Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel

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

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 cliches.

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 those of you who read the earlier blog posting on Miles’ E.S.P. Columbia LP, you may remember the above introduction to the piece. What struck me at the time was how much the Jazz world was shocked by the sound of Miles’ music on this recording.

I often wondered if the Plugged Nickel “live” sessions recorded a month later than E.S.P. in December of 1964 had been released in conjunction with E.S.P. instead of My Funny Valentine and other more “romantic” sounding Miles music if the continuity of the group would have been better understood and appreciated.

Given that the Plugged Nickel sessions were not released until the mid-1970s, the opportunity to gauge Miles’ transition to a looser, freer style of Jazz in the company of a group of young players each of whom were to go on to become Jazz legends was kept from the Jazz public

Put another way -

Listeners who formed their impressions through recordings (especially in the U.S., where the Berlin concert was not issued until 1983) had a totally different sense of the new quintet than those who were fortunate enough to hear the band in person. [Emphasis mine.] 

- Bob Blumenthal, Jazz author and critic

Mosaic Records released The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions MQ10-158 on vinyl in 1995 with the CD versions going to Sony Japan and Columbia for distribution.

We wrote to Michael Cuscuna at Mosaic and to Grammy-Award winning Jazz author Bob Blumenthal and asked their permission to reproduce a portion of the booklet notes for the set so as to give you more background on the context of the Plugged Nickel set and they kindly consented. Bob also added this comment: "The only thing I would add is to note that George Russell and Miles Davis did a lot of woodshedding together in the late ‘40s, when Russell was pulling his Lydian Chromatic Concept together. So although the two never created any documented music together, Russell should be acknowledged with having some impact on Davis’ embrace of modes./Bob"

© Copyright ® Mosaic Records and Bob Blumenthal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.

“Being a leader of a jazz group is not something that can be learned in the way one learns how to play a musical instrument, or even how to conduct a symphony orchestra. There are no lessons available for perfecting the combination of insight, foresight, intuition, direction, flexibility, charisma and luck that turns a jazz musician into a leader; and even close observation will not guarantee that a master's techniques can be replicated. The cliche that leaders are born and not made may just be true - otherwise there would be dozens of Count Basies, Duke Ellingtons, Art Blakeys, Betty Carters and Miles Davises out there leading bands.

Even in this rarefied company, the achievements of Ellington and Davis are in a class by themselves. These men, clearly the greatest leaders in jazz history, simply had a sixth sense for picking talent and molding it into a unit of singular personality and quality. Even with Ellington's half-century of continuous work and larger ensemble, it is difficult to say that he was superior, for the very size of a big band allows a leader some slack. That third trombonist or fourth trumpeter may not need to be so exceptional to keep the group personality intact. On the smaller scale of the Miles Davis groups, every chair was exposed and every choice counted.

Miles Davis was born to lead, and he showed it for nearly a decade before he could put a permanent band on the road.  The famous 1949-50 nonet, filled with so many great playing and writing talents, was clearly his band.  ("Miles...took the initiative and put the theories to work," Gerry Mulligan has testified.) The studio bands he assembled for Prestige and Blue Note in the early '50s always featured the strongest personalities and the freshest compositions. When he finally got around to forming a working group in 1955, the assembled quintet of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones made immediate history; and his second legendary quintet - the one with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams heard on the present recordings - had an equally powerful impact on the jazz world.

While ensembles as seminal as these classic Davis units are so perfectly staffed that they may seem to spring to life full-blown, this is rarely the case. They more often evolve out of the leader's maturing interests and ambitions, and take shape over time. For this reason, it may be more accurate to think of Davis's first quintet as a metamorphosing unit that often grew to sextet size and existed until the beginning of 1963, at which point quintet two began its life. The element of luck played a role in both instances, since even a presence as magnetic as Davis's could not always obtain the services of each specific player he sought. Coltrane joined the first quintet at Philly Joe Jones's suggestion, when Sonny Rollins, Davis's first choice for the tenor chair, was unavailable. What if Rollins had taken the gig? How would musical history differ if Shorter had accepted Davis's original invitation to replace Coltrane in 1960, thereby joining a band with Wynton Kelly, Chambers and Jimmy Cobb in the rhythm section, rather than staying with Art Blakey and waiting until 1964 to come aboard? We do know how Davis responded to the band members at hand, what priorities he established in his first quintet that carried over to the later group, and what notions were modified through further development.

To begin with, the 1955 quintet set standards for contrast and balance that became Davis trademarks. Many listeners initially felt the group was a total mismatch, with Coltrane verbosely inept and out of tune, Jones overbearing and Garland a dispensable cocktail stylist. Yet the diverse personalities of Davis, Coltrane and Garland only added to the overall drama and content of each performance, and were further enhanced by the rhythm section's ability to tailor its dynamic and textural approach to the needs of each soloist. This fit of support to soloist was retained in later editions of the first band, and informs every performance in the present collection as well.

Davis also quickly assembled a diverse and highly influential repertoire that would best expose his group's strengths. The material he selected fell into three distinct categories: blues and original jazz lines, romantic ballads, and other popular songs that could be given more swinging treatments.  Many of the items in this last category could be launched "in two," with the bass stating a tempo half as fast as the melodic lead (which provided yet another contrast when the group shifted to 4/4), and could be modified with short cyclical chord patterns, known as "tags," [sometimes also referred to as tails, outros or turnarounds] to provide an alternative to the basic chorus structures. Davis drew much of this repertoire and many of these ideas from pianist Ahmad Jamal, whom he frequently acknowledged as his primary inspiration at the time, although his increased harmonic daring in this period can also be traced to his renewed friendship with arranger Gil Evans.

Another idea shared with Gil Evans was Davis's growing fascination with scales or modes as an escape from the recurring chord sequences of popular songs. This de-emphasis on harmony allowed greater melodic freedom, which held obvious interest for someone with Davis's lyrical gifts and unorthodox technical approach to his instrument. He had used chordal suspensions in his music as early as the 1950 nonet recording Deception, and based his 1954 composition Swing Spring on a scale; it could be argued that the tag endings, though clearly chordal, also had the effect of leveling the harmonic terrain through their brevity and frequent repetition. After Davis reunited with Evans for the 1957 album Miles Ahead, he became more immersed in the modal alternative, as evidenced by his soundtrack for the French film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud and the title track of his 1958 album Milestones. In 1959, while Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley were both still in the band and with Bill Evans (Davis's pianist for part of 1958) briefly back on board, he recorded an entire album based on the sketchiest of modal material. Kind of Blue was such an eloquent recital, so simple yet complex, that it immediately popularized the use of modes and pointed the way toward Davis's further development.

Unfortunately, circumstances temporarily delayed his progress. Coltrane and Bill Evans, the two musicians with the deepest insight into how to explore scales, left to organize bands that each added distinctive rhythmic and textural advances to the modal concept. The revised Davis band, with Wynton Kelly on piano, Jimmy Cobb on drums and a succession of saxophonists (including Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt and Hank Mobley), was more comfortable with material that swung hard in the accepted sense, and never incorporated the more impressionistic material from Kind of Blue into its repertoire.  Davis's studio focus on orchestral projects with Gil Evans through much of the late '50s also meant that less new material was being worked into the band's book. The trumpeter's own playing grew more chromatic and abstract, as live recordings made at the Blackhawk nightclub in San Francisco and New York's Carnegie Hall in the spring of 1961 documented; and a few new tunes became fixtures in live performances. Yet the familiarity of what Davis chose to play, and the hard bop style of his sidemen (however expert they might be), created a general impression that the trumpeter was standing still at the very time that Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were proposing radical alternatives.

It was not until early 1963, when he effectively disbanded the original quintet by letting Kelly and Chambers go, that Davis began to assemble the present band. The first to arrive was bassist Ron Carter, who at age 25 had earned a Bachelor's degree from the Eastman School and a Master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Carter, who performed professionally on cello as well as bass, had symphonic experience as well as tours with Chico Hamilton's quintet (where he first encountered Eric Dolphy) and Bobby Timmons's trio. He was already in great demand for studio recording, and had issued his first album (featuring his bass and cello) on Prestige/New Jazz. Davis brought Carter to California in March 1963 for an extended engagement at the Blackhawk. The band at that time was a sextet with a heavy contingent of Memphis musicians (saxophonists Frank Strozier and George Coleman, pianist Harold Mabern); and it went through a few changes while in California, with Victor Feldman also heard on piano and Frank Butler taking over the drums after Cobb left to rejoin Kelly and Chambers in a trio venture. Carter stayed in place, recording with Davis in Los Angeles in April. When the trumpeter returned to New York in May, Carter and Coleman were still in the band.

The rest of the rhythm section came together by the May 14 recording session that produced Seven Steps to Heaven. The drummer, who at the time was still known as Anthony Williams, was as precocious as any talent in jazz history. The son of a tenor saxophonist, Williams began studying with Alan Dawson in Boston during junior high school, and was working with Sam Rivers while barely into his teens. Jackie McLean had played with the young drummer in Boston the previous December, right around the time Williams turned 17. He was so impressed with the youngster's authority and audacious conception that he immediately invited Williams to New York. Williams made the move and quickly became a regular on Blue Note sessions.   Davis first heard the drummer with McLean's exciting new quintet. After getting a favorable second opinion from Philly Joe Jones, Davis offered the youngster a job.

Herbie Hancock, at age 23, was more of a known quantity, having arrived in New York more than two years earlier with Donald Byrd after completing his college studies at Grinnell. Byrd introduced the pianist into the Blue Note Records orbit, and Hancock's contacts and reputation grew rapidly. He first recorded with future associate Wayne Shorter by the end of 1961 (on Byrd's Free Form album) and already had two studio encounters with Williams (on Hancock's own My Point of View in March '63 and Kenny Dorham's Una Mas the following month). The pianist's most notable achievement, however, was his May 1962 debut as a leader, Takin' Off, which contained the funky composition Watermelon Man that [conquero] Mongo Santamaria quickly covered and turned into a hit. The success of that tune could not disguise that this pianist was more than just another soul stylist. He combined a beautiful keyboard touch with daring ideas that surfaced in both his solos and writing. Byrd had described Hancock as a cross among Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Hank Jones, which is the kind of synthesis Davis could appreciate; but it was Hancock's originality and range that ultimately made him the logical choice.

For the next year, with Coleman in the saxophone chair, the new quintet developed. Its evolution can be charted by two significant concerts - the July '63 Juan-les-Pins performance that produced the album Miles Davis in Europe and the February 1964 voter registration benefit at Lincoln Center that yielded My Funny Valentine and Four and More. The daring up-tempo improvisations on the European recording, and the slow, abstracted ballad readings on My Funny Valentine were major steps forward. Harmony, even on the standards, was giving way to a chromaticism that liberated the soloists in a manner akin to the modality of Kind of Blue, while the rambunctious support of the rhythm section introduced new levels of rhythmic drama.

The transition was not complete, however. Often the rhythm section would save its most adventurous notions until after Davis soloed, a sign of both respect for their leader (who, at age 37, must have seemed quite venerable) and uncertainty as to how far he would follow. Davis kept verbal communication with his young band to a minimum, yet quickly made it known that he planned to be a full participant in the ensemble explorations.

Repertoire was a somewhat knottier problem.  Davis was still playing the material he became identified with when Coltrane and Garland were in the band. To a large extent, he would continue to do so until his electric makeover in 1968, even after recording a score of excellent new originals in the studio. This decision reflected a continuing fondness for the likes of Autumn Leaves and If I Were a Bell, a conviction that they could be molded to more abstract ends, and a realization that the audience expected at least this much familiarity in a Davis performance.  

Still, new music was needed to fit the band's new ideas.

The need was met when Wayne Shorter, who Coltrane had suggested as his replacement over four years earlier, finally joined the quintet in the late summer of 1964. By this point, Shorter was 31 years old and had been a featured soloist and composer with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for five years. His tenor playing had been heralded for its power and originality, combining in an unmistakably personal synthesis elements of both Coltrane (the keening tone and complex arpeggiated phrases) and Rollins (thematic development, frequent use of the lower register and broad humor); and his writing was filled with melodic and structural wrinkles. Shorter also possessed what his future Weather Report partner Josef Zawinul referred to as the "new thinking." In April of 1964, he had made the first of several albums as a leader for Blue Note, Night Dreamer, and spoke in the liner notes of "the new blues coming, the new period of enlightenment." Elsewhere in those notes, commenting on the album's theme of judgment (one piece is titled Armageddon), Shorter notes that "The word, however, is not 'beware' but rather it's 'be aware!.'" Few musicians were in such possession of what might be termed late"60s consciousness so early.

On the September '64 concert that produced the album Miles in Berlin, Shorter proved to be exactly the player Davis had been looking for. He was not as deeply into the avant-garde as Sam Rivers, who had worked briefly with Davis after George Coleman left the band (and who was present on a Tokyo concert recording from July), although Shorter pushed the envelope constantly in his solos.  What he had that his immediate predecessors lacked was a deep, unshakeable lyricism and a growing tendency to make more out of fewer notes that suggested no other player so much as Davis himself.

With Shorter aboard, the quintet's approach to rhythm and tempo exploded. Meters would frequently change and instruments would drop in and out of support, leaving the forms bent but unbroken. Hancock grew more circumspect in his comping, laying out for long stretches behind the trumpet and tenor while Williams juggled the beat with ferocious glee and Carter used his exceptional harmonic ear to redefine the limits of the walking bass. Ballads might turn into flagwavers, flag wavers into head-shaking groovers. 

The second great Miles Davis quintet was finally complete.

Even so, the band appeared to take divergent paths in the recording studio and on the job. With Shorter turning out numerous originals and each member of the rhythm section also making important contributions, Davis was able to launch a series of albums featuring innovative new compositions, the first of which, E.S.P., was taped in January 1965. In person, the repertoire remained much as it had been, although the warhorses were now pulled like taffy into unprecedented new shapes. Listeners who formed their impressions through recordings (especially in the U.S., where the Berlin concert was not issued until 1983) had a totally different sense of the new quintet than those who were fortunate enough to hear the band in person. [Emphasis mine.] 

For this reason, the two-record Live at the Plugged Nickel, recorded during a December 1965 engagement at the Chicago nightclub, caused an incredible stir upon release in Japan (in 1976) and then in the U.S. (in 1982). Here was the quintet in full flight, showing even greater daring with numbers from the old Davis book than it had with the originals on the contemporaneous E.S.P. and Miles Smiles (the latter recorded in October 1966). A third album, Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel, followed in 1987, though that release still brought less than half of the music recorded on the nights of December 22 and 23, 1965 into circulation.

What we have here is everything played on those evenings, three sets from the 22nd and four from the 23rd. The tune choices are familiar yet radically different than original studio and earlier live versions. Even successive performances of the same titles show disparate approaches, and reveal as much as any single set of recordings about this magical unit. At root, they also remind us how, through nonverbal cues and an uncompromising example, by knowing his own mind yet letting his talented charges have their head, Miles Davis once again proved to be as brilliant as any leader in jazz.”

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