulding’s distinctive tone on alto and the remarkable timbre of Curtis Fuller’s trombone. Herbie’s solo, full of unusual chordal clusters and tones, is notable after all the right-hand-only solos we heard on Miles Smiles, just six months before; it’s a reminder of how much of a full orchestral sound he can bring to the party. James Spaulding’s solo on alto is striking as well, covering a range of two plus octaves and playing with the time before returning to the contours of the melody. After the rocky terrain of The All Seeing Eye, this is almost Wayne Shorter as pop artist, though there’s nothing watered down about those solos.

As if to remind us of the earlier album, “Go” opens with an out-of-time modal chord progression from the horns, but then enters a more wistful balladic feel as they settle into a gentle samba-influenced melody. The group plays freely with time through the intro, but you can always feel the pulse just below the surface. When Spaulding enters on flute, it’s breathtaking, as is the handoff from the diminuendo in the flute into Shorter’s tenor entrance. The concluding chorus opens with Shorter alone before the rest of the horns come in to provide melancholy counterpoint. It’s one of those remarkable Shorter compositions that sneaks under the blankets of your mind.

The title track, true to its name, seems to have a split psyche, opening in a slow out-of-time statement by the horns before kicking into a higher gear as a fast modal workout for the whole band. Shorter’s solo is appropriately fiery, of course, but we also hear Fuller on a blistering trombone solo and Spaulding seems to fan the flames.

“Kryptonite” is a James Spaulding composition, and features him on flute in the opening statement of the theme, alongside the rest of the horns, and then into a flute solo that starts with the opening chords and then finds its way into adjoining tonalities, all while holding onto the rhythmic drive of the theme. It’s a strong opening statement, and Shorter’s solo goes in a different direction, picking up a rhythmic figure from Spaulding and then making his own scale out of the raw material of the chords, before returning to the opening theme and his opening rhythmic statement. Hancock’s solo vamps over or two chords from the theme but is mostly a right-hand statement, before the final chorus comes in.

“Miyako,” named for Shorter’s daughter with his ex-wife Teruko Nakagami (who appears on the cover of Speak No Evil), is a ballad in the spirit of “Infant Eyes,” which was also dedicated to her. The melody is simple here, but the richness of the arrangement—where would this album be without Curtis Fuller’s trombone??—sets it apart, as does the chord progression that takes us from minor to relative major to lands unexplored in just a few bars. It’s stunning…

… but not quite as stunning as the opening of “Playground,” a full band workout that seems to flash from darkness to valediction to schoolyard namecalling in the first minute. We’re not in pop music territory here anymore, but the freer statement feels closer to where Shorter’s muse was taking him. Still, the closing is nowhere near as dark as The All Seeing Eye. Despite (or perhaps because of) the freedom of Shorter’s approach, we still find ourselves unexpectedly in a gospel moment as Hancock exchanges chords and comments under Fuller’s solo. Spaulding’s solo complements the gospel moment, but his repetition of the thematic idea is more free jazz than gospel shout. Hancock takes us back to the darkness from the opening theme, but playfully, with runs in the right hand against rumbled chords in the left, leading into the final chorus with the horns. A repeated blare on the final chord takes the song, and the album, out.

Schizophrenia is as wide reaching as its title suggests, finding Shorter revisiting some of the musical approaches from his earlier albums at the same time as he feels his way into new ways to approach free jazz. It’s a fun record, if measured by nothing else than it seems to end too soon. Some of the fun of the record would return in Shorter’s compositions on the next Miles Davis Quintet album; we’ll hear that next week.

You can listen to Schizophrenia here.

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.

Wayne Shorter, The All Seeing Eye

Album of the Week, June 25, 2022.

As 1965 ran on, Miles Davis continued with health problems and personal setbacks. His hip replacement in April had failed, but he checked himself out of the hospital due to boredom in July. In August he was back in the hospital for another go at the hip replacement, this time with a plastic ball joint. The band continued recording, though. We’ve listened to Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. Tony Williams recorded his debut solo album Spring in August with Wayne Shorter and Hancock alongside. And Shorter recorded The Soothsayer in March, The Collector in June, and recorded the Lee Morgan album The Gigolo with his old Jazz Messengers bandmate in June and July. And in October, Shorter returned to Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with an octet to record his next album, The All Seeing Eye.

To say that this new album was a radical departure from what came before is accurate, and might understate how dramatic a development this was for Shorter the composer. Not only was this the largest group he had ever written for — with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard returning from Speak No Evil, and now augmented by trombonist Grachan Moncur III, alto sax James Spaulding, drummer Joe Chambers, and Shorter’s brother Alan composing and playing flugelhorn on the final track — but compositionally this was far from the normal territory he covered. Even coming after some of the danker tracks on E.S.P. we are in new territory here. There is little of the blues or standards jazz on this album. We teeter over the abyss.

Shorter meant this as a concept album, exploring the meaning of life and the existence of God and the Universe. It’s easy to hear a search for the divine in the title track, which opens the album. In some ways the tune here is the most conventional one on the album, but the thick chords take it to a completely different place. Hubbard has a blazing solo that Shorter picks up and carries forward. Hancock slows things back down with his solo and the band comes back at the end to close things down.

The opening track is wild, but nothing prepares the listener for the free opening to “Genesis,” which presents a full keyboard chromatic scale by Hancock that builds from the abyss to a modal statement of the theme, first in the piano, then continued in the horns. Coming out of the band’s opening statement, first Carter and then Shorter take their own free statement of the melody. Shorter builds to a rhythmic pattern that he repeats on a single note for four measures before Hancock picks up the pattern, while Shorter spins back out. Hubbard takes the next solo, keeping in free time while exploring different tones and octaves with his horn. Moncur slowly explores an ascending chromatic scale as the part of Creation that he surveys unfurls. At the end the main theme comes back with the chords from the horns, followed by the piano theme to bring the composition full circle. Twelve bar blues this ain’t.

Chaos,” despite its title, is more conventional, albeit deep in modal jazz. Shorter has called this “what man has done… to God’s creation,” and the music reflects a deep tension, conflict and warring voices, all over the constant pulse of Carter and Chambers. First Shorter, then Hubbard and Hancock make fiery statements before the ensemble plays out the theme again and begin to spiral back out, ending the track in a rare fade-out.

The Face of the Deep” is a relatively more conventional slow ballad, rendered fresh both by the dense voicing of the horn quartet on the theme and by Hancock’s contemplative solo, accompanied by sensitive work from Chambers on the cymbals and a slow heartbeat from Carter. As an aside, this record features some of Carter’s earliest use of the portamento that would eventually become one of his signature techniques. Shorter’s solo here is reminiscent of his work on “Infant Eyes,” with an approach as much about space as about his notes. The horns return after to restate the theme with an ominous swell that leads into the final track.

Mephistopheles,” the sole composition by Alan Shorter on the album, seems at first puckish, with an angular melody in the horns that is played in clusters of notes. But then the rhythm section enters with an insistent ground played in the bass and piano accompanied by subtle cymbal work by Chambers, and the horns return with an ominous restatement of the theme followed by a scream. Shorter picks up the solo over rolling drumwork and that continuing ground, sketching a portrait of an uneven, unpredictable ruler of the underworld. His brother follows with a flugelhorn solo that continues the exploration of the Hadean region, playing against stabbing chords in the piano as he circles the melody, raising it higher and then descending back into the pit. Moncur gets the last word from the horns, with a solo that reflects less fire and more heat, taking the persistent beat of the ground and adopting it for his own descending solo. Chambers takes the ground and double times it for his own solo, then breaks free of the boundaries of the bars before returning to the ground beneath the horns who restate the melody once more, finishing with a final scream.

Shorter would explore many more boundaries of music, both with his solo recordings and his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, but The All Seeing Eye stands as a conceptual milestone in his catalog, both forbidding in its thorny complexity and inspiring in its dark beauty. It was not a permanent change of direction, and next time we’ll explore yet another side of him as a composer and sideman alongside another of his Art Blakey bandmates.

My copy of the record (top) is the recent Tone Poet reissue from Blue Note, which sounds superb. You can listen to the full album here.

Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage

Album of the week, June 18, 2022

Listening to the opening of “Maiden Voyage,” it’s hard to believe that it was recorded just two months after E.S.P.—and with three of the same members. It’s also hard to believe that it opens Hancock’s fifth solo album in four years—to say nothing of his work with Miles.

The band that entered Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs on March 17, 1965 bore some strong resemblances to the one that had recorded with Miles at Columbia Studios in Hollywood on January 20-22. In addition to Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams returned to the rhythm section; they had performed with Hancock on his preceding album, Empyrean Isles, as had Freddie Hubbard. George Coleman, who had played with Herbie on the live recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet from Carnegie Hall, My Funny Valentine and “Four” and More, rounded out the group on tenor sax. But though many of the players on the album had played with Miles, this album is distinctively Herbie Hancock’s work.

I write a lot about chordal structure, rhythmic interplay, and other facets of jazz improvisation in this series, but there is one essential element without which no jazz album can reach greatness: melody. One of the few weak points of E.S.P., to my ear, is the lack of distinct melodies on the second side, after the strong opening of the title track, “Eighty-One” and “Little One.” There’s no such weakness here, and “Maiden Voyage” opens the album with one of the all time great jazz melodies. It’s simple, persistent, and yearning, with a simple tune—up a fourth, then down a whole step and a four note run up a minor scale. But it’s slippery, with the same pattern repeated at a different part of the scale a few bars later, and the whole thing is set over suspended seventh chords, evoking a sense of mystery. It conveys everything about the sense of wonder of the beginning of a solo journey, combined with the mystery of the ocean. It is also unforgettable, and a substantial step forward from the Herbie Hancock who wrote the calculated hit tunes “Watermelon Man” and “Blind Man, Blind Man.

The whole track is a remarkable performance, but especially worth listening to is Tony Williams’ drum work under Hancock’s solo. Through a combination of cymbal work, snare rolls, and a bass drum heartbeat that slightly anticipates Ron Carter’s bass line. It’s an amazing evocation of the ocean, complete with creaking timbers and salt spray, and yet it’s utterly placid on the surface.

From the tranquility of the opening track we are immediately dropped into a storm. “The Eye of the Hurricane” provides an opportunity for Freddie Hubbard to demonstrate the combination of keen melodic sense, rhythmic complexity, and sheer technical acumen that would become his signature sound for the next fifteen years. His solo is astonishing. Coleman’s tenor solo following is less technically precise but is propulsive and carries the energy forward into Hancock’s solo, which is carried out almost entirely in the right hand as the chords drop way back, providing a feeling of calm at the center of the work. It’s a neat trick, but it makes me wonder what the piece would sound like in the hands of McCoy Tyner.

Hancock’s “Little One” follows, and he wisely rearranges the solos a little compared to the version on E.S.P. Here, both horns play the opening phrase, while Hubbard takes the following climb upward over Coleman’s lower accompaniment, and Hancock plays the yearning part that was Wayne Shorter’s on the earlier version. When the waltz comes in, George Coleman creates an entirely new melody over the opening, demonstrating the versatility of the tune and his own unique melodic gift. Freddie Hubbard follows the trail blazed by Coleman but quickly takes the melody to his own territory before passing it back to Herbie Hancock. His work on the solo finds him deep in impressionistic territory. Indeed, with his rhythmic chords alternating with melodic runs, he sounds like a livelier Bill Evans—a distinctively new voice from Hancock, who stretches out in several new directions on the record.

The furthest out direction he visits comes to the fore on “Survival of the Fittest.” What was I saying about melody? Here the hook is memorable but not hummable: slowly crescendoing chords, a saxophone line that sounds a lot like the opening to Wayne Shorter’s “Yes or No” (recorded seven months earlier), a scream in the trumpet, stabbing chords from the horns, a quick fragment of a melody, and then… burnout. Not in the pejorative sense, but in the sense that Branford Marsalis’s band has used it. Solos stretch past boundaries of bars and choruses and into different times and tonalities, anchored by Williams’ frantic drumming. Even here Hancock finds lyrical melody, but in a constantly shifting tonality and tempo. Finally the rest of the rhythm section falls away and it’s just Herbie playing a scherzo over chords that rock back and forth between two minor modes. It’s stunning and time stopping, and when Tony Williams comes back in he maintains the timeless feel with rolling drums in the deep. The horns come back in six bursts, restating the opening melody before abruptly halting.

And then: a surprise. “Dolphin Dance” swings gently and offers us the second most memorable melody of the record, an ascending run from the third to the fifth of the scale then down to the second, an easygoing pattern that continues with the same intervals but then starts from the tonic, the sixth and the third. It’s a vivid image, suggesting dolphins breaching out of the water one after another. And the soloists follow. Freddie Hubbard breaks out of the second repetition of the melody, taking flight for a moment, swimming along with the melody, then kicking it into a new key before passing it to George Coleman. The saxophonist swings his solo hard before going into double-time and eventually employing something like Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” Hancock brings it back to the circling pattern, touching the other points of the scale before generating a new melody that reaches upwards, pauses, then climbs once more. The final recapitulation underscores the serenity of the melody, drifting into the distance.

It’s a fitting sendoff for the album, which stands as one of the high points of Hancock’s work—and of Blue Note Records in general. Next time we’ll hear a very different work from another member of Miles’ quintet.

You can listen to the album here.

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.

Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil

Album of the week, June 4, 2022.

Many of the musicians in this series must be described in the past tense, but Wayne Shorter is still with us. We heard his tenor voice last time as a member of Miles Davis’ band. Today we’re going to look at an album he recorded after that run of dates on the road—an album that still stands among the greatest small group jazz recordings ever.

Wayne Shorter started his career in the Army, serving for two years after graduating from New York University, and playing in a combo with Horace Silver. He was subsequently hired by Art Blakey, who made a career out of finding promising young players and giving them opportunities to shine. During the time when Shorter was in the Jazz Messengers, Blakey’s band, he played alongside trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons, trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassist Reggie Workman, Freddie Hubbard, and pianist Cedar Walton at various times. (We’ll hear from many of these artists later.) Even among this group of young giants, Shorter stood out, eventually becoming the band’s musical director.

Shorter played a few gigs with Miles in 1962 but stayed committed to Blakey’s group, finally giving in and joining Miles for good in the summer of 1964. The group toured extensively through Europe that summer and fall; in addition to the Berlin date we wrote about last time, there are also radio sessions documenting concerts in Paris, Sindelfingen (West Germany), and Copenhagen. When the band returned, with no Davis recording sessions imminent, he hit Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The first session, in November, yielded three takes that were rejected by Blue Note. The second session, on Christmas Eve, 1964, yielded a masterpiece.

Shorter had already recorded two albums for Blue Note in 1964, with a group consisting of Coltrane sidemen (McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones) that established his abilities as a leader and a composer, but cast him as a Coltrane disciple. This time around the compositional voice was more assured and also beginning to speak a different language, with modal influences from Miles. That’s not all the record borrows from his work with the Miles Davis Quintet; his bandmates Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter joined him for the recording, alongside trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones. (We’ll hear more about all these musicians.)

Shorter starts off the album with “Witch Hunt,” a modal, bluesy track that features strong playing from Hubbard over a relaxed groove courtesy of Hancock and Carter. Hancock’s time in Miles’ group is apparent in his accompaniment, which drops chords into the spaces left by the horns as he brings the band along on the changes. Elvin Jones keeps the time with a relaxed swing, but turns up the heat as the group shifts gears into the chorus and as Shorter’s solo gets hotter, finding a new rhythmic pattern. Carter keeps an implacable heartbeat below all the players. And Shorter and Hubbard trade solos over the rhythm section, finding different approaches to the loping melody that opens the track.

“Fee Fi Fo Fum” is in nearly the same tempo, but relaxes further into the groove and drops a minor third down the chord that “Witch Hunt” explores, lending the impression of continuing the thought that the opening track started. Here Hubbard opens with a brief solo before yielding the floor to Shorter, who brings several different tonalities around the melody before passing the ball back to Hancock.

“Dance Cadaverous” continues the groove in waltz time. The first side of the album, in fact, feels like a slowly unfolding exploration of the same musical idea, with different melodic ideas continuing in the same mode. The sound continues to swirl around the same tonality in a series of hypnotic melodies, but you’d be forgiven for thinking of the songs as slightly interchangeable.

That changes in a big way with the title track, which opens the second side of the album. Here the melody is both simpler, reliant on just three notes to express the statement of the core idea, and more developed, as it moves in and out of the opening tonality, then climbs chromatically up the octave topping out a ninth above, with Hancock closing the pattern with a cluster of chords that descends back to the tonic. The tune is memorable and insistent and sticks around as Jones and Carter dig into the swing underneath while Hancock sketches out the scale, exploring both the chordal patterns and different rhythms. As with other songs in this session, Hubbard’s solo goes high, but Shorter stays in the same range as the melody, persistently circling round the melodic idea.

Things get stripped back even further on “Infant Ryes,” a slow ballad where Shorter and Hancock both strip out all but the most essential notes. Carter’s bass heartbeat is the pulse that moves the ballad forward, functioning in much the same way that Paul Chambers’ bass work did on Coltrane’s “Naima.” Shorter’s solo seems suspended in mid-air above the bed of Hancock’s delicate chord work throughout (Freddie Hubbard sits this one out). It’s stunning and points the way toward a path that Shorter would walk throughout his career.

The album closes with another statement in three. “Wild Flower” is, even more than “Dance Cadaverous,” a waltz, with the two horns playing in close harmony on the opening statement, only to come into unison on the second part of the theme as though two flowers twined around each other and grew toward the sky. The soloists follow the melody into and out of minor keys, exploring around the theme above the ground held by Elvin Jones and Ron Carter, with Herbie Hancock’s slightly off-beat chords giving the impression of someone wandering onto the dance floor with one leg slightly shorter than the other. Like the entire album, it’s mysterious, moody, and more than a little joyous.

Shorter would record more albums for Blue Note (and we’ll hear some of them), but this is undeniably his best known outing for the label. A statement of his compositional and soloistic gifts, it’s a performance that’s rarely been equalled on record. Next week we’ll see what happens when three of these players return to the context of the Miles Davis Quintet not quite a month later.

My copy of the album is the Blue Note 75th Anniversary re-pressing. I’ve picked up a few Blue Note reissues in various lines and have always been pleased, perhaps no more so than with this one, which has the sound of the musicians completely present and lifelike. You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis, Miles in Berlin

Album of the Week, May 28, 2022

Jumping forward a year from last week’s Herbie Hancock album, we find another Miles Davis quintet on tour in Berlin. Much is the same as when we last saw Miles with a small group: the format is the same, much of the repertoire is the same. But the players are completely different, and that puts this date on a different planet.

After recording Someday My Prince Will Come and the two live albums that followed, Miles’ rhythm section had split to form a piano trio. Miles spent much of 1962 trying to make an album with Gil Evans and his orchestra, but the result (Quiet Nights) was enough of a disappointment artistically and commercially that it put an end to that long collaborative string between the two men. Miles formed another quintet, this time with George Coleman on tenor, Victor Feldman on piano, Frank Butler on drums, and a young bassist named Ron Carter, who had debuted a year previously in a trio with the avant-garde Eric Dolphin and Mal Waldron. They recorded the album Seven Steps to Heaven, which stands out in Miles’ early 1960s output as a cohesive, well played recording with strong tunes (mostly written by Feldman). But Feldman and Butler didn’t want to move to the East Coast, and by May of 1963, Miles had recruited the young Tony Williams, then Herbie Hancock, to join the trio. 

The new quintet played at Philharmonic Hall (recording the live albums My Funny Valentine and Four and More), and toured widely through the end of 1963 and most of 1964, but Coleman wasn’t clicking. Miles had played in mid-1963 with another tenor player, Wayne Shorter, who had been the chief composer in a well-regarded run with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Miles finally convinced Shorter to join his group in the summer of 1964, and on September 25 they played a concert at the Berlin Philharmonic. It would be the first recording released of the new quintet.

The repertoire may have been familiar but the performances weren’t. From the opening of “Milestones,” Tony Williams signals that something is different, playing a polyrhythm under the opening cymbal ride and dropping bombs at unpredictable points under Miles’ solo. The challenge invigorates Miles, who briskly runs through modal scales until he finds a countermelody, all the while playing with bebop velocity. He finishes the solo, then hands off to Wayne Shorter, who similarly embraces Coltrane-like runs, then drops into a swinging turn for a moment only to return to the trapeze. Over Hancock’s block chords, he embraces another run, then drops back into a swinging pattern, then imitates the block chords in the piano, playing in triplet groups, breaking down the melody into bursts of sound, Williams and Carter imitating him along the way. It’s a remarkable opening, and completely transforms the standard. This would be the rule for the night.

Autumn Leaves” is opened with an atmospheric solo by Miles, with the barest sketch of chords in the piano underneath, until he suddenly locks into a swinging groove. Williams follows the groove, keeping the beat with the brushes but introducing patterns which Miles reflects in the trumpet, then Herbie picks up in the piano. It’s simultaneously the most traditional and the most free performance on the record. 

So What” opens with Carter and Hancock trading off over another Williams polyrhythmic accompaniment in the cymbals. (Much of Tony Williams’ playing on this record makes me long for a meeting between him and Stewart Copeland.) Here Herbie’s chords take the changes into unfamiliar territory around the outside fringes of the mode. Shorter bends the melody and chords further as Herbie gives him more and more space to open things up, then comes back in with clusters of sound. Shorter’s performance here underscores one of the chief differences between him and Coltrane at this stage: both embrace a reaching style that uses runs of notes as a building block, but Shorter finds patterns of silence in the middle of his performance, as well as rhythmic patterns that form countermelodies. Throughout the rhythm section plays almost telepathically with the soloists. 

Walkin’” returns as a theme and becomes another brisk workout for the soloists. Here Miles picks up on Shorter’s trick from “So What,” varying the runs with alternating rhythmic patterns before yielding to Tony Williams for a drum solo. Throughout Shorter’s solo he and Hancock trade ideas, discovering a new melody and actually falling into the tag of the melody from “Milestones” before handing off to the rhythm section. In later years, Miles and his band would play long uninterrupted sets where the tunes would telepathically flow into each other, and this moment feels like a forerunner of that. Hancock takes a breath in his solo, decelerating with Williams into something like a blues by way of Debussy before accelerating back to the breakneck tempo of the opening over 32 bars. Finally, “The Theme” provides Carter with a brief spotlight followed by the emergence of yet another new melody courtesy of Herbie Hancock.

With this quintet, Miles had found musicians who challenged him and pushed him further to innovate, even as together they found something like a group mind. And this recording was just the very beginning. Soon Shorter would bring his compositional voice to the party, lifting the band to the next level. We will hear that voice in one of his early masterpieces next time.

(Note: This review is written based on the LP version of this live recording—in this case, a 1981 reissue of the original 1967 release. The full concert, which is available on CD and in streaming and downloadable version, also included a performance of “Stella by Starlight.”)

You can hear Miles in Berlin here.