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The Perfect Band 

How Miles Davis found a group for jazz's past and future

Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
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In 1965, Miles Davis had the quintet he'd dreamed of -- the group featuring saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams that is featured on the six-CD set The Miles Davis Quintet 1965-'68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings. Almost as celebrated as the late-'50s band that featured John Coltrane, its members gave their leader a whole lot less trouble. The addictions of Davis' earlier band members were legendary; so were their untamable individual musical interests. In his autobiography, Davis says with typical bluntness: "In the last years that Trane was with my group, he started playing for himself. ... When that happens the magic is gone out of a band." The new group was younger, more respectful -- Wayne Shorter called the trumpeter "Mr. Davis" -- and as hip as could be.

They wanted to work together. During one of the previously unreleased rehearsal sequences heard for the first time in this new set, Herbie Hancock calls out excitedly to Tony Williams: "Hey, Tony, keep that up! That was it!" The joy of discovery rings in his voice: It's a discovery he made through Williams about a piece he had himself written. Davis described the group's dynamics with unusual precision: "To have a great band requires sacrifice and compromise from everyone; without it nothing happens. ... I was the inspiration and wisdom and the link for this band, Tony was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualizer for a whole lot of musical ideas we did; and Ron and Herbie were the anchors." It sounds a bit like a corporation, but it worked.

The quintet came together at a moment in jazz history when Davis, to his own surprise, was no longer at the outer edge of the music's development. In 1959, he had on Kind of Blue helped popularized "modal" jazz, the playing of tunes built on a minimum of chords. His 32-bar "So What" features two chords only, and they are a half-step away from each other. Coltrane and others had taken the idea and run with it. Davis played "So What" regularly, but in his live performances in the middle '60s, he mostly stuck to a relatively fixed repertoire of standards and older originals, "Autumn Leaves," "Stella by Starlight," "Four" among them. He was working with bop chord changes and traditional forms. He played those tunes faster and faster until they seemed at times denatured. Something had to give.

Shorter, Williams, Hancock, and Carter gave Davis a way out. Tony Williams was still a teen-ager when Davis hired him in 1963, but his drumming was never better: He played with extraordinary accuracy and rhythmic freedom, moving in and out of swing time, offering chattering commentary on snares and tom-toms, lighting the background with quick cymbal work, often providing a swirl of sound that was nonetheless precise and organized. At a time when Davis' denigrating comments on the avant-garde of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy were circulating, Williams was an avowed fan of the "new thing," and he brought Herbie Hancock along with him at least part of the way. When I heard them live it seemed to me that they opened up the rhythm section, almost in defiance of Davis, who, when things got too free, would call the band back together with a brisk statement on his trumpet. Carter was a barely acknowledged force in the band, less funky than later Davis bassists, but solid as an accompanist, and able to play in a settled way without being sucked into the maelstrom of Williams' polyrhythms, and without succumbing to the lilies and languors of Shorter's more ephemeral solos. Wayne Shorter was the last of this group to join. His compositions and musical personality were crucial. By 1965, he had moved from being a hard-bopping tenor through a Coltrane-ish phase and into his own: He played with an oddly laid-back lyricism, a contemplative style that when things were going wrong sounded lazy. Amiri Baraka said that there was an expression in Shorter's high school -- anything really strange was said to be as weird as Wayne Shorter. Davis expressed a similar idea more appreciatively: "Wayne was always out there on his own plane, orbiting around his own planet."

The rest of the band was on Earth: The tension among them kept the group going. It was a tension heard in the rhythm section, as Williams tended to push the beat, Hancock and Shorter lagging behind. There were other obvious differences in individual styles. Davis and Shorter were famous for the space they left in their solos, Williams for the busy way he crammed effects into every corner. Hancock could sound frilly in his accompaniments; Ron Carter, the anchor as Davis called him, was the middle. He rarely took a solo. In performance the band was playing a nearly frantic form of bebop, relieved only when Hancock and Williams took a piece out of tempo. In the studio, captured on these crucial recordings, they were investigating new things, typified by Shorter's sketchy compositions, compelling melodies, and surprising turns of harmony. His writing helped define the group.

Shorter wrote short, deceptively simple pieces, such as "Footprints," with an on-the-beat feeling far from the skittering jumpiness of bebop. They pointed in a new direction, one that Davis could accept. Davis wasn't ready, it was clear, for free-form music, even for the extended modal vamps he would start playing at the end of the decade. In fact, one way of looking at the records made between 1965 and 1968 is to note the way they document Davis' long, but hardly inevitable, journey toward open forms.

Shorter's pieces offered a kind of freedom within recognizable limits. "Wayne," Davis wrote, "has always been someone who experimented with form instead of someone who did it without form." Those experiments are found throughout The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, which bring the listener from opening track "E.S.P" to the final "Filles de Kilimanjaro," with 13 alternate takes and unreleased pieces added in. The presentation is chronological, missing the alignments found on the original LPs. Instead, the set captures the development of the band's thinking. "E.S.P" is a 16-bar Shorter piece that begins squarely on the beat and skips off it like a barefoot bather on hot sand. Its downward-moving melody has the nagging quality of some of Shorter's most celebrated pieces, including "Nefertiti," but it is played uptempo. Even in these first sessions, the rhythm section was playing with unusual subtlety. Williams in particular is astonishing; he perfectly follows Shorter's crescendo and decrescendo during the solo on "Circle." This is one of the few bands of the time that attuned to dynamics. They were playing with space and mood, sometimes within the same composition.

Recorded on Jan. 21, 1965, Ron Carter's "Eighty-One" begins with a flowing offbeat phrase, then leaves more than five beats open. A swift 16th-note phrase flashes and then is followed, after a shorter rest, by a held low note and sudden blip over an octave above. In its improvised sections, Carter starts playing a funky bass pattern; it eventually becomes clear -- almost after the fact -- that the piece has turned into a blues. This alternation between a blues-swing feeling and something more spacey typifies the band's thrilling performance of Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance," which begins with a chattering, rolling pattern by Williams on his snare. The Harris melody is then served piece by piece, with segments of pure rhythm intervening between its phrases. It's as if Davis wanted to suggest the blues without staying in a funk. Later pieces were even more audacious, even when the general mood was placid. Shorter's "Nefertiti," recorded on June 7, 1967, was a shock -- and an instant hit -- even among Davis' fans.

The chronological presentation in this set is instructive, especially for the way it includes takes and tunes and rehearsal sequences that were not issued at the time. Even when the sequence of LPs gathered here was being issued, Davis was working on other projects, and for good reasons. He was living through one of jazz's slumps. Rock was the music of the hour, and a lot of jazz players were out of work. Davis was no fan of the Beatles, but for the rest of his life he seemed fascinated with aspects of black popular music, with the prolonged funky jams of James Brown, with the wild virtuosity and rhetorical excesses of Jimi Hendrix, with the tunes of Sly Stone, musically satisfying despite their pop presentation.

Hancock is heard on "Circle in the Round" on electric piano in a 33-minute piece that would have been a revealing document of Davis' intentions had it been issued at the time. It's worth hearing today, despite its longueurs. In the last two years of this quintet, Davis started playing long sets of medleys in his live performances. He seemed dissatisfied with the very idea of a finished work, of a beginning, middle, and end. In the studio, he began to edit, sometimes obviously: This is the time when awkward splices turn up on finished pieces. He also began to reveal his interest in the rhythms of popular music, and in electronic instruments. These shifts weren't immediate; nor did they seem at the time necessarily definitive. "Black Comedy" from 1968 sounds much like the earlier work of the quintet. The funky "Stuff," however, with its slightly sinister posture, features Hancock on electric piano, and it goes in a new direction. The last disc of this collection is in fact unsettled, featuring a second version of "Black Comedy," for instance, a jumpy sketch of a theme that Monk might have thought of and worked into a 32-bar piece. Davis leaves it a sketch and improvises over its minimal chords. "Tout de Suite" manages to be both bluesy and ethereal: I prefer the slower alternate take issued for the first time in this collection. Then there's the light Spanish feeling of "Filles de Kilimanjaro," where Carter and Hancock play electric instruments. The out-and-out funk of Bitches Brew, the open-ended wildness and freedom of the late '60s and early '70s live performances, with their simultaneous suggestions of soul and of free jazz, were around the corner. By the end of 1968, this quintet, which accomplished so much, was history. The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings ends with one number still to be recorded to fill out "Filles de Kilimanjaro." It was "Mademoiselle Mabry," and it would feature Chick Corea and Dave Holland. When Davis was ready for a new direction, he was also, as it turned out, ready for a new band.

About The Author

Michael Ullman

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