Tuesday, August 3, 2021

E.S.P. - Miles Davis

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“This [1965-68] has always been an enigmatic period in Miles's career, a band and a set of relationships which didn't so much develop as go through a looping sequence of self-discoveries and estrangements. The leader himself often sounds almost disengaged from the music, perhaps even alienated from it, though one always senses him there, listening. Miles Smiles opens up areas that were to be his main performing territory for the next few years, arguably for the rest of his career. The synthesis of complete abstraction with more or less straightforward blues-playing (Shorter's 'Footprints' is the obvious example of that) was to sustain him right through the darkness of the 1970s bands to the later period when 'New Blues' became a staple of his programmes. 

After Miles Smiles, E.S.P. is probably the best album, with seven excellent original themes and the players building a huge creative tension between Shorter's oblique, churning solos and the leader's private musings, and within a rhythm section that is bursting to fly free while still playing time. Miles returns to his old tactic with Coltrane of paring away steadily, often sitting out for long periods or not soloing at all. It is simply that with Shorter he has a saxophonist who is capable of matching that enigmatic stance, rather than rushing off on his own.” 

- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“(The first incarnation of this Miles Davis Quintet (with George Coleman, Herbie [Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) entered the studio for the first time May 14,1963 before it was a working band. Studio albums were used to introduce new material into the Miles Davis songbook. Kind Of Blue gave us "So What" and "All Blues" and Someday My Prince Will Come gave us the title track and "No Blues." The live albums would be conceived as vehicles to capture the sound of his current quintet performing both the classic and recent material. This session gave birth to a new band and contributed two pieces, "Seven Steps To Heaven" and "Joshua,"

to Miles' live repertoire.

For the next 19 months, live recordings charted this band's extraordinary progress: In Europe (Antibes —July '63), My Funny Valentine and Four & More (both from Lincoln Center— February '64), In Tokyo (July '64 with Sam Rivers replacing Coleman) and In Berlin (September '64 with Wayne Shorter finally in place).

By January of 1965, the Quintet (now only 5 months old} had toured Europe and was just beginning to travel in the U.S. During the first part of the new year. Miles and the group enjoyed a two-week stay at San Francisco's Basin Street West. After finishing up the weekend, they found themselves in Hollywood at the Columbia Studios, where Irving Townsend was set to produce a new Miles Davis studio recording.

The idea of going into the studio with new material for the first time in 19 months must have stimulated the group. The first track recorded was Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P."

The album My Funny Valentine was released in May of 1965 to great acclaim. E.S.P was issued in November of 1965, when Miles began touring. again after a six-month recuperation from his first of many hip operations. The album did not get the hurrahs expected of a new Miles Davis Quintet studio recording. The momentum that the group had built up from 1964 had to start over.

The group was taped at the Plugged Nickel in December of 1965, but the 

tapes remained unissued for 11 years. Of the new material, only "Agitation" had made it into his book, but he was still playing "Stella By Starlight" and "My Funny Valentine" as well as other standards and blues associated with his earlier bands.

Still, E.S.P. summed up the form and rhythm experiments that the Quintet was developing from live performances into a compositional structure. Stop-and-go ("R.J.," "Agitation"), pedal points ("Little One," "Mood"), creating a "harmonic" direction from "suggestions" and implications ("E.S.P."), rhythmic suspension ("R.J.," "Eighty-One") and form modulation ("Iris"). The melodies themselves became more independent of the harmony, and thus strengthened the idea of improvising phrases (as Ornette Coleman) and not clichés.

Behind the success of My Funny Valentine, Columbia released the rest of the February 14,1964 Lincoln Center concert as Four & More in March of 1966 (barely 4 months after E.S.P.!). Prestige repackaged old sessions (For Lovers and Classics) and then went further by releasing a greatest hits compilation in December of 1966, making a total of six Miles Davis releases in 17 months.

No wonder E.S.P. confused the public. The music is light years ahead of anything previously released. The public was bombarded with Miles' accessible side, the romantic lover. The success of My Funny Valentine further imbedded that stereotype into the minds of the jazz public. Eventually. Miles would completely separate the studio recording process from the live performance process, but it took two incredible sessions to launch him on his way.”

— BOB BELDEN, insert note excerpts from E.S.P.

For fans of the classic Miles Davis Quintet [with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums] and the classic sextet [subtract Garland and Jones and add Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums], the six LPs that Miles made for Columbia from 1965 to 1968 are as perplexing as they are paradoxical. 

They are less straightforward and more puzzling, if not downright mystifying, to the snap your fingers and pat your foot Jazz fans who were accustomed to more easily relating to Miles’ post Bebop groups that played a style of Jazz based on a mixture of songs from the Great American Songbook and tunes from The Jazz Standards. And then there were all of the “romantic Miles” LPs that Bob Belden references in one of the quotations that open this piece.

In fact, to these modern Jazz fans, the music on the albums from the mid-sixties did indeed appear to require a form of extra sensory perception - that is a telepathic sixth sense - to experience what was going on in the music.

And yet, just as Miles had made the transition from the flying notes and quickly progressing chord changes of Bebop to the more expansive and lyrical Jazz of the classic quintet and sextet of the second half of the decade of the 1950s, E.S.P, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky and Files De Kilimanjaro marked Miles’ transition to an association with a band made up of younger musicians that was working its way out of one phase and into another in which time and harmony, melody and dynamics were being radically rethought. Or as Richard Cook explains it:

“The improvisations here would have been inconceivable a mere couple of years earlier; they don't so much float on the chords as react against them like phosphorus. Three years later, they fed directly into Miles's electric revolution and the beginning of what was to be (he long dramatic coda.”

Beyond the more technical treatment of the music on the recording contained in Bob Belden excellent notes, in combing through the Jazz literature to identify a more accessible explanation of Miles’ work on E.S.P., I was pleased to find the following treatment of both the band and the music on the recording by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux in their work Jazz [2009] which is available in both a trade [commercial] and education [suggested listening guides] editions. Their narrative provides a comprehensive context for appreciating the significance of the album.

© Copyright ® Gary Giddins and Scott De Veaux, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“After the back-to-back triumphs of Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, Miles Davis endured a slump of uncertainty. Coltrane, Adderley, and Evans had left to pursue their own careers, and Davis expressed contempt for the avant-garde. He continued to release effective records, including a reunion with Coltrane that produced a minor hit in "Some Day My Prince Will Come." But his music was caught in a bind, much of it devoted to faster and harder versions of his usual repertory, including "Walkin'" and "So What."

Then in 1963, once again, he produced magic. He turned to younger musicians who would surely have had important careers on their own but who, under Davis's tutelage, merged into a historic ensemble, greater than its very considerable parts. The rhythm section consisted of three prodigiously skillful musicians who valued diversity over an allegiance to one style of music: pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and seventeen-year-old drummer Tony Williams. Davis auditioned many saxophonists before temporarily settling on George Coleman, who played with facility and intelligence but lacked the drive and curiosity of the younger guys. In late 1964, Wayne Shorter, who had made his name as a saxophonist and composer with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, joined the band, a decision that changed his life and Davis's, and made this second

great quintet, a worthy follow-up to the 1955 group with Coltrane. This time, however, Davis took as much from his sidemen as he gave, drawing on their compositions (especially Shorter's) and sensibilities. These musicians were keenly interested in the avant-garde, and Davis adjusted his music to assimilate their tastes, as he struggled to make a separate peace in a confusing era.

Jazz was beset on one side by avant-garde experimentalism that estranged much of the audience, and on the other by rock, which had matured from a teenage marketing ploy to the dominant pop music. Davis would eventually inch his way to a fusion of jazz and rock, but first he adapted modal jazz to include elements of the avant-garde in a postbop style far more extreme than anything he had previously done. This approach, which also attracted other accomplished musicians caught between the conventions of modern jazz and the excitement born of the avant-garde, involved harmonic ambiguity, original compositions with new harmonic frameworks (rather than those built on standard songs), and a radical loosening of the rhythm section. Some of the tunes written by Davis's sidemen actually encouraged free improvisation (Ron Carter's "Eighty One" is a blues but also a minefield of open terrain). In the most advanced of these pieces, chord progressions were omitted while time and meter might evaporate and coalesce several times in the course of a performance.

Most first-rate rhythm sections work like the fingers in a fist. Coltrane's quartet, for example, achieved a fiercely unified front, devoted to supporting the leader. Davis's group was no less unified, but its parts interacted with more freedom, often rivaling the soloists. So much was going on between Hancock's unruffled block chords, Carter's slippery bass lines, and Williams's rhythmic brush fires that they all appeared to be soloing all the time. Davis gave them leave, enjoying the excitement they created, but he imposed a discipline that left space for the lyrical drama of his trumpet. Interestingly, on those few occasions when Davis failed to show up for a set in a jazz club, the other four musicians played in a more traditional, straight-ahead style. Free of chord changes, unapologetic about fluffs, and stimulated by his band's ceaseless energy, Davis became a more expansive trumpet player. He began to forage in the upper register at precipitous tempos, ideas spilling from his horn with spiraling confidence despite infrequent technical failings. He cut back on his signature ballads and began to jettison standard tunes and his classics. Between 1965 and 1968, he found his own way to be avant-garde.


The 1965 album E.S.P. was a critical event, but not a popular success. It represented the first studio recording by the new quintet, and the seven new compositions, all by members of the group, challenged listeners who expected to hear the tender, meditative Davis who incarnated jazz romanticism. This music is audacious, fast, and free. The title of the album (and first selection) emphasized the idea that extra-sensory perception is required to play this music. Shorter composed "E.S.P." as a thirty-two-bar tune, but its harmonic structure is far more complicated than that of "So What."

The melody is based on intervals of fourths (recalling the indefinite quartal harmonies of "So What" and "Acknowledgement"), and is married to a mixture of scales and chords in a way that offers direction to the improvisers without making many demands. The main part of the piece (A) hovers around an F major scale, while the B sections close with specific harmonic cadences that are handled easily and quickly—especially at this expeditious tempo. The soloists (Shorter for two choruses, Davis for six, Hancock for two) take wing over the rhythm, bending notes in and out of pitch, soaring beyond the usual rhythmic demarcations that denote swing. No less free is the multifaceted work of the rhythm section: the bass playing is startlingly autonomous, and the drummer's use of cymbals has its own narrative logic.

The public reception accorded E.S.P and succeeding albums by Davis's quintet (Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti) suggested the tremendous changes that had taken place in the cultural landscape in the few years since Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. They were received favorably and sometimes enthusiastically by musicians, critics, and young fans, but achieved nothing of the broader cachet enjoyed by his earlier work: there was nothing easy or soothing about these records. By 1965, rock and roll could no longer be dismissed by jazz artists as music for kids, and Davis was feeling the heat, not least from his disgruntled record company.”

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