Published: March, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
Miles in transition
the journey from one era of Miles Davis to another

By Michael Fortes

Kind Of Blue (Columbia/Legacy) was a hard act to follow. Miles Davis had one of his greatest bands together for that 1959 album, but it quickly disintegrated in the year following its release. With Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane off on their own, and his rhythm section defecting to form their own stand-alone trio, Miles spent the early 1960s in a period of transition.

Columbia/Legacy's latest batch of Miles Davis reissues chronicles this 'transitional' period between his two greatest bands. Between 1963 and 1964, Miles recorded one studio album, Seven Steps To Heaven, and five live albums - Miles Davis In Europe, My Funny Valentine (reissued last month in time for its titular holiday), 'Four' & More, Miles In Tokyo and Miles In Berlin. Taken together, these albums demonstrate the different directions in which Miles was willing to go with his music.

With George Coleman on tenor sax and Ron Carter on bass, Seven Steps To Heaven showcases two different rhythm sections. The first featured pianist Victor Feldman and drummer Frank Butler on the album's ballads and blues, while pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams featured on the up-tempo numbers.

The album opens promisingly with the old Louis Armstrong-popularized tune "Basin Street Blues," a slow, cool blues, the mood of Kind Of Blue matched with the music of an earlier era. "Basin" turned out rather well, but it was the mushy, melodic, troubled love song "I Fall In Love Too Easily" which became one of the most enduring ballads in Miles' repertoire. This studio recording isn't quite as moving as some of the live renditions he would play in subsequent years - check out the snippets of the tune he would play during his 'electric' era on 1970's Miles Davis At Fillmore and Black Beauty (both Columbia/Legacy) - but it plays pleasantly on record nonetheless.

"Baby, Won't You Please Come Home" is another slow ballad and a sure winner, as these tended to be the most popular types of songs in Miles' repertoire. This is most moving of the ballads on the album. The piano playing is understated, the drums are lightly brushed, the bass is unimposing, and Miles blows a lonely muted horn. When the tempo picks up and the rhythm starts to swing, we get into that finger snappin' Sinatra vibe, and it's showmanship from here on out.

Of the Herbie Hancock- and Tony Williams-anchored up-tempo tunes, "Seven Steps To Heaven" is sort of a cross between "Milestones" and "Giant Steps," the last of its type that Miles would feature on a studio record.

Rhythmically, "So Near, So Far" is the most complex and interesting of the bunch on the album. Miles' open horn solo is quite inspired, but like "I Fall In Love Too Easily," the band sounds a bit too tight. George Coleman's weaving tenor lines in the chorus are so perfectly executed that they seem to lack any real emotion. Some looseness would add life to the performance. The bonus alternate take of the tune (originally released on Columbia's superb 1981 compilation Directions) is more of a straight reading, and the ensemble playing is looser, more forceful, and more emotional.

These up-tempo tunes, plus the swingin' "Joshua," served as the recorded debut of Miles' new band, or most of it anyway.

Miles Davis In Europe was the first live album to be recorded featuring the new quintet. It has not been available on CD in the US until now, which is a shame, as it showcases the Coleman/Hancock/Carter/Williams band in fine form, and arguably in a fresher performance than on the more popular My Funny Valentine and Four & More albums.

The band gets off to a solid start on "Autumn Leaves," with George Coleman playing like he is comfortable being Coltrane's successor, and Herbie Hancock pounding at the keys with confidence.

The pace picks up a bit more with "Milestones," and George Coleman decides to play with fleet-fingers a la Charlie Parker. Only once during his solo does Tony Williams feel compelled to offer a notable response, but during Hancock's solo, he is virtually conversing through his drum fills. This is the type of group interplay that was the hallmark of this band. Keep listening for these musical dialogues and you can hear how the band mates felt about each other.

On "Joshua," the band performs like their asses were lit on fire. This is quite possibly the best-recorded performance of the George Coleman version of this band. As if that weren't enough, Tony Williams highlights "Walkin'" with a well-received drum solo - not too long, and quite tastefully done.

Four & More was recorded at the same concert as the hit My Funny Valentine album, and it isolated the program's up-tempo numbers. The band was famously at each other's throats prior to taking the stage, which Miles himself has credited with driving everyone to play at their best. Perhaps they played too well, though, as my lingering feeling on this recording from numerous listens is that it's, well, kind of bland by Miles' own high standards.

"So What" gets off to a brisk start with Ron Carter. Miles and George then state the theme and Miles stays with the theme as we know it, not deviating as he does on other versions. Miles solos fiercely over the fast tempo, and all are playing in perfect, peak form.

"Walkin'" is played at the typical, high-energy brisk tempo with which it had come to be associated. Miles hits high notes with seeming ease and a beautiful tone. It's a perfect performance, excepting the Tony Williams solo after Miles' solo. The drum solo is not terribly exciting at all compared to the one on Miles in Europe.

One very interesting and noteworthy moment does occur on this too-perfect set. Towards the end of Miles' solo on "There Is No Greater Love," he does some crazy mute maneuvering that sounds similar to some of the wah-wah blowing he would do in the '70s. Meanwhile, Tony swings hard beneath George Coleman's tasteful solo, and shifts the dynamics, making for some of the more memorable interplay on the disc, breaking a bit of a boredom streak. Ultimately, though, this version of the band proved too cold. A change was in order.

A temporary change came in the form of Sam Rivers, and what a difference a far-out tenor sax man makes! Sam's presence turns this band into a unit that could have been a major player in the free jazz scene of the day. This version of the band is heard on its sole recording - Miles In Tokyo.

The air that Sam Rivers blows into this band's space is certainly of the fresh variety. On "If I Were A Bell," one can immediately hear that Sam is a serious break from the more traditional tenor players in Miles' bands. His tone is harsher and more aggressive than anyone Miles played with before or after. When he starts playing punchier, scratchier tones, Tony Williams responds joyfully. When Herbie Hancock comes it's very softly for contrast, but Tony keeps driving a quick pace and hits hard. When Miles returns, Tony quiets down for a light shuffle, and they complete a performance that feels like the prelude to a wild roller coaster ride.

"My Funny Valentine" takes on a strange shape unlike any prior performance in Miles' catalog. Sam refrains from showing off in his solo, playing softly and beautifully, leading into a Hancock solo that is dangerously close to easy listening. Tony and Ron Carter both stay silent as Herbie tickles the ivories gently. When Miles returns, Ron does too, and things start to breathe a little easier again before concluding without Tony.

After the weirdly sedate "Valentine" performance, the whole band is back to life on the Kind Of Blue chestnut "So What." Miles hits some high notes in his solo and goes a little ape with Tony before Sam jumps in. He stays grounded for a bit before starting to take off with some squawking, which excites Tony to the point where he and Sam are dueling the way Coltrane and Rashied Ali would a year or so later. Their duel is all too brief before Herbie comes in. He stays balanced and not too flashy with a few pounding chords and rolling runs thrown in, while Tony maintains a steady train chug of a rhythm. His lead into Miles' return is one of the finest transitions on all the discs mentioned here.

By the time Sam Rivers enters on "Walkin'," it doesn't even sound like "Walkin'" anymore. He's blowing in the low register of his horn, mumbling for a while and then takes off. Herbie's comping occasionally sounds a bit random, but eventually synchs up with Tony and then stays in his low-key contrasting mode. Eventually Tony all but drops out, again, and returns with some interesting fills and rhythms before picking the pace back up again. This time Herbie follows his lead, and Miles comes back to bring it all home again.

Who knows what voodoo stew this combo could have cooked up in the studio had Sam been retained? As it would happen, his predecessor would prove no less intriguing, in a different way. I like this band quite a bit, but apparently Miles thought it was a bit too hot.

Miles finally tempted his favored tenor sax man all along -- Wayne Shorter -- away from his gig with Art Blakey in late 1964, and he proved to be the key piece of the puzzle in Miles' search for a steady working band. Miles In Berlin was the first recorded showcase of this band, the one he would hang on to for the next four years.

The set begins with a fiery "Milestones," with Miles and Tony both sounding full of energy, and Herbie too sounding far more alive and melodic than at the Tokyo concert. When Wayne is finally heard, he exhibits the clean tone and virtuoso stylings characteristic of George Coleman, but he balances that out with a bit of the avant garde feel of Sam Rivers - a happy medium. Tony sounds thrilled to be playing with him. In fact, the whole band sounds truly great here.

"Autumn Leaves" is transformed into something entirely new, with Miles at his most inventive. He and Tony take the low-key end of his solo and crank up the dynamic in the transition for a couple seconds, before passing the baton to Wayne.

On "Stella By Starlight," Miles sounds so crisp and confident that it's a wonder the original record didn't include this performance. Wayne exudes that mysterious aura of his (which he still has today) in his solo, which elicits a hearty applause.

"Walkin'" is faithfully performed with the same energy as in previous bands, and Tony Williams gets another drum solo. It's not as great as the Miles in Europe solo, though it is nice and short. Wayne cleverly quotes Milestones at the end of his solo, taking the Berlin set back to where it started for its finale. By this time, it is easily apparent that Wayne was just right for this band.

History would judge this band Miles Davis' second great quintet, and Miles In Berlin is probably the best single disc available of this band performing live on stage. It's not as studied and tedious as the lauded plugged nickel performances from 1965, but it still presents inventive and fresh sounding versions of the old favorites.

Legacy also decided to round up selections from all these discs for a 'best of' to snag those who either aren't in the market for all these discs or last year's Seven Steps box set, which collects all of these recordings plus additional rare material. My recommendation is this: skip the 'best of,' and if you can only buy one disc, go for either Miles In Tokyo or Miles In Berlin. These are the two most significant discs from this era, and likewise the ones that are the most rewarding after repeated listenings.