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Restless Grooves Tireless Innovator

May 25, 2001


Miles Davis: Restless Grooves of a Tireless Innovator


I'VE changed music five or six times," Miles Davis wrote in "Miles: The Autobiography" (1989), a book that offers a great modern example of the untrustworthy narrator. All the huffing and bluffing and posturing one ever suspected to be within him was collected in that volume; much of it was graceless and thickly applied, an older man's attempt to reassert his place in history when he may have been losing it. His new music wasn't what it used to be, and his discography was a shambles.

If Davis, who died in 1991, did indeed believe that his importance was slipping, if he had anxiety about the future after he was gone, that only diversified the portfolio of psychological imperatives he regularly offered his audience. As much as the serious listener might hate to hear yet more about his image (all that old "Prince of Darkness" stuff), it is undeniable that his music draws some of its richness from extramusical gamesmanship: its cunning, guile, perversity and honesty. Miles Davis loved boxing, that second-guessing game. And he loved surprising people, giving them what they didn't expect. The well-considered pauses in his playing can be heard as the sound of a master strategist.

But back to that bold, bracing, even ridiculous idea about changing music: it's an assertion that few other jazz performers would bother making, since jazz makes changes only within its own world and usually operates on a conceptual model of slow refinement, rather than rupture and revolution. Inasmuch as Davis was different from most jazz performers -- and he was -- it is easier to say that he contributed new templates for making jazz, whereas most of his peers were content to inscribe established ones.

Davis, who would have been 75 tomorrow, is better served by reissues than any other artist in jazz. We've come a long way from the beginning of the CD era, when most of his work after 1967 was out of print, and what was in print suffered from bad audio transfers. Now Legacy, Columbia's reissue arm, has completed box-size reissues of all the major periods he was under its contract, sometimes treating a single album as a period (which was indeed the case, if you look closely).

It has been done with sensitivity, and the buyer has options: individual albums have all been singly rereleased, if you want to hear them as they were meant to be heard, free of context and scholarly apparatus. And if you want more, box sets range from $50 for a forthcoming three-CD collection covering his first stabs at jazz fusion to $109 for an eight-disc set of his early work.

To do his fender job on the century of American jazz, Davis's place and timing was perfect. He was 18 when he heard the Billy Eckstine band, an ark that carried Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, in St. Louis in 1944. Davis left town in 1945, the year Parker and Gillespie made their first joint recordings and the first year bebop was generally acknowledged. As a well-heeled, quietly intense outsider slightly behind the curve, he had the advantage of seeing the risk-taking pioneers from a position of safety.

But then he submerged himself in fire, trying to keep up with Parker's frightening speed as a regular member of his band. These raw apprenticeship years are best collected on "CHARLIE PARKER: THE COMPLETE SAVOY AND DIAL RECORDINGS" (Savoy/Atlantic), including some sessions under Davis's name.

In 1948 Davis was able to put his name on his first head-turning record, though it had several authors. At the time he was part of a social scene that included the composer-arrangers Gil Evans and Johnny Carisi, the pianist John Lewis and the saxophonists Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan; they convened at Evans's Midtown Manhattan apartment, swapping ideas.

It would be hard to imagine more divergent talents coming together, but such were the times. Jazz had been chopped in half by bebop, which caused a long-lasting audience schism, killed the big bands and ended the idea of jazz as a dance music. The best of the young jazz composers in the late 1940's were trying to make something new on the devastated ground; theirs was a task not too dissimilar from the one facing the postwar German and Japanese novelists at the time.

The resulting nonet sessions -- "BIRTH OF THE COOL" (now reissued as "THE COMPLETE BIRTH OF THE COOL," Capitol) -- made as a series of individual 78-r.p.m. records organized and contracted for by Davis, acknowledge orchestral writing, European harmony and bebop phrasing. Their chastened rhythmic feeling, so different from bebop's charging subdivisions, was a sign not of retreat but of reconsideration. The recordings were credited to Davis, yet it would be hard to assign ownership of this music to anyone involved: nobody in the group made records quite like this later on. (Gil Evans came closest, and more on that anon.)

Aside from the idiosyncratic "Birth of the Cool," navigating early Davis is tricky. There were no LP's in the early and mid-1950's, so the master of the long-playing idea that Davis became was not yet born. But "WALKIN' " and "BAGS' GROOVE" (both on Original Jazz Classics) need little supporting context to be appreciated. By 1954, having come through his training in bebop -- a form so rigorous and seductive that it limited the artistic growth of a lot of good improvisers -- Davis had found his way to a confident improvisational style but still not a breakaway identity.

What is exciting, though, on "Walkin' " and "Bags' Groove" -- recorded from March to December of that year, amid a strafing of recordings he made for Prestige -- isn't just the newly commanding definition of Davis's own solos but the catalyzing combination of players. There's the exciting, cryptically rhythmic pianist Horace Silver; the majordomo of bebop drumming, Kenny Clarke; on saxophones, the upholstered, sweet-smelling phrasing of Lucky Thompson and the lightning jolts of Sonny Rollins; on vibes and piano, Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk, respectively, masters of different sorts of swing.

The logic of Davis's solos on "Walkin' " and "Bags' Groove" forecast a widely absorbing talent, encompassing Louis Armstrong's melodic economy and Dizzy Gillespie's piquant harmony. (A note to consumers: Prestige's cheap and voluminous approach to recording in those days placed little stock in the individual album as a work of art; to understand the man in full, you must spring for about $109 for "CHRONICLE," Fantasy's boxed set of everything Davis recorded for Prestige from 1951 to 1956.)

A Fuller Sound

Davis was a collaborative artist who ultimately found his identities through great bands, and Davis's bands from the late 1950's must be represented in any collection. This is where the piano-bass-drum team of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones comes in, setting the rhythmic boundaries of mainstream jazz for decades. And this is also where John Coltrane entered the picture, in his late 20's and at a crossroads.

Coltrane made a hesitant debut with the group in 1955; a little more than two years later, having quit heroin, he was the most individual saxophonist in jazz. The learning curve is astonishing, hitting its midpoint through "COOKIN' " and "RELAXIN' " (both on Original Jazz Classics) and becoming terrifying by the time of "MILESTONES" (Columbia Legacy).

At first the group was still making music the Prestige way: lots of material, unevenly collected. The Prestige albums were recorded in long sessions, like nightclub sets, and they have a charged, offhand air about them. But by "Milestones," in 1958, Davis was signed to Columbia, where the record making was minutely planned and the marketing was mass. Not the least of that album's strengths is simply that it sounds fuller, with a new heft in its middle and low ranges.

The alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley has joined the group, too, and though they were working on similar ideas of rhythm and phrasing, there is a tension between his honey-dripping soul and Coltrane's denser, more agonized wail. Here, too, on the album's title track, the band had discovered modalism. Modes became the tantric secrets of jazz: they shifted musicians away from the bebop orthodoxies of improvising on chords and sticking to standard song structures. "When you go this way," Davis said at the time, "you can go on forever."

For further research hear "KIND OF BLUE" (Columbia Legacy), if you're one of the few who haven't. This is the only jazz album that sells 5,000 copies a week, every week. Try to get beyond its landmark status. Listen to it as foreground music; listen to the solos, not just the full picture, as instantly attractive as that may be. (A curious book written a few years ago by the artists Komar and Melamid, called "Painting by Numbers," determined through polling that blue landscapes were the paintings most people wanted to look at. "Kind of Blue," with its openness, harmonic stasis and muted dynamics, is jazz's definitive blue landscape.)

The 1956 Davis quintet was an archetype; you could copy it for a living. But you couldn't do "Kind of Blue" for a living. Modal jazz turned out to be a flavor, not a whole cuisine. As is the case with most best-selling jazz records, melody is the strongest link in "Kind of Blue," rhythm the weakest. In the spirit of Davis, who hated platitudes and received opinions, try to listen for its shortcomings, too.

Of Davis's collaborations with Gil Evans, the first, the 1958 "MILES AHEAD" (Columbia Legacy), is my favorite. It radiates a brittle, exploratory honesty and expands on the promise of Evans's "Birth of the Cool" pieces recorded 10 years earlier. Its lack of overarching theme (as in the later Davis-Evans project "Sketches of Spain") or a single composer (as in their "Porgy and Bess") leads to a more constantly varied album.

Keeping Up With Modernity

Davis's second great quintet -- with Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums -- came together in 1964, and again Davis created a virus. In Downbeat blindfold tests, he professed to hate Ornette Coleman's music, but there has never been a jazz performer more anxious about keeping up with modernity.

He heard it well, and perhaps his second quintet's new direction was a response. His own trumpet language had changed: he shot up into high registers, using smears and staple- gun staccato bursts. Instead of the bumpy, hollering openness in Mr. Coleman's band, Davis's music was finely applied: it became complexly chromatic, and Mr. Hancock added harmonic direction where Mr. Coleman's pianoless band couldn't.

Though their live sets were full of silences and tempo changes, it wasn't quite so otherworldly: Davis used recognizable ballad forms, even if he bent them. And he made the most of set pieces, small chunks of melody -- often from standards like "If I Were a Bell," "Stella by Starlight" or "I Fall in Love Too Easily," in which all members of the quintet precisely came together, only to ricochet off into their own paths. The band used Ahmad Jamal's notion of improvised form, with cues coming from the leader as to what section to play next, but loosened it up until it couldn't get any looser.

Highly abstract, yet sufficiently connected enough to all of jazz's prime values, the band inspired an awful lot of great small-group jazz in the next 35 years, including, most recently, Greg Osby's, Jacky Terrasson's and Dave Douglas's. The group was much more formal in the studio, reaching its zenith with "NEFERTITI" (Columbia Legacy), which shows Wayne Shorter's runic, dire writing style to its best advantage.

As for the band's live sound, we're lucky to have "THE COMPLETE LIVE AT THE PLUGGED NICKEL 1965," Columbia's after-the-fact document of a week in Chicago that was expanded in 1995 to an essential seven-disc set. (It's also available as the one-disc "HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PLUGGED NICKEL" on Columbia Legacy.) "Mainstream" may connote old hat in certain cases, but this band defined mainstream jazz for a long time, and there's little about it that doesn't still sound modern.

Davis's discography has some great liminal moments between periods, but from 1967 to 1975, there seemed to be nothing but liminal moments as the transition from acoustic to electric jazz became a fitful, thrashing, years-long experiment.

In the box set collecting the music of the great second quintet, there are moments in 1968 -- as in the trancelike "Water on the Pond," the first intimation that Davis wanted to freeze up his rhythm section and swap improvisation for backbeats -- when you could swear you're hearing the aerated grooves of a 21st-century band like Tortoise. "LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST -- MARCH 7, 1970: IT'S ABOUT THAT TIME," to be released by Columbia Legacy in July, captures a momentary sextet with Chick Corea on electric piano alongside the bassist Dave Holland, the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the percussionist Airto Moreira; it's Wayne Shorter's last night onstage with Davis. This music, too, deserved its own full- fledged period: the music is frenetic, funky, gigantesque.

In the years after the second quintet, Davis's records became harder to understand as performances, edited as heavily as they were by Teo Macero in the studio. Cut-and-splice postproduction techniques didn't begin for Davis with the electric period, as people tend to think; even "MILESTONES" (Columbia Legacy) had master versions constructed of bits from different run-throughs. But "IN A SILENT WAY" (Columbia Legacy) introduced something altogether new, and another Columbia release, due out Sept. 11, "THE COMPLETE 'IN A SILENT WAY' SESSIONS" (Columbia Legacy) -- a three-disc set collecting all the studio jamming it took to construct that great work, as well as the final album itself -- shows some of the roundabout drudge work it took to make a Miles Davis record then.

Davis began to hemorrhage music, and of the eight double albums he made in quick succession from 1969 to 1975, I get the most instant satisfaction out of "GET UP WITH IT" (Columbia Legacy). The live albums may be more representative, and "BITCHES BREW" (Columbia Legacy) is unquestionably more famous, marking the zenith of Davis's popularity with the rock crowd. But "Get Up With It," released in 1974, was a record of extremes: white-knuckle tension in the six-minute "Rated X," nearly erotic lethargy in the 32- minute "He Loved Him Madly."

If it isn't the culmination of Davis's first electric period -- that honor might go to "PANGAEA" (Columbia Legacy)-- it's the summit of the brash, avant-gardist record-making style that Mr. Macero honed for him. As with the first and second quintets, as with the bold assertions of "Birth of the Cool," this music still has much to say to us.

Dots of Color

Ending a five-year retirement in 1980, Davis made music that was more at peace with itself. The stock rhythm still hewed to the two-beat thrash of the early 70's; Davis still stabbed dissonant chords on whatever keyboard was at hand; and his trumpet style often amounted to dots of color rather than an actual melody. But he was returning to ballads, to pop songs, ultimately flirting with Prince and hip-hop. The Prince collaborations have only surfaced as bootlegs, and the hip-hop ("DOO BOP," Warner Brothers) was a lot worse than one should have expected.

Though Davis played well on it, avoid the 1985 "AURA" (Columbia Legacy), the electronic big-band record written by Palle Mikkelborg and marred by painfully out-of-date studio treatments: the aural equivalents of stonewashed jeans and legwarmers. Stick with the 1983 "STAR PEOPLE" (Columbia Legacy) for its rhythm-and-blues earthiness, and the 1985 "YOU'RE UNDER ARREST" (Columbia Legacy) for its Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper pop ballads, which, aside from being successes of form and function, were Davis's last great nose thumbing to the sort of jazz fan who thought he knew what was best for him.

"The Artwork of Miles Davis," a free exhibition of paintings and lithographs, as well as one of Davis's trumpets and photographs of him, will be on view through Aug. 31 at the Tourneau Time Machine Exhibition Gallery, Madison Avenue and 57th Street. Viewing hours: Mondays through Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The display is part of a free jazz series sponsored by Oris Swiss Made Watches that features weekly performances in the Tourneau Atrium at Madison Avenue and 57th Street. On June 21, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., the trumpeter Wallace Roney will perform works associated with Davis. Information: (212) 758-7300.

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