If you want to find out how little you know about jazz, read the liner notes from a great jazz album like Miles Davis’s Seven Steps. Bob Blumenthal does an incredible job of taking you through the history of Miles Davis and the members of the quintet. He also details the mechanics and performance of each song with elegant descriptions like:
“A trademark touch begins the performance, as Carter walks “in two” behind the melody chorus; but once the trumpet solo starts, the rhythm section substitutes a charged, pointillistic approach in place of the familiar groove. Davis is coy and declarative by turns, sparring one by one with his accompanists before reaching a climax that bleeds into the start of Coleman’s solo. The rhythm locks down, providing a springboard for the saxophonist’s prodigious double-timing; then Hancock flies over the keyboard, adding complex colors and thick two-handed interaction that delivers a new kind of emotional escalation; and Carter adds a bowed bass solo highlighted by long melodic lines and precise intonation.”[sigh]
These recordings were made after Davis’s first great ensemble dissolved in the late 50’s. This new line up was destined to become internationally famous in its own right, and Davis used the opportunity to play off the energy and enthusiasm of this group of younger musicians. A foursome who would soon become icons in the field of jazz for their incomparable musicianship, and their soulful brilliance.
The seven tracks on this CD span a two year period, and some lineup changes in the formation of Davis’s new band are to be expected. On the second track “I Fall In Love Too Easy” Frank Butler is on drums and Victor Felman on piano, but all the rest of the tracks feature the soft and intuitive style of Tony Williams on drums and the legendary Herbie Hancock on piano.
Herbie Hancock, what could I possible say about this amazing man. If you’ve heard him play, you just know. He’s not from this planet.
George Coleman soars on Tenor Sax through the first five tracks, but the final two live recordings (Japan and Germany) feature Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter respectively, both masters of their craft, and particularly suited to the material they perform.
Throughout the seven numbers, the clarity, precision, and extreme finesse of bassist Ron Carter simply floored me. Endlessly clever and sexy runs that fill, support, and play off the racing scales and sublime croonings of Miles Davis on trumpet.
The set list:
Seven Steps To Heaven: A familiar number to me. Written only a month before this recording, it’s become a stone cold classic. Held together by Hancock’s piano rhythms, the trumpet soars and then backs off again, blends and plays with the sax, and then steps to the front again. One of my favorites.
I Fall In Love Too Early: Muted sax (I love muted sax), slow rhythmic pulsings that turn into a storm of high end solos. Great smoke-filled club jazz.
Autumn Leaves: See the above description by Bob Blumenthal (I won’t dispute his eloquence).
Stella By Starlight - Live at the NY Phiharmonic: Gentle piano, soft trumpet. The bass joins in and gradually the tune escalates its gentle meanderings, swinging into a casual groove as the audience sounds their appreciation. This is a very pleasant number, one of my favorites.
All Blues - Live at the NY Phiharmonic: This upbeat tune starts out with dueling sax and trumpet play, Hancock provides the back beat rhythm until the drums join in, then Davis’s trumpet flies around the room, taking seemingly random paths to unexpected scales and bursts of bended moanings. Perfectly delightful.
If I were A Bell - Live in Japan: A fun and playful number that gives Davis a chance to scat sing with his horn. Brilliant phrasings, blindingly fast vocalizations, giving Tony Williams a chance to stretch out and kick the pace forward. Sam Rivers steps to center stage and brings the audience into the show with a long and amazing solo, then Hancock and Williams jam together for a minute or two, just having fun playing together. Davis returns to the tune, gently slowing the pace. The song becomes moody and thoughtful, and winds to a graceful close.
Walkin’ - Live in Belin: This number is almost “Big Band” in its approach, but after a symphonic intro the pace smooths out, and Davis takes liberties to the delight of the audience. Off tempo, syncopated runs leading up to a short and tasty drum solo. Hancock sets the groove again, as Wayne Shorter squalls and bops his way through a masterful sax solo. The quintet recovers the feel, once again a unit – passing notes, smiles, and a love of their music back and forth, as we mortals can only listen and nod.
I like Jazz, but am far from being an expert, and couldn’t name half of the groups that I hear on NPR’s Jazz Till Midnight. This doesn’t bother me too much because I know what I like. I like news and weather in the morning, and classical music in the afternoon.
But in the evening, with the moon rising and the worries of the day put to bed, jazz rules at my house. This CD of Miles Davis has become a regular part of the mix that keeps my mood mellow, and my dreams sweet. These recordings are clear, quiet, and timeless.
Note: This was a single CD (best of), but there is a seven CD boxed set with everything Miles Davis recorded at Columbia. It’s on the way as I write.
(Where tree frogs do uptempo solos.)