A veteran alto saxophonist looks back 50 years at the revolutionary approach of the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet.
Any argument over who has been the most influential American musician of the last hundred years has to give consideration to Miles Davis. Though Davis was not foundational like Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson or Chuck Berry, his influence is immense because he created at least five different stylistic templates that a wide array of musicians — in jazz but also in rock, hip hop, electronica, and other styles — have spent decades mining for interest and development.
Jim Snidero’s MD66 illustrates this point. Snidero, an accomplished modern alto saxophonist, has pinpointed his fascination not merely with a particular Davis band (the so-called Second Great Quintet) but even with a particular year of that band’s output: 1966. This was the year that Davis and his band (including Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock’s piano, Ron Carter’s bass, and Tony Williams on drums, as well as the leader’s trumpet) recorded Miles Smiles. This band created a new standard for telepathic group communication, demonstrating how an improvising band could shift tempos and harmonic templates on the fly, combining bebop intricacy with big portions of avant grade freedom. The tension and beauty this band generated has been a gold standard for over 50 years.
By coincidence, the complete session tapes for this recording (as well a two subsequent albums by this quintet) were just released by Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 by Columbia/Legacy, giving fans and musicians insight into the thinking and recording process of this groundbreaking outfit. Listening to Davis and his crew work the melodies and look for the right approaches is riveting listening. It becomes clear that the work was truly collective and that there were, from the start, many ways that these classic sides might have turned out.
MD66 is not an album of Davis covers. The only Davis tune is “Blue in Green”, the classic ballad from Kind of Blue, which is not generally associated with the 1966 version of Davis’s group. Rather, Snidero has given his dazzling 2016 quintet a set of originals that pose challenges that the Davis band might have loved to take on. “Purge”, for example, offers a pretzel-like melody made of one phrase that is twisted and altered in small ways across several repetitions, each time played over a similarly repeated/altered bass line and drum groove. Then: whoooosh — the band is off and running, improvising with thrilling freedom. You don’t hear them running over a set of repeated chord changes as much as you sense that they are listening intently to each other, waiting for a signal in the tiniest of musical gestures.
There is also a similarity in the way that many of these compositions have an appealing but abstract quality. For example, “Recursion” twice uses a toggling figure that repeats the same set of intervals in a slow-gallop 6/8 time, and these sections sandwich a bridge section made of two figures that shake and then hold notes in harmony for a while. It is as if Snidero set out to create the jazz equivalent of an clean, abstract painting. The passion is not in the head but rather in the fire of Rudy Royston’s drum accompaniment and, in development, the conversation between Royston and each soloist who arrive to inject heart into the frame. The band swings the triplet time under the alto sax of the leader, but it’s even better pushing up a mellow trumpet solo from Alex Sipiagin.
Not every tune on MD66 drives hard. Snidero has prepared some ballads here that still take advantage of the shifting sands at which his model band excelled. “Free Beauty” has a simple theme built on lush chords, and soon enough the leader is floating over his superb rhythm section, which never locks into playing even time. Andy Laverne is a masterful painter on piano, filling around the improvisation and balancing the slowing contributions of Royston and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. The solos are short, but each one cuts to the quick.
Laverne’s model in the Davis band would be Herbie Hancock, and he has the only original here that isn’t by Snidero, “Un4Scene”. Like so many of Hancock’s tunes, this track has a seductive bass line written for bass and left-hand piano as well as set of harmonies that constantly blossom. It’s a beauty that moves in funky, hip-swaying mid-tempo joy. For me, it’s the highlight of the album.
The cover of “Blue and Green” is played in a new way. After an impressionistic piano into that hints that we will get the etched-on-glass delicacy of the Kind of Blue version, piano, bass and alto introduce the theme over a jaunty four-note bass line that still outlines the song’s mysterious. minor harmonies. Snidero uses some different chords toward the end of the cycle of the melody, however, and the trio continues to develop the song in new directions throughout improvisations by alto and piano. It is refreshing and cliche-free.
Maybe the best quality of MD66 is how utterly it avoids too much overt resemblance to Miles Smiles. That record, made 50 years ago, carries the marks of its creators, and so does Snidero’s wise and beautifully played tribute. It is impossible, of course, for a record played in a style established a half-century before to feel as powerful as a pioneering work. Snidero, after all, learned his Miles-isms at North Texas State, and he is the author of a series of classic instruction books for jazz students.
But it is a mistake to assume that the music on MD66 is somehow mechanical or rote just because time has made this style relatively common. Snidero’s themes hold up over repeated listenings, and the intelligence of the band makes every note original and felt. Those qualities are a testament to the musicians but also to the conception of the Davis Quintet, which relied on the notion that great musicians, given the freedom to truly converse on the bandstand, will always generate light as well as heat.