Monday, September 12, 2011
Rudness and rigor: The Miles Davis Quintet, Live Europe 1967
I'm glad that Nate Chinen took the time to make a methodical, emphatic case for why the forthcoming Miles Davis archival release, Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series, Volume 1, stands way out from the Miles-box-set cottage industry. By year's end, I'm guessing we'll all be a little sick of hearing about this one, but let me just say this: It's major, and the hype is and will be justified.
This weekend, I've been hung up on the first version of "Footprints" from disc 2 (11.2.67 in Denmark). The point has been made countless times about how much leeway Miles afforded his sidemen, but this track (and this box set in general) really drives the concept home in a new way. Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock are absolutely romping here. They edge in as much wildness as they can during Miles's solo and then blitz out even more during Wayne Shorter's feature. Williams, who had spent several years playing borderline free jazz with Shorter at Blue Note (I think of Grachan Moncur's Some Other Stuff, from ’64, and Williams's own Spring, from ’65), seems to consider Shorter an ideal partner in crime. On this "Footprints," Williams keeps tossing out splashy explosions during the saxophonist's solo, as if he were throwing Snap-N-Pops at Shorter's feet. Around 3:40, his wildness infects Herbie Hancock, and the three players swirl around in a turbulent incantation. It's so fascinating to hear a band that's so tight and disciplined (throughout all of these concerts, they flip into each new piece in lockstep, without pausing, and on the DVD, you can see the sidemen responding attentively to Miles's hand cues) but that also rages against this authority whenever it gets a free second.
Miles was clearly on to something here, i.e., how amok can we run within a "jazz" format? I.e., this was before the bellbottoms and the scarves and wrap-around shades, before Miles's sets became orgies of pure, psychedelic, funk-driven catharsis. This is about affecting that "cool" pose, that aura of decorum that always clung to Miles—and has become a tedious kind of shorthand for how he's been represented since his death—and that still clings to many who play what I like to think of as jazz-club jazz (more on that concept here), but then inviting the chaos in and letting his co-conspirators raid the mansion, turn a "polite" medium into something warped, impulsive, fucked up. Chinen was right to point out that these men are all wearing tuxedos throughout these performances—putting their audiences in that "America's classical music" frame of mind even as they're assaulting their ears with information overload, some of the most busy and vibrant small-group interplay ever.
On this 11.2.67 "Footprints," the band quiets down a bit during Hancock's solo, but on the out head, Williams is absolutely destroying his kit. Hancock follows suit with these blurred, splatter-paint runs, some definite Cecil Taylor shit. This foreground/background tension/obliteration, when the band is executing a theme as one (or more) members just cuts loose in opposition, is what has drawn me to this quintet ever since I heard Nefertiti (still my favorite Miles album, with this band or otherwise) for the first time about a decade ago. I couldn't believe that a jazz drummer could have the balls to explode so rambunctiously on what was essentially a ballad (I'm speaking of the piece "Nefertiti"), or, moreover, that his employer (a firmly established star by that point) would actually invite that sort of thing. We've all heard the stories about how Miles didn't want his sidemen to practice during their off time: He wanted all that nervous, explosive energy to come out onstage. It's not just an idea or a liner-note cliché, this thing of "giving your sidemen space." It's absolutely demonstrated in the music, and nowhere more vividly than on this new set of 1967 live material.
What I love too, though, is that in addition to the wildness, you also get the control, the pacing. Before his death just a few months prior to these Miles performances, John Coltrane was obviously going way, way out, spilling his guts for hours at a time, he and his sidemen equating length and relentless intensity with transcendence. There was no "jazz" left in it, no "cool," no decorum, no ting-ting-a-ling. Which is totally great and vital. I love Interstellar Space as much as the next guy. That said, there's something marvelous about Miles having been able to open and shut the air lock so to speak, to invite the horror of deep space in and ALSO to block it out when needed.
Take, for example, the way the sets on this 1967 set are constructed. Chinen sharply points out the inclusion of many more original pieces here than on the 1965 Plugged Nickel recordings (which I've enjoyed in the past, but not half as much as this new set), which lean primarily on standards. The effect is that when the standards do arrive—and since there's no stopping between pieces, they arrive pretty abruptly—they feel revelatory. As opposed to looking at your watch ("Oh man, they're playing another jazz-club jazz selection?"), you're grateful for the respite. Check out the "’Round Midnight" that comes right after the "Footprints" described above (11.2.67, disc two). The turbulence and insanity melt away, and it's Miles and Hancock alone in a gorgeous reverie. This duet isn't a rigorous reading of the theme; there's some impressionism to it. But it's so gracious, spacious, the kind of thing that, yes, the average jazz-club patron might expect. Recognizably a ballad. Miles was not about exploding form entirely—he was about letting it expand and contract. Rein them in with something decorous, nakedly beautiful, and then put the screws on. Case in point, this same "’Round Midnight," which quickly becomes an uptempo romp after the kick-in, with Hancock prancing down the keyboard and Shorter summoning steely abandon. (Later in the set, we're back on the gorgeous/turbulent fault line, in the form of Shorter's "Masqualero," which has these remarkable trumpet/piano cutaways, with Williams surging periodically forward to add Latin-style thrust.)
It's not fair or useful to sit here 40 years later and lament the current lack of bands like this, so committed on one hand to rigor (which comes, and this is another cliché that's just straight-up true, from WORKING, from playing gig after gig with the same personnel and a consistent repertoire over a period of years) and to explosive freedom, where the form ("Jazz") is paradoxically strengthened via the relentless inquisitiveness and sometimes, for lack of a better word, rudeness of the performance. No need to compare this to what anyone else is doing or has done. Better simply to say that this is conceptually what we want out of jazz: to set up exquisite sand castles and to augment or knock them down as we see fit, as long as we have a reason for doing so and promise to build them back up again at the end.
Compare this with, say, Coltrane's late music, in which there's really no accountability; you've gone so far out that there's no reference point. And again, I'm not dissing that music, not diminishing the value of that kind of solar catharsis. Rather, I'm celebrating the Miles version of "free jazz," where the construction and the demolition commingled in each piece, where you ask that your sidemen wear tuxedos but simultaneously invite them to go absolutely apeshit on their instruments (I'm listening now to Shorter and Williams kicking up a mighty dust cloud at 6:54 in "No Blues"—total sickness). As Chinen describes, that tension was at its apogee within the Miles Davis Quintet circa 1967, and here you have abundant illustration of it. Buy this box set!
P.S. Disc one is streaming at NPR.