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The Boston Phoenix Note Perfect

The latest Miles box is a gas.

By Jon Garelick

MAY 4, 1998:  The Miles Davis Quintet of the mid and late '60s made great, "abstract" jazz pieces with the concision and immediacy of pop hits. At times, the performances seemed to reach for a bottomless depth -- in their solos, in the constantly shifting rhythmic patterns and the balance of deliberation and spontaneous discovery. And yet that internal complexity was matched by a downright hookiness in the simple outer shape. Even if you couldn't exactly hum the themes of Wayne Shorter classics like "E.S.P," "Footprints," "Orbits," "Dolores," "Nefertiti," and "Pinocchio," with their odd, modal intervals and random phrase lengths, they nonetheless had a design the ear could hold. Here was high art and great pop -- as good as opera.

The new collection Miles Davis Quintet 1965-'68 (Columbia, six CDs) begins with such a blast of perfect tunes that it at first seems inexhaustible. After years of playing the same jazz standards -- some of which he had made standard: "Walkin'," "So What," "Stella by Starlight," "Milestones," " 'Round Midnight" -- Miles entered the studio with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams and turned his music 180 degrees. To greater notice, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane had already turned jazz on its head. And in the clubs, with this same band, Miles pretty much stuck to the standard repertoire of hits. But in the studio he was fomenting his own revolution.

Could jazz be any "free-er" than this? You could say that by 1965, Coleman, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, and others had jumped clear of conventions that Miles still clung to, but it's with the Quintet that discussions of "avant-garde" versus "mainstream" become meaningless. In pieces that Shorter, Miles, and the others wrote (because everyone in this group wrote tunes for it), melody and rhythm rather than standard chord progressions tended to cue "changes" and the soloists' bold modal flights. The band "rehearsed" in the studio by playing the melody through a couple of times, finding the right tempo, and then going for it.

You can get an idea of the radicalness of the Quintet's conception by comparing one of its most famous numbers, "Freedom Jazz Dance," which was recorded in October 1966, with the original version by the tune's author, Eddie Harris, from August 1965 (Ron Carter plays bass on both). Harris's piece is an attractive "soul jazz" number built on a funky piano vamp and riffing solos. It was a hit in its own right. But in jazz history it has been all but obliterated by the velocity and daring of the Davis Quintet's "cover."

The Davis "Freedom Jazz" begins with the roll and kick of Tony Williams's snare and bass drum and the insistent snip-snip of his hi-hat cymbal. Miles makes a false entrance with the trumpet, stops, Wayne Shorter's tenor sax joins him. The melody proceeds in fits and starts, with spare piano-chord accents from Hancock and embellishments by Carter. Here, as in other pieces by the Quintet, the false start, a "mistake," becomes part of the composition. Tony Williams becomes by virtue of his all-over conception a de facto "arranger," setting not only tempo but mood and shape with his accents and the insistent need of here a snipping hi-hat and there an unbroken press roll. Combine these with the off-accent deep-chest pulse of his kick drum and the effect was that of a wave always on the verge of breaking, power caught on the crest of restraint and release, a need never quite fulfilled.

Williams was matched by Carter, who ratcheted the tension by sometimes hanging behind the drummer's beat, sometimes walking easily with it, or reversing the tempo with an arsenal of double stops, drones, glisses, and countermelodies. Each countermove by Carter only emphasized the unrelenting forward thrust of the music.

The heart of the collection is Miles Smiles, one of the Quintet's six original albums, along with various alternate takes and later releases that are collected here. Everywhere deep churning rhythmic textures are contained by shiny surface compositions. Although the solos are daring, original, it's not the solos you remember but the performances as a whole. Your attention is drawn equally in several directions at once: Shorter's tenor, with its combination of rhythmic muscle and melodic lyricism; Hancock's right-hand-only propulsive lines; Williams's engine-room stoking; Carter's constantly inventive riffs. And Miles's "mistakes" continue to become part of the composition -- in an uptempo take of Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy," he follows a pattern into the upper register, invents a new riff after he's all but expended his breath, then hears something lower and flubs a note on the way down to get it. Peeling rubber on the turn.

The rhythmic excitement, the compositional integrity, of the collection's first half gives way to longer, "sectional" pieces in the last three CDs, and the first appearance of electric piano, bass, and guitar. Half-digested pop funk elements enter the music. There are even a couple of duds. The Quintet was on the way to fostering what would become known as "jazz rock fusion" when played by a mess of crappy prog-rock Miles imitators. But for Miles it was the beginning of the next frontier of his personal avant-garde.

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