Miles to Go

The stage is vast, operatic and nearly bare. It is excessively well-lit, almost glaring. The instruments–piano, bass, and small drum kit–look dwarfed, miniaturized in the harsh light.

A thickly accented and disembodied voice announces the players: Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, who stride across the stage and take their places to polite, but restrained applause. A large theater curtain parts on stage left and a young Wayne Shorter walks out, carrying his tenor sax. The musicians are dressed in black suits and ties, as if attending a funeral.

The jazz world is still in mourning. John Coltrane is dead. His mentor Miles Davis is about to take the stage.

“The Miles Davis Quintet,” the voice intones.

The year is 1967. The scene is Karlsruhe in western Germany. The group, perhaps the greatest quintet in the history of American music, is at the height of its creative power. On this night they are nearing the end of a five city tour of Europe promoted by George Wein of the Newport Jazz Festival. The concerts were recorded and broadcast throughout Europe. The Karlsruhe performance was filmed by German television. After the gigs, the recorded music remained locked in European vaults, acquiring a mythic reputation as lost classics. But now five of those performances have been released in a glorious new three CD box set titled Live in Europe 1967. Also included is a DVD containing the remarkable footage of the Karlsruhe concert, capturing one of the last performances of this seminal band.

Miles strolls out last, trumpet in hand. He is wearing a tailored suit, a sharp-looking Italian cut. The film is grainy black-and-white so it’s hard to detect the color. It’s not black, deep blue perhaps.  He sets up between Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, nods to Tony Williams, puts the trumpet to his lips, pauses, unscrews the Harmon mute from his horn and sets it on the Bechstein grand. Then he launches into the blistering opening theme from “Agitation.” Message: there will be nothing muted about this performance.

The audience seems jolted, thrown back in their seats. This is not the lyrical modes of Kind of Blue, but a new kind of jazz: powerful, harmonic, loud. There’s structure here, but it’s in a furious kind of flux, propelled by the fierce drumming of Williams. Miles’ intro, and he hasn’t blown this hot since his days with Charlie Parker, lays down the sharply accented perimeters of the tune with a piston-like precision, before giving way to Wayne Shorter, who shatters the song open with a screaming solo of spiraling urgency.

As the band winds down “Agitation,” Hancock shifts through a series of economical chord changes before the group charges headlong into the wild turbulence of Shorter’s “Footprints.” The song is a masterpiece of creative dissonance, a sprawling epic of colliding horns, speed changes and chromatic distortions. Again the rhythm section sets the brutal pace. The tense interaction between Carter and Williams is mesmerizing to watch, while Hancock’s assured touch on the keys keeps the fiery performance rooted in a loose kind of groove.  If there was ever any doubt, the conservatory-trained Hancock, still just a pup in 1967, proves here that he is a master of adaptability.

There are no breaks between songs in this set. Each tune flows smoothly and cogently into the next, as one swirling river of sound. This is group improvisation at its most existential. Night after night on this European tour the Quintet played the same slate of songs, with only a few substitutions (Monk’s “Round Midnight” instead of Percy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” Miles’s “No Blues” for Hancock’s “Riot”). Each night the songs were played differently, featuring stunning changes in melodic lines, rhythmic flourishes and harmonic accents.  For this group, the song never remains the same. That’s the point, or one of them.

This is jazz played as a kind of perilous high-wire act by a group of musicians who seem to be able to anticipate each other’s moves, respond to them and immediately up the ante.  The music is deep, fluid and, at times, highly experimental. But it’s never abstract or solipsistic and it always burns with an emotional dynamism.  There’s a reason Miles titled one of the Quintet’s best albums “ESP.”

When “Footsteps” fades down to a low simmer, Miles blows the smoky opening phrases of Sammy Cohn’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” And there’s those signature spaces between the notes, pauses that seem freighted with a sorrowful longing.  The melody line is haunting and seductive.  Then the band intrudes and the tempo accelerates abruptly. The song begins to jump with aggression, transformed from a melancholic ballad into a frothing cascade of chords, with Shorter and Hancock trading scintillating runs, before Miles returns to guide them back down to earth. And this is the moment you realize that this is a real band, where each member is on equal footing, capable of changing the pace and tenor of the song. The young radicals, led by Williams and Shorter, are actually pushing the master into uncharted musical territory and he follows gamely in pursuit.

Isolated on that huge stage, the band huddles together as they play. No one prances around like some prissy rock star. There’s no posturing. No narcissistic soloing. The playing is tightly focused and purposeful. The musicians look, in fact, as if they are playing principally for each other, which is perhaps the way it should be. Anyway, it worked miraculously for them on this December night, before a subdued and chill crowd of German esthetes.

This is not spiritual music in the manner of the later Coltrane. Miles and crew aren’t aiming to uplift, inspire or enlighten. It’s physical jazz, visceral music that grinds and twists and pummels with a sound that infiltrates the senses and seduces you with its immediacy–which certainly isn’t to say that it’s not constructed and executed at a supreme aesthetic level. Technically, there’s more going on in the dense harmonies of the set’s enigmatic closer “The Theme” than you’ll ever find in the cerebral extrapolations of Cecil Taylor, but the Quintet’s music swings in a way that Taylor’s note-clotted obscurities never do and that makes all the difference in the world.

The set ends in mid-chord, seeming to take even Ron Carter by surprise. The tall bassist stands alone, plucking one last deeply resonant note, as the other members of the group amble behind Williams’ drum kit and off stage. They don’t acknowledge the audience. There will be no encore. This is it. Take it or leave it.

The European tour ended a few days later in Spain with accusations that Wein had shortchanged the musicians. “George and I got into this bad argument over money,” Davis wrote in his Autobiography. “I like George, and have known him a long time, but we’ve had our share of arguments over the years because I don’t like some of the bullshit he does and I tell him.” Same old story, even when you’re the world’s most acclaimed black musician.

The players returned to the States disgruntled, each expressing a desire to launch off in new directions. Tony Williams, arguably the most talented musician of his generation, soon hooked up with English guitarist John McLaughlin to form the hard-charging electric band Lifetime, inaugurating the fusion movement. Hancock got an electric keyboard and started playing spaced-out funk. Ever restless, Miles expressed a need to dig back into the source, looking for that Muddy Waters sound, “the sound of $1.50 drums and the harmonicas and the two-chord blues.” The result of that exploration of the Chicago Blues would be nothing less than In a Silent Way.

Despite the fact that the second Miles Davis Quintet played together for nearly five years (four years longer than the celebrated first quintet with Coltrane), issuing one ambitious and immaculate recording after another, critics never coined a name for their style of playing. The best jazz writers could come up with was “post-bop,” a hollow description. (Any writer who deploys the word “post” suffers from an exhausted imagination.) For me, their music is as close as American art came to an indigenous form of expressionism.

As challenging as these sets can be, with their swirling polytonalities and dizzying shifts in speed and rhythm, the playing never sounds avant-garde, never sounds new merely for the sake of being new, as did so much now forgotten free jazz of the same era. Instead, the Quintet plunges eagerly toward where the music takes them at that moment, with each musician subtly altering the contour and mood of the tunes, the sonic flow deepening with each new layer, but somehow, in the end, resolving into a coherent and holistic musical statement. The miracle is that forty years later these performances still sound fresh, vulnerable and intimate. Do you want more from your music?

This week’s playlist

Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe ’67 (Columbia)

Merle Haggard, Working in Tennessee (Vanguard)

The Chantels, Best of the Chantels (Rhino)

Billie Holiday, Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959 (ESP)

Drive-By Truckers, Go Go Boots (ATO)

Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.


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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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