Miles Davis: Seven-Step Program

While collectors, completists and critics lick their chops in gratitude for each installment of Columbia/Legacy’s ornate boxation (don’t look for that in the dictionary) of Miles Davis, not every fan will feel the necessity to own all the incidental material adorning the Jack Johnson, Bitches Brew, Blackhawk and Gil Evans caskets. Those fans will miss some marvelous music, to be sure, but money is tight and the key works can be had on the original discs. The latest addition, though, is more of a piece with Miles Davis & John Coltrane and Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968, handy compilations of essential material with marginal extras-if you don’t have the originals, might as well pick them up in a gleaming metal case.

In fact, Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 seems to me the most crucial set of all, not because the music is better, but because much of it has been long unavailable. Like the others, this one tells a story. Unlike them, it does not document the creation of a single work or fill out an important engagement or explore benchmark collaborations. Instead, it tells how Davis got from here to there: “here” being a period when he remade his quintet with relatively unknown musicians rather than artists who had proven themselves in the ’50s, and “there” being the mid-’60s sessions, when Wayne Shorter served as Davis’ de facto house composer.

Do not, however, construe these recordings as transitional. Considering how relentlessly Davis progressed one might label almost any period in his career transitional-the nonet as a transition to Miles Ahead, the ’50s quintet as a transition to the breakout playing of the ’60s, the ’60s quintet as a transition to fusion. Davis’ playing was enjoying a personal peak in ’63 and ’64, clearly benefiting from the process of developing young players who, not as tactfully as you might think, were also developing him. An unmistakable pleasure of Seven Steps is the gradual advance from the rather inchoate L.A. session of April 1963 to the debut of the new quintet in Berlin, in September 1964. Those steps are made vivid by Davis’ insistence on a stable series of tunes-you won’t be bored by the repetitions, despite four studio takes of “Seven Steps to Heaven,” three never before issued (it takes that long for them to figure it out and for Tony Williams, on his second try, to spark it into life). Except for the early studio dates, all the music was recorded live, another source of excitement.

If the main plot involves Miles and the ingenious trespasses of the Herbie Hancock/Ron Carter/Tony Williams rhythm section, the abiding subplot concerns the search for a front-line partner, including a one-shot venture into borderline avant-gardism with Sam Rivers, before settling on Shorter. The key player in that regard is the then-maligned George Coleman, whose stature should get a boost, especially given the restoration of his edited solos. Though not as distinctive as other tenor saxophonists and apparently thought of by Williams as too conventional, his playing in concert is robust, alert, and pleasingly in contrast to the leader’s high drama.

The most celebrated work here is the February 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall, which is finally sequenced as performed (those who grew up with the two original discs may suffer a pang to find the incomparable “My Funny Valentine” turning up as the second set’s second tune), but the most eagerly awaited is the 1963 Antibes concert, an explosive coming-out for the Coleman quintet that has not been available for nearly four decades. The original LP, Miles Davis in Europe, offered five tunes and clocked in at a startling 62 minutes; still, three were edited. Now we have the concert uncut, with additional titles (of which I find “I Thought About You” literally painful in its intensity), including two good but anticlimactic pieces following “Walkin’,” the performance that sent 17-year-old Tony Williams soaring into the pantheon.

Even now, when its every move has been assimilated, the band’s attack seems knowingly radical. Consider “Autumn Leaves,” which Miles takes at a medium clip, signaling his attitude when he turns the first bridge into a sustained tremolo over Carter’s disarming two-beat. In his second bridge, Davis introduces a trademark melodic embellishment, then riffs out the passage, starting the next with a purr. For his third chorus, the rhythm section spontaneously offers him stop-time encouragement, and during his fourth, Hancock feeds him a rhythmic lick. Miles shoots the moon in what promises to be a fifth chorus, but walks off after eight bars-good thing Coleman was paying attention. For the LP, three of Coleman’s (nearly) six choruses were excised, but notwithstanding a twice-told double-time gambit, his solo grew in strength and is more compelling at full length.

Hancock’s solo is so complicated one marvels that he didn’t lose his place (Carter keeps everyone on track). Phrasing against the time, he all but recomposes the structure with intricate turnbacks and block chords, as Williams eggs him on. Carter bows a chorus and a half, at which point Davis returns for an extended windup. Never does this rhythm section behave like its predecessors, and Davis must have felt as exultant working with it as we do listening now.