Reflecting on Miles Davis’ so-called Second Great Quintet to director Mark Obenhaus, Herbie Hancock recalled that “when people were hearing us, they were hearing the avant-garde on one hand, and they were hearing the history of jazz that led up to it on the other hand – because Miles was that history. He was that link. We were sort of walking a tightrope with the kind of experimenting we were doing in music, not total experimentation, but we used to call it ‘controlled freedom.’” What exactly did Hancock mean by “controlled freedom,” you might ask? Thanks to the efforts of producers Michael Cuscuna, Richard Seidel and Steve Berkowitz at Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, an ample answer has been released for the very first time on the premiere volume of Miles Davis: The Bootleg Series. The first Bootleg Series was launched for Bob Dylan, with a similar program following for Johnny Cash (the third volume of which arrives in stores next month). Now, one of the most significant figures in jazz is the recipient of the Bootleg Series treatment, which rescues significant rare and unreleased material from the musical underground.
Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1967 (Columbia/Legacy 88697 94053, 2011) may be one of the most historically important Bootleg releases to date. A natural sequel to the milestone Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 box set, Live in Europe 1967 features the same line-up of Davis (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (alto saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums) and Ron Carter (bass). But whereas that release captured the group early in their time together, Live in Europe presents them near the end of their landmark run as a unit, taking their material to stratospheric heights, indeed, likely as far as it could possibly go.
No less than five complete concert sets have been included, three on audio CD (from Belgium, Denmark and France) and two more on DVD (from Germany and Sweden). All were recorded in October and November 1967 and remastered by Mark Wilder from original broadcast sources. Of these sets, the Copenhagen, Denmark show has never even been bootlegged. Each finds the Quintet challenging preconceived notions of jazz, blazing new musical frontiers with a freeing open-ended approach to improvisation and less emphasis on conventions of melody. By the time of this tour at the end of the Second Great Quintet’s final year together, Davis was already known for his shifting styles, from cool jazz (see the Birth of the Cool sessions) to bebop, hard bop and modal jazz, alongside the pioneering Bill Evans. The immense growth between the Plugged Nickel and these European dates is immediately evident when just comparing the set lists. The former still offered a number of accessible standards: Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell,” Edward Heyman and Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love,” Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” Johnny Mercer, Jacques Prevert and Joseph Kosma’s “Autumn Leaves.” (Another early live album is Miles in Berlin, recorded in September 1964 and released in February 1965, which documents one of the group’s first concerts together, with songs like “So What,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Stella by Starlight” still in the book.) For the European tour in 1967, most of those chestnuts had given way to compositions credited to Davis (“Agitation,” “No Blues”) and the other Quintet members: Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and “Masqualero,” Herbie Hancock’s “Riot.”
Each member brought his own individual personality and style to the concerts, and by 1967, were a tight, almost supernaturally attuned group. Davis hired the rhythm section of Hancock, Carter and Williams back in 1963, but it wasn’t until 1964 that the group gelled with the recruitment of Shorter. In his 1989 autobiography Miles, Davis called Shorter the “idea person, the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did.” Already known for his work with the Jazz Messengers and his knack for both abstraction and lyricism, Shorter ignited the group. But each member had considerable experience before joining Davis’ group, and all would go on to further accomplishments once they split. Davis deemed Carter and Hancock “the anchors” and Williams “the fire, the creative spark,” describing himself as “just the leader who put us all together.” At the core of the group was the members’ shared feeling for hard-bop. So while that influence and style are recognizable on the European recordings, the group was defining a new vocabulary in improvisation and accompaniment. On pieces where a repeated chorus structure might have been utilized to lend shape to an improvisation, the Davis Quintet could depart from this structure entirely, or alternately disguise or draw attention to it in a new way. As such, the music on Europe 1967 isn’t as unrecognizable compared to Davis’ early work as, say, John Coltrane’s contemporary works were. Davis would wait a couple more years until the radical shift of Bitches Brew to draw a line in the sand that alienated many of his staunchest fans. Make no mistake, however; these three discs preserve unconventional, dreamlike music in a context that insures it’s spellbinding.
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Each of the five sets opens with “Agitation,” a Davis composition from E.S.P. (1965), the first of six albums recorded by this Quintet. It’s also the only song from the LP played live; it was also played at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel in December 1965 and remained in Davis’ live repertoire through late 1969. It’s followed each time by Hancock’s jazz standard “Footprints,” which continues the edgy sound and relies on the exploration of a single motif. In each set, the Quintet was comfortable launching into a (deceptively) formless, flowing single musical statement. In other words, the songs weren’t delineated with any kind of formal break, segueing from one to the next. But the placement of each piece of music was no accident.
“Footprints” most frequently gives way to Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” in the third slot each night; of course, this was the song that gave Davis’ very first Columbia recording its title. Each time, Davis begins with his aching melancholy tone before launching into an explosive display that varied each night, the music as well as the emotion ebbing and flowing. (The lengthy Paris Jazz Festival set includes both “Round Midnight” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the song that takes its place on the German broadcast.) The set list from that point was a bit more fluid, with “No Blues” leading into “Masqualero” in Denmark and Paris, and “Riot” in Belgium. (Both songs, again, were played in Paris.) “Masqualero” appears later in the set in Belgium, with some thrilling camaraderie on display from Hancock and Williams. “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Gingerbread Boy” and “Walkin’” are among the songs that appear in the sets before Davis inevitably draws each performance to a close with a brief statement of “The Theme.” In each performance it’s clear that these five men played as a single unit, not as a group of soloists. In addition, they were so well-versed in the “rules” that they could break them with variation after dizzying variation. Even the older material sounded new at the hands of this quintet.
Perhaps the best way to understand the “controlled freedom” described by Hancock is to watch the DVD, as integral a part of this set as the three audio CDs. Previously available only as part of Columbia’s 70-CD/1-DVD The Complete Columbia Album Collection, the DVD includes the only known footage of this quintet performing together, from November 7, 1967 in Germany and October 31, 1967 in Sweden. (These sets are perversely presented on the DVD in reverse chronological order!) There’s a delicious irony watching these men, all clad formally, and cutting loose with their instruments as their weapons of choice.
The camera occasionally catches a glimpse of one man acknowledging another, but more often all that’s visible is an intense connection between musician and instrument, perhaps the E.S.P. that gave the group’s first album its title! Most of the time, all of the physicality is subtle: Hancock’s head tilted down or cocked to the left, Williams’ impossibly relaxed gait, Davis calmly stalking around the stage. During the November 7 performance in Germany, Davis’ opening statement of “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” with Hancock’s spare notes behind him, brings a brief peace and a wistful, longing. Davis remains in his reverie at the crook of the piano, then Carter and Williams pick up the tempo; the entrance of Shorter makes the mood meditative once more, but just briefly. The intuition as to each entrance and exit is nothing short of awesome!
The audience sometimes breaks into spontaneous applause during the performance, as on a furious run through Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” but there’s very little at the end of a (deconstructed) song. The applause, alas, always subsides quickly, as the five men have already moved on! It’s hard to savor one particular moment. The German concert features a brief introduction, while the Swedish footage jumps right into the music; on both shows, the Quintet members quickly walk offstage following “The Theme.” It hardly seems fair; there’s very little acknowledgment of the audience on either show. When, as in Sweden, the moody “Round Midnight” was followed by the buoyant “Gingerbread Boy,” it’s clear that the audience was invested in, and attuned to, the music.
Both evenings are well-shot, with good use of close-up (watch Hancock’s fingers gracefully gliding over the Bechstein piano’s keys!), cross-fades and cuts. The camera is almost constantly moving on both broadcasts, and thanks to the remastered picture quality, it’s as if a veil of dust has been removed from the video.
The physical package is as comprehensive as the audio and video content. Ashley Kahn offers background on the Quintet in the detailed liner notes, and producers Cuscuna and Seidel supply a brief essay on the technical aspects of the set. The 24-page, stapled booklet is free-standing in the 4-panel digipak, with no dedicated slot. This is a deviation from the slipcase style traditionally used for the Dylan releases. If the full set might be too much for a casual fan, a single disc of highlights is also available. Best of the Bootleg Volume 1 cherry-picks selections from all three performances on CD.
Live in Europe 1967 marks an auspicious start for this program, and indeed, for the potential of releases focusing on other periods in Davis’ long career, as well as for series dedicated to other top-tier Columbia jazz artists such as Dave Brubeck. Make no mistake; this is unconventional music that demands a listener’s focus. Full benefit might only be achieved if the listener can commit to all three discs, playing them back to back to gain an appreciation of how the music’s changing contours from night to night. In Miles, Davis somewhat caustically wrote that “there were some live recordings that I guess Columbia will release when they think they can make the most money – probably after I’m dead.” Davis passed away on September 28, 1991, so it’s taken 20 years for this release to come to light. But given Davis’ evident pride in this period of his career, I’m content to believe that he’s smiling.