[22 September 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
1967 was a strange time for jazz music. John Coltrane died in July, leaving his followers in free-jazz floundering for a direction. Coltrane had, in a lot of ways, taken some of the jazz spotlight from Miles Davis sometime in the mid-60’s. His work the last few years of his life was strange and exciting, explosive and volatile, huge in its fury, in a time where life itself was volatile, unpredictable, subject to its own unpredictable ferocity. For that reason, his sound—difficult and towering as it was—resonated, and Miles Davis took a backseat for a while.
He got it back, though, with his second great quintet (Coltrane was, of course, part of the first great quintet in the ‘50s). The music he made with Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter between 1964 and 1968 represents a strange and exciting moment in jazz, where the tight, propulsive more traditional structures met with the experimental out-there nature of free-jazz. It’s instructive to know that Davis himself wasn’t all that into the “free thing”—as he calls it in his excellent Miles: The Autobiography—nor was he into some of Coltrane’s late work. He felt Coltrane and other free-jazz musicians were playing too much for themselves and not for the group. “I’ve always felt,” he says at one point in Miles, “that what the group does together is what makes music happen.”
This quintet was a group through and through, a unified unit that took the “free” experimentalism and tightened it up in twisting structures. Miles Davis, always the innovator, would stretch sound further with later groups, later sounds. But this, the second quintet, might be the last purely jazz sound we get from Miles, his final statement on the jazz music he’d grown up in and would soon outgrow. The use of electric elements and Teo Macero’s innovative editing on 1969’s In a Silent Way made it divisive, both a brilliant departure and a stepping stone to more far-out sounds. Bitches Brew would follow, and it is a fascinating, wonderful record, but it’s more about stretching those electric sounds, and its patchwork production, than about the purity of the jazz group. The stuff that followed that saw Davis divisively (perhaps greedily) but still excitingly making other genres—particularly funk and rock and roll—his own.
So the second great quintet marks a key moment in Miles Davis’s ever-evolving sound and as a result in jazz itself. Miles Davis Quintet: LIVE in Europe 1967 is a seminal document, a key artifact from a band that grew stronger the more they played together and here—three years into their existence, a lifetime for a Davis-led band—they are at the height of their exceptional powers. Keep in mind that, between 1965 and 1968, these guys gave us a run of stellar records in E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertit, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. Oh, and these sessions also produced a ton of material for the surprisingly consistent Directions and Circle in the Round compilations.
Outside of the studio though, they spent their first few years playing a lot of old material They took old bop favorites like “‘Round Midnight” and “On Green Dolphin Street” and reinvented them into expansive events of sound. These 1967 sets, though, mesh the old and the new. By now, they had incorporated the songs from their recent albums into sets, and you can hear their full power come to fruition. That strength is achieved through a perfect meshing of skills. Wayne Shorter had honed his talent as a musical director in Art Blakey’s band, and now with Davis he could stretch out and expand within his vast knowledge of structures. Herbie Hancock carried the swinging melody behind Shorter and Davis’s vamps. Tony Williams, with his chaotic, off-beat playing, could cover any and all ground, bursting holes into these songs as much as he righted the ship and drove it forward. Ron Carter was the connective tissue, his thick bass lines linked Hancock’s high notes to Williams percussion, tied the horns down to the beat even as he gave them a long leash to pull on.
Having honed their connection to a sort of musical telekinesis—their first album was E.S.P.—where they seemed to anticipate each other’s moves, these performances pop with energy and surprise. These performances—all from fall 1967, one each from Antwerp, Copenhagen, and Paris—actually have nearly identical sets. All five songs played in Copenhagen appear as part of both the Antwerp and the Paris set. The longer Antwerp and Paris sets both also include “Riot” and “On Green Dolphin Street”. Despite the uniformity of the sets, though, the performances couldn’t be more different. Each has its own vibe, its own groove to follow, and you can feel how these guys filled up each new room with a different sound. Even if the parts never changed, the shape they took in performance was always changing, always fluid.
The set from Antwerp, recorded on 28 October of 1967, is the most immediately explosive of the bunch. Like the other two sets, it opens with “Agitation”, the perfect representation of the band’s shape-shifting approach. They hit with a quick rundown melody, Davis leading them into the set, before Davis unleashes hell on a solo that seems to follow the chaotic sprint of Williams’s drumming. Out of nowhere, seemingly, the song straightens out into a swinging number—something close to sounds Davis was creating a decade before, with his other quintet—before it bottoms out again in Hancock’s dissonant chord phrasings and Shorter’s towering solo. “Footprints” has less edge to its shuffling groove, but the parts are still shocking in how they mesh. How Hancock’s unpredictable piano vamp fits with the rise and fall of Williams, or Carter’s rock-steady groove, makes no sense, but you can feel it working. The whole set is electrifying, from the crashing power of “Masqualero” to the wide-open groove of “No Blues”.
The same songs take on a whole new feel just one week later, on 2 November, in Copenhagen. This is a much moodier set, the space between the instruments a more integral part of the performance. “No Blues” runs for nearly 15 minutes here, with the interplay between Hancock and Williams stretching it’s end out in a complex, shadowy back and forth. When they clear out for Carter to take a solo turn, you can feel the size of the room around him. The spin and fall of his notes, with no amplifier, is distant but utterly arresting. That silence around him, the attention they’ve earned from the crowd, is palpable.
The Paris set, from 6 November, is the most out there and expansive—so big it’s split over two discs. Songs like “Footprints” barely resemble the version from Antwerp. You can notice the same parts, but the note clusters that fill them have turned into something utterly alien. It’s a powerful thing to hear, a group of brilliant musicians doing two things at once: melding into a cohesive sound, and challenging each other to whip that sound up, to speed it up in places, to murk it up and complicate it in others. By the time we get to the 8-minute “The Theme”—a track which usually ran a minute or so to close sets—it’s clear that LIVE in Europe 1967 seeks to show a progression, the abridged telling of the story of how the band’s sound grew into some synthesis of the old standards and the new guard, the birth of the cool and the “free thing”. Somewhere in between tradition and invention, Davis’s second quintet made their own space, equally lyrical and exploratory, and the results are some of the finest jazz music ever played.
The DVD included here, containing footage from performances in Germany and Sweden on the same tour, is just as chilling to hear and watch. To see an audience is actually a little surprising since the music on the discs is so clear and crisp you almost forget these are live performances. But these filmed performances remind us how damn physical this music is. You see the still tension of Davis knocking out solos with an almost militant stillness, as if it’s just him and the horn. Shorter tries the same stillness, but all the chaos and emotion behind his playing spills out of him. He stands with his eyes closed, but his neck will jerk with one note, his face will pinch with pain or elation at another. He pushed forward, the inertia of his playing pulling him towards the mic, towards the audience, nearly off his feet. Behind him Williams’s limbs are a blur of activity, but his face is all concentration, biting his bottom lip, occasionally flicking his tongue at his top one, all the volatility of his playing hidden in that one tell on an otherwise clear face. Hancock keeps his head down, communicating somehow with his piano, almost as if he doesn’t know the others are there, while the tall Carter displays a similarly conspiratorial hunch over his instrument, conjuring each fascinating run of notes like a secret passed on.
The stages are bare, just the players and their instruments, and in the end that’s all you need. This is just about the music, created from somewhere deep in the bodies of these legendary players. In America, tension was everywhere, violence and rebellion spreading, but under that jazz had lost its cultural hold to rock and roll. Jazz clubs were closing and records weren’t selling as well. But in Europe jazz still thrived, so perhaps it’s fitting that our first taste of this new live series—that Volume 1 certainly implies we’re in for more—comes to American audiences from across the pond. It represents well this time in jazz history, and in the extensive musical history of Miles Davis. But no matter how many releases we get from the Davis archives, no matter how familiar you are with his mid-‘60s work, LIVE in Europe 1967 will surprise you and remind you that, even in lean times, even when the trends of the genre he championed were moving away from him, even when his country stopped caring, Miles Davis found a way to press forward, to reinvent, and to give us yet another classic sound, and perhaps the final thrilling word on Jazz as he knew it.