In a remarkably fertile three-and-one-half-year period-January of 1965 to June of 1968-the second great Miles Davis quintet ushered in a new era of improvised music. Shedding Tin Pan Alley conventions and bop cliches in favor of more unencumbered, free-flowing forms that were both rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous, they exercised an unprecedented musical interaction and independence that changed the course of modern jazz. The 1995 boxed set Miles Davis: The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965 (Columbia CXK 66955) documented the special chemistry that took place on the bandstand between Miles and Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. This staggering boxed set (440 minutes of music comprising 56 tracks, 13 of which have never been issued before) captures their magic in the studio, chronicling the continual evolution of their group sound from E.S.P (1965) to Miles Smiles and Sorcerer (both 1967) to Nefertiti and Miles In The Sky (both 1968) and Filles De Kilimanjaro (1969).
Of course, every serious fan of jazz has already heard these landmark recordings. They have been pored over, dissected and discussed, transcribed, recreated and emulated by generations of scholars, students and working musicians. They represent a kind of Rosetta Stone for the so-called Young Lions movement of the mid-’80s. Indeed, Wynton Marsalis, who in essence sparked that much-hyped movement, revealed the profound influence that this mid-’60s Miles period had on him in his own 1985 recording, Black Codes From The Underground. But even that fine album, and the scores of other Miles quintet wanna-be recordings that have followed in its wake, can’t touch this. Stunning technique and pure intent aside, they lack the inherent magic that prevailed on these fabled sessions. Most of all, they lack that overall visionary concept of one Miles Dewey Davis.
As bassist Todd Coolman points out in his insightful liner notes: “Miles Davis had the vision to allow each member of the group to make his distinctive contributions to the music by encouraging him to push the envelope. This leader had the willingness, even eagerness, to learn from younger, more adventurous and impressionable sidemen. He had the ability to assimilate new developments in the direction the music was taking and then expound upon it, showing his sidemen a vision of the music yet to be played, like a beacon.”
Coolman goes on to suggest, “Historical reproduction of music has its place but must be used to serve the future. Miles Davis had a quality that seems to be missing today: the ability to know the past but keep an eye (and ear) toward the future.”
Coolman’s scholarly dissertation (occupying 50 pages in the richly authoritative 116-page booklet) is one of the extra inducements for those thinking about adding this superb box to their collections. The 20-bit and 24-bit mastering brings a new clarity and pungency to the solos that surpasses all previously existing versions. An added incentive is Bob Belden’s detailed track-by-track analysis, in which he provides useful information about everything from modes and key centers on particular tunes to personnel changes at particular gigs happening around the time of these recordings. Hardcore Milesophiles will be intrigued by this kind of minutiae.
The music itself is a revelation. A strict chronology follows the growth of this extraordinary ensemble from its initial plunge on E.S.P. to the electronic flirtations of Filles De Kilimanjaro (as well as experimental tracks that would surface years later on Circle In The Round and Directions). And while the music is consistently stimulating, challenging and compelling, there are three examples that stand as the pinnacle of the small group artform-Miles Smiles, Sorcerer and Nefertiti. Belden, in fact, argues that Miles Smiles is a masterpiece on par with Kind Of Blue…one of the “few record sessions that can be described as high art, where perfection is nearly attained.”
Since it was recorded nearly two years after E.S.P., due to an extended layoff by Miles to nurse the painful effects of a severely arthritic hip, Miles Smiles shows that the level of listening and interacting among the band members had gone to a higher plateau. Tony Williams in particular asserts his dynamic presence on this session with much more authority and panache, demonstrating an arranger’s ear and a catalyst’s instincts behind the kit. While he does demonstrate a fresh touch and responsive aesthetic on E.S.P., he doesn’t suggest the rhythmic innovations that would come later. Williams is more in a traditional timekeeper’s role throughout that 1965 session. Indeed, his brushwork on “Mood” and his straight ride cymbal pulse on Carter’s “R.J.” sound closer in spirit to Jimmy Cobb’s playing on Kind Of Blue than his own upstart work on Miles Smiles, Sorcerer and Nefertiti.
Miles really turns Tony loose on 1967’s Miles Smiles and he responds heroically, commenting on solos with well-timed fills and crashes while offering a torrential downpour of ideas from bar to bar. As if restless behind the kit, he asserts himself with bold strokes, nimbly switching from precision triplets to halftime to symphonic statements, sometimes within 12 bars. His composerly bashing on pieces like Shorter’s “Footprints,” Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” and Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” (from Miles Smiles) along with his brilliant playing on “Limbo,” “Dolores” and “The Sorcerer” (from Sorcerer) and “Hand Jive” and “Pinocchio” (from Nefertiti) represents the height of modern jazz drumming.
Hancock’s harmonic invention and zen-like touch at the keyboard are equally astounding. Shorter’s prolific output as a composer and the searching quality of his expression as an improviser is unequalled and in great evidence on every disc in this boxed set. Carter plays a key role in providing the anchor for this daring quintet to continue its collective outward search. As annotator Coolman points out, “Tony Williams dubbed Carter ‘Checkpoint Charlie,’ a reference to the stabilizing influence of Carter’s time.”
The sequencing is particularly effective throughout. On disc one, for instance, Ron Carter’s aptly-titled ethereal abstraction “Mood,” the final track on E.S.P., flows organically into Davis’ “Circle,” the opener on Miles Smiles. Although they were recorded nearly two years apart, they sound of-a-piece here. Another case in point, the darkly energetic “Paraphernalia,” featuring George Benson on guitar, makes a smashing opener on disc five, whereas on Miles In The Sky it takes a less spectacular backseat to the album’s opener, “Teo’s Bag.”
Some added treats for fanatics include previously unissued rehearsal takes of Hancock’s “I Have A Dream” and “Speak Like A Child” from the Miles In The Sky sessions, an alternate take of Williams’ “Hand Jive” from the Nefertiti sessions and a provocative alternate take of “Country Son” from Miles In The Sky. There is also an unreleased Miles original which exists only on a mono reference reel that was found by Adam Holzman in Miles’ private tape collection.
The prolific six-month period (September 1968 to February 1969), which began with the completion of Filles De Kilimanjaro with Chick Corea and Dave Holland in the band and ended with In A Silent Way, will be the subject of the next Miles Davis boxed set in this series. It provides a bridge between the revelatory music of Miles’ second great quintet and the landmark Bitches Brew, heralding yet another stylistic metamorphosis for the musical visionary.