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Multiple Reviews

Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock et. al: A Marriage Made in Heaven

By Published: November 29, 2004

...but there is no underestimating the drama inherent in the story depicted on Seven Steps

Miles Davis
Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964
Legacy Music
2004

Highly esteemed as one of the premier ensembles in modern jazz, The Miles Davis Quintet comprised of Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter excelled at both composition and improvisation, to the point the one was virtually indistinguishable from the other. The evolution of Davis' working groups that led to the consolidation of this treasure of talent is documented here in a wealth of detail on a seven cd box set, sheathed in die-cut cloth-coverd slip case and bound in metal,the musical content of which indicates what a high order of musicianship Miles commanded from his bands even when they were in a state of flux, and, through its packaging and production, suggests what reverence the Davis legacy invites as time marches on.

Before you are through the first disc, and even just a little ways into cd two, it becomes arguable that these very transitions were the source of the seemingly boundless imagination at work in Miles Davis' music. Listening to this set of cd's is somewhat akin to watching time-lapse photography as the various evolutionary stages of these bands take shape, then morph into something else. All the while, a fairly standard book of tunes "I Thought About You' and "So Near so Far" becomes the constant in what resembles nothing so much as a scientific experiment. The musicians' ability to handle the music a test of their mettle. Pay close attention to the way various versions of this title track reflects the personality of the whole band as well as the individuals within the group.

Whether you find Bob Blumenthal's detailed play-by-play of the tracks illuminating or enervating( doesn't this approach destroy the mystery of the creation?), you will find yourself bound to listen to this music as it evolves —the various takes of Victor Feldman's "Joshua " for instance—just because it sounds so good! Whatever Davis' relationship with the Columbia label at the time—and he even endured a spat with long-time producer Teo Macero that drove the trumpeter to the West coast for studio work and relegated much of the rest of his output at the time to live recordings, as included here in this box—their facilities as one of the major record labels in America were as top-notch as those now available for digital remastering. As a result, these forty-year old recordings, even the ones in mono, sound as warm and intimate as if the playing were taking place in your own abode.

With each personnel change, accompanied by the additional stage experience, Miles and his ensemble becomes more confident of itself and tightens its grasp on the music they play. They appear to zoom in on the ultimate target of the definitive readings of classics such as "Bye Bye Blackbird" and here is where you learn to distinguish between the practiced and the complacent: the surety of these musicians, well-versed in their material and the idiosyncrasies of each other's playing styles, transform confidence to instinct. Listening to this box set and two recent Hancock nuggets originally released only in Japan upon their recording, it's not surprising the transition period documented on Seven Steps truly began to crystallize upon Herbie's enlistment into the ranks of Miles' band.

The keyboardist/composer is a true renaissance man to this day, not just a mere musician, but he is a prodigious player in that respect alone. As documented on The Piano , a direct to disc recording providing ample proof of Hancock's willing embrace of technology(Miles himself was a begrudging skeptic, no doubt made curious by those around him like Hancock and Chick Corea, who leapt to the new devices like electric piano), his solo playing is self-assured and inventive, not to mention fluid by necessity: the recording process required he play the selected pieces—not surprisingly including material associated with miles like "On Green Dolphin Street"— in sequence without interruption except for tracking purposes. The purity of his phrasing is equaled only by the constant flow of ideas, a bountiful imagination that would might not think would lend itself to smooth group interaction(egos notwithstanding).

But a run-through of V.S.O.P.:Live Under the Sky gives the lie to that notion as Herbie, with the rest of the great Quintet, plus Freddie Hubbard in place of Miles on trumpet, reconvened as they so often did in the late Seventies, to refresh themselves with acoustic adventures apart from their electric fusion projects. Hancock in this set, expanded from its first Japanese issue(never available in America at all with yet more vintage Miles in the form of "Stella by Starlight")locks in equally tightly with the rhythm section of Carter and Williams, as well as the melody-playing hornmen. Offering ideas to all his compatriots and picking up on their ideas as well, you can hear Herbie bringing the internal beat of bass and drums into his piano work, while decorating both his solos and accompaniment with lovely melodic turns rendered with grace and understatementon "PeeWee" and "Tear Drop."

All such virtues are amply evident on the recordings nearly twenty years prior—little wonder Miles recruited Herbie Hancock as the lynchpin of his quintet in progress: he was able to bring a musician's technique and a composer's ear to a range of material that begged for expansion in interpretation if not quite yet in new composition. It only makes sense Miles sought to reinvent his music on the concert stage first, since the spontaneity of the moment, with mutual encouragement all around, would give birth to new ideas aplenty and preclude second-guessing.

And it wasn't just a search for ideas grounded in the familiar material: Miles Davis became the great innovator he was by first knowing his roots inside and out, so it stands to reason that the reinterpretation of such warhorses as "Milestones" and "Autumn Leaves" would have the greatest chance of leading directly to more adventurous writing playing and recording. The work of the quintet beginning in 1965 after Shorter had been with the band for a time is truly the stuff of legend.

If it sounds at times during George Coleman's tenure with Miles that the band was getting impatient with the material they were playing, it's only at the melodic intros. It is no illusion that, slowly but surely, each member of the band was getting more comfortable and more sensitive to each other's musicianship, as Miles himself was apt to step out of the way to allow the growth process to continue. Full of ideas and not necessarily ones derived straight from classic songs such as "Walkin':" this lineup's increasingly abstract sidetrips become more and more of a contrast to the conventional approach of Coleman, whose playing remains nonetheless sterling throughout.

Ultimately, however, George found himself turning into a symbol of the traditionalism this band was in effect rebelling against. Sam Rivers was enlisted by the impatient, precocious drummer Williams to further the spirit of exploration he shared with the rest of the band, but while this phase was but keeping time until Shorter joined the band, it still served the purpose of more gradual evolution. The concert featuring the venerable saxophonist—he was older than the bandleader at the time—features recognizable reinventions of tunes including "All Blues" and "Four," but set the stage for the groundbreaking forays of the group lineup that would be solidified in the next year.

What you end up hearing at this point is yet another expression of group sensibility, balancing loyalty to the material with a willingness to stretch it to meet the collective sense of adventure within the band: quotes of other tunes recalling previous ensembles, Hancock's homages to Bill Evans and an increasingly prominent role for both Carter and especially Tony Williams effectively set the stage for the next phase of development. If George Coleman cushioned the shock of Miles' reinvention of his music with his young cohorts, Sam Rivers provided a hint of what was to come, ultimately making for a rite of passage that couldn't have been more logical had it been predestined to happen or designed according to a timetable.

Yet it almost does a disservice to hear this music merely as a process of evolution of music and musicians: take it out of context and listen to it on its own terms and it stands as jazz of the highest order. True, it's not the groundbreaking likes of Davis other milestones(sic) Birth of the Cool or Kind of Blue (or later ones such as Bitches Brew ), but that doesn't seem to matter while the music plays, the sound is that of touch, space and attentive rigor on the part of the band that any group could aspire to.

And it almost seems as if Miles Davis himself plays a subservient role in this whole process. Of course, his are the decisions about setlists, hiring bandmembers and venues to play—and Blumenthal's references to health issues and finances play a part in all of this—but in pure musical terms, the man with horn makes his statement as he always does best, in a dynamic, forceful way that relies as much on his muted horn, as the braying of the trumpet when he unleashes the full force of his breath. In doing so, Miles is suggesting the full spectrum of sound he's hoping the band can traverse, so when he gives way to a drum solo by Williams, the call-and-response technique takes on a whole new meaning.

Even as this personnel change leads to some more stretching in terms of interpretation of material, it's further noteworthy that, as this progression develops, first with the entry of Rivers on sax, and even more so when Shorter finally signs up, Miles and his band never relinquish a deep sense of respect both for these songs—which have serviced them so well over the years—and for their audience— who may come to hear these songs played in such a way that the experience is both familiar and challenging.

So it is that, while the band's book may have effectively served its purpose by 1964, the five hold off the reinvention to the point the songs become mere frames of reference. All titles on disc seven of this set having appeared on previous installments, what would be redundant in another context rings here with an emphatic sense of finality. These performances with the new recruit suggest the whole group knew full well they were in the process of bidding adieu to this setlist and its accompanying approach to playing it.

Phrases like 'means to an end' and 'whole greater than the sum of the parts' come to mind too if you listen to some or all of the 1979 VSOP concert. Freddie Hubbard's participation seems merely a different ingredient in the recipe, not greater or lesser than Miles in a purely instrumental sense, as the four members of the quintet reestablish the bond of fifteen years ago---as if it ever was broken. Which is the beauty of jazz, and perhaps why Japanese audiences appreciate the form so fervently from their cultural perspective; hearing such musicians play has nothing to do with instant gratification but more with the long-standing tradition of great musicians playing great music.

Stories told of days gone by usually gain some luster with the passage of time and no doubt that's the case with the saga of Miles Davis as depicted through the various box sets that have been issued in the last few years. Seven Steps: The Complete Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 is certainly no exception, but there is no underestimating the drama inherent in its story or the way it sets the stage for the next phase in the great jazz musician's career with his new band.

Additional AAJ Reviews of Seven Steps
Review #1 | Review #2 | Review #3



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