Miles Davis: “Lost Quintet” in Transition

An excerpt from Bob Gluck's "The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles"


In his recent book, musician and author Bob Gluck delves into a band that is perhaps the best-kept secret in jazz’s historical narrative-Miles Davis’ “Lost Quintet” of 1969, featuring the trumpeter with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Gluck defines the unit as a product of the culturally explosive times, and as a necessary, inspired segue between two of Davis’ most celebrated periods: his Second Great Quintet, whose expert postbop gained rare freedom through notions taken from the burgeoning avant-garde, and his landmark early jazz-rock. (Elsewhere in the book, two other hugely important yet unsung bands are investigated, Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble.) In this exclusive excerpt, Gluck details Davis’ conflicted experience with free-jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, and follows that influence into a thorough analysis of the Lost Quintet.

The permeability of musical boundaries was being tested in 1969. Miles Davis’ two albums recorded during that year, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, meditated on the wealth of influences that defined the era. Each took the vantage point of a jazz recording to look outward and inward. On one hand, the albums balanced rock and funk’s rhythmic dynamism with a relatively static aesthetic sensibility. On the other, they sought grounding in Davis’ lyrical sensibilities while casting off familiar conventions of musical structure.

Along with Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman had opened a new musical passageway, with the 1959 release of The Shape of Jazz to Come and performances of the material at the Five Spot in New York City. A growing number of younger musicians were exploring the possibilities his music suggested. Coleman provided a way out of what some, including Davis and John Coltrane, had felt to be the growing tyranny of cyclical chord progressions. An overabundance of chords pointed to the need for new structural principles and the desire to balance freedom of the individual with membership in a collective.

Although Davis publicly expressed scorn and, frankly, jealousy toward what he believed to be unwarranted attention given to Coleman, he was clearly listening. In his autobiography Davis writes, “I used to go and check them out when I was in town, even sat in with them a couple of times.” His reading of what happened could be viewed as reportage or as braggadocio: “I could play with anybody, in any style. … But Ornette could play only one way back then. I knew that after listening to them a few times, so I just sat in and played what they played.” He caustically adds, “He just came and fucked up everybody. Before long you couldn’t buy a seat in the Five Spot. … They were playing music in a way everyone was calling ‘free jazz’ or ‘avant-garde’ or ‘the New Thing’ or whatever.”

Critic Larry Kart reports Coleman’s memories of the encounter, confirming Davis’ presence at the Five Spot but adding an ulterior motive: “Years later Ornette said, ‘I’m not mentioning names, but I remember one trumpet player who came up to me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I want to let the people see me playing with you. Why don’t you play some blues and let me come up and play.” So I said, “OK,” and we did some song that he had played with Charlie Parker. Then when they asked him what he thought of my music, he said, “Oh, the guy’s all messed up-you can tell that just by listening to him.” And it wasn’t true.'”

Davis commented that he liked Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry as people but saw them as neither talented nor revolutionary. He reserved particular scorn for Cherry: “I didn’t like what they were playing, especially Don Cherry on that little horn he had. It just looked to me like he was playing a lot of notes and looking real serious.” Davis’ rivalry with Coleman seems at least in part generational, as both men were close in age. Coleman commanded the attention that had previously been directed Davis’ way; rattled by this, he sought to reassert his dominance.

Despite his complicated feelings toward Coleman, Davis learned from him. Although years later he continued to diminish the import of Coleman’s method and execution, he acknowledged the significance of his methodology: “[The group was] just being spontaneous in their playing, playing ‘free form,’ bouncing off what each other was doing. … It had been done before, only they were doing it with no kind of form or structure. … That’s the thing that was important about what they did, not their playing.” Davis added a respectful postscript: “Now, what Ornette did a few years later was hip, and I told him so.”

The influence of Coleman’s approach-his use of intuition to govern improvisation, and his application of a democratic principle to guide collectivity-can be heard in Davis’ Second Great Quintet of the 1960s, as the band turned toward open forms. By 1965, it was deeply engaged in what Chick Corea calls “that thing of vaporizing themes and just going places.” “Going places” was the result of a collective musical mind at work. Davis’ new electric quintet of 1969 was primed to take these principles further.

At first, Miles Davis’ Lost Quintet seemed less oriented toward free exploration than the previous band, composed of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. That situation changed as the band shifted in personnel, allowing a new chemistry to develop. First, in August 1968, 21-year-old British bassist Dave Holland replaced Carter. In July, Miroslav Vitous had filled the gap left by Carter’s departure. Davis, vacationing in London, came to Ronnie Scott’s club one night to hear pianist Bill Evans, but unexpectedly discovered Holland, who was playing that evening with a group opposite Evans. Jack DeJohnette was Evans’ drummer but was also playing melodica in the group with Holland. Holland relates, “Miles dropped in, and between two sets his former drummer Philly Joe Jones passed on the message to me. But when I got off, he had left. … Three weeks later, his agent called, informing me I had to be there in three days. That’s when I met him for the first time, in the studio.”

Holland played both electric and acoustic bass-Carter had not wanted to play electric-and once Davis heard him, the bandleader immediately surmised that he might be the right person for his band. The choice proved prescient, because Holland could play not only what Davis was seeking but much more, since his musical interests had been shaped in part within London’s free-improvisation world.

In September 1968, Corea replaced Hancock, at Williams’ recommendation. Hancock told John S. Wilson of the New York Times, “Miles had heard Chick Corea and felt he would be the best new piano player for him. While Chick was with Stan Getz he had six weeks off, so Miles decided to use him for that period.” Holland and Corea’s first studio session with Davis was on Sept. 24, 1968, recording two tunes that would appear on Filles de Kilimanjaro. The pair recorded in the studio with Davis throughout November and into early December. These sessions often involved multiple keyboardists, including Hancock and Josef Zawinul.

On Oct. 5, 1968, Davis’ band, now with Holland, Corea, Shorter and Williams, played a show at UCLA that Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather hailed as “not likely to be surpassed this season by any other group that works at this high level of abstraction. … The sensitivity that bound the five men in a jagged unity often seemed to attain extrasensory peaks of invention.”

The repertoire drew largely from the 1965-67 Davis Quintet’s songbook, largely composed by Shorter: “Agitation,” “Footprints,” “Paraphernalia,” “Pinocchio” and “Nefertiti,” plus “‘Round Midnight” and “an oblique, restless uptempo blues excursion based on one of his early records, ‘Walkin’.'” All in all, a propitious public start. The same outfit, continuing with Williams, appeared at the Jazz Workshop in Boston for a four-day stand on Dec. 5-8. This was four months after Holland’s first performances with the band at Count Basie’s club in Harlem.

Shows from this period represent Davis’ first experiments using two electric pianists in concert settings. One track of an audience recording from Boston pairs Corea with Wynton Kelly on “‘Round Midnight.” Kelly is likely playing a Wurlitzer but is barely audible until he takes the first piano solo. Around this time, Davis also paired Corea with Stanley Cowell, in Montreal and probably Boston.

The Miles Davis Quintet was not an easy band for newcomers to join. By 1968, five years of chemistry among the players had been amassed with a distinct experimental trajectory, particularly since 1965. Holland remembers that it took him nearly a year to gain enough confidence in this new setting. Corea, stepping into Hancock’s seat, remembers, “It was a pretty big challenge to step in there and try and make some sense. Tony was still playing with Miles. He was in his last six months of his tenure and was full-blown in the freedom with which he was approaching the music, and it was a challenge to try and fit in. But Miles was really encouraging and told me to just play right here, and I did. It was very rewarding.”

Four months after Corea joined the band, on Feb. 18, 1969, Davis returned to the studio to record the groundbreaking In a Silent Way, using three electric pianists at once: Corea, Hancock and Joe Zawinul, with Williams on drums. By this point, the only members of the previous quintet remaining with the touring band were Shorter and Davis; Williams had already left to form the Tony Williams Lifetime. The emerging quintet remained musically in transition until DeJohnette, who had been periodically subbing for Williams, joined in time for a March date in Rochester, N.Y.

DeJohnette’s presence during the band’s stand at Duffy’s Backstage in Rochester marks the real beginning of Miles Davis’ Lost Quintet. DeJohnette ably continued the tradition of Williams’ percussive dynamism, but when he joined something changed in the chemistry of the group. We immediately sense that the newly formed rhythm section gels in its own way, unique yet parallel to the power of the previous Hancock/Carter/Williams rhythm section.

Both men provided the band’s connective tissue and were key to its ability to continuously reconfigure the ever-changing textures at the core of its music. The new quintet’s rhythm section was more extroverted than its predecessor’s. The increased volume level meant not only a louder sound but also different relationships between instruments. The electric piano’s more percussive attack, the sound swelling into a longer, richer sustain and the ability to play as loudly as the drums rendered the instrument a sonic change agent. Corea’s newfound timbral variety allowed him to inject his presence within the textural environment of horn soloists. The potential to foreground rhythmic interplay between Corea and DeJohnette increased, and space had to be consciously made for Holland to be heard and for Corea and Holland to interact.

Finding an ideal balance and synergy between instruments was not going to be a simple matter. Davis’ aesthetic was evolving, leaning in two seemingly contradictory directions: improvisationally open, yet with a strong beat. DeJohnette’s experiences attuned him to both of Davis’ new musical inclinations, having played rhythm-and-blues, performed in free improvisations with members of the AACM and engaged in more straight-ahead playing. Although Davis first heard Holland in a relatively conventional musical setting, the bassist was an active participant in London’s avant-garde. Corea built a reputation in hard bop and Latin-jazz, but he was also a drummer. With Davis he was asked to play a new instrument, electric piano, in a setting unlike what he had experienced.

At Duffy’s, the new rhythm section provides glimpses of a collective cohesiveness that would flower over time. We hear that like his predecessor Williams, DeJohnette’s drumming is dramatic and virtuosic. He is well supported by Holland’s solid and steady walking bass. DeJohnette plays as if he were a partner in an organic whole, rising and falling in levels of energy, punctuating each soloist’s ideas, periodically sparking a rise in intensity. He raises the temperature of the ensemble by subdividing beats, creating variations on a tune’s rhythms, tossing in surprising rhythmic accents. He crafts polyrhythms by intently inserting a series of strongly played beats across the bar lines. He attentively follows each soloist, particularly Corea. Listening to the drumming, we immediately sense a growing trust.

When we listen to the other two members of the rhythm section on this date, we can hear how all three members’ contributions cohere. There are moments when one player changes mood, speed or direction and the other band members quickly reconfigure in a tightly interwoven manner. Sometimes each musician finds his own way to respond. Two minutes into Shorter’s solo on “So What,” there is a stutter in Holland’s bassline, followed by a rapidly repeated three-note phrase that forms an ostinato. Corea incorporates this particular figure within his chordal accompaniment, which DeJohnette completes with a drum flourish. When Corea contributes a series of two-handed rising and falling melodic lines in contrary motion, the level of complexity increases within the band, interrupting the linear flow of Shorter’s solo. After Corea plays a series of brief ostinato figures and one upward glissando after the next, his bandmates build on his musical ideas. Although this is Shorter’s solo, it is Shorter who imitates Corea’s gesture and DeJohnette who extends it.

Early in Corea’s own rapid and fluid solo, he listens closely to Holland, who is repeating a note, creating a holding pattern. Corea develops the figure further and then uses the principle of constructing phrases from repeated notes. A dance emerges between piano and bass, while DeJohnette’s drums continue steadily behind. At various points, Holland and DeJohnette show remarkable rhythmic elasticity as they change speeds, building and releasing tension. The three members of the rhythm section are engaged in a delicate interplay.

On this March 1969 recording, we can discern Corea’s emerging approach to the electric piano: His solos and comping offer textural variety, rhythmic creativity and moments of surprise and invention. Ostinati-built from repetitive rhythmic, harmonic and textural patterns-are peppered throughout. At this point, Corea’s solos remain generally linear, hinting at the greater chromaticism and complexity to come. His serpentine lines give way to rhythmic figures and whimsical variations of motifs spun from just a handful of notes. In the uptempo “Paraphernalia” of the second set, Corea begins with small amounts of material to construct grand textural events built on trills or tremolos, or rising chordal structures. In his solo during “No Blues” (also second set), he makes use of the tremolo feature on the Rhodes to create a changing delay-like effect that turns sustained chords and then single notes into throbbing, vibrating sonorities. DeJohnette joins Corea with rising and falling levels of drum and cymbal rolls. We can hear Corea’s satisfaction confirmed by the increased volume of the Fender Rhodes, which, he said, “really makes me feel like part of the band.”

Later that spring, Davis rented the Village Gate, a club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, for several appearances. It was a hip place to fine-tune his new band before taking it on the road. The finger-popping “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” was introduced during these shows, supplementing repertoire from the previous 1960s quintet. This was the first tune developed that would appear on Bitches Brew.

After New York, the quintet began to tour steadily. It traveled from New York and Washington, D.C., to Chicago, then on to a show at the Juan-les-Pins Festival in Antibes, France. By July, Davis’ tune “It’s About That Time,” from In a Silent Way, and Shorter’s “Sanctuary” (another Bitches Brew number) were added to the set lists. The band played a short quartet set (without Shorter, who was caught in traffic) during its July 5 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. It was there that Davis was reportedly taking notice of the audience response and size. He seemed transfixed by singer James Brown’s ability to engage the audience through his personal magnetism and the infectiously funky beat of his music.

By the July 7 show in New York’s Central Park, “Directions” had become the opener and increasingly the vehicle for the band’s more exploratory side. Then Davis’ clarion calls, driven by DeJohnette’s drumming, would usher in “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” By this point, the tune had lost the simplicity it demonstrated during prior shows. Corea made increasing use of ostinati in his often highly chromatic chordal accompaniment, inserted when a space opened or wherever he could offer commentary on the proceedings. Holland played repeated fragments and variants of the vamp, creating a steady rhythmic fabric that allowed ample room for DeJohnette’s dramatic displays. The lively tempo and high energy continued unabated through “Masqualero” and another future Bitches Brew cut, “Spanish Key.” The developing pattern-of Corea comping in a more complex manner behind Shorter than behind Davis-was clearly in play, while rhythmically the keyboardist remained equally alive and constantly responsive to each soloist. Holland contributed a steady, infectious rhythmic pulse beneath DeJohnette and Corea.

The Corea/Holland/DeJohnette rhythm section had grown remarkably in its own right during this first year of the band. Corea developed an empathetic symbiosis with each of his rhythm partners that would continue to thrive. Together, the three musicians provided lithe and creative support for the horn soloists. But they were also growing as a subunit that functioned according to its own internal logic. Ultimately, this would lead to the section’s split, with two of its three members departing to explore further the new directions they had uncovered, and Davis reconfiguring the ensemble. Yet before it came apart, the band blazed through an increasingly electric second year.

Purchase this issue from Barnes & Noble or Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.