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Miles Davis Quintet
Antibes, France

This rad live Miles footage is from the rad transitional stage between the rad 60’s quintet and the rad 70’s fusion stuff.

Bitches Brew was recorded during this era, ushering in Miles’ departure from a swing feel. When Tony Williams left the band and was replaced by DeJohnette, the music took an almost immediate turn toward the fusion vibe that Miles held onto for the rest of his career. Not many recordings exist of Jack DeJohnette playing this brand of jazz with Miles. I’m super pumped to find this.

This concludes today’s jazz history lesson.

A “band” is a slightly different thing than an “artist.” This is mainly due to the way a group of people evolve together and make music in a way that wouldn’t be possible unless those specific people had spent a lot of time together. John Mayer has a live band, but it changes so frequently that he alone ends up having the only significant continuing influence on his music. Radiohead or U2, on the other hand, have the push and pull of the same 4 or 5 guys over the course of many years, experiencing life together and making music from that shared experience.

Miles Davis, one of my all time favorite artists, had many different live bands (like Mayer). But he also had the same lineup of musicians for years at a time, which formed mini “bands” (like U2 or Radiohead) within his overall career as an artist. The most notable of Miles’ bands happened during the mid-late 60’s.

This week’s “From The Archives” post is about the Miles 60’s Quintet, my favorite band of all time.

This is so cool. I am such a sucker for Miles Davis.

Miles Davis meets Kenny G, reacts appropriately…

You want a good book on the history of Jazz? Read Miles Davis’ autobiography, titled simply Miles.

The language is perhaps a little colorful at times, but Miles’ life and experiences basically cover everything you need to know about the evolution of Jazz music.  He’s got tons of cool stories and perspectives, and he constantly drops these little one-liners that put an extremely complex musical idea into a very manageable box, shedding light the elusive definition of what Jazz really is.

I read this book in one day and I rarely do that kind of thing.  That was 7 or 8 years ago, and I noticed it sitting on my shelf the other day and inadvertently burned 45 minutes just looking at the pictures.

Put it on your Christmas list and you won’t be sorry.

Part 4 was an explanation of “So What” by Miles Davis as an example of Jazz improvisation.  My friend Bryan, after reading my explanation, listened to the track and had this to say…

Oh man, that was sweet. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to “So What” until after I had read your e-mail. Totally different listening experience. Very, very cool.

I think I’m tracking with everything you’ve said so far.  In “So What” I definitely saw the intro, the head on the front and back end, and understood (for the first time) what the soloists are doing in terms of exploring the
floor but staying in the form. Despite it only being two notes, I was able to pick up on the form throughout the soloing, mostly because I tried to hum what I heard in the head during some of the soloing to see if I could make sense of how they line up. In fact, I think the simple head made it easier to see how the form and soloing lined up because I had less to keep straight in my mind. So, I think I get that.

I don’t think my ear is nearly subtle enough (yet) to pick up on what the other guys are doing to dialogue with the soloist. It just sounds like they’re doing their own thing (within the form) regardless of what the soloist is doing. So maybe you can help me understand what it sounds like to dialogue with the soloist well and what it sounds like to do it poorly so I can see the distinction.

One other thing I’m not able to pick up on yet is how the transitions between soloists are signaled. I know you said that the soloist has the “floor” as long as he wants, and that’s always been my impression of soloists, but you also said that the soloist “plays something that sounds like a conclusion,” and I’m definitely not hearing that. I can’t hear any difference between the way Miles or Coltrane wrap up and the way Evans wraps up. I did clearly see what you said about how Coltrane picks up on Miles’ conclusion and is ready for it, but how no
one picks up on Evans’ conclusion and so they have to tread water for 8 bars, but ALL of the conclusions sounded abrupt to me. Nothing in me ever said, “Oh, he’s about to finish.” So maybe you can help me hear
that at some point.

So, here’s my response to Bryan, addressing the issues of musical dialogue and conclusions in solos…

Musical Dialogue, AABA, and Melody vs. Chops

Well, as far as the dialogue goes, a helpful thing for me is to imagine that I’m actually in the band.  So pretend you’re there, with the musicians, playing along, and try to let each of the soloists suggest things for you to play.  Of course, you’re just taking their suggestions – you’re not actually going to play anything. These “suggestions” just amount to what you’re hearing, the things that are being played by the other musicians, but if you treat them as suggestions then you’ll be listening for a direction from what you’re hearing.  That way, you’re listening with an ear that goes deeper than just an outside observer. This is the difference between active and passive listening. You have to think like you’re in the band. Once you’re doing that, picture each musician “suggesting” things not only to you, but to the other musicians as well, and try to hear the things the other musicians are do in response. The soloist has the floor, but the other musicians, as they respond to the soloist’s suggestions, might in turn suggest things to the soloist.

For some specific examples of good interaction, listen to the very beginning of Miles’ solo. Check out how Evans starts out by just playing the “horn hits” from the head, but then at 1:39 he just lays out and listens to Miles. Then check out his direct “response” at 1:52 to what Miles played right before then. At the top of the next time through the form, Paul Chambers (bassist) changes his line up quite a bit and that really alters the overall vibe. You can hear Evans also change as a result, but then at 2:43 , Chambers returns to a walk pattern and Evans goes back to the ideas he was playing earlier. Also, check out the Eflat dorian section on Miles’ second time through the form (2:57). Toward the end of those 8 bars, you can hear Evans wait for Miles to do something before he chimes in.  Again, all of this is known as “comping”… Miles is soloing, and Evans/Chambers are comping.

It would be important at this point to get some additional terminology in your vocab. First, the various sections in a form are labeled with algebra variables. We’ll call the first 8 bars the “A” section, which then repeats, and then the Eflat dorian section would be the “B” section, and the last 8 bars are another “A.” So the form of this tune would be described as “AABA,” and if I were to identify the section at 5:43, I would call it “the first B section of Cannonball’s solo.” Next vocab item: “Blowing.” This is a slang term for soloing, because at the beginning of the Jazz movement only horn players took solos (the rhythm section just played the groove and chord changes). So the only people who were soloing were people whose instruments needed air, so “blowing” became what they did during the solo section. Nowadays, I would say something about “blowing” even to a bassist, who of course doesn’t use any air. “Blowing” is just slang for all solos.

Lastly, for the concluding the solo thing, you have to think melody. These players aren’t just trying to demonstrate their chops and technique on the instrument, they are trying to compose MELODIES. This means that you want to listen to how cool the lines sound as music, and don’t just watch for instrumental fireworks. This is one of the most common misunderstandings about Jazz… that the players are always trying to floor you with their unbelievable speed and agility on the instrument. That’s boring for most musicians, because the amount of technical prowess you possess is a direct result of your practicing time, but your improvising represents something deeper… like your personality and your intelligence, so to speak. That’s why Miles is hailed the way he is, because his solos are notorious for the sheer EMOTION they deliver. He squeezes every drop of sadness out of every note that’s supposed to be sad, and so on. Try listening to his solo on this tune with that in mind.  You’ll maybe be able to hear his “conclusion” a little more clearly.

Yesterday was Miles Davis’ birthday… his 83rd had he not passed away in ’91.  Jeffery Hyatt wrote a great piece on the late trumpeter/bandleader, which can be found on Hyatt’s site (a blog completely devoted to all things Miles).

Money quote: “There are only a handful of entertainers that transcend art, those titanic names whose mythology becomes more absorbing with each passing year. In time, the lies and truths may blur, but the artistry is forever genuine.”

Meanwhile, there’s a free download of two 1970 Fillmore East shows available here, but only for a limitd time.  The shows are two consecutive nights of Miles’ opening set for Neal Young, and these recordings are never-before-released bootlegs.

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.

I just found this great article about Miles’ music in the 60’s. I mentioned that band and it’s influence on me a few weeks ago in a post about Tony Williams. This article goes a little deeper into the historical significance of Miles’ 60’s era, and specifically Tony’s presence in the music. It’s a good read if nothing else.

Last night I found some RAD videos of Tony Williams playing with the best band ever… the Miles Davis 60’s quintet (Miles, Tony, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter). Check this stuff out – you will love it. Seriously… thank goodness for Youtube. Live footage of this band is rare, and now because of Youtube we can just click and watch.

Tony was seventeen when he joined Miles’ band in 1962. Yep… seventeen. Miles was an international Jazz superstar at that point, and the drum chair in his band was the most coveted gig in the entire Jazz world (which was the center of the popular music world at the time). 17-year-old Tony took the gig and proceeded to play some of the most ground-breaking and inspiring music in the history of the drumset.

Watch these videos. Watch his ride cymbal. Watch his calm but powerful energy. Watch his control. And… seventeen years old.

Dang it.

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