My sweet girlfriend, Melissa, gave me a new Miles Davis album for my birthday. She’d heard about it on NPR and turned me on to it, I’d loved it, she logged that information, I forgot about it, and she got it for me. Such is the way it goes with group improvisation.
The album is a live (three cd’s and a dvd) album pulled from four or five shows taped in Europe late in 1967. The kwintet–that’s how it’s spelled in the handwritten tape notes from the Antwerp date, whether by cuteness or language barrier–is what’s often referred to as Miles’ “second great Quintet.” This is the quintet that ran from late 1964 (the finest year in jazz, frankly) to early 1968 (the year I tumbled out of my mother’s belly). In fact, I was percolating in there while these fellas were blasting this amazing music across Europe.
Maybe that’s why I love it. I picture mom at wild Breakfast at Tiffany’s-like parties with Thelonious Monk blasting on the phonograph. There she is over there in that fancy new wig! She’s got cigarette holder in one hand; a martini in the other; pearls around her neck bobbing against polkadots on her dress; and me, bulging beneath her empire waist dress, grooving to the energetic and rhythmic pulse of it all, just wishing I could snap my fingers.
In any case, this is why it’s a perfect birthday present! It’s my very musical conception captured on bootlegged tape. It’s also perfect because it’s really damn good. Here’s why:
The quintet consists of Miles, of course, on trumpet; Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone; and the rhythm section I refer to collectively as herbironnantony because the way they play together belies the notion that there are three separate people involved. They are, however, Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass and a really big mustache in these sessions) and Tony Williams (drums and explosive teenage masculine energy). But at this point, after a few years together, they all five played so fluidly as a single unit that it would be more accurate to say that Miles played the quintet than the trumpet. And he played it brilliantly.
There’s a Buzz Lightyear animated film from a few years back where these little dome-headed creature things–that were probably out-of-work Dow scrub bubbles–all function in lock step unison, a phenomenon known to them as “unimind.” It’s the kind of silent communication we experience with long time friends or, say, life partners. (This is probably the main reason Melissa got it for me: it’s an art-world example of our real world unimind. She didn’t say this when she gave it to me, but that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? She shouldn’t have to.)
Back to Miles: They’d achieved such a brilliant level of unimind-ness by 1967 that I now think the whole unit should be captured in a single collective name. How about calling him Miles Wayne Herbironnantoni? At least for the Italian shows? Or we could just go with Kwintet which is probably the Dutch word for unimind anyway.
I listened with astonishment through the three cds as the gentlemen ran just a handful of tunes night after night, ran them without stopping, and played them differently each night. Sometimes, for instance, Monk’s rich ballad, ‘Round Midnight, would scream out of the opening head at a burning quadruple tempo, other times not. Sometimes the band would drop out from under one remaining player, other times they’d escalate a frenzied accompaniment. In all cases though–every tune, every night–Miles would just step up to the mic at some point and launch into another tune without wrapping up the previous one. And the band would move right there with him.
Listening to this, I imagine Miles running around like a mad conductor. I imagine smiles and cues and nods of appreciation among the other players as Tony’s polyrhythmic drum fill–mirrored by Ron–instantly and experimentally transforms a mid-tempo waltz into a burnin’ hard bop feel. I imagine sophisticated signals dictating bass-and-sax-only, or just-piano.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I finally got to the dvd and watched the Kwintet make this music happen. Here’s how it goes: They walk out on stage, land at their stations just in time for Miles to blast out the opening riff of his tune Agitation and then they’re off and running. Miles usually takes the first solo and then leaves the stage. The other four continue on, exhibiting this crazy psychic and psychotic experimentation through the balance of the tune, and do so without ever making eye contact or smiling. They appear absolutely deliberate in their avoidance of eye balls and teeth. They appear, in fact, every bit as focused and humorless as a concert timpanist counting endless measures until the next prescribed ba-boom.
Minutes later a stern Miles will return and play the opening notes of Wayne’s Footprints or the standard ballad I Fall in Love Too Easily and that will keep the serious pack busy for a few more minutes.
After a few tunes in this fashion, they’re done. Exit stage left. Next town, next theater, next reinvention of old material.
I wonder if they talked on the bus. Did they hold “post mortem” meetings about what worked and what didn’t? Did they strategize for the next night’s show? Did they eat together? Did they make jokes? Was the seriousness just performance schtick, was it pure aural concentration, or was it simply the result of years of telepathic co-creation the way an aging couple can silently navigate a shared Thursday.
Now that I think about it, it just makes sense. Expecting Ron to smile at Tony, or Wayne to cue Herbie, would be like expecting some external interaction between a brilliant dancer’s left foot and her right. Feet don’t smile, and they don’t look at each other. They just dance.
This band wrapped up the Euro tour by Thanksgiving, and they disbanded the following year. By my June entry into the world, Miles had launched into the electronic realms of music that represented the balance of his musical career until his final recording session and his death, both in 1991. He never turned back, either. And now I see these performances as his exclamation point on a music that he had evolved since sharing the bandstand with Charlie Parker in the mid ’40′s. Though I doubt if he thought of it this way. For him it was probably just music-making. Scrub bubbles would come and go, they’d sparkle up acoustic or electric instruments, and they’d always progress the world of jazz toward some new truth. Next band, next genre, next reinvention of jazz.
My truth is: I still love his mid-sixties music the most. I think this Kwintet is one of the best bands ever. And I think this was a fabulous birthday present! Don’t mention it to Melissa, though. I’m sure she already knows.