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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.

MILES DAVIS QUINTET: E.S.P.

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.

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