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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.

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.

MILES DAVIS QUINTET: SORCERER

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.

A year and a half separated the E.S.P. and Miles Smiles sessions, in no small part due to Miles' serious health setbacks. Sorcerer was recorded nine months after Miles Smiles, but immediately after the Sorcerer sessions were completed, Miles raced off the blocks and booked a series of dates beginning in early June and continuing into July. His impatience was more than justified; while Sorcerer captured the band at a performance peak, an even more artistically progressive album, Nefertiti, was ready to make its appearance. The rapid succession of the two albums, and the high critical regard and listener affection for Nefertiti left Sorcerer in perpetual second-place. Sony's box set The Complete Studio Recordings of The Miles Davis Quintet 1965—1968 placed the May sessions into historical context, and Mobile Fidelity's outstanding new transfer to SACD should further restore Sorcerer's reputation.

Shorter's compositions "Masqualero" and "Limbo" feature some of the strongest performances by the second quintet preserved on tape. In his critical study The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965-68 (Oxford University Press 2011), theorist and working professional jazz musician Keith Waters classes "Masqualero" alongside harmonically similar, single-section compositions by Shorter, "E.S.P." and "Orbits." The relatively static frame allows Davis to solo freely on Spanish/Arabic melodic motifs, more than on any record since "Sketches of Spain." Rhythmic interplay among the group is very focused. Williams and Hancock break up the measures in staccato eighth-note pulses that Miles answers with similarly-inflected phrases. Tony Williams guides the dynamics through louder and softer passages, creating a backdrop of contrasting shades and rhythmic emphases.

On "Limbo," Williams sets the bar for generations of drummers who came after him. After a deceptively quiet intro by Hancock, Williams enters near the top of the kit's dynamics and pushes through the barrier to generate thunderous peals of sound. It's tempting to call this bravura playing "controlled chaos"—a catchphrase used by the band members—but it doesn't go far enough. It isn't chaotic, but dangerously close to out of control. Williams drives to the edge of sheer noise, then pulls back, like a rider on a frightened thoroughbred. The tight ensemble playing by the horns over Williams' wall of percussive sound heightens the tension and creates the unnerving sense of a cool façade concealing inner rage. As a musical response to the violence unfolding in America's cities during the uprisings of the 1960s, "Limbo" is as much a statement of aggrieved protest as an expression of pure musical conception. There's nothing quite like it in Miles Davis' recorded catalog, and he never again worked with a drummer who so brilliantly embodied the furious pursuit of sonic transcendence.

Sorcerer has the best audio quality of any of the Quintet's recordings reissued by MoFi (as of this writing). The session engineer, Frank Laico, mic'd and mixed the band differently from Fred Plaut and Stan Tonkel, who were at the controls a month later for the Nefertiti sessions. All throughout Sorcerer, and especially on "Limbo" where Tony Williams plays with such ferocious intensity, there's no hint of distortion—the entire drum kit, the snare, toms and cymbals, are being struck at fortissimo levels practically all at once—and the tape never seems to oversaturate or the board to peak out.

Williams' kit is evenly but not too widely spread out behind the bass, which is also vividly recorded. Hancock on piano is set to the right, the trumpet and saxophone divided, respectively left and right. By contrast, on Nefertiti, the horns are mixed center-unison, the cymbals forward and left, and the sound picture has less immediacy and clarity than on Sorcerer, though it is a big improvement over previous issues. MoFi is working with a constant—the Tim de Paravicini-modified Studer deck and the electronics that make up their Gain 2 playback chain. Differences in quality between the session tapes are down to the choices of the original recording engineers.

Though Sorcerer may not be the most influential of the Quintet's recordings, standout performances and superb sound quality make it highly recommendable to all jazz lovers and audiophiles.

Track Listing: Prince of Darkness; Pee Wee; Masqualero; The Sorcerer; Limbo; Vonetta; Nothing Like You.

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

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

MILES DAVIS QUINTET: NEFERTITI

The unusual compositions that are featured on Nefertiti, and before it, Miles Smiles, gave rise to the shorthand description "time, no changes." To space, the elusive quality Miles had been striving to incorporate into the Quintet's performances since E.S.P. could now be added stasis, the absence of forward harmonic movement.

The working quintet of Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter had been performing and recording regularly following Shorter's arrival in September 1964, and had coalesced into one of the most distinctive-sounding ensembles in contemporary music. In June and July 1967, right after the Sorcerer LP sessions, Miles brought the group back to Columbia's 30th Street studios to record more new original material written by the band members. Following up on the innovations of the 1966 LP Miles Smiles, Nefertiti" moved the Quintet further away from the contentious division between an emerging avant-garde of free jazz artists and their established bop mainstream colleagues. The music on Nefertiti stands in its own artistic space.

The six compositions by Shorter, Hancock and Williams mostly dispense with complex chord progressions and multi-part construction; themes are stated succinctly in unison ("Madness," "Riot" and "Hand Jive"), or repeated ad infinitum and pulled apart rhythmically ("Nefertiti," "Fall," "Pinocchio"). Structurally, this is far removed from the theme, solo choruses, bridge, ending form still being written and performed by many musicians who came of age in the bebop generation.

The title track departs from jazz form by abandoning horn solos altogether. A slow-developing 16-bar theme is repeated in unison by the tenor and trumpet while the piano softly strikes sustained chords on the first beat of the measure, bass notes lightly dart up and down, and the beat is sustained with quiet brush work on the snare drum. As the horn theme repeats in an almost trance-like fashion, Hancock adds stronger accents on the upbeats and Tony Williams drives the dynamics, moving freely around the kit, dividing and subdividing the beat.

Williams' conception is a break from the modernist approach developed by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, which was still the dominant drum sound in the mid-Sixties. Only 17 years old when he joined the Quintet in 1963, Williams stood firmly in the avant-garde camp. His contributions to Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch and other free-bop Blue Note sessions with Sam Rivers, Grachan Moncur III and Andrew Hill revealed the restless imagination and risk-taking that Miles required to advance his own evolving conception of a jazz quintet.

In his solo on Hancock's tune "Madness," Miles plays over the drums and bass only, opening up space for Ron Carter to walk outside the loose harmonic frame of the opening theme. This echoes Ornette Coleman's approach to group performance that Miles had criticized at the time of the Coleman quartet's 1959 controversy-ridden New York debut.

Wayne Shorter's disciplined compositions take precedence over displays of technical virtuosity. Hancock likewise plays with economy and restraint. The arrangement of tunes contributes to an overall sense of unity, with Shorter's thematically similar pieces "Nefertiti" and "Pinocchio" (respectively the first and last works) functioning like the opening and closing movements of a 39-minute suite.

Nefertiti, and the pieces recorded in the following months that were issued on Water Babies and Miles in the Sky, comprise the last all-acoustic music Miles Davis would produce. Enthusiastic about the sounds of Sly Stone, James Brown, Santana and Jimi Hendrix, Miles was ready to incorporate electric instruments and explore minimalist, rhythmically-oriented song structures.

With the exception of Ron Carter, all of the other members of the second quintet would also form electric music ensembles (Weather Report, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Tony Williams' Lifetime Visions Orchestra), though they would all eventually return to performing and recording acoustic-instrument music. Most of the music on Nefertiti, with the exception of the title tune and "Riot," did not enter the live repertoire of the quintet, and stands apart from Davis' earlier and subsequent recordings.

The benefits of mastering directly from the original stereo tape are well demonstrated on this release. Played alongside a Columbia two-eye LP, the MoFi SACD betters the sonics of the LP with deeper bass, wider dynamic range, absence of distortion on peaks, and a more vivid presentation of Tony Williams' drums and cymbals. The snare drum and toms have more tone color, and Williams' complex patterns on ride cymbals are revealed with greater detail and clarity. The drum kit was set back from the horns in the spacious 30th Street studios, creating an effect that could be likened to a soundstage. The MoFi transfer significantly expands the depth of that aural space, and reveals greater sonic detail in all the rhythm players.

Shawn Britton has done a remarkable job of faithfully representing the sound that Columbia engineers Fred Plaut and Stan Tonkel captured on tape in 1967. At a time when much of the audiophile market is transitioning to downloads, it is gratifying that MoFi continues to produce such high-quality discs for limited release.

Track Listing: Nefertiti; Fall; Hand Jive; Madness; Riot; Pinocchio.

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

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

CODA: TIME OF CHANGES

The rate of change in jazz from 1920 to 1940 (New Orleans origins to bebop), and then from 1950-1970 (cool to hard bop to New Thing to fusion) was rapid by any measure. But the displacement of the market in the wake of the commercial rock music business, and the widening rift between older players and younger 'new music' practitioners shattered the American jazz scene into fragments of its former relative unity. Further division ensued: musicians who followed Miles Davis into electric music found commercial success, while those who did not had to find paid work in cafés in Copenhagen, or play for audiences of fellow starving musicians and artists in Brooklyn lofts and a dwindling number of bars and art galleries.

The music underwent further significant advances in the 1970s and 1980s, well documented by European record labels and disrespectfully ignored by the American recording industry. By the time Wynton Marsalis and his fellow "Young Lions" were signed to the jazz divisions of corporate music entities and promoted as the face of authentic American musical tradition, the rate of change had slowed, and not until the past few years has a younger cohort of American, European, African and Asian composer-musicians emerged to reinvigorate jazz and revisit the more adventurous stylistic tributaries of the mid-1960s.

Listening today to the music of the Miles Davis Second Quintet in direct comparison to the many artists who were inspired by the ensemble, highlights the stark difference between authentic artistic expression and learned, imitative artistic gestures. The raw, imperfect immediacy of E.S.P. and Sorcerer and the strange, melancholy reflectiveness of Nefertiti are unsurpassed and at core, inimitable.

Note: These reviews originally appeared in a different form on http://www.HRAudio.net, and are reprinted with permission of the site owner.

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