In January 1965, the Quintet recorded their first studio album and then took most of the rest of the year off as Miles recuperated from hip surgery. The sidemen - Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams - found plenty of work elsewhere and even generated their own, as in Herbie and Wayne’s Blue Note albums of the time. Toward the end of the year, Miles resumed live work, including a stint at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel club for which Columbia had tapes rolling.
I remember buying the single-disc sampler that was issued alongside the box set in 1995 and being less than impressed. Maybe it was the “highlight” nature of the track selection that disoriented the flow, but I said to myself “good thing I didn’t get the whole package.” (We all have our ignorant moments.) A few years later, weighed down by extra cash and in a Miles mood, I popped for the box, and my buddy at the record store reassured me that “it’s worth it for Tony’s ride cymbal alone.” Hyperbole, maybe, but he was right. And there’s so much more, of course.
From December 22 and 23 come seven sets on eight discs. Excerpts from the sets were issued from the 1970s onward (Japan got the largest samples) and three decades after the event, Columbia finally assembled the whole shebang in one fat box. Creative splicing from separate reels fills in the gaps of the incomplete master reels; every note from the two nights is present, and the three-track masters sound clear and balanced, not counting a few moments of barely rougher sound quality. The horn levels vary depending on their proximity to the microphones, while Hancock’s piano is a little distant in the mix. Yet most of the time, we are artificially present in the performance space. On occasion, we can even hear the knucklehead a couple tables over who has things to say.
Apart from the lone contemporary original “Agitation”, the material is a selection of time-tested favorites like “If I Were a Bell”, “Walkin”, “Stella by Starlight”, “All of You”, and so on. Most are duplicated from one night to the next, and a few tunes only get one airing, like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “All Blues”. Each tune is taken to an exploratory limit. Where the Philharmonic concert of 1964 expanded the songs and filled them with subtle interplay, the Plugged Nickel renditions are even more abstracted, especially in the realms of tempo and meter. It’s no big deal for this band to shift from 4 to 3 on a whim, and not only that, they’ll slow down, speed up, or stack two rhythms on top of each other, and the forms are flexible harmonically, too. It’s no shame to hear this group playing standards; their studio albums are full of original improv scenarios, while the Plugged Nickel tapes demonstrate how it applies to popular material.
The rhythm section continues the alchemy it had started in the previous year. They tend to begin each set with a steady groove of some sort and then get more adventurous from there. As mentioned, metric modulation becomes a popular recourse, thanks to the trust between Carter’s bass and Williams’ drums. Where one leads, the other may follow, or find a different path. Hancock does a lot of creative piano comping and also lays out to let the soloist direct harmony as they may. Some of Herbie’s solos are almost stream of consciousness - hear his wanderings on the first set’s “Walkin”. And is that a quote of Herbie Nichols’ “The Gig” at the end of his first “Bell” solo?
Wayne Shorter flourishes above the rhythm section with marvelous tenor work. On a personal note, the Plugged Nickel recordings really helped me appreciate Shorter as a soloist. Before that, I was familiar with all of the quintet’s studio albums, and I recognized Wayne’s compositional brilliance right away, but his solos usually eluded me. By the time I heard the full Plugged Nickel box, I was getting into jazz improv on my own, learning standard tunes and changes, comparing how different players approached “Autumn Leaves” and the like. Hearing Shorter’s treatment of the standards here was mind blowing. Not only does he find new things to say within the forms, he gets his ideas across while engaging the unpredictable accompaniment - no small feat. I still think that several solos here stand among his finest. The Plugged Nickel may have had Miles’ name on the marquee, but the music is dominated by Wayne Shorter.
Tough as it is to choose, here are some highlights:
“I Fall in Love Too Easily” (Disc 1): Of the four versions in the box, the first one has the most emotionally compelling statements from Miles and his solo forms an arc within the larger tune. Wayne’s entry is jeopardized by Tony playing in three against the slower four, although the rhythms smooth out (and speed up) as the tenor solo unwinds. Herbie takes a classy solo.
“The Theme” (Disc 1): Each set ends with the familiar signoff theme that usually develops into loose jams of various lengths. In its first appearance, “The Theme” runs over ten minutes and Wayne blows off a lot of steam.
“My Funny Valentine” (Disc 2a): This contains one of Miles’ better solos from the first two sets and also a fantastic tenor narrative from Wayne that ends with a couple of luscious phrases. Sophisticated romance all the way through. The version on Disc 5 isn’t shabby either.
“Four” (Disc 2a): Wayne’s solo follows its own harmonic logic and stampedes across the brisk swing. He closes by returning to the tune’s basic chord cadence, and the final notes are emphatic enough to raise the crowd in ovation. It’s hard not to cheer at home, too.
“Agitation” (Disc 2b): The two live renditions in this collection blow away the studio version from January. This first reading suffers from a poor Miles solo, but Wayne and Herbie more than make up for it. Wayne quotes the theme of his own “Chaos” as he finishes.
“Milestones” (Disc 2b): No Miles solo, but Shorter and Hancock are full of energetic invention. Only Miles’ absence keeps it from being a definitive live version. The five-cylinder version on Disc 6 might fill that bill, though.
“All of You” (Disc 3): Rides a very nice Carter groove. Herbie milks the extended tag with a long parade of ideas.
“No Blues” aka “Pfrancing” (Disc 3): The first great Miles solo of the set borrows the rhythmic yin-yang of the studio track “Eighty One”. Miles and Herbie have an exchange that recalls the happy sound of the ‘50s quintet.
“If I Were a Bell” (Disc 4): This infectious swinger begins the first set of the second night. Miles plays a coy muted solo, and Wayne erupts into overblown shards.
“Stella by Starlight” (Disc 4): Of the three Stellas in the box, this version is the most effective. Lots of tension from Ron and Tony.
“Walkin” (Disc 4): Forceful soloing from the leader, even allowing for the fact that most of his Walkin’ solos share the same ideas, just in different permutations.
“So What” (Disc 5): Maybe a little too loose, but exciting nonetheless, and Tony gets a drum solo in the middle.
“When I Fall in Love” (Disc 6): Davis’ slant on this wonderful tune is that falling in love might not be the best idea. The mysterioso opening gives way to a series of different rhythms - waltz, burning swing, midtempo walking. Herbie brings the performance full circle.
“No Blues” (Disc 6): Another toe-tapping blues that runs over twenty minutes. The tempo adjustments are very exaggerated - bass and drums speed up behind Shorter, then slow down comically behind Herbie. Consistent tempo is a cardinal rule in jazz, yet the quintet breaks the law with purpose.
“Yesterdays” (Disc 7): Bob Blumenthal emphasizes in the liner essay that Miles had never recorded this Kern song as a leader before; guess he hadn’t heard all of Miles’ old Blue Note records. Miles is craggy in spots but soldiers on over keen rhythm support. The first part of Wayne’s solo features a lot of Rollins-like trilling phrases, while the second half is more declarative. Herbie’s solo takes an impressionist detour. The rhythm section cruises like a Cadillac on a Sunday drive.
These are just a few of many outstanding moments within. Somebody else’s list might feature ten different tracks. The only dud I can find is “Oleo”, which begins in a sloppy manner and doesn’t recover. Miles knows that cutting it off, however awkwardly, is the merciful thing to do.
Another down note is that Miles’ playing through the first couple of sets is very inconsistent. The only explanation I can think of is that he didn’t practice much during his several months of convalescence; it’s either that or a temporary outbreak of not giving a damn. His ideas far exceed his chops, and sometimes even the ideas are weak. Crackling trumpet tone, wild pitch, and loose time hound solos that sound noncommittal, deconstructive (“Agitation”, first night, devolving into bratty nonsense), or bored beyond caring (“Round About Midnight”). He gives “Four” little more than syncopated toots and can’t even bother getting the theme right. After Shorter’s solo in the first “Agitation”, a patron observes that he “blew Miles off the stand.” So true. Miles’ sadder moments on the first couple of discs make Don Cherry sound like Clifford Brown.
After the early technical negligence, Miles improves. He perks up in Disc 3’s “No Blues”, and on all of Disc 4 (the first set of the following night), his ideas and chops are in good order. Nevertheless, proficiency isn’t the issue with this group, not that that’s any excuse for shitty playing. Miles well knows that his sidemen can run rings around him, and he uses that to offset his more suggestive style. His playing sets the mood for the acrobatic improvisations of his bandmates. Miles also controls the performances through subtle sound signals that indicate what sort of support he wants behind him - double-time, halved time, a new meter, etc. Tony is usually the first to pick up on Miles’ trumpet hints, and the message then spreads throughout the group like an instantaneous game of telephone.
Engagement collections like the Plugged Nickel box are great ways to get to know a group and hear how they function from one set or night to the next. (Unless you were there in person.) Inspiration ebbs and flows throughout this box just as one would expect. There are glimmers, warts, lightning bolts, brownouts, and moments of pure wonder. And since it was recorded fairly early in the quintet’s life, it’d be nice to have a similar document from a couple of years later.