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A little about the artist:
When John Coltrane left Miles’ band in 1961, a transitional period began. Miles spent a few years looking for a new saxophonist. He went on to record with Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Sam Rivers, and more, but there were no lasting collaborations. Finally, in 1965, Miles had his new second-hand man, Wayne Shorter. With Shorter on tenor, and members of the rhythm section culled from previous bands, Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet was formed.
This quintet, one of the strongest in 1960s jazz, is as good on records as they appear on paper. Miles and Shorter of course make a formidable frontline, and Shorter is also an incredibly good composer. Much of the bands material was written by Wayne. The rhythm section is phenomenal. Ron Carter’s beautiful bass tone and creative lines. Tony Williams’ incredibly expressive and abstract drumming. These, matched with Herbie Hancock’s exceptional rhythmic and harmonic suggestion are the perfect backdrop for the two horns in their explorative playing. This was a truly remarkable band.
This 1966 album is the second that Miles’ Second Great Quintet released, after the important, if relatively under-developed “E.S.P." This album took the ideas first presented on that album, and built upon them. I believe this classic, recorded over two October days, may be the Second Great Quintet’s best. The band had grown closer to each other musically, and meshed better as a band. The recordings from 1965 to 1968 from Miles’ band are probably the best around for getting fans of fusion into acoustic jazz. I find that the very mysterious and adventurous nature of these recordings appeals to fusion fans who have a misconception about jazz in general, viewing it as “Guys in suits blowing horns”
Let's break it down track by track (composers are in brackets, playing times in parenthesis):
[Shorter] (4:41) The album starts out very abruptly, with Miles’ trumpet, Wayne’s sax, and Tony on drums. The rest of the band comes in in the middle of the uptempo melody, which is incredibly short, lasting less than 30 seconds before Miles goes off on the first solo. His trumpet is unmuted, and very bold. Behind his improv, Ron walks and Tony expressively accompanies on drums. Tony’s style is very open-ended, providing texture and rhythmic contrast, more than it provides an easy to follow pulse. Miles’ solo is relatively short, and Shorter comes in to improvise on this composition of his. After Shorter’s solo, Hancock plays. Hancock hasn’t been providing any accompaniment on solos so far, so it’s nice to hear him take one of his own. He’s a fantastic piano player, and I think I like his solo on this song best next to Miles'. With three solos, this song feels way too short, and before you know it, they’re playing Shorter’s brief melody once again. The song ends with a few notes from Carter. Fantastic, but I would have liked to hear a longer performance of this one. 4.8/5.
[Davis] (5:55) The next track starts with Hancock’s piano, playing a flurry of notes. Miles comes in with a slow, melancholy melody. Tony’s brushwork here is excellent, and Ron’s rich bass tone works marvelously for ballads. Unlike the last tune, Hancock is adding his piano to the mix the whole song through. After Miles makes his statement, Shorter takes a solo. The way he plays in the upper-register of his instrument is gorgeous. The rhythm section and Wayne sort of weave around each other, working like a single musician. Hancock takes the next solo, and you can tell he’s been itching to stand out front. His solo is full of swells and diminuendos, and once again I think it’s a big highlight of the tune. Thankfully, he gets to really stretch out and play longer than he did on “Orbits”. Miles’ muted trumpet re-enters after Hancock’s solo, and things are wrapped up nicely. I have a thing for ballads, so you can call me biased, but I think this is just incredible. 5/5
[Shorter] (9:56) This song is a lot different from what’s come before. It is in a slow 6/4 time, and it has a real free-flowing nature. It is also the first to feature a repeated figure in the bassline. If you’ve ever heard “Olilloqui Valley" by Herbie Hancock (also featuring Carter on bass), the two basslines sound suspiciously similar. What’s also great about this tune is that they actually use it as a launching pad to play for 10 minutes. The last two tracks felt a bit too short, and here everything is in full flower, taking the time needed to develop ideas. Miles takes the first solo, and his spacious style suits the tune perfectly. Hancock’s inflections are incredibly thoughtful, always complementing the soloist as if he knows exactly what they are going to play next. This song features some of Tony’s most expressive playing. He switches meters effortlessly, and brings the tune from calmness, to a rolling boil, to a crashing tidal wave and back again. After Miles’ solo, Shorter solos, following the same solo order that the rest of the album has. He actually sticks a part of the head into his solo, which is interesting. It’s nice to hear that he's still aware of the written melody, as far as things sometimes stray. Hancock’s solo is very odd. Filled with long pauses, and jangling chording, it is probably the least comfortable to listen to. I like it. The horns return to the head, with its slurred quintuplet rhythm and rising and falling dynamics. After that, there is a drum solo, which is still set in time by Carter’s bass riff, but everyone else drops out. Then the head returns again, and begins to fade out. Perfect. 5/5
[Shorter] (6:29) This next tune starts with Shorter, Tony, and Ron. Soon, Miles joins in to repeat the melody that was just played. This is a very short head, much like “Orbits". Miles again takes the first solo. This is a very uptempo track. I like during Miles’ solo how Ron plays at the very top of his instrument’s range. His walking lines are always inventive, and would be interesting enough to listen to, even if you stripped everything else away. As you might have guessed, Shorter takes the next solo. His solo is filled to the brim with notes, and long connected phrasing. It’s perhaps the most bop-like playing anyone’s done on the whole record. Hancock’s solo is similarly cramped and tense, with a lot of notes crammed into each phrase, and little space between these phrases. Miles and Shorter play the head again, then there’s a little bass and drum part. Miles plays the melody alone, and Shorter comes in in the middle. They seem to like trading it around. The tune ends after they have repeated this part many, many times. Cool. 4.5/5
Freedom Jazz Dance
[Eddie Harris] (7:16) This song reminds me of something Eric Dolphy may have recorded. The head has very short phrases, and wide intervals. Miles’ solo takes a similar approach, including a very liberal use of space. Hancock’s piano seems to be chasing Miles, as it inches closer and closer between each of his phrases. When Shorter solos, Hancock seems to back off a bit. Shorter takes a more abstract approach than Miles did, and it largely works, but in places it gets a bit aimless. The main, bounding melody returns, but for only one phrase, and then Hancock plays his solo. His probably makes the least use of space, but it’s as effective in this context as the more disjointed playing of Miles and Wayne. The song ends, after the head returns a last time, with just drums and bass. Excellent. 4.7/5
Ginger Bread Boy
[Jimmy Heath] (7:45) Drumfest 1966. Tony bangs and bangs at the opening of this tune, with Miles’ squawking trumpet line jubilantly bouncing on top. This is a really fast tune, and Miles plays his fiercest and most exuberantly here. This is another song with no piano accompaniment on the solo sections. I love Ron’s walking line here, though. It makes use of the entire range of the instrument, or so it seems. Shorter takes an approach similar to Miles’ on his solo. Possibly Shorter’s best solo. It makes sense that the solos would burn here, because the rhythm section is absolutely on fire. Hancock finally gets to play after Shorter’s solo, and his is a bit more apprehensive. I think it works, though. This is an incredibly exciting tune, and a perfect way to end an album. 5/5.
This is an excellent album from one of the most fruitful eras of Miles Davis’ career. It features an intense group of young musicians finding new ways to explore modal music, and their brand of free jazz mixed with hard bop. Highly recommended.