The Perfect Band

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

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.

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