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:

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.

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.

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.

Miles Davis, At Carnegie Hall

Album of the Week, May 7, 2022.

Miles began his Columbia Records recording career alternating between small group sessions and “big band” recordings with Gil Evans at the baton. When it came time for him to make his Carnegie Hall debut, then, it was only natural that the performance include both sounds. The result is one of the more unusual albums in Miles’ career, and one of the most lush sounding albums he ever recorded.

We must first acknowledge the developments that led to this moment. Miles was, by 1961, a genuine star, and Columbia was investing in him like one. Few other jazz artists could have put on a show like this one, just based on cost alone. Gil’s orchestra wasn’t the famous “+19” that played on Miles Ahead—the players on stage numbered 22, counting Evans conducting. But some of the members were doing double duty, with Hank Mobley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly returning from Someday My Prince Will Come as Miles’ quintet.

All the forces on stage join together for the opening number, an unusual arrangement of “So What” that combines the original Bill Evans opening, transcribed for Gil’s orchestra, and even slower and more contemplative in its tempo. Then Chambers enters with the famous bass figure and the whole orchestra plays the “So What” chord, amplified and augmented in several octaves, at which point the quintet picks up the arrangement at the faster tempo of the live versions heard on The Final Tour. This is “So What,” not as a nonchalant question, but as an angry demand. The quintet scorches through the tune, and Mobley’s hard bop roots show through in his solo.

When the next set with the big band comes, it turns the temperature down a bit, starting with a wistful Evans arrangement of Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring is Here” that was never recorded elsewhere, and a set from Miles Ahead: “The Meaning of the Blues,” “Lament,” and “New Rhumba.” Here, as on the original record, the rhumba is the standout, with some of the cool precision of the studio recording traded for a jaunty, swinging insouciance.

(I should note that the order of the tunes on this album depends on what version you have. The original 1961 LP omitted some tracks; the 1998 CD featured the whole concert in its original running order; and my 2LP set rearranges some of the tracks to fit the limits of the LP sides.)

The next set from the quintet is where the heart of this concert begins for me: an extended romp through “Teo” that lacks none of the fire from the studio version despite Mobley taking the tenor solo that Trane played in the first recording. The band segues into “Walkin’,” which by now was the theme for Miles’ group, and then proceeds into a quiet, wistful rendition of the opening chorus of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

And then the fireworks start. The version of “Oleo” that the band uncorks shows off all Miles’ bebop bona fides, with a rapid fire statement of the melody and solo that would not have been out of place on a Dizzy Gillespie record. “No Blues,” formerly known as “Pfrancing,” while slightly slower, is no less assertive, and the band is hot as they play behind Miles, who throws off one impossibly cool trumpet line after another, blowing notes that from someone else would sound like mistakes but seamlessly blending them into his line. Mobley is more conventional here, but no less exciting, shifting in the second 8-bar pattern into double time and staying there for about 24 bars. You can hear why he’s known as the “middleweight champion of the tenor sax.” And the rhythm section gets a great spotlight too, with Paul Chambers showing why he was so widely regarded as a leader on his instrument.

The closing number of the quintet, “I Thought About You” is a stunning performance, with Miles equally tender and wistful before making a forthright declaration of intent, followed by a mid-chorus handoff to Mobley. But it’s Miles’ tune, and he closes quietly, defiantly, and with a shower of applause.

On the LP, the final number belongs to Miles and Gil, who revisit “En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor” from Sketches of Spain. It’s hypnotic, and the band seems to lift and enfold Miles’ trumpet line without ever overwhelming it. It’s a stunning performance.

As we’ve noted, this configuration wouldn’t last much longer. The concert at Carnegie Hall was in May 1961. Miles would record no more that year, returning to the studio with Evans in July 1962 for the abortive sessions for Quiet Nights, an album that ended up being their final joint statement until the late 1970s. By the end of 1962, Kelly, Chambers and Cobb left to perform as a trio, with Sonny Rollins (who had joined the quintet in the interim) departing soon after.

Miles, faced with having to pay thousands to settle cancelled gigs, pulled together a new quintet quickly, featuring Victor Feldman on piano, George Coleman on tenor sax, Frank Butler on drums, and Ron Carter on bass. That configuration recorded part of Miles’ next album, Seven Steps to Heaven, together, but Feldman and Butler would not leave the west coast permanently. So Miles found new members of the rhythm section: a teenage wunderkind drummer named Tony Williams, and a young pianist and composer named Herbie Hancock. We’ll hear more from Hancock next week.

I found my copy of Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall in the shop at the Moog factory in Asheville, North Carolina. You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis, Someday My Prince Will Come

Album of the Week, April 30, 2022.

To interpret this album, we need to start with Dave Brubeck.

That’s not a sentence that begins many discussions of Miles Davis’s music. But in this case it fits, because the small group album released after Kind of Blue found Miles in a very different place than he was on that masterpiece. For once, he was not exactly blazing a trail.

He picked a good time to regroup, coming off two masterpieces—not just Kind of Blue but the followup album with Gil Evans and his orchestra, the miraculous Sketches of Spain (about which I may write one day, but which is not presently in my vinyl collection). But regrouping was needed. After the European tour, Trane had decided to strike out on his own, taking the tunes that he had explored onstage to the chords of “Kind of Blue” (“Impressions”) and “On Green Dolphin Street” (“Like Sonny”) along with his searching, experimental aesthetic, and forming his own quartet. (We’ll talk about their albums at some point, after I finish telling the rest of Miles’ story.)

Miles had auditioned a few saxophonists, doing live performances with both Jimmy Heath and Sonny Stitt, before landing on the young Hank Mobley. Mobley had been recording a string of ingenious albums for Blue Note, including the classics Soul Station and Roll Call in 1960, and brought with him some of the same athleticism that Trane displayed, tempered with a touch of soul. It was a good match in many ways for the rest of the quintet, which still included soul-flavored pianist Wynton Kelly as well as the redoubtable Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers.

But what Mobley didn’t bring was repertoire, at least, not in the same way that Bill Evans helped Miles tap the vein of modal jazz that underpinned the great 1958-1960 recordings. Miles had to bring that himself, which may explain why this recording featured several standards, including the title track. But why did a Disney song count as a standard? For that we have to thank Dave Brubeck (I told you I’d get there, eventually).

Brubeck in 1957 was a few years away from recording his own masterpiece, 1959’s Time Out, but he had built a strong working group of his own, with Paul Desmond’s distinctive alto providing a lyrical counterpart to Brubeck’s muscular approach to the piano. And Brubeck, while a substantial composer in his own right, was looking for new material that could showcase the quartet’s versatility. He found it, reportedly, at Disneyland, and then had to work hard to convince producer George Avakian to bet on a whole album of Disney covers. The lead-off tune on the second side of Dave Digs Disney? “Someday My Prince Will Come.” (We’ll talk more about Dave Digs Disney at some point, too.)

Miles had been listening to Brubeck for a while — remember, he covered “In Your Own Sweet Way” on Workin’ and “The Duke” on Miles Ahead. And he must have heard, in Brubeck’s version of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” something of the direction he wanted to take his quintet. The only problem was that Mobley, while a great tenor player, didn’t have the right sound for the arrangement.

And so it was that Miles called on Coltrane, one last time. Trane was reportedly reluctant to return to the studio with Miles’s group, being consumed with a much bigger project, the orchestra recordings that would be released as Africa/Brass. But return he did, and in two days in March 1961, he recorded “Prince” and Miles’ composition “Teo,” named for his long-suffering producer. (We’ll hear more about Teo Macero later.)

Something else strikes you about this album, maybe even before you open it: the portrait of the woman on the cover is more direct and beautiful than anything on Miles’ album covers to date. That’s appropriate; so is the music inside. Miles was in love, as it turns out, and his now-wife, Frances Taylor, was featured on the cover because Miles demanded that Columbia feature black women in the album art. The music is accordingly beautiful and melodic, with the Miles originals (“Drad-Dog,” “Teo,” and “Pfrancing” aka “No Blues”) alternating between wistful melodies and soulful blues. 

The recording was not just beautiful, though. Trane arrives late on the title track, after two solo turns by Miles and one by Mobley, but the power he brings to his turn injects it with new energy, simultaneously forthright and yearning.  His solo on “Teo” brings some of the energy and chordal approach that would appear on his own quartet recordings, and spurs Miles to feats of energy of his own, before the trumpeter deconstructs Trane’s approach to the melody. Miles’s second solo on the tune is additive, as he brings elements of his solos from Sketches of Spain, and subtractive, as he takes Trane’s statements and abstracts them, turning the arc of the solo into a stretched-out call that sounds over the rhythm section. 

By this recording, that rhythm section of Kelly, Chambers and Cobb was easily as tight a unit as Red Garland had formed with Philly Joe Jones and Chambers in the early days of the quintet. Kelly was more deeply steeped in the blues than Garland ever was, and his performance on this recording has a soul jazz sound that would rarely appear in Miles’ recordings. This unit would soon strike out on their own as a trio led by Kelly, and they would even record their own Someday My Prince Will Come

As for the originals on the album, “Pfrancing” and “Teo” would both be performed by other players, especially Joe Henderson, who brought both back in his tribute album, So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles). But if the tunes would stay, this band would not. This unit made no more studio recordings after this date, but they appeared in two legendary live sessions. The San Francisco sessions at the Blackhawk were issued as a pair of albums under the title Miles Davis in Person. We will discuss the other live album next time. 

You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, The Final Tour: Copenhagen, March 24, 1960

Album of the Week, April 23, 2022.

As Robert Frost wrote (and S.E. Hinton quoted), nothing gold can stay. This was certainly true of John Coltrane’s sojourn in Miles Davis’ band.

As we’ve seen, Trane had already left Davis’ employ once, to get clean of his heroin habit, after which he rebuilt his career performing in Thelonious Monk’s band before rejoining Miles. The second and final departure happened for a different reason: Trane developed into a star. He had signed with Atlantic Records in 1958, and in April 1959, a month after the first recording session for Kind of Blue, he entered Atlantic Studio in New York City to begin laying down the tracks that would eventually emerge on his debut for the label, Giant Steps. The sessions for the album would continue throughout the year, during which he also recorded material for Coltrane Jazz. These albums, featuring only his compositions, helped him build his fan base further. But he continued to record and perform with Miles during this period, even going on a European tour with him.

This helps to explain the first track of this record, which captures one of the concerts released as The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6. Jazz impresario Norman Granz introduces the players, getting applause for each name, until he introduces Coltrane… and the crowd goes nuts, applauding at least as loudly as they do for Miles.

The performances heard on this record are a hybrid between the style of Miles’ first great quintet (Cannonball Adderley had left the group by now) and Coltrane’s solo materials. Not quite a year after the recording of Kind of Blue, that album’s opening track, “So What,” had picked up the tempo considerably, going from the gentle stroll heard on the album to something considerably faster and darker. The track would keep the faster arrangement from this point forward. And Trane seems to have been let off the leash.

Indeed, as Ted Mills has pointed out, sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the two greats are playing in the same band. With Miles soloing, the band sounds like a fired-up version of the group that made Kind of Blue almost a year previously, but they’re still recognizable as the same group. When Trane steps up, however, the band catches fire.

Trane was just beginning to move beyond the chord-focused explorations that drove his Prestige recordings into explorations of spiritual verities, and you hear some of these directions in his playing in the Copenhagen concert. While there is no overblowing or squalling in the horn, sounds that would come to define the outer reaches of his Pentecostal exploration of the world around him, some of the other trademarks of the classic Coltrane sound are there: the abandonment of cool, the breaking beyond the boundaries of the eight bar chorus, the use of modal scales as a vehicle for spiritual exploration, and of course, the cascading “sheets of sound” in which it becomes difficult to hear the individual notes of his runs as they search out beyond the boundaries of the improvisation for something new.

On its surface, “On Green Dolphin Street” would seem like a strange vehicle for Trane’s search. The song, by Bronisław Kaper with lyrics by Ned Washington, was an MGM movie theme in 1947 and then mostly forgotten until Miles’ sextet resurrected it in a recording in 1958, in their first recording sessions. Their recordings, which were followed by versions by Bill Evans’ trio, Wynton Kelly, and Eric Dolphy, established the song as a jazz standard. But you don’t hear the standard improvisation when Coltrane solos. You hear him taking flight.

After this tour, Trane would return to the studio with Miles’ group once more, for two songs. But he was otherwise off on his own flights of exploration. We’ll hear more from both Miles and Trane soon.

The vinyl version of The Last Tour is an odd artifact; it presents material from one of the European performances of the tour and splits “On Green Dolphin Street” across two sides of the record. A fuller record of the tour can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour, which in addition to the Copenhagen show also presents performances from L’Olympia in Paris and the Konserthuset in Stockholm. I’ve provided links to the performances on the LP below; enjoy!

  1. Introduction by Norman Granz
  2. So What
  3. On Green Dolphin Street
  4. All Blues
  5. The Theme (incomplete)

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Album of the Week, April 16, 2022.

The opening of “So What,” the first track on Miles’ magnum opus, might be Paul Chambers’ most famous performance. Forget everything he had done with Miles’ group to this time; forget his solo records; forget all the great work he did with Trane and Cannonball Adderley and Kenny Clarke and Wynton Kelly and pretty much every hard bop artist in the 1950s and early 1960s. That walking bass line that follows Bill Evans’ introspective opening will forever define jazz bass: simple, functional (it underpins the modal progression of the that serves as the first line of the song’s theme), and utterly unforgettable. Chambers would live not quite ten more years after recording that bass line, and his work would never again have the sort of prominence he had on this record.

Kind of Blue was that kind of record for many of the players who performed on it. It’s that kind of record, period. It’s probably the one jazz record you have if you don’t own any jazz, because everyone has told you to buy it. And they’re right: Kind of Blue is the pinnacle of a certain type of playing, recorded by a group of men who had developed a certain telepathic sense of line and melody and how to step up and when to lay back.

For this reason, Kind of Blue repays countless listenings. It’s not as out there as some of the work that was to come with the Second Great Quintet, but it’s as intricate as a precision timepiece and as effortless as exhaling. So these thoughts are what I observe as I listen today. I might find different things tomorrow.

This was one of the few Miles albums that put the names of each player on the cover, even pianist Wynton Kelly, who only sat in on “Freddie Freeloader.” As we’ve learned in this series, the players matter in all these recordings, but they especially matter here. This is because, as Bill Evans notes in the liner notes to the album (below), almost everything you hear on the album was a first take.

That “almost” is interesting, because it raises the spectre of a self-conscious mythologizing—especially when one learns that there were, in fact, two takes of “Flamenco Sketches,” and that the one on the record is Take 2. There is also, in the liner notes, references to Japanese painting and a description of the different forms of each song, in an attempt to hint at the formal underpinnings beneath the improvisations. Evans notes of “All Blues,” for instance, that it is “a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series,” which is a bit like saying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a set of rhythmic vibrations of air.

Jibes aside, it is impossible to overstate Evans’ contributions to the album, and indeed to this phase of Davis’ band generally. As we learned while listening to Miles Ahead, Miles had been leaning toward a less cluttered conception of his music that offered more freedom for improvisation without the density of the chord changes that had been the formal underpinning of small group jazz since the days of Charlie Parker. Evans brought to his work on the piano a sense of formalism inspired by the works of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, as well as a formal grounding in the modal theories of George Russell courtesy of a working relationship with the noted “third stream” composer over the course of several years. The combination of Evans with Miles’ new modal direction, heard in their initial joint recordings as well as live performances in Davis’s sextet, was electric. But Evans was already looking beyond his sideman work and beginning to record with his first great trio with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian. Miles had to ask Evans to come back and record this album with him.

It is clear that Kind of Blue would not have happened without Evans. First, on purely practical grounds, he by all accounts composed “Blue in Green,” based on a request by Miles to Evans for a piece that centered around two chords, G minor and A augmented. When he was not credited on the record, he confronted Miles, who is said to have offered him $25 in compensation. Based on its similarity to Evans’ earlier composition “Peace Piece,” it’s likely that the pianist wrote “Flamenco Sketches” as well.

But the pianist contributed other elements to the record, most notably an abiding sense of melancholy, particularly in the two compositions mentioned above. But the genius of the album is that the melancholy is not a destination. The form of “Blue in Green” sees the pianist come full circle, repeating the opening figure as though returning again and again to a painful memory. But “Flamenco Sketches,” as it moves through the different scales, opens up that melancholy like a flower, moving beyond and through to a new horizon.

Adderley and Coltrane brought their own strengths to the record. Cannonball brings his own sense of harmonic conception, but his rhythmic approach is more linear than Trane’s, who bent the meter when it suited him. Indeed, his entrance on “Freddie Freeloader” literally stops the time, as the entire band drops out behind his first entrance. Throughout, though, both saxophonists bring an almost psychic connection with each other and the rest of the band, contributing to the frequent description of these tracks as perfect improvisation.

Evans would not record with Miles again. Nor would Adderley, who moved on to form his own group. Trane returned for a few tracks of Miles’ next small-group album, but his swan song with the group was effectively the tour of Europe that they mounted in 1960. We’ll hear that soon.

Listen (again).

Cannonball Adderly: Somethin’ Else

Album of the Week, April 9, 2022.

Miles, being Miles, was never one to stay locked into a format for long—and for a musician who wanted to continue to play and record, a small group was surely a more attractive—and affordable—option than the 19-piece orchestra he had recorded Miles Ahead with. So he spent the rest of 1957 in various small group formats, including a brief version of his quintet with Sonny Rollins and several groups in France. But in late February and early March 1958, he rejoined with Coltrane, fresh from his work with Thelonious Monk, alongside a new face: at the alto sax, Cannonball Adderly. The record they recorded as a sextet, Milestones, more than lived up to its name, with several original songs that signaled that Miles was not done upending the jazz cosmos.

And five days after the group finished recording Milestones at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios, Cannonball and Miles were across the river in Hackensack, New Jersey, recording at Rudy Van Gelder’s with the Jones brothers on piano and bass and Art Blakey on drums. The session was for Blue Note Records, and so had to be issued under Adderly’s name. It was the only recording of this lineup, and featured a single original composition, Miles’ title track. But that track is not the one that Somethin’ Else is remembered for. That honor goes to “Autumn Leaves.”

Miles had fully embraced the modal approach, based on scales rather than chords, by this time, as evidenced by his band’s arrangement of “Milestones,” “Autumn Leaves” takes the modal approach further, blending the chords of the standard with a modal intro and outro in a Doric minor scale. Miles is muted throughout, playing with an intimate closeness that is at once deeply felt and reserved. The contrast with Adderly’s solo is striking, with Cannonball bringing both heat and a certain volubility. Unlike Coltrane, though, the alto sax line is not cried so much as shouted, and you can hear the seeds of Adderly’s later successful embrace of “soul jazz” in the way he brings the melody around in the high reaching line of his improvisation. Italian pianist Leo Ravera points out that the track becomes more intimate as it proceeds, with each soloist bringing the dynamic down until Miles and Hank Jones close it out in another modal passage. The whole thing is a stunning performance, and the first sixteen bars give me chills every time I listen.

The rest of the album is a striking blend of styles. It is interesting to hear “Love for Sale” rendered here, with Davis’s cool approach surrounded by a rumba-inspired approach, completely different from the version he would record just a few months later with his own sextet. “Allison’s Uncle” is more straightforward bop, celebrating the birth of Nat Adderly’s daughter. “Somethin’ Else” continues in this vein with a theme that alternates statements from the trumpet and the sax, in a form that is more than slightly reminiscent of Miles’s “The Theme.” “One for Daddy-O” is a straightforward blues with a less than straightforward theme, veering from major into minor and leading into a wailing solo from Cannonball. And “Dancing in the Dark” is played as a straight ballad, in which the alto reveals a strong stylistic debt to Coleman Hawkins.

This group would never play in this configuration again. But Cannonball would remain a fixture of Miles’ sextet for some time to come. They would play together at Newport and, in between Miles’ next sessions with Gil Evans, perform on radio broadcasts and at the Plaza Hotel. And, almost a year to the day after they traveled to Hackensack, they would enter the studio to begin recording their next studio album, an undisputed masterpiece.

In this light, it’s worthwhile hearing this date two ways: once as the high point of Miles’ stylistic development to date that it represented, and once as the prelude to Kind of Blue.

Listen…

Miles Davis, Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead

Album of the Week, March 26, 2022.

While Coltrane was rebuilding his life and building a new reputation as a member of Monk’s band, Miles was expanding his sound. Dramatically.

From the beginning, Columbia was interested in more than a quintet with Miles’ sound. And Miles was interested in doing more with his sound too. After all, his earliest recordings, released years later as Birth of the Cool, were with a nonet that combined innovative arrangements with new voicing and sounds. 

And Miles, who had studied at Juilliard before dropping out to perform with Charlie Parker, had grown tired of the straightforward jazz that characterized his earlier recordings for Prestige, and even his first Columbia album, Round About Midnight. In time this dissatisfaction would open up new territories for his sound as he began to explore other approaches to improvisation that did not depend on chord changes. But for now, he did what he would do throughout his career: he turned to a collaborator. More specifically, he returned to the collaborator he had worked with on Birth of the Cool.  

Bandleader and arranger Gil Evans had a hot band, full of skilled players like Art Taylor and the great Lee Konitz. He also had a remarkable ear for how to place and support Miles’ trumpet so that it could soar melodically over complex orchestrations, so that the sound was simultaneously made richer (in harmonization) and simpler (in melodic line). He also shared an interest with Miles in combining techniques from jazz improvisation and composed (aka classical) music, a combination that was beginning to be known as Third Stream.

So it was that in May 1957, after playing his last radio broadcasts with Coltrane five months before, Miles entered the studio with Gil Evans’ orchestra to record an unusual set of material: “The Duke” by Dave Brubeck, “The Maids of Cadiz” by French composer Léo Delibes, and a tune that had shown up on one of Miles’ earliest Prestige recordings: “Miles Ahead.”

The performances are completely unlike the quintet recordings that proceeded them. Most of the material is through-composed, with the arrangement foregrounding Miles’ muted flugelhorn even as it paired it with other instruments in close harmony. Paul Chambers supported him in the rhythm section alongside Art Taylor on drums. There was no piano. Evans composed the tunes to link together seamlessly in two suites, one for each side of the LP. There is even, in Evans’ stunning “Blues for Pablo,” a hint of the next revolution to come. (Listen to that opening line from Miles and tell me we aren’t in mixolydian mode!)

To listen to Miles Ahead is to be rewarded with an experience that sees Miles’ sound into new directions. But is it jazz? In some ways it feels more like a completely different path, albeit one with its own excitement and promise.

Listen here and tell me what you think.

This copy of Miles Ahead is a 1960s era reissue that I found at my local bargain bin. It’s pretty lovely—a few pops on the opening track but otherwise gorgeous. Makes you really appreciate the continuity between the tracks when you’re listening to a whole side at a time.

Miles Davis, Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, reissue on Jazz Wax Records

Album of the week, March 12, 2022

With this #albumoftheweek, we have come to the final of Miles’ four “contractual obligation” albums for Prestige Records. Recorded as he was beginning his stellar career for Columbia (about which, more later), the four albums – Cookin, Relaxin, Workin, and Steamin’ – showcase the versatility and talent of the First Great Quintet. It would also be one of the last recordings of this particular lineup.

Miles had struggled with heroin early in his career, going so far as to move out of New York to the Midwest for a few years to give him the space he needed to kick the habit. Unfortunately, his saxophone player, John Coltrane, was still in the thralls of the drug, and left after these recording sessions for a period. He would get clean in 1957 (which is a story for another day) and rejoin the band in 1958.

Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones also suffered from an addiction to heroin; their performances didn’t suffer but their professionalism did, and their unfortunate habit of showing up late for gigs meant that both would ultimately be fired by Miles after the quintet’s first two Columbia recordings, ’Round About Midnight and Milestones. They made his last recordings with Miles’ group in March of 1958 and their last performance in November of that year, on a radio broadcast. Garland would be replaced in Miles’ band by a young pianist named Bill Evans, who had made an impression at Newport; Jones would be replaced by Jimmy Cobb. Both would continue playing and recording until their deaths in 1984 and 1985, respectively.

Paul Chambers would stay in Miles’ groups until 1962, appearing on many of the early Columbia recordings including the band recordings with Gil Evans and the landmark Kind of Blue. He left Chambers in 1962, along with Jimmy Cobb and pianist Wynton Kelly, and the trio would form one of the most memorable rhythm sections in jazz until Chambers’ untimely death from organ failure in 1969, brought on by tuberculosis and hastened by his own heroin and alcohol addictions.

It is sobering to listen to Steamin’ in light of the band’s history, but it’s also a pure pleasure. Trane is great on this album, particularly the opener. And the arrangements are something else. “Salt Peanuts” in particular cooks along at light speed, and the band’s version of Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” is a remarkable illustration of how it could stretch and drive even the most difficult material into something that was wholly its own. It’s a fitting finale for this set of great Miles recordings.

We’ll take a short break from our Miles survey next week, but in the meantime please enjoy listening to this remarkable album.