The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-1968
University Press 2011
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“…when people were hearing us, they were hearing the avant-garde on the one hand, and they were hearing the history of jazz that led up to it on the other hand – because Miles was that history.” -Herbie Hancock, 1968
Professor of music and musician/composer Keith Waters at the University of Colorado, Boulder has produced a masterful analysis of the Miles Davis second quintet studio recordings in the years 1965 through 1968. Waters analyzes the remarkable period of “controlled freedom” and collaboration between trumpeter Miles Davis, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams.
Waters writes that “the role of analysis is to provide further, alternative, or nuanced ways into hearing the music, to consider how the moment to moment flow of improvisation resonates with or creates frictions with aspects of jazz traditions in which the players were so firmly rooted, and to hear how the recordings themselves participated in shaping that jazz tradition.”
Waters’ comprehensive and nuanced strategies for analyzing pitch, rhythm/meter and form are given context in chapter 2 followed by chapter discussions of specific quintet recordings (and selected solos within) in E.S.P. (Iris, Little One, ESP, Agitation), Miles Smiles (Dolores, Orbits, Circle, Ginger Bread Boy, Freedom Jazz Dance), Sorcerer (Vonetta, Masqualero, Prince of Darkness, Pee Wee, Limbo), Nefertiti (Hand Jive, Nefertiti, Madness, Pinocchio, Riot) in chapters 3- 6, respectively. The albums Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro (Country Son, Paraphernalia, Black Comedy, Stuff, Petits Machins, Tout De Suite, Filles de Kilimanjaro), according to Waters, signaled a significant departure from previous recordings/compositions with electric piano, electric bass and rock-based rhythms, and an “imminent shift to jazz-rock fusion.” Later groups continued forays into jazz fusion (including those from the second quintet – Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters band, Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report and The Tony Williams Lifetime).
Many of the aforementioned compositions have found their way into the “jazz canon,” though Waters cautions that lead sheets may be more indicative of jazz “pedagogies” of the time that don’t reflect the highly complex modal explorations and rhythmic nuances found in the quintet recordings.
Waters writes that Miles Davis embraced the concept of “sketches” which “provided his musicians with a germinal idea, allowing room for flexibility and substantial individual input.” This also blurred the concept of “authorship,” however, since collaborations of this kind brought varied and complex alterations to the many facets of original compositions.
Waters’ own biographical sketches of quintet members Davis, Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams (their interactions and what they individually said about the music and their musical colleagues) give the reader fascinating insights as to how the sum of the parts of these extraordinarily skilled jazz professionals provided a literal Big Bang of collaborative innovation in a period of three and a half years.
The idea of “controlled freedom,” a concept articulated by keyboardist Herbie Hancock, is an important concept in defining the second quintet’s body of work. Quintet leader Miles Davis, Waters emphasizes, with his “palette of timbres,” and “…melodic ideas in the middle register of the trumpet, “searing lyricism on ballad playing combines tenderness with detachment.” He was always open to new ideas, experimentation and artistic challenge.
Waters cites critic Robert Walsar’s description of Miles Davis, who “consistently put himself at risk in his trumpet playing…experimenting with unconventional techniques….He played closer to the edge than anyone else and simply accepted the inevitable missteps, never retreating to a safer, more consistent performing style.” This is what set the tone for the collaborative genius of Davis and his artistic brethren Shorter, Hancock, Carter, and Williams in their remarkable body of collective compositions and recordings.
For those who are aficionados of the second quintet’s body of work, Waters’ discussion of the techniques of harmonic substitution and superimposition, metrical conflict and metrical modulation provide an insider’s tour for seasoned jazz travelers as well as an open-ended template for the study and understanding of the elements and complexities of modal jazz with its reliance on improvisational sojourns with melodic line and rhythms as opposed to stressing harmonic variation and chord changes.
For the casual jazz fan, however, who wants to learn more about the combinations and permutations of subtleties of sound, it opens up a whole new world into the beauty and complexity of jazz. Waters includes Michael Conklin’s comprehensive Discography of recordings, a bibliography and index.
Waters’ dissections of the quintet’s musical explorations and collaborations are as challenging and rewarding an exposition in giving one a window into the creative process as one could find.