The Perfect Band

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

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.

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