I’ve mentioned before the huge influence that Tony Williams has had on my playing. This week’s featured album is the first recording I ever heard of Tony – Miles DavisComplete Concert 1964. It’s a 2-disc set from Columbia records (Miles’ label at the time), and was originally released as two separate albums. The full album is hard to find in compact disc format, but the music is easily accessible on itunes.

Recorded live at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, Complete Concert 1964 has been hailed by Miles historians as “one of the best recordings of a live concert.” I bought this record at Down In The Valley during my sophomore year of high school, and it literally changed my life. This was the album that showed me what a true musician is… what real music is supposed to be like. And by that, I don’t mean to say that “Jazz” is the only real music. Rather, what I mean is that, because these particular musicians played with so much passion and emotion while simultaneously demonstrating incredible technical prowess and artistic sophistication, this recording immediately became the primary model for how I approach music.

There’s a lot to write about on this record – I’ll start with the personnel. Tony Williams is obviously on drums, with Ron Carter on bass and Herbie Hancock on piano. Then there’s Miles on trumpet of course, and the quintet is rounded out with George Coleman on tenor saxophone. Coleman was soon replaced by the great Wayne Shorter (in early 1965), completing the famous “Miles’ 60’s quintet,” which remained in place for the next 4 years. All the players except Miles were pretty young in 1964, with Hancock at age 23 and Williams at only age 19! Despite their young ages and limited experience together, the quintet plays just as cohesively as any of the later live recordings. The rhythm section is so patient and supportive, but just explodes with ideas as soon as the floor is open.

The performance benefits from the inspiration of the unusual circumstances that night. The Philharmonic Hall was in it’s debut season at the time, having been newly renovated from it’s former life as Carnegie Hall. This was the first large-room gig for the young rhythm section players, and everybody knew ahead of time that Columbia was recording the music for a live album. In addition, the players were all quite upset with Miles, having been told just prior to walking out on stage that the evening’s concert was a benefit (for various civil rights groups) and so they wouldn’t be getting paid. Rumor has it that the players were arguing with Miles even as they began playing.

Tony just kills it on this album. You can hear so much fire from him, and yet his groove is deep and comfortable. He floats effortlessly from ballads to up-tempo, brushes to sticks… and even picking some perfect moments to lay out entirely (like the tag on Miles’ solo on “All Of You”). The comping and interaction in “So What” are still some of my favorite Tony Williams moments, and his solo breaks on “Seven Steps to Heaven” are so musical and interesting.

Tony takes a full solo in track 2 on the second disc, “Walkin.” A story I often tell my students about this record is that, although this solo blew me away right from the first time I heard it, the real meat of the solo went completely over my head for the longest time. The phrasing ideas are so advanced that I was always under the impression that the solo was free-form. In fact, I thought ALL his solos were free, because I could never keep up with them. In 2002, after studying many of the complex concepts that Tony used in his playing, I bought a bootleg live recording of the quintet from around the same time period, and Tony had a solo on the first track (“No Blues”). I managed to not get lost in listening to that particular solo, and as I kept up with the ideas I heard some things that I recognized from the “Walkin” solo. I went back to the “Walkin” solo on Complete Concert 1964 (something I had listened to a hundred times at that point) and realized that the solo was not free, but very strict to the form. I heard the solo the “real” way for the first time, and I was totally blown away… again.

I could go on forever about this record. You can hear some excerpts of it here, and there are some links to youtube footage of this band on one of my previous posts about the 60’s Quintet.

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