Miles Davis: In Time, All Changes

Mark Werlin By

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Considered the most influential small jazz group of the middle 1960s, the Miles Davis 'Second Great Quintet' has often been imitated but never equaled.
Considered the most influential small jazz group of the middle 1960s, the Miles Davis "Second Great Quintet" has often been imitated but never equaled. Critical consensus holds that the revival of jazz in the 1980s was inspired by the six albums the Quintet recorded from 1965-1968. But a set of particular cultural and personal dynamics shaped the Quintet's recordings in ways that are unrepeatable. Mobile Fidelity's SACD reissue series of Miles Davis' Columbia LPs shines a spotlight on these rightfully acclaimed sessions, and constitutes the most accurate digital representation of the original master tapes.

In an essay published by Atlantic Monthly in 1988, jazz historian Francis Davis discussed an emerging wave of neo-hard bop jazz performed and recorded by Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, Wallace Roney, and others of their age cohort:

"On all these recent albums rhythm is secondary to pulsation, and harmony is frequently suspended in the interest of mood. In that sense these albums recall those Miles Davis made for Columbia in the middle sixties and those his sidemen made for Blue Note during the same period."

The new wave of mid-1980s hard bop evoked the Quintet visually: elegantly tailored suits and formal stage presentation; and structurally: similar instrumentation, analytical as opposed to intuitive approach to harmony, emphasis on complexity in compositional form. All of these traits were in direct, hostile opposition to jazz-rock fusion, but neglected to acknowledge the continuous progress made by American and European jazz musicians in the preceding 15 years (1970-1985). The record companies who marketed Wynton Marsalis et al. were themselves complicit in this willful neglect; Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Julius Hemphill, David Murray and Jack DeJohnette all recorded for labels in Germany, Italy, Denmark and England.

It was not the case that fusion had usurped hard bop and that the Young Lions had restored authentic jazz to its rightful status; rather, the industry had extracted major profits from electric music and marginalized the producers who supported progressive jazz in the 1970-1980 period, and when fusion became a moribund genre, something new and attractive was needed. Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner had sustained US-based recording and performing careers without compromise during the lean years, but composer-players Andrew Hill, Joe Chambers, and many others of their generation had to make the career shift from performing to teaching. It wasn't the music industry and Lincoln Center that saved jazz—it was American college music departments and European record labels.


Mobile Fidelity's SACD reissues of the Columbia recordings of Miles Davis have been released out of original album chronology. The issuance of E.S.P., the first studio recording by the Second Quintet, fills a significant gap in understanding the musical shift that Miles was undertaking in the mid-1960s. E.S.P. marked a new direction in jazz music that was distinct from the Blue Note recordings by the composer-members of the Quintet in that same 1964-1965 period. The album owes little to the New Thing innovations of John Coltrane and the even more radical experiments of Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, but the contributions of the Quintet's composer-members demonstrated that the music had moved on from bebop, and that their compositions would be the springboard for Miles' new direction.

The music on E.S.P., and the subsequent albums Miles Smiles, Sorcerer and Nefertiti, is generally characterized as 'modal jazz.' Modal jazz, a shorthand term that conceals surprising complexity, serves to distinguish the music from two other currents of American jazz in the early to mid-1960s, the past-leaning hard bop, which continued to draw on song form and bebop soloing practices, and the forward-reaching free jazz, which was striving to liberate music from conventional harmony and established performance norms. Jazz historian Keith Waters, writing in The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965-68 (2011, Oxford University Press) lists the consensus characteristics of modal jazz: modal scales for soloing; single chord under long sections of the piece; pedal point (sustaining or repeating a single bass note) under shifting chords; absence of conventional chord progression; use of suspended fourth chords; use of harmonic or perfect fourth intervals. Sound complicated? It gets more so. Playing modal jazz imposes a set of rigorous demands on the performers, and not only in the solo passages.

The Second Quintet of Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Tony Williams (drums), Herbie Hancock (piano) and Ron Carter (bass) had played a series of live engagements following Shorter's arrival in September 1964. After a three-week stint in San Francisco, producer Irving Townsend brought the group into Columbia's Hollywood studio facilities for sessions on January 20, 21 and 22, 1965. (The name of the session engineer is missing from the liner notes and discographies.)

Shorter's immediate predecessor in the saxophone chair was avant-garde composer-player Sam Rivers. Tony Williams had pressed for Rivers' presence in the Quintet after the departure of George Coleman. Rivers can be heard on Miles in Tokyo (mastered to DSD by Sony Japan, but released only on standard resolution CD), from a concert recorded in July 1964. The saxophonist's brief tenure left little impact on the leader; Miles had already acquired two of the three Blue Note Records composer/players he wanted for the new group, Williams and Hancock. Miles didn't resonate with Rivers—he preferred George Coleman's big tone and modernist take on bop. Sam Rivers was unscathed by Miles' dismissal. He soon went on to more fulfilling projects: Into Something with the Larry Young-Grant Green-Elvin Jones trio in November 1964; and in April and May 1965, the Bobby Hutcherson date Dialogue and his own Contours, recorded for Blue Note.

After the failed experiment with Rivers, what Miles was hearing was a quality of sound that only Wayne Shorter could offer. Had Shorter rejected Miles' entreaties, the Second Quintet might well have broken up before ever recording a single studio album.

The arrival of Wayne Shorter is regarded by music historians as the most significant factor in the development of the Quintet's distinctive sound. Shorter brought with him a book of recent compositions, five years' experience as the music director, tenor soloist in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and the personal recommendation of John Coltrane, who had encouraged Miles to hire Shorter as early as 1959. Keith Waters argues convincingly that the presence of Wayne Shorter in the studio and onstage provided Miles with a much-needed, mature contributor who balanced out the youthful enthusiasm and unbridled experimentation of Tony Williams and bolstered up the hesitancy and insecurity of Herbie Hancock. If Williams never experienced a moment's doubt that he was ONLY drummer for Miles, Hancock during the year prior to Shorter's arrival, puzzled over his role in the ensemble and received little reassurance from his moody and taciturn employer. Yet, by the time the Quintet performed in Tokyo with Sam Rivers, Hancock was well on the way to adapting the density of his orchestral style of performance to the need for greater space and openness that Miles was demanding.

When Shorter, Carter and Hancock brought their compositions into the studio, Miles sat down at the piano and began to edit, change time signatures, reduce the length of the heads. While the tape was rolling he would stop a take and change the order of the horns' entries, or the approach to the piano accompaniment. This was not new behavior for Miles, but was unsettling—intentionally—for Shorter and especially Hancock. Miles was determined to break out a new sound that relied as much on the disruption of the band's self-expectations as on the set of modal jazz tools in the workbox.

The opener, Shorter's "E.S.P.," announces its stark modernity in a brisk head melody of descending fourths. (Waters points to Johnny Carisi's "Israel" from the 1949 Birth of the Cool sessions as a stylistic predecessor.) The effect on some listeners may be that the tune is, in effect, tuneless, un-singable, that it doesn't swing, and lacks the immediacy of blues-based music. That's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't limit the players—it opens room for creative exploration outside the blues-form or song-form constraints. Shorter launches into a solo based on whole tone scales and the framework perfect fourths. It's more similar-sounding to John Coltrane than much of Shorter's subsequent playing in the quintet. The first statement of his presence in the group reveals a confident, self-assured voice.

Hancock's "Little One" is a masterpiece of group interplay. To give the intro more of a feeling of space and suspense, Miles divided the opening horn lines between himself and Shorter playing separately, rather than in unison or harmony. The slow rubato of the A section changes unexpectedly into a B section in 3/4 time, with Williams entering softly on brushes. Waters writes a lengthy analysis of Miles' trumpet solo and provides a transcript that even a nonprofessional could read while listening to the performance. The solo is a marvel of harmonic negotiation, and doesn't require the skills of a trained theorist to appreciate. Miles aimed, throughout his career, for tone production first and foremost. What is noteworthy is how far he has moved away from the stance he adopted on Kind of Blue of demanding radical harmonic simplicity, to embracing the complexity of Hancock's and Shorter's compositions.

E.S.P. was recorded over three days, and the tape from third session, January 22, yields the best sound quality (tracks 5, 6 and 7, "Agitation," "Iris" and "Mood"). Any explanation would be purely speculative, but most listeners should be able to hear the differences. The piano sound on E.S.P. is somewhat compressed, and the horns lack 'air' and low-level detail, though Ron Carter's bass and Tony Williams drums are well presented in the soundstage. Overall, the sound quality is not as good as the later Quintet recordings released on SACD by Mobile Fidelity, Sorcerer, Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro. The latter albums were recorded at Columbia's 30th Street studio, the label's premiere facility. The sonic limitations of E.S.P. aside, this SACD remains a worthwhile addition to MoFi's growing catalog of Miles Davis' Columbia recordings on artistic and historic grounds.

Track Listing: E.S.P.; Eighty-One; Little One; R.J.; Agitation; Iris; Mood.

Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor sax; Tony Williams, drums; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass.

Format: stereo hybrid SACD, mastered by Rob LoVerde at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab from the original analogue master tape.


The third of six albums by Miles Davis' second quintet, Sorcerer tracks an evolutionary musical trajectory that Miles had launched two years earlier, and anticipates the even more radical developments that almost immediately followed.

Sorcerer was recorded in three sessions at Columbia's 30th Street studios, on May 16, 17 and 24, 1967. Of the six new pieces (excluding the 1962 track "Nothing Like You" recorded during the same period as Quiet Nights), four were composed by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, one by pianist Herbie Hancock and one by drummer Tony Williams. The resulting tapes clearly left their employer feeling restless and unsatisfied. The time lapse between recordings was accelerating in pace with Davis' increasing sense of urgency about the changes he was perceiving in musical culture.
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