Victor Feldman - Part 3: Miles & Beyond


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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:

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