Victor Feldman - Part 3: Miles & Beyond


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...the true, primary and sole author of 'Seven Steps to Heaven' ...was Victor Feldman, as I heard him play it many times in a variety of trio settings (including one with Frank Butler) before he recorded it with Miles. —Steven Cerra
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

"His keyboard technique is above reproach and is matched by his brilliance on vibes and drums; his knowledge of rhythms and meters, and the possibilities inherent in combining melodic lines with percussion expressions, greatly expounds the sounds of any group within which he works." (Philip Elwood, The San Francisco Examiner)

These eloquently phrased words of high praise for Victor Feldman were shared by no less a jazz luminary than Miles Davis, who sought out Victor to perform and record with him during his April 1963 sojourn to the Left Coast.

"Ironically, Victor closed his June 1963 Downbeat interview by sharing the following anecdote with John Tynan:

"The other day I was fortunate enough to record with Miles Davis. When I was 16, I went to Paris with a friend of mine. Charlie Parker was supposed to play; he never did play there. But meanwhile, we'd walk along the Paris streets and I'd be singing Miles Davis solos. We'd learnt them off the records. I never ever thought I would record with Miles."

The details for Miles' trip to California in 1963 are well-documented in a number of sources, including Jack Chambers' Milestones 2: The Music and Times of Miles Davis Since 1960 (New York: Morrow, 1985, pp. 54- 55).

It seems as though the first quarter of 1963 was a time of troubles for Miles when, for a variety of reasons, pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers, and ultimately, drummer Jimmy Cobb, too, left Miles. Miles claims these departures came about abruptly. They asserted that they gave him sufficient notice, but that he refused to accept the fact that they wanted to leave.

Whatever the actual reasons for this falling out, they are beyond the scope of this piece. But the fact of their departure meant that Miles had to hastily put together a rhythm section for upcoming appearances, including those at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and the It Club in Los Angeles. Pianist Harold Mabern went on the band for a preceding date, but as the time for the Jazz Workshop gig was approaching, it was becoming apparent that things weren't working between him and Miles.

Miles always had a tremendous respect for Cannonball Adderley, and it was he who suggested to Miles that he might turn to Victor and see if he was available to help out during these West Coast gigs.

I recall Victor sharing that when the call came in from Miles' booking agent, he was recording a Viceroy cigarette [do they still make these?] radio jungle [with lots of bombastic percussion], composed no less by Marty Paich, at the RCA sound studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

During the rehearsal, someone from the recording engineer's booth came down and passed Victor a message. He excused himself to make the call and soon came back with a "cat-that-swallowed-the- canary" look that had everyone curious.

With the expensive recording studio meter running, everyone had to wait until they were packing up before he told them the good news that Miles wanted him to come up to San Francisco for the Jazz Workshop gig.

The bad news was that Victor was on the Hollywood ABC TV staff orchestra at the time and was forced to tell Miles that he could arrange with the show's contractor to get a few days off " ...while you try to get someone else."

As Victor recounted in an interview with Les Tomkins while in England in 1969:

"It was enjoyable, although I didn't know any of the things we had to play. And Miles doesn't tell you anything, which bugged me a bit. It's inconsiderate but, on the other hand, maybe it was a compliment and he figured I could pick up very quick. Everyone seemed to be happy, anyhow. Then a few weeks later Miles came out to Los Angeles to do an album, and I was to be on it. Before the date I used to go up to his hotel room, and we'd come down into the lounge lobby, where there was a piano, and talk about various tunes."

In what Jack Chambers refers to as "the Hollywood ballad sessions," Victor [piano] would join with Frank Butler [drums] along with Miles, George Coleman [tenor sax] and Ron Carter on bass on April 16, 1963 at the Columbia Hollywood Studios to record four ballads: I Fall in Love Too Easily, Baby Won't You Please Come Home," "So Near So Far" and "Basin Street Blues."

Although "Joshua" and "Seven Steps to Heaven," two originals by Victor, were recorded the following day, Miles re-recorded them a month later as features for Herbie Hancock [piano] and Tony Williams [drums]. These two tunes plus three of the ballads were released as Seven Steps to Heaven [Columbia/Legacy, 1963). [Although re-united on the CD version, "So Near So Far" wasn't originally issued until 1981 by Columbia.]

As a point in passing, it should be noted that as the composer of "Seven Steps to Heaven," Victor Feldman created the vehicle that introduced to the world the drumming brilliance of Tony Williams.

In the concluding paragraph to her article on the piano prodigy, Matt Savage, that appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Corina da Fonseca-Williams states: "Seven Steps to Heaven was a pivotal recording in the history of jazz...[and] the title tune is a piece that insists on the primacy of harmony."

Although co-credited to Miles, I know for a fact that the true, primary and sole author of "Seven Steps to Heaven" and the advanced harmonies that it employs was Victor Feldman, as I heard him play it many times in a variety of trio settings [including one with Frank Butler] before he recorded it with Miles.

Keeping the melody of "Seven Steps to Heaven" in mind, one could re-read the Philip Elwood quotation that opens this piece [repeated below] and easily come to the conclusion that Victor, not Miles, had the predilections of mind necessary to compose such a tune.

"His keyboard technique is above reproach and is matched by his brilliance on vibes and drums; his knowledge of rhythms and meters, and the possibilities inherent in combining melodic lines with percussion expressions, greatly expounds the sounds of any group within which he works." [Philip Elwood, The San Francisco Examiner]

"Joshua," however, may have been more of a joint effort, as Victor recalls in the following section from the 1969 Tomkins interview:

"Miles said: 'Write something.' Just like that. So I went home, messed around, and wrote 'Joshua.' Actually, I think I finally finished that one day prior to the recording. In between, I'd go to the hotel and we'd take the tunes that we were going to do, he'd suggest certain changes and I'd say: 'How can that be?" But sure enough, a lot of the time what he'd suggest would turn out fine. The only thing, he'd sort of put you in a frame of mind where you really didn't know what you were doing; you were groping. I sensed that he was looking for something, but he didn't know how to tell me what he wanted. The feeling he gave you of searching, this finally brought out the chord structure for the arrangement. We'd been experimenting with the tune and it was: 'Not this way—no, that way,' until we molded it into shape."

"Basin Street Blues," one of the tunes on Seven Steps to Heaven that author Jack Chambers categorizes as one of the "Hollywood ballads," was a traditional Jazz, 16-bar blues that Victor had been intrigued by for years. Once, when I asked him why he was so interested in the tune, I remember him replying: "I just like the way it lays out [unfolds melodically], and it has such a lovely melody. I get picture in my mind of what jazz in the early days down in New Orleans might have sounded like."

When I first heard him fooling around with it, Victor played it in a slow, measured manner and as a solo piece. He was also constantly taking the song's rudimentary changes and re-harmonizing them in a manner that became increasingly stylish and more and more sophisticated over time.

It was this slow, refined version of "Basin Street Blues" that Victor introduced to Miles for the Seven Steps to Heaven album. Although perhaps unaware of this background, Jack Chambers alludes to it in the following excerpt from Milestones 2: The Music and Times of Miles Davis Since 1960:

"'Basin Street Blues' written by Spencer Williams...was part of the standard repertoire of New Orleans bands in the earliest days of jazz history and subsequently passed into the repertoires of revival bands. Traditionally, it was played as a medium-tempo paean to the city that the musicians had left behind them when they moved north along the Mississippi...

"Davis plays it as a kind of requiem, slow and mournful, emphasizing the elements of nostalgia which in traditional versions exists only as an undertone. His deliberate, wispy tone makes a striking reinterpretation of the content of the original song." (p. 55)

"Bill Milkowski made these comments about the playing of "Basin Street Blues" in the insert notes to the Seven Steps to Heaven CD:

"Miles' melancholy muted trumpet sets a dark tone on this rendition. The combination of his velvety smooth lines alongside Feldman's gentle touch and sparse comping recalls the intimate mood that Miles and Bill Evans had conjured up on "Blue and Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" from Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959).

Concluding about his association with Miles in the Les Tompkins interview Victor said:

"Miles Davis brought out my creativity. Before working with him, I'd heard a lot of stories about him. But I never believe things people tell me about anybody like that. ...Everyone has a quality within themselves that's beautiful: who are we to set up standards about how a person should act? I enjoyed playing with Miles and I enjoyed meeting him. He certainly seems to be very straightforward; he says what he wants to say... That's the way he plays—in a very honest way. Whenever you play with him, you get a feeling of starting afresh, and wiping the cobwebs away. He creates an atmosphere round him that helps you steer clear of clichés.

"In fact he gets on my nerves sometimes, in a way, because he gets hold of a piece and wants to change it around so completely that I think he takes it too far. Then, on the other hand, maybe it's a good thing to do that—to really tread new ground."

Although I have emphasized Victor's relationship with Miles to underscore his status as a major Jazz player and to reflect on what might have been, the fact was that Victor was increasingly busy in his own right on the West Coast Jazz scene before and after his time with Miles.

He had made albums as a sideman with Frank Rosolino (Turn Me Loose!, Reprise/Collectibles), Barney Kessel (Music from "Breakfast at Tiffany's, Reprise/Collectibles), Curtis Amy (Way Down, released as part of a 3-CD Mosaic Select set), and Joe Maini (Joe Maini Memorial, Fresh Sound)—all of which were released in late 1962 prior to his April 1963 dates with Miles.

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