Miles Quintets: Seven Steps

After some fine albums in the previous few years - Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come - 1963 saw Miles shedding skin and prepping for his modernized mid-decade work. The main development of the time was the acquisition of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams as a new rhythm section. This and other steps are taken in the boxset below.

Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of 1963-1964
Apr. 1963-Sept.1964 / Columbia

Sometimes the journey is as interesting as the arrival, and it makes the arrival more appreciable because you know how you got there. This 7-CD boxset traces Miles’ journey from potential stagnation to a great new quintet. The music comes from a succession of transitional lineups, beginning with two studio sessions and finishing with a series of live sets. The liner essay highlights details of the performances, and the remastering of the various source tapes is good.

4/16-17/1963: Disc 1 contains a session recorded in Hollywood with a stopgap band. A succession of early-60s saxophonists led Miles to settle on tenor George Coleman, a decent journeyman who mixed agile scalar activity with soulful licks and the occasionally ingenious melodic figure. Bassist Ron Carter here enters Miles’ world; as reliable an anchor as Paul Chambers, he leaves intriguing spaces in his lines. (How crucial is finding the right bassist? Miles leaned on Chambers and Carter for several years each as other musicians came and went.) Drummer Frank Butler plays orderly swing, and Victor Feldman is perhaps the most elegant pianist Miles had yet used. Feldman also contributes two of the snazziest original tunes on any Miles Davis record, “Joshua” and “Seven Steps to Heaven”.

A previously unreleased version of “Joshua” leads off the box. Like “So What” with a masters degree, it features a syncopated two-chord call, a quick melodic response, a modulated cadence, and modal solo room. This version is taken at a laid back tempo, and Miles widens the track’s character by starting on muted trumpet and then switching to open horn after a short Feldman bridge. Later versions are played at a faster tempo, yet the casual pace of the original makes a special mood. Every bit as catchy, “Seven Steps to Heaven” melodically outlines common ii-V changes along with an uncommon major third shift. The group runs through it twice at this session, and even though they haven’t quite gotten all the elements in place, these versions compare well to the master made by a different band at the next session. Apart from a few kinks, these make great comparative listening.

Nearly as infectious as “Seven Steps” and “Joshua” is the pop song “So Near So Far”, done in a delightful 4/4 swing. The melody blends an anthemic two-note figure with longer tones over ascending chords, perfect for Miles’ style. Coleman is in good form as well. This version of “So Near So Far” initially saw release on the 1981 dead letter office Directions. The session also produced some slower pieces with Coleman absent and Miles playing muted trumpet. “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is the shortest of the bunch, and like so many standard ballads, Miles strips it down to his liking. “Summer Night” is evocatively done. Two songs date from the earlier part of the century, “Basin Street Blues” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”. Both sound anachronistic against the original music of the session, and that’s exactly how I hear these pieces, as Miles’ farewell to a distant past, one that probably made him feel a little nostalgic. Otherwise, why record them when they pose no “modern” challenge? Davis’ plaintive solos wander for a while, which brings up an interesting point. On most slow tunes, Miles will usually take one chorus, two at the most, leaving the listener tantalized and wondering where else he could have gone had he kept playing. “Basin Street Blues” and “Please Come Home” answer that question. Feldman enlivens both tunes in his more active solos.

Columbia used “Summer Night” to fill out the 1963 Quiet Nights LP, which was otherwise made up of abandoned Miles/Gil Evans music. “I Fall in Love”, “Basin Street”, and “Please Come Home” were earmarked for the Seven Steps to Heaven LP, the remainder of which was recorded at the next session.

5/14/63: Back in NYC with Coleman and Carter and introducing pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams. (Feldman and Butler turned down potential jobs in order to stay out west.) Hancock is a key addition, his linear range exceeding that of Davis’ previous pianists and his rhythms and harmonies fronting any pack. Tony Williams is simply a phenomenon at this young age, moving the drums from a support instrument to an “engaged” instrument. Williams had already broken ground with Jackie McLean (One Step Beyond had just been recorded in April), yet he came to public prominence with Miles. These two newcomers were a perfect fit for Ron Carter, whose bass was ready and waiting. Miles and George Coleman were suddenly supported by what would become the most flexible rhythm section in jazz.

The quintet’s first order of business was to remake three of the tunes first attempted in LA. “Joshua”, “Seven Steps to Heaven”, and “So Near So Far”, all adjusted to some degree, feature outstanding Miles solos, of which “Joshua” is amongst the best he ever recorded. He surfs the rhythm section, pokes at it, and dances with it, all the while carving fine melodic ideas. He’s just as deft in “Seven Steps to Heaven”, even blowing a high-register squibble in the midst of his solo. Coleman demonstrates that he has learned as much about “Seven Steps” as Miles has, and Williams is featured in a solo chorus and in several drum breaks. The alternate take (previously unreleased) is a good if imperfect version with edgier drumming.

I’m not sure that shifting “So Near So Far” to 12/8 improves upon the original 4/4 version with Feldman. It removes the pregnant pause behind the first melody note; instead of an emphatic kick, it’s now a grace note, and the contrapuntal arrangement is rather stiff. Yet the new meter pulls a fanciful solo out of Miles, and Herbie delivers a nice block chord solo in Red Garland fashion. Listen to Ron Carter on this track and how he plays around with the meters. He does a lot of favors for Tony Williams, who is not the smoothest triple-meter player in the world. It previews the productive symbiosis Ron and Tony would exploit in years to come.

The Seven Steps to Heaven LP mixed these three tracks with the three slower pieces from the previous session, thus creating an album of dichotomies - fast/slow, new/old, east/west. I’m very fond of the album as a whole, not least because it contains a lot of good playing from Miles himself. This box set makes me appreciate it even more, now that we get to hear the complete Hollywood session and compare the different approaches to the same material. The Feldman version of “Joshua” is a major delight, and I prefer the earlier rendition of “So Near So Far”. The thought of that first quintet becoming a working unit is an intriguing one. However, the birth of the Hancock/Carter/Williams nucleus is a fortuitous event, and they bring a real spark to their first recording with Miles.

7/27/63: An Antibes jazz festival set by the new quintet (Davis, Coleman, Hancock, Carter, Williams). The performance was released in edited form as Miles in Europe in 1964. Williams’ drumming defines the show and the band is explosive throughout. “Milestones” notably re-enters the stage book, although it surrenders the 1958 version’s snap for a faster clip and latitude that borders on freebop. Stop-start salvos fire the tune, Miles turns in a strong solo, Coleman issues skittering scales and twisted fragments, and Hancock takes some chances, too. Clearly, “Milestones” is the most liberated of these tracks. The tempo of “Joshua” is jacked up, but not so much that the rhythm section can’t engage in clever interplay. “Walkin” also generates heat with another worthy performance from the leader, fired by inexhaustable drums. On the other hand, “All of You” is so narrow as to sound like Miles’ group of two years earlier, as the song’s tag suffers endless repetitions. Miles gives “All of You” a good solo, but Coleman’s solo empties long before it’s over, and Hancock devolves into pedestrian licks. On “Bye Bye Blackbird” (left off the initial LP), Miles gets into halfhearted exchanges with Hancock; the trumpeter realizes the rote-ness and begs off abruptly. Coleman re-energizes the tune, but then Hancock solos tamely. Davis redeems himself in the final tag with phrases that tease the rhythm team, a highlight of the concert. Another highlight is Miles’ mischievous balladeering in “I Thought About You”, and the sign-off jam “Bye Bye” is terrific if only for Tony’s drum breaks. For the most part, this straight swinging set leaves a solid impression, and with more energy than finesse, the players burst the seams of an older suit.

2/12/64: Discs 4 and 5 feature the same quintet live at the Philharmonic Hall. Initially issued on the LPs My Funny Valentine and Four and More, the concert is best heard in its natural order, because it is an extraordinary one. In fact, I think it’s one of the most remarkable nights of live jazz ever recorded. The reason for the fuss is that the rhythm section has crossed a demarcation line of how any unit might behave within traditional song forms. The level of interplay is up, as are radical changes of scenery behind the soloists, including pin-drop silence. Hancock is freer with harmonies, Carter bounces from one bass idea to the next, and Williams explores different polyrhythms. All of this brings a sense of expanded storytelling to the concert in question, made up of familiar standards and originals.

Three lengthy tracks illustrate the band’s new freedoms: “My Funny Valentine”, “Stella by Starlight”, and “All of You”. Miles had treated the first two as compact ballads in the 1950s, but these versions are stretched out into grand structures. “Valentine” ranges from delicate wisps to robust swing, and what’s great is that these extremes aren’t used to contrast one chorus to the next, or the A section to the bridge. Anywhere, anytime, Miles might signal the band into a steady swing via an upward rip of trumpet notes, or he might calm them with a softer phrase. Meanwhile, Tony will quarantine a Latin rhythm for a couple of bars, or brush on the edge of silence, or lock into a kick sequence with the piano. As theatrical as Miles’ “Valentine” solo is (minus a couple of very sour phrases), Coleman’s is just as artful. He takes to “My Funny Valentine” with just the right mix of romance, subdued virtuosity, and the blues. Miles reads “Stella by Starlight” suspensefully - hear that phrase that prompts a scream from someone in the audience - and then the tune develops a long-term plan that would take a page to describe. (But I can’t resist praising the rippling piano textures that Hancock puts behind Miles near the end.) Imagine a large body of water with various eddies spinning and a couple of rivers flowing in and you’ve got a rough idea of the musical activity in these ballads. The emotional effect is overflowing.

“All of You” has the same dramatic range, and it allows leeway in a four-chord tag that the soloists utilize after their main choruses. To get out of the tag cycle, the soloist plays a particular melodic figure, and until then, they are free to extemporize on the tangent progression. Whereas the 1961 Blackhawk tags wound up in snoozeville, this rendition is continually interesting, with Ron Carter playing an enticing bassline in key places that really brings everything together. If there’s an MVP to the Philharmonic concert, it’s Carter, and he’s well enough recorded to where one can fully appreciate his functions within the group.

Along with the above centerpieces, there are several shorter but no less intriguing tunes. “I Thought About You” is another tour de force ballad with excellent work from Miles and Coleman. “All Blues” is less reserved than the Kind of Blue version, and “Walkin” swings hard. (At this point, it should just be called “Runnin”.) The uptempo pieces all race at high bpm’s, even the once calm “So What”. Miles plays a terse solo in “Four”, while “Seven Steps to Heaven” ends with a vamp extracted from the tune’s chord changes. “Joshua” is counted off way too fast and Miles badly bungles the theme statements. If “Joshua” reveals Miles’ technical limitations, it also reveals Coleman’s smooth articulations. (The whole show is a great sample of Coleman, who seemingly did no wrong this evening.) Also, it gives the rhythm section the opportunity to cut the tempo and play around with halved time before snapping back into the regular speed.

It’s easy for me to go overboard with praise and forget that there are other landmark jazz performances that predate this one - Evans and Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, to name two - but the Philharmonic show is still a very special program. Every tune the quintet plays is subject to continual restructuring. There are some flaws, mainly in Miles’ wavering chops, but that humanizes the music. So much more to say about this marvelous concert, but let’s move on.

7/14/64: Miles in Tokyo. George Coleman, not quite into new directions, and perhaps not fully valued on his own merits, has departed, with tenor Sam Rivers temporarily in his place. Where Coleman was a more than competent “in” saxophonist, Rivers spends at least as much time playing “out,” much to the excitement of the rhythm section (Tony would use Sam on his Blue Note debut album a few months later) but ultimately to the disapproval of the leader. It’s easy to understand why; the moods that Miles cultivates as primary soloist are often disrupted by Rivers, who can sound relatively carefree and/or destructive in comparison. Not that Rivers can’t swing or follow changes, but his restlessness is at odds with Miles’ considered aesthetic. One example is the ubiquitous “Walkin”. Starting with a martial feel, Tony whips up a storm behind Miles’ solo and in his drum break, then Rivers solos like he’s got a toe jammed into an electrical socket. What was just an energetic piece to begin with is suddenly booted OUT.

It’s interesting to hear the way the rhythm section adjusts from Miles to Rivers. “If I Were a Bell” and “All of You” echo the controlled effervescence of the ‘50s quintet throughout Miles’ solos, then Rivers tears through the seams of the songs. On the other hand, “My Funny Valentine” remains tender all the way through, Miles aching, Rivers musing intimately, and Herbie taking an unaccompanied improvisation. A fast paced “So What” prompts Miles to jab and quip and Rivers to blow with total abandon, leading to what is Hancock’s thorniest solo yet with Miles. Rivers’ presence gives the music an edge, and it definitely gives Herbie and Tony license to move outward at times, yet the contrast twixt trumpet and tenor isn’t so big as to disjoint the concert. Nor does the listener forget who’s still in charge. It’s interesting to guess what the future might have been like had Rivers become a full-time member of the quintet. This is a great souvenir regardless.

9/25/64: Wayne Shorter claims the tenor spot in a concert that was released as Miles in Berlin. Miles had wanted to hire Wayne for quite a while, stopped by the latter’s commitment to the Jazz Messengers. Shorter doesn’t quite ease in to the quintet; some of his phrases sound like he’s testing the waters. Yet he makes it clear that he’s the right man for the future. Rivers may have been more spontaneously exciting, but Shorter is more lyrical and has a larger plot to his solos. Shorter also shares Rivers’ ability to coax many timbres from his horn - to shape a “voice” as it were, and one less acidic than his predecessor’s. His improvisational sense fits perfectly with the interactive style of the group.

The five tunes from Berlin have all appeared in the previous concerts. Once again, the rhythm section supplies many standout moments, both on their own and in dialogue with soloists. Listen closely to the alternate harmonies that Hancock devises in “Autumn Leaves” and the tension under Wayne’s solo, or the flex-relax approach to “Milestones”, where Ron plays the bridge in a slower time feel, dismantling the fast swing for a few bars before it races off again. “So What” becomes a motivic show and tell for everyone, especially Wayne, who toys with one particular phrase for several bars. “Stella By Starlight” (previously unreleased) is gorgeous, from Miles’ understated opening to Wayne’s paced editorial to Herbie’s chord gallery. One can hear from “Stella” alone that this attentive quintet has a bright future.

So goes Disc 7 to finish the collection. The main appeal of the box set is hearing the same material subject to varying treatments. The question “how many times do I need to hear So What or My Funny Valentine?” is answered Hancock, Carter, Williams, Rivers, Shorter, and Davis never giving the same performance twice. The tunes grow from night to night and year to year. As the material develops, so does the personnel, and the box takes us from a transitional period into a new rhythm section and finally a settled quintet.

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