St Louis' trumpeter Miles Davis (1926)
left Charlie Parker's band in 1948 and teamed
up with white arrangers Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, who simply continued what they
had been doing with Claude Thornhill's orchestra: emphasize the timbric
qualities of instruments. Their inter-racial Nonet
(two whites on saxophones, Lee Konitz on alto and Gerry Mulligan on baritone,
John Lewis on piano, Max Roach on drums, trombone, French Horn, tuba, bass)
disposed of the tenor saxophone,
rediscovered the tuba, indulged in the French horn, and removed all barrier
between different instrumental sections, thus further upsetting the traditional
balance of power within the jazz orchestra.
Chalmers MacGregor's Moon Dreams (september 1948) and Cleo Henry's
Boplicity (april 1949), with James "J.J." Johnson on trombone,
were Gil Evans' most daring experiments to date.
The nonet's album, Birth of the Cool (september 1948),
originally released as 78 RPM singles and 45 RPM EPs between 1948 and 1950,
and eventually released as a 12" LP in 1957,
was a self-defining manifesto, and became one of the most
influential jazz albums of all times.
Featuring Gunther Schuller on French horn, the album included
Mulligan's Venus De Milo (april 1949) and Jeru (january 1949), Lewis' Rouge (april 1949), and
Davis' Deception (march 1950).
Davis challenged the fundamental premises of bebop by creating music of haunting
tonal qualities without relying on speed, an idea that he had already pioneered
while playing with Charlie Parker. This approach dramatically altered the
balance between the improviser and the arranger.
Dig (october 1951), his pioneering album in the hard-bop style with a sextet
featuring alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins,
pianist Walter Bishop, bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Art Blakey, that
contained his compositions Dig and Denial,
Davis retired from the scenes to kick his heroin additions.
When he returned with
Walkin' (april 1954), that contains a 13-minute tour de force interpretation of Richard Carpenter's Walkin' (1954) with James "J.J." Johnson on trombone, Lucky Thompson on tenor, Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums,
Bag's Groove, titled after the eleven-minute version of Milton Jackson's Bag's Groove (december 1954) performed with a stellar line-up (Jackson on vibraphone, Thelonious Monk on piano, Clarke and Heath), and containing also three Sonny Rollins compositions performed with Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), Horace Silver (piano), Clarke and Heath,
and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, that contained another Davis-Jackson-Monk collaboration (eleven-minute long) on Davis' own Swing Spring (december 1954),
Davis had not only a sound that was unique but also a vision for the future
of jazz. These works for Quitet redefined jazz as a sensual and haunting music.
Davis became a star in 1955 and formed a new Quintet to much fanfare,
featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
The first album, Miles (november 1955), with Davis' The Theme, was
still acerbic, but
Cookin' (october 1956), that contained only four tracks among which notably Davis' Blues by Five and Tune-Up/ When Lights Are Low,
Relaxin' (1956), with their eight-minute reworking of Frank Loesser's If I Were A Bell (october 1956),
Workin' (may 1956), with Davis' Four and Coltrane's Trane's Blues,
and Steamin' (may 1956), with their nine-minute reworking of Richard Rodgers' Surrey With the Fringe on Top,
presented a perfectly integrated unit of imaginative solos and subtle
(Ironically, these innovative recordings of 1956 were due to Davis' need to fulfil a contractual obligation, the easiest way being to cut lengthy spontaneous jams).
May and October of 1956.
Round About Midnight, titled after the Thelonious Monk original
that had become Davis' signature tune, refined the method,
particularly in Ray Henderson's Bye Bye Blackbird (june 1956):
a psychological balance of moods, styles and techniques.
Adding altoist Cannonball Adderley turned the quintet into a Sextet, documented on Milestones (february 1958), with Davis' 13-minute Sid's Ahead and an eleven-minute version of Monk's Straight No Chaser. But the real "milestone" was Davis' modal-based improvisation on his brief Milestones.
In the meantime,
Miles Ahead (may 1957) had marked the return of Gil Evans, who arranged a 19-piece orchestra and provided Miles Ahead and Blues For Pablo.
It was an altogether different format for Davis, one of short, catchy, baroque themes. Davis played flugelhorn on some tracks.
During this period Davis also improvised the music for the soundtrack of Louis
Malle's film L'Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (december 1957), one of his most
experimental works and the archetype for all future film-noir scores.
The collaboration with Evans continued on an album devoted to
George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1958),
and peaked with
Sketches of Spain (march 1960): Davis and Gil Evans merged jazz musicians
(Chambers, Cobb, Elvin Jones) and a classical orchestra,
and focused on a 16-minute interpretation of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, translucent and sentimental.
A 12-minute improvisation around Evans' Solea capped the album.
The collaboration with Gil Evans ended with the inferior
Quiet Nights (november 1962), released only in 1964.
In parallel Davis had been evolving independently his vision of jazz music
for small ensembles, and had fully adopted the paradigm of "modal jazz" with
Kind of Blue (april 1959).
By anchoring the compositions to just one key, chord and mode for several bars,
Davis encouraged more freedom and creativity in the solos.
Miles, Coltrane, Adderley, Chambers, Bill Evans on piano, Jimmy Cobb on drums
improvised in the studio, without any rehearsal. Four lengthy jams,
So What (driven by Chambers' bass and opened by a poignant Davis solo), Freddie Freeloader, All Blues and
Flamenco Sketches (the most adventurous use of modal improvisation), explored their joint soul rather than constructing
architectures of sound.
The idea of modal jazz was immediately perceived as a revolutionary idea by
the younger generation. Modal jazz was fundamentally a reaction to bebop's
stereotypical pattern: a rapid succession of chords.
Modal jazz created music using modes instead of chords as building blocks,
thus greatly simplifying the harmony and emphasizing the melody.
Someday My Prince Will Come (march 1961) returned Davis to the format of the
quintet. Two lengthy improvisations stood out, Teo, again
with John Coltrane, and Pfrancing,
Davis' Quintet was so celebrated by the press that the two live albums recorded
with tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Wynton Kelly, Chambers and Cobb,
In Person (april 1961) and At Carnegie Hall (may 1961), that mined
his repertory and offered expanded versions of his warhorses,
In a bold move, Davis ignored the lure of success and turned to a generation
of very young players for his next project.
Thus Seven Steps to Heaven (may 1963), whose best tracks were written by
temporary pianist Victor Feldman, Seven Steps to Heaven and Joshua,
debuted pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams
(still a teenager).
Tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined in 1964 during a European tour
to form the most famous of all Davis quintets.
This quintet proceeded to demolish harmonic conventions of jazz music, but in a
subtler way than free-jazz was doing,
remaining close to the cliches of hard bop while introducing greater tonal
and rhythmic freedom. Best of all, each of the five members proved to be
a skilled composer, crafting themes that were ideal platforms for their sound.
E.S.P. (january 1965), still a transitional work, contained
Shorter's E.S.P. and Iris,
Carter's Mood and Eighty-One,
Hancock's Little One,
Miles Smiles (october 1966), a more spontaneous effort,
highlighted Shorter both as a player and as a composer
(Orbits, Footprints, Dolores).
Edgy and neurotic, but at the same time ebullient and even childish,
it turned out to be a mere detour in the progression towards the low-key
transcendental ambience of Sorcerer (may 1967), that contained
Tony Williams' Pee Wee, Herbie Hancock's Sorcerer,
Shorter's Prince of Darkness, Masqualero and Limbo.
Both the compositions and the performances were moving towards a more
sophisticated style, a mannerism of emotional restraint.
Nefertiti (june 1967) wed the neurotic feeling of Miles Smiles and
the surreal ambience of Sorcerer. The result was the jangling, angular,
haunting music of Hancock's Madness, and of
Shorter's Nefertiti and Fall. The muscular sound of
Williams' Hand Jive was the last memory of their hard-bop roots.
Davis was dispensing with the original features of jazz (syncopation, melody)
and focusing on the aspect that had become more and more central to the
aesthetic of post-swing jazz: textural sound (ambience, mood).
At the same time he was
downplaying all the elements that could break down the piece into sections,
so as the achieve the smooth and seanless quality of the
stream of consciousness.
Clearly, Davis' music was related more closely to Debussy's impressionism
than to, say, Louis Armstrong.
Davis and Shorter were altering the relative roles of instruments within jazz:
instead of melodic instruments such as trumpet and saxophone accounting for
the music's dynamics over a simple, stable rhythmic foundation, Davis and
Shorter were simplifying their melodic layer to the limit of pure ambience or mood
while shifting most of the dynamics and complexity to Williams' "drumming".
the format was evolving towards the long monolithic jam, as displayed on
the four lengthy tracks of Miles in the Sky (may 1968):
Davis' Stuff (17 minutes) and Country Son (14 minutes),
Shorter's Paraphernalia (12 minutes), featuring guitarist George Benson,
and Williams' Black Comedy.
More importantly, the album began to replace
piano and guitar with electric piano and electric guitar. The drum themselves
were played in a manner that was more "rock" than "jazz".
It was not clear at all that this evolution would end up in coining a new genre,
jazz-rock. But that is what it did on Filles de Kilimanjaro (june 1968),
appropriately subtitled "directions in music" and performed by the quintet of
Davis, Shorter, Williams, Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass.
It was in fact more than just rock and jazz, because the playing introduced
doses of funk and blues as well. And this time all five tracks were signed
by Davis in person: Frelon Brun, Tout de Suite,
Petits Machins, Filles de Kilimanjaro, Mademoiselle Mabry.
Jazz-rock was, in fact, a consequence of modal jazz: modal jazz had blurred
the border between the two genres (and classical music itself). In an age in
which rock musicians were reaching out towards jazz, jazz had inadvertently
reached out towards rock. Their wedding was just a matter of time.
In a Silent Way (february 1969) marked the new beginning. The new electric
octet featured Davis, Shorter, Hancock, Corea, Holland, Williams, John McLaughlin on guitar and Joe Zawinul on organ.
The LP was simply divided in two continuous sides:
Shhh/Peaceful (18 minutes) and
In a Silent Way/It's About That Time (20 minutes).
The next album was a double LP, Bitches Brew (august 1969),
produced by Teo Macero and released in march 1970,
that included six very long jams (up to 27 minutes) performed by
a revolving cast of twelve musicians
(Davis, Shorter, Corea, Zawinul, McLaughlin and Holland from the "old" guard,
and, among the new faces, bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin and drummer Jack DeJohnette).
It became an astronomical success and it made jazz-rock a world-wide commodity.
It was also one of the first albums entirely built by the producer using
studio machines: Macero and Davis glued together snippets of the actual
performances in order to obtain the sound they wanted. The unreleased recordings
by the band were far more straightforward than what appeared on the album.
Davis was again the main composer: Bitches Brew (27 minutes),
Spanish Key (17 minutes),
and Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (14 minutes), influenced by Jimi Hendrix.
Other notable themes were Zawinul's Pharaoh's Dance (20 minutes) and
Shorter's Sanctuary (11 minutes).
But the themes were hardly visible in the finished product.
Davis had created a music of impressionistic soundscapes, that relied on
the beat of rock music only to anchor them down, to avoid that they
disintegrate in empty space.
Teo Macero repeated the trick on A Tribute to Jack Johnson (april 1970),
that was, again, divided simply into the two sides of the LP:
Right Off, that had McLaughlin and young drummer Billy Cobham play together (and except for a stellar solo by Davis, their interplay dominates the piece),
The influence of rock (especially Jimi Hendrix) and funk music was even more overt.
Again, Macero pasted together (within the same piece) material coming from
different sessions by different line-ups (and
even material from previous albums).
Jack DeJohnette, Bennie Maupin, Dave Holland, Sonny Sharrock also featured.
Davis kept elaborating on the new sound for a few years, but was losing all
of his disciples, who went on to spread the word with their own bands:
Shorter and Zawinul formed Weather Report,
Corea formed Return to Forever,
McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
In order to capitalize on Davis' pop-star status, several subsequent
releases compiled material by different line-ups and from different sessions.
Big Fun (january 1970) delivered at least two additions to the jazz-rock canon,
both almost half an hour long:
Shorter's Great Expectations (1969), performed by a mixed Indian and jazz
ensemble (sitar, tabla, trumpet, guitar, piano, clarinet, saxophone, bass, drums
and even Airto Moreira on berimbau)
and Davis' Go Ahead John (1970), performed by a quintet
(Davis, McLaughlin, Holland, DeJohnette, Steve Grossman on saxophone).
Live Evil (february 1970) was split between live and studio material, best
being the live jams (of december 1970) on Davis' Funky Tonk (23 minutes), What I Say (21 minutes) and Sivad (15 minutes), performed by
the septet of Davis, McLaughlin, DeJohnette, Moreira, Michael Henderson on bass, Gary Bartz on saxophones and Keith Jarrett on electric keyboards.
On The Corner (july 1972) was a more aggressive affair, very far from
the studio sophistication of Bitches Brew,
both the four-movement On The Corner (again an Indian, rock, funk
and jazz pastiche)
and the 23-minute Helen Butte/ Mr Freedom X.
It marked the first use of a synthesizer on a Davis album, and the assimilation
of the hip-hop rhythm.
The double-LP Get Up With It (october 1974) compiled even more heterogeneous
sessions, patched together by Macero in even more liberal ways, and extending
beyond the previously sacred limit of 30 minutes:
He Loved Him Madly (1974) and
Calypso Frelimo (1973), both by an octet featuring flutist Dave Liebman and guitarist Pete Cosey.
It also debuted Maiysha.
The 1970s closed with two live double-LP albums that were recorded on the same day by
an ensemble of trumpet, saxophone (Sonny Fortune), two guitars (Pete Cosey on
the Hendrixian solos), bass, percussion and drums:
Agharta (february 1975), that contained the 22-minute
Prelude and the 27-minute Interlude and further increase the
dose of rock and funk influences,
and especially Pangaea (same session), simply divided in
Zimbabwe (41 minutes) and Gondwana (47 minutes),
two orgies of monster grooves and delirious solos.
Davis was largely missing in action during the second half of the 1970s, due to illness.
He returned with two albums for sextet (or more) that featured
Bill Evans on saxophones and Marcus Miller on bass:
The Man With the Horn (may 1981), with Back Seat Betty and Ursula,
and We Want Miles (october 1981), with Jean-Pierre, Fast Track,
Kix and a side-long version of Gershwin's My Man's Gone Now.
Despite popular success, the albums that followed were the most mediocre
of his career.
Star People (january 1983), notable for the twin guitars of John Scofield and Mike Stern and for Davis' first use of the synthesizer,
Decoy (september 1983), an even more electronic work,
seemed to exist only because of the title-track, as the other tracks were embarrassing.
You're Under Arrest (january 1985) was perhaps his lowest point, playing two pop songs and Scofield's You're Under Arrest.
Aura (february 1985), released in 1988, was much better, but it was a performance for big band (including McLaughlin and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson) of Danish flugelhornist Palle Mikkelbourg's ten-movement neoclassical suite Aura.
Tutu (february 1986), a collection of short pieces, was a collaboration with producer Marcus Miller (who played and overdubbed several instruments himself).
The format of Miller providing the soundscape for Davis' improvisations was much better realized on Siesta (january 1987), the soundtrack to a movie.
Amandla (december 1989) was a more traditional group effort, but Miller still composed most of the music.
His last album, Doo-Bop (february 1991) was a collaboration with a rapper, a saxophonist and a keyboardist.
The regression back to the pop song and short pieces was surprising for a
musician who used to play 30-minute jams.
Davis died in 1991.
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