The ‘60s Quintet represents the musical pinnacle of Davis’ career. His slightly younger sidemen were involved with all kinds of progressive jazz of the time, and they found under Miles’ roof a unique home. Miles had no use for free avant-garde, but the modern post-bop modal music was something that he had helped spawn, and with his new quintet, he was able to put himself back at the forefront of jazz. Miles sounds challenged by this quintet, probably more challenged than he had been since playing with Bird. I must disclose to the reader that this legendary group is my own favorite jazz lineup. Their resources and interplay simply amazes.
First, there is Miles on trumpet. The new music pushes him to the edge of his chops, yet the fragile sound and somewhat hazardous phrasing makes his playing stand out. He doesn’t just bring a horn and leadership to the group; he lends it all a character, or presence, that affects how his bandmates play.
Tenor saxman Wayne Shorter is a major acquisition for his wide-ranging playing style and compositional brilliance. Many of the quintet’s best tunes come from Shorter’s pen. A strong creative force.
Herbie Hancock does some of his finest piano work with the quintet. His ambiguous chord voicings create a lot of atmosphere.
Ron Carter, the mobile anchor on bass and relatively unsung hero, supports everyone well and makes playing alongside Tony Williams sound easier than it probably was.
Drummer Tony Williams always pushes forward, always plays something new. His enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him as he explodes into fills, or swings recklessly, but that’s part and parcel of him taking jazz drumming to another level. He brings excitement and unpredictability, yet he can also be a very sensitive player, aware of silence and subtlety.
This group is all about interplay. In balancing form and freedom, they take mid-60s liberties to new heights, not fully free of structure but always bouncing around within it. The interaction starts from the ground up: Tony Williams goes far beyond a straight ting-a-ling beat; Ron Carter can hold a steady walk but also breaks the bass lines into interesting patterns that sometimes “start over” in the middle of a bar; and Herbie Hancock, even when following written chord changes, always seems to enrich them in one way or another. They create a most flexible platform for Miles and Wayne Shorter, who follow the rhythm section’s lead as much as their own muse. You can find other jazz of the time that is equally interactive, yet Miles somehow elevates the quintet’s work into something different, and even when the sidemen played together elsewhere, they never quite sounded like they do under his leadership. Despite the great material and the fact that this is MILES (light up the marquee), the focus is on the whole group operating together. (For that reason, it’s often bad background music. If any Miles group ever required active listening, this is it.) They don’t sound like they’re breaking the rules as much as making up their own for every tune.
The six discs of the boxset cover the group’s five original LPs along with half of Filles de Kilimanjaro and material that went into grab-bag albums like Water Babies, Directions and Circle in the Round. There are also several alternates and a few previously unreleased tracks. Some people carp about the chronological strictness of the box ruining the experience of the individual albums. Well, the single CD titles are remastered too, and I own both. Since the majority of the music is all of a piece, and some of the album sessions run together, I ultimately prefer thinking of the group from a lifetime perspective, rather than just saying these guys made some records and that was that. The quintet’s scope goes far beyond 40-minute chunks.
That being said, the first two albums do stand apart somewhat. ESP, recorded in January of 1965, is the first official studio meeting. Not quite as daring as later works, the album’s main focus is on new material, and it’s the first Miles record since Kind of Blue of all original pieces. Wayne contributes the thoughtful “Iris” and the post-bop title track; Herbie offers the lovely “Little One”; and Ron Carter is responsible for “R.J”, the desolate waltz “Mood”, and “Eighty One”. Miles took co-composer credit on the last one for editing Ron’s melody into a smoother line, and the track is most notable for switching between a swing feel and a straight-8 backbeat. It gets its open harmonic sound from holding the fourth in a blues chord structure. Miles’ own “Agitation” continues down the modal path he had been on since “Milestones” and Kind of Blue, although it’s a more abstract performance (check out Ron’s bass parts) than either of those.
ESP is a colorful collection, and though the playing is slightly restrained, it’s a step onward from where Miles had been with previous bands. It establishes a firm five-way balance, and Miles even lets Wayne handle some of the theme statements (“R.J.”, “Iris”) on his own. It’s as if Miles is as interested in hearing his team play as is the listener at home. The only thing to tie the music to Miles’ past are the ballads, like “Little One”, where Miles traces delicate lines just as he did with the stellas and valentines. On “ESP”, he joins Wayne in a modern, chromatic, “in and out” soloing style that will continue through the period.
Some 21 months later, the band returned to the studio to make Miles Smiles, a bold, exploratory album of first takes. It has a fresher feel than ESP and the tunes are much sparser (some are just repeated phrases, like Shorter’s Ornette-ish “Dolores”). Hancock drastically cuts back on his accompaniment and often reduces his solos to monophonic right hand lines only. The horns and piano wind like ever-twisting strands, spurred by the linear energy of Carter and Williams. From the bop streams of “Gingerbread Boy” to the subverted soul jazz of “Freedom Jazz Dance”, Miles and Wayne indulge their postbop vocabularies, and Miles takes his time with Wayne’s classic “Footprints” blues. Shorter’s oblong “Orbits” breaks from traditional tune expectations, while Miles’ “Circle” is a muted ballad with no cliched emotional tone. There’s a beautiful chord change somewhere in the middle that Herbie makes much use of in his standout solo. (Of all the memorable solos Herbie played in the 1960s, “Circle” ranks somewhere near the top.)
In May of 1967, the quintet returned to the studio and would revisit it regularly through the summer of 1968. In this stretch of time, the floodgates open wide, and the music takes on an overall arc that transcends album divisions as above. The interaction is at a high level, and even in the hard-swinging tunes (“Hand Jive”, “Teo’s Bag”, “Prince of Darkness”), the rhythm team keeps its options open, sometimes stacking up convoluted chords and accents, sometimes dropping down to near silence. They’re even more adventurous in the open pieces, such as Wayne’s two-mode “Masqualero”. Abstract rhythms underpin the likes of “Limbo” (which follows its title by seeming to stay in one place instead of moving forward, despite Tony’s aggressive drumming on the master take), “Vonetta” (a soft tune with suspenseful snare waves), and the lightly stepping “Water Babies”. Herbie’s “Riot” provides one of many examples of the Carter-Williams prowess as they play an advanced Latin beat. Formal chances are taken in “Nefertiti” and the alternate of “Pinocchio”, neither of which have any solos but instead let the rhythm section create all the variations as the horns repeat the main themes. The sped-up master take of “Pinocchio” does have solos, but notice that the theme is played four times in a row before they begin.
I’m almost at a loss of how to discuss the music, because there are different ways of hearing it. You can focus on the compositions, and in that department, Wayne Shorter dominates. Herbie gets off some good ones as well, and so does Tony, like the soft “Pee Wee”. You can focus on the solos, such as Wayne’s awesome “Capricorn” statement, or Herbie’s ventures, or Miles as he fine-tunes some of the most challenging improv scenarios he had ever come across. (With older groups, Miles often distilled his solos into a short length of time; with this group, his solos are longer and sound like they are working at something.) Or you can just listen to the rhythm trio. Hear Williams driving the mixed meters in “Black Comedy”. Hear Carter keeping “Masqualero” grounded and loose at the same time. Hear Hancock joining the rhythms with tasty chord webs. Hear them respond to each other instantly. These players take so many chances that it’s mind boggling.
Eventually, the group’s sound expands with Herbie turning to electric keyboards and three guitarists appearing in different sessions. The largest experiment in this regard is the half-hour “Circle in the Round”, in which an exotic melody is repeated ad infinitum over a droning backdrop. “Water on the Pond” is a unique, grooving moodscape with nice guitar/bass lines and Miles musing on muted trumpet. George Benson sits in on “Paraphernalia”, more for vamp reinforcement than soloing power. The lengthy “Stuff” hints at R&B jazz, though neither Tony nor Ron (on electric bass) stick with the backbeat vamp for long, and the harmonies are rather weird. Some suspect, and I agree, that Gil Evans had something to do with that. The threefold structure of “Country Son” looks partly toward rock, and it swings like mad as well.
Speaking of Gil Evans, it seems that he was heavily involved with the music that emerged in the final session of June 1968, and yet he remained uncredited, surprise surprise. We know that “Petits Machins” is built on a Gil tune called “Eleven”, to which Miles added a top phrase. And it’s hard not to hear Evans’ harmonic sensibilities in the tart charts of “Filles de Kilimanjaro” and the masterful “Tout de Suite”. I can’t think of a better swan song for the quintet than to have them meet the arranger who made such special music with Miles a decade or so before. A whole album of Gil Meets the Quintet would have been marvelous. The three aforementioned tracks appeared on Filles de Kilimanjaro with two later tracks by a slightly different lineup. That hybrid album is one of Miles’ most important in some ways, because it reconnects with Gil and closes the book on the quintet, while the later music looks toward new fusion pastures. But without wanting to get ahead of myself, these three tracks (“Machins”, “Kilimanjaro”, and “Tout de Suite”) are all masterpieces and finish the boxset most magnificently. “Petits Machins” in particular is one of the group’s best performances, from Miles’ excellent solo to Tony’s drum work.
Since I hold this collection in such high esteem (it’s one of the first things I’d grab if heading to the desert island), I can’t resist listing my top 10 favorites in the order of their appearance:
Little One: Not all of Hancock’s lush harmonic compositions were accepted into the book (the boxset includes rehearsal takes of a couple of Herbie tunes that didn’t make the cut), but thank goodness Miles approved of “Little One”, because it’s a highlight of ESP. Miles and Wayne trade the melody phrases, and there are good dynamics in the solo segments.
Circle: It starts out as a private, muted Davis rumination, and as the harmony develops (especially that suspended chord change), it goes beyond just being a standard ballad. The opening line of Wayne’s solo is a delight, and Herbie’s solo is exceptionally refined. The classical flourish at the climax is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.
Masqualero: Shorter’s concentrated melody moves through modal changes over a suspended rhythm. Davis gets to play with his Spanish tinge, and the rhythm trio gets wrapped up in various meters, sometimes stacking one on top of another. What details, what mood. The alternate take is good as well, especially the piano solo.
Water Babies: It might be the clever arrangement that attracts me the most. The lighthearted melody dances along while Hancock accents the chords on offbeats, and the tune seems to move on two different conveyor belts.
Nefertiti: The brilliantly contoured melody, inquisitive and reassuring, is in my view the best thing Wayne Shorter ever wrote. We get to know the tune very well because Davis and Shorter play it over and over at a medium tempo without solos, and the rhythm section (especially Tony) provides the variations.
Fall: A Shorter composition with an exquisite arrangement that maintains a light sway, like a feather in the air. The main theme is repeated regularly by trumpet and tenor and the solos appear within its spaces. Ron and Tony add lots of subtle touches. Masterful sensitivity from all.
Fun: The melody comes and goes very quickly, taking Miles with it; the remainder of the track leaves Wayne Shorter soloing over an intriguing major-minor progression from Herbie on electric harpsichord. Running underneath is a cyclic counterpoint line doubled by bass and guitar. Wayne discovers the germ of a transitional idea in his solo at 1:57 and then brings it to perfection at 2:19 - chills every time I hear it. “Fun” stumbles to a close like the side item it is, but I love the mood during the solo.
Paraphernalia: Yet another Shorter composition. The melody spreads out over a hustling vamp augemented by guitar. There’s a nice recurring part where ascending chords and drums rolls propel the soloist forward. Williams is all over this track. In the beginning, he keeps the hi-hat swishing and then switches immediately to ride cymbal whenever the horns state the melody phrases. His snare hits behind the soloists sound like gunshots. Miles stretches out on chord/mode changes that are right up his alley. Hancock’s solo breaks down into a scary clock tick (at 9:58) and then rebuilds into the final ensemble theme.
Country Son: A bit wild. There’s no real theme to speak of; instead, the soloists traverse the distinct backdrops of a light rubato, a boogie groove, and full-on swing. It’s as if the group goes on a field trip and everyone comes back with a souvenir or a new story to tell. Tony largely controls the dynamics and his energy leads to some rough edges. Herbie’s solo is great. The alternate is even wilder in some ways.
Tout de Suite: Sounds like a full Miles-Gil collaboration to me - the main phrases are Davis, the harmonies and certain transition points are Evans. The slow, bittersweet exposition lasts two and a half minutes, almost like a concerto setup, and then the solos come in over an electric piano vamp and a clamped hi-hat pulse. The alternate take doesn’t go into the electric vamp section but instead repeats the opening section beneath solos, which makes it sound like a rehearsal compared to the master.
There’s so much more to discuss, like “Prince of Darkness”, or “Madness”, or the wonderful Wayne ballads like “Sweet Pea” and “Sanctuary”. The only thing I’ve never really grasped is “Side Car”, a Miles tune heard in two versions that don’t really go anywhere. Anyway, the majority of this music is something to swim in for a lifetime.
The quintet’s influence (or should I say inspiration) took a while to hit future players, yet in some sense, it’s impossible to follow this group anyway. Everything they played was player specific, not to mention cooked up on the fly. A drummer can cop some of Tony’s licks, for example, but how does one borrow the spirit in which they were originally played? You can’t. I hear certain drummers who say they were influenced by Williams, and they sound so safe in comparison. Tony was not a safe drummer, and not all of his licks were perfect (because they weren’t licks!), so if you just cherry pick the good parts as a player, you’re not really getting the point. Same goes for Wayne Shorter or whomever. I don’t mean to say people shouldn’t study this band and try to learn from it, but I’m trying to emphasize the spontaneous nature of music. The quintet was too alive, too immediate to fit any classification. The who, what, how, and why were all answered by the people involved. Theirs is the lasting word.