Sharps and Flats: Miles Davis Quintet

The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings -- Sony/Legacy

By Geoff Edgers

Published March 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The requisite jazz portion of this year's Grammy Awards came near the end: Bill Cosby next to a handsome, dysfunctional Victrola mumbling his pro-jazz patter as a hastily assembled band rode some noodly standard to the commercial.

Sadly, this is how the Starbucks generation views jazz: as old folks' music in a public service announcement. It's what happens when the most visible players (Joshua Redman, Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride) are human jukeboxes, the innovation left to the eight-stringed frat-rock of Charlie Hunter and the hip-hop mash of Wynton's brother, Branford.

No wonder the reissue market has become jazz music's saving grace. There's a box for everyone, from Armstrong and Mingus to Coltrane and Rahsaan. But no player, dead or alive, has been given a star turn like Miles Davis. The latest in Sony/Legacy's Miles campaign -- the six-CD "Miles Davis Quintet 1965-68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings" -- is his third box in as many years, which isn't including last fall's '70s live funk series and the long awaited, in-tune version of "Kind of Blue."

The Miles Davis Quintet -- Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Davis himself -- produced the last indisputably brilliant music in the great trumpeter's catalog. Even Stanley Crouch and the anti-electric jazz Gestapo agree that these sessions -- which resulted in "E.S.P.," "Miles Smiles," "Sorcerer," "Nefertiti," "Miles in the Sky" and portions of "Water Babies" and "Filles De Kilimanjaro" -- were simply perfect.

The John Coltrane/Paul Chambers/Cannonball Adderley group of the '50s might have been flashier, but the Quintet was a true working band, cut from the same cloth as the larger units Davis would use in the funk-fusion years. By 1965's "E.S.P.," the muted trumpet standards of Davis' past had been replaced by Carter's driving, repeated notes, Williams' shotgun fills and the long, open stretches without chord changes. At a time when much of the jazz world's attention was focused on Coltrane's skronky avant garde, the Quintet showed there was a place to go from bop without losing the melody.

Offstage, Davis was known for his enormous ego -- picking fights with club owners, promoters, ex-wives, slamming Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie simply for smiling -- but everything changed when he picked up the trumpet. Schooled in the turnaround, Davis had to get past Tin Pan Alley and the structures of his greatest recordings. So he laid back. He played hard, worked the material, but instead of writing, he shaped the pieces presented to him by his bandmates. Of the seven compositions on "E.S.P.," three were by Carter, two by Shorter and one each by Hancock and Davis. In fact, Davis would hardly write until the fourth album in the series, "Miles in the Sky."

But Davis' influence as a leader was undeniable. Compare the Quintet's version of "Little One" with that on Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," which features the same rhythm section. Hancock's warm, glimmering piano intro leads into Carter's kick start. But on the "Maiden Voyage" version, the up-tempo shift seems to sputter, lost under the tenor. On the Quintet version, the difference is in the contrast: the spare, high register melody of the trumpet, Hancock's staccato fills and Carter's bass line, which almost swings.

There's also a series of previously unreleased rehearsals, where Davis coaches Hancock through two songs that ended up, in different versions, on the pianists' solo albums. Davis shuts down a messy, bossa version of "I Have a Dream," suggesting a faster pace. The new version works, sliding into one of Hancock's prettiest solos on the set. It's a wonder it wasn't included on one of the original LPs.

By the end of the box, the sound grows more dense. Davis adds a guitar, Hancock switches to electrical keyboard and it's easy to imagine the next step -- the space fusion of "Bitches Brew" -- and, as we get a window into the jumps between "Kind of Blue," "Miles Smiles" and finally, "Bitches Brew," you begin to wonder what would have come next if Davis hadn't cut off his progress by retiring in the mid-'70s; if some of today's most talented players realized that the best way to show respect for the past was not simply to re-create it, but to build upon it.

Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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