Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene His Brilliant Career

Miles Davis lives on.

By Ron Wynn

JUNE 8, 1998:  Though nearly seven years have passed since his death, trumpeter/bandleader Miles Davis remains among a handful of landmark figures whose impact on jazz is unquestioned. Just in time for what would have been the trumpeter's 72nd birthday (May 25), two intriguing new reissues affirm his continued influence on modern American music. The material on these discs focuses on Davis' output in the 1960s, an especially interesting and transitional time for him.

The '60s were a time of all-around creative turmoil in jazz circles. In the midst of this artistic confusion, Davis spurned the "cool" sound he'd helped implement in the '50s, choosing instead to reinvigorate and contemporize his music. He sought to find a balance between more traditional sounds and the free, experimental sounds pioneered by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and his former band member John Coltrane. He focused more on original composition, and he strove to emphasize group interaction over the talents of individual players.

Davis ended the '50s with the landmark LP Kind of Blue, which signaled his move away from blues-oriented hard bop and toward a more modal sound that invited shared communication between players. But once his quintet dissolved, Davis had to regroup. He tried several different saxophonists, searching for soloists who could match the work of former band members John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly. He had more success with his rhythm section, recruiting pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb, who joined the sole remaining member, bassist Paul Chambers.

Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall--The Complete Concert (Columbia/Legacy) compiles on two discs the full program from a 1961 concert that was partially released in 1962, with the remainder issued in 1987. The event was notable for several reasons, among them the fact it was Davis' first public concert with the Gil Evans orchestra. Although he'd collaborated with Evans before, the pair had never worked together onstage with a full orchestra. The date came on the heels of Miles Ahead, which saw Davis playing with reenergized fire and vigor. It also was the high point for tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, who would soon be dismissed from the band by Davis, who disliked his blues-based sound and his penchant for playing behind the beat.

But on this night, Mobley was masterful; his solos on "So What," "Teo," "Walkin'," and "Oleo" are resourceful, emphatic, and impressive. He plays with such fury and such relaxed, yet fiery abandon that repeated shouts of "yeah!" can be heard in the background. In fact, Mobley's work slightly surpasses that of Davis, who fluffs notes on "So What" and has considerable intonation problems on "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "No Blues."

Problems aside, Davis plays with ferocity on "So What" and "Walkin," while offering lush melodic interplay on "I Thought About You" and dazzling counterpoint to the orchestra on the 17-minute "En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor." This last selection is edgier and less mannered than the studio version on Sketches of Spain, with Davis and the orchestra sometimes going in different directions; even so, they salvage things by the conclusion.

The rhythm section, particularly pianist Kelly, plays capably, but the musicians often seem overwhelmed either by Davis or by the orchestra. Cobb's drumming is steady, while Chambers' resolute bass support nicely anchors the proceedings. Even if there's a feeling of warmth during their interludes, there aren't many fireworks--and Davis tended to desire more intensity underneath his solos.

Two years later, when Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb gave Davis notice they would be leaving, the bandleader began scrambling to find replacements. Eventually, a new group developed, one that would rival his great '50s band. Tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter came from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and with the addition of bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and drummer Tony Williams, Davis assembled a band whose brilliance would jolt jazz music during the mid-'60s.

Their impact is fully evident on The Complete Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968 (Columbia/Legacy). The six-disc set features songs originally issued on the albums E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles De Kilimanjaro. Along with a few previously unissued tracks, there are also outtakes and alternates that had previously appeared on latter-day reissues Water Babies, Circle in the Round, and Miles Davis: The Columbia Years. Since the cuts are presented chronologically, the entire set documents the quintet's evolution from its fairly routine beginnings, to its creative fruition, to its dissolution in the late '60s, when Carter departed because of creative differences and Williams left to form his own band.

Davis was bored with playing familiar tunes and urged his band members to write their own songs. E.S.P., the first group album, featured seven band compositions, two by Shorter and two by Davis. At the time, he was also listening more and more to popular material, evident in his incorporation of electric instruments and rock rhythms and melodies.

Because of the democratic structure, the group members, especially Hancock and Williams, exerted more influence on decisions ranging from clothing to song selection. The Hancock/Carter/Williams rhythm section also changed the whole notion of group support: They stopped merely reacting to Davis' and Shorter's solos and started influencing the tempo and pace of the numbers. Sometimes Hancock would drop out of songs altogether; other times Williams would shift the rhythmic pace mid-song, in the process altering the other musicians' contributions.

While the album cuts are engaging and memorable, the unissued numbers make for the most exciting material. Among the highlights is the complete version of "Circle in the Round." At more than 33 minutes long, this number was stitched together in the studio, with producer Teo Macero assembling the various elements into one piece with a constantly revolving rhythmic core.

By the time the group recorded the songs originally released on Miles in the Sky, Water Babies, and Circle in the Round, numerous changes had taken place. Carter and Hancock were playing electric bass and keyboards, Williams was inserting flashier rhythms, and Shorter's tenor work had gotten more explosive and less harmonically dense. Guest guitarists George Benson, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Joe Beck were thrown into the mix. Davis' trumpet solos, meanwhile, became shorter, crisper, and more angular--more like guitar figures. On "Stuff," "Black Comedy," and "Tout de Suite," the listener can hear him moving closer to the funk, pop, rock, and soul styles that would ultimately alienate much of his core jazz audience.

Some will view The Complete Recordings as a chronicle of Davis' last great period. Perhaps most important, this collection proves that his transformation in the late '60s and early '70s was anything but a sellout. Rather, it was a logical step in his creative development--one that pointed to his status as an innovator and a 20th-century icon.

Making a mesh

Late in Davis' career, longtime producer Teo Macero frequently ruffled the trumpeter's feathers by insisting that his production techniques contributed significantly to Davis' popularity. Macero also claimed that he frequently edited together incoherent or jumbled fragments into representative album tracks--something Davis hotly disputed.

Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis (Columbia) offers producer/bassist Bill Laswell's venture into similar territory. Laswell has taken songs from the Davis albums In a Silent Way, Agharta, On the Corner, and Get Up With It and "reconstructed" them, creating sound fabrics that sometimes closely resemble the originals and at other times widely deviate from them.

Reaction to Laswell's work has been predictably mixed, with many hardcore Davis fans responding negatively, and newer, more rock-oriented listeners reacting with praise. The four lengthy mixes are assembled in stream-of-consciousness form: Melodies are interwoven, rhythms are subdued, and solos are nearly obscured in the process. The results sound smooth and dreamy.

On the Corner and Agharta were initially sprawling, uneasy works. The versions here are so passive and elegant that they've lost any sense of shock or energy. Laswell is an impressive editor, and his textured pastiches merit praise for their technical dexterity. At the same time, I can't help but think that Miles would have liked a little more punch to his music.

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