To my mind, this is Hancock’s finest long player. It’s the last album from his Mwandishi Sextet. Most impressive was that this was the first for his new major-label contract on Columbia. Different times… Like the last two sextet albums, this is less concerned with melody and conventional song structure, but now things are getting funkier. Influences from what Miles Davis was up to around this time are pronounced. This is up there with the very best that the fusion era had to offer.
In the 1980s there was an unmistakable “conservative” trend in jazz. At its worst, this involved musicians picking some arbitrary point in time and disregarding all of jazz history beyond that point (Amish-style). But not all music of this nature was so reactionary. David Murray‘s Ming is often cited as the foundational document for another approach, one that took elements of the past and built upon them without being beholden to them. Another example would be James Newton‘s The African Flower (The Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn), with a bit more restrained tone. Jemeel Moondoc’s Nostalgia in Times Square fits into this continuum. Moondoc was a veteran of Cecil Taylor‘s student bands in the 1970s, and had jumped over to New York City where he enmeshed himself in the loft jazz scene there. He has a pretty clear tone and identifiable voice. It’s lyrical and precise, with an undercurrent of ironic humor. The whole album takes off from older jazz styles, kind of a swinging hard bop form, but adds to that more modern solos. Each soloist is free to deploy unusual squeaks, intervals and harmonies, but the music generally is anchored in a more defined rhythm and flirts with a somewhat conventional melodic and harmonic base much more than the free music of the preceding two decades. Moondoc has a great band. Bassist William Parker would return to the same framework two decades later with albums like Sound Unity and Petit oiseau. If this album has a flaw it’s that it occasionally feels a little rough around the edges, like the band could have used some more time to play together before recording, as sometimes soloists seem to clash in ways not fully intended. But that’s a petty concern with what is generally a very good album.
A huge leap forward in the evolution of what became known as jazz “fusion”. Really one of the finer albums of Miles Davis’ long and storied career. What made Filles de Kilimanjaro such an advance over Miles in the Sky was the way it subdued and extended the song structures while at the same time elevating the throb of the bass and the kick of the drumming, those seemingly contradictory impulses held together by punchier bursts of horn and keyboard playing that drifted somewhat away from the spotlight and integrated themselves into the songs. The vamps drive the songs but also leave room for modulation and shifts into improvisational flourishes. The bass, drums and keyboards trade off each other (see “Tout de suite”) to create tension and forward momentum. The wind instruments aren’t presented as prominent soloists like in the past, but more as the equals of the rhythm section, which gets to rise to the forefront on a shared basis rather than being relegated to a merely supportive role. This may resemble traditional jazz more than the next few albums, like In a Silent Way and the epochal Bitches Brew, etc, etc. There is still a clear purpose and distinctive sound achieved that refuses to step back from an increasingly militant — yet hopefully positive — mindset. Most significantly, this album decisively tipped the balance away from traditional jazz and toward fusion. This one is just (barely) a half step behind the very best of Davis’ records, which is saying a lot when it comes to arguably the single greatest recording artist of the 20th Century. This also makes a pretty good entry point to the fusion era.
Miles in the Sky gives the impression that it is pandering to psychedelic pop/rock audiences, or that it is just a tentative and transitional effort nestled between more effective recordings of markedly different styles. But such appearances are deceiving. Miles Davis and his “second great quintet” were clearly expanding their horizons, and certainly were incorporating more elements of rock (and soul jazz). Yet the results, however mellow the mood tends to be, are effective. The album is often categorized as the worst of the Miles Davis Quintet’s late-1960s albums. And it probably is. But that says very little, because that band was releasing one classic after another. This is still a very fine album. And if nothing else, this might be drummer Tony Williams‘ best performance on record (perhaps rivaled only by his efforts on Sorcerer). The entire album is a showcase for his relentlessly creative drumming, which never seems to stagnate or rest on repetitive structures yet somehow always seems engaging and connected to the flow of each song. Keyboardist Herbie Hancock is clearly enthusiastic about the push toward rock music, though saxophonist Wayne Shorter, while his playing is good, seems the most hesitant about shifting away from the style he used in prior years.
The title track here represents just about the peak of Miles’ second great quintet. With Miles and Wayne Shorter playing a weary melody at a rather slow tempo, Tony Williams punctuates the song with sudden, quick fills and accents that seem to transform the entire song into a sketch of something great and elusive, beyond the ennui suggested by the horns. Miles and Shorter mostly play the same melodic line over and over and over again, shifting registers and shifting harmonics in a way that tends toward the dissonant and existential. Herbie Hancock‘s accompaniment is perfectly spare, appearing as if out of nowhere to play exactly and only the right notes. Ron Carter on bass is active and unmoored from any sort of role as a mere timekeeper in the rhythm section. There is a looseness to the performance, clearly influenced by the free jazz movement, but still bounded and organized. Most significantly, the structure mediates the interactions of the players so that the lines between open (free) improvisation and pre-written composition blur, and all the players seem to have an equal –if still varied — role. It’s a magnificent recording. I have never completely warmed up to the album as a whole, mostly because of the songwriting featured in the latter part of the album, but I can’t deny this is a great offering. To get a complete picture of Miles and his many groups, you’ll need investigate Nefertiti at some point, but Miles Smiles and E.S.P. should perhaps be investigated first.
This is an album I never quite understood, at least until recently. Future Davis sideman Tony Williams loved it; I think he said it was a favorite. Others love it too. But why? For the most part, it’s fairly straightforward hard bop. I guess, in retrospect, the late 1950s weren’t exactly a fertile time for jazz music (other than for the likes of Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, that is, none of whom achieved any meaningful commercial success). It was generally a low point. Sure, there were some good albums that appeared at that time, but most players were still milking either hard bop or cool styles for all they were worth. The free players who hit big in the sixties either hadn’t fully developed their styles yet, or, more importantly, hadn’t found many recording or performance opportunities yet. Coltrane is here. Yet Coltrane was a good but unremarkable player in Davis’ first great quintet. He is starting to show signs of what he achieved on early albums like Giant Steps, but it was a few years after Milestones that Coltrane really became Coltrane.
What occurred to me recently was that this album represents and complacency and bourgeois aspirations of Miles and his associates. While the rollicking “Two Bass Hit” features a fun and playful riff, most of the material here relies on up-tempo rhythms to mask simplistic and thin ideas. Above all this music presents itself as the pinnacle of something — rather than, as history would later prove it to be, an anachronistic holdover from the be-bop era, sustained only by the suppression of the likes of Ornette Coleman. Put another way, this music presents a linear view of history as a linear march of progress in a particular direction, and obscures how it really is music that participates in a system of institutional/tribal power hierarchies. When Miles landed at Columbia Records, he was merely promoted within a fixed universe of possibilities. To put this criticism in a more substantive context, this is music still clinging to the model of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, in which a black man like Miles was trying to prove himself to be talented, within an established institutional framework (similar to the “Talented Tenth” theory), whereas in the future, after the legal end of the Jim Crow era in America, there would be a great recognition that individual accomplishment within the existing system wasn’t enough — the whole system needed to be changed. Of course, eventually Miles got bored with this, and his boredom led to much better things that did challenge the whole system.
Miles’ first album for Columbia Records is a winner. While not quite as inspired as his last recordings for Prestige, which included the excellent Cookin’, Relaxin’ and Workin’ discs and for contractual reasons were released only later, this is a mere step behind them, and benefits from more high fidelity recording technology. The great advantage of the Prestige sessions is that they sound like those of a band that has nothing to lose and everything to gain from superb, heartfelt performances that follow their own muse. By contrast, ‘Round About Midnight sound more like the work of a talented band seeking to prove that the performers are worthy of the “big time”, so they show more deference. Anyway, this remains a very worthy collection of hard bop jazz — and album jacket covers hardly get cooler than this one.
A collection of mostly standards. John Gilmore‘s playing on tenor sax is just lovely. The title track, “My Favorite Things,” “Nature Boy” and “Tenderly” are particularly notable. If you liked Bad and Beautiful this should also please you. What happens here, though, is that more Ra-isms are thrown into the mix. Often that is achieved with jumps between styles. So, for instance, exotic collective percussion is set starkly against mellow soloing. The group may only be blowing off steam with these tunes, but this is still eminently pleasant if slightly off-kilter jazz.
Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet is an unlikely candidate to be one of Davis’s best albums. But it ends up being precisely that. It was drawn from two 1956 recording sessions that spawned a total of four With the Miles Davis Quintet albums made to fulfill a recording contract as Davis jumped to a major label (and kicked off one of the most productive and inspired artist-label relationships, well, ever). There are a few people who rate Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet as the best. But, to put it bluntly, they are wrong! Cookin’ blasts through more up-tempo numbers, but lacks the all-star firepower of Bags Groove.
This album is rooted in the hard bop tradition, but with a more laid-back and sophisticated demeanor. Yet it doesn’t ever truly venture into “cool jazz” territory. Relaxin’ is basically a perfect title for it. This is just exceptionally cool (read: hip) music.
The record label Prestige had a somewhat ignoble history and shady reputation. Its publishing policies were unfavorable to musician songwriters, so most Prestige albums feature all standards. The label also did not pay for rehearsals, so their albums leaned toward a “live in the studio” approach. Davis’ 1956 Prestige sessions lack nothing despite the absence of rehearsals. They featured Davis’ working group and they played these songs with a familiarity and solid improvisational rapport.
This band became known as Miles’ “first great quintet”. The rhythm section of “Philly” Joe Jones (d), Paul Chambers (b), and Red Garland (p) was the very definition of “solid”. There is no egocentric showiness. They just show up and play these songs like motherfuckers. Notably, Garland had a distinctive style that pared back the chord blocking and focused on more minimal and melodic lines, closer to the wind instruments.
John Coltrane (ts) is here, and of his early recordings as a sideman this is one that more than most points toward what he achieved later in his solo career. That is to say that he has an unobtrusive confidence and sense of wonder in his playing that is wonderfully effective, even if he plays merely a tangential role here and those qualities are just starting to peek out.
Miles, for his part, plays decisively while retaining a sensitive touch. His Harmon (wah-wah) mute, played stemless, features prominently. Davis always had a fiery, stubborn attitude, subdued somewhat by an introverted personality. He channels all that raging energy into this batch of songs in a way that displays an absolute mastery of conventional devices and an impeccable sensitivity to tone/mood. Perhaps it was the context of recording songs in a large volume that gave Miles the chance to playing without having to prove anything to anybody — otherwise something that seemed like a major preoccupation of his in his early career.
Basically, if the opener “If I Were a Bell” grabs you, get ready for a whole album with much the same effect. Frankly, all but the album Steamin’ from these sessions are great albums — and even that lesser one is good enough. For what it is worth, this reviewer reaches for Relaxin’ far more than any other pre-1960s Davis album. Maybe you will too.
Another rather lo-fi live Arkestra recording from the 1970s. The percussion and the horns en masse sound particularly muddy, which does the music no favors. You have to be patient with this one, as it starts rather inauspiciously. The highlights are some smoking solos from Sun Ra on synthesizer, plus some vocals and sax soloing. The most intriguing moments come mostly in the middle of the album, on “Journey Through the Outer Darkness,” the perennial favorite “Enlightenment,” and “Unknown Kohoutek.” The vocals really kick in at the tail end of the album too, being the driving force on “Outer Space E.M (Emergency).” Some very good stuff here for fans, especially those who go for the noisier elements of Sun Ra’s work, though the unconverted will probably want to look elsewhere as, thankfully, you can find even better Arkestra recordings not unlike this fairly easily these days.