Sunday, August 22, 2010

Re-connecting with Miles Davis

Trumpeter Miles Davis was the first jazz musician that I became interested in, making the leap from jam-band rock 'n' roll to electric masterpieces like Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson. Along the way to becoming a fully fledged jazz fan, I worked my way backwards, listening to the whole Davis canon and was fascinated and enraptured throughout. Eventually I amassed almost all of his albums on vinyl or compact disc, but like a lot of other famous musicians I had grown up listening to, I began to re-visit their music less and less as I focused on new music from living musicians. This is not a bad thing, the musicians who are creating in the moment need our ears and our attention, not to mention our money as well. After I sold my vinyl I picked up a used copy of the Miles Davis compact disc boxed set The Complete Columbia Studio Sessions 1965-68, that covers the era of the so-called second great quintet: Davis along with a core group consisting of Wayne Shorter on tenor and soprano saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. This group would come to be recognized as one of the most influential in jazz history, providing the template for the hard-bop resurgence of the 1980's and 90's. Listening to these discs and experiencing how the music and musicians evolved over the short period of time is extraordinary. I used to have all of these albums as vinyl records, and listened to them as discrete units of music. Listening to the music in the boxed set format takes away those units and places the music in a strict chronological order. This was a little unusual for me at first, because it broke up the way the music was originally presented, but the chronological format allows listeners to follow the bands progress. The first couple of discs cover the E.S.P. and Miles Smiles albums, starting with beautifully played though conventional hard bop. As the music evolves, and the musicians start to expand their frame of reference, the music becomes progressively more open and exciting. Discs three and four take the quintet to the peak of their acoustic performances covering the albums Nefertiti and Sorcerer. Davis took advantage of all of the raw materials he had, including the compositional prowess of his band mates (particularly Wayne Shorter) and he had the wisdom to allow these musicians the freedom to push the boundaries of jazz. Ron Carter is the rock around which the music evolves, acting as an anchor and ballast for the group, while Hancock paints musical colors that are especially vivid at the edges of the music, a few notes here and there that make all of the difference. Shorter is deep and enigmatic, never playing what you would expect, but continually probing and speculating that the nature of music and improvisation. But the most extraordinary connection comes between Davis and Tony Williams. Williams was barely twenty years old at the beginning of this collection, but his concept of rhythm is so unique and fresh that he dominates the music by pushing and pulling it, tugging one way and then working against it. He's playing very complex music, but it sounds so natural, like water flowing and cutting a channel through the bedrock of music. Like water through rock and stone, he was changing the landscape of music for generations to come. The final two discs of the collection show Davis, the relentless explorer, adding musicians and instruments to the core quintet to change and evolve the music toward the beginning of fusion. But evolution is the key, the group's first steps in this direction were tentative, adding George Benson or Joe Beck for some subtle guitar interplay, or placing Hancock on electric piano for subtle shadings of keyboards. Listening to these halting steps in this direction is like sitting in on the genesis of an idea that would eventually become revolutionary. The music on this part of the collection was originally scattered through albums like Directions, Circle in the Round and Filles de Kilimanjaro, and to hear it chronologically is a revelation. The evolutionary process is fascinating, and it seems quite logical considering the vast changes in the contemporary music scene of that time. It doesn't always work, and that is part of what makes it so interesting: the trying and then accepting or discarding of ideas and notions, that allow the music to move forward. It was a wonderful experience to return to this music that I had not listened to in quite a while and hear it again with fresh ears. It also helped to put into context that way that modern jazz has developed in the forty plus year since this music was recorded. I think that as listeners we need to strike a balance between the music of the past and the music of the present, because both are extraordinary rich and rewarding and both have much to teach us about the other. The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings 1965-1968

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