'The fall' was really evolution Music: Newly released recordings show that Miles Davis' shift from hard bop to jazz/rock fusion was not the fall from grace some called it, but actually an extension of his musical ideas.

March 15, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Over the course of his career, the late Miles Davis led a number of exemplary jazz bands. There was the nonet with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan and J. J. Johnson he assembled for the "Birth of the Cool" sessions in 1949; the star-studded "Kind of Blue" sextet in 1959, with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans; the electrified ensemble with Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham that generated "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" in 1970.

But, of all the trumpeter's bands, none is as revered as the quintet Davis led from 1965 to 1968.

With Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums, there wasn't anything particularly revolutionary about the lineup; its instrumentation was identical to hard-bop quintets he'd been leading for more than a decade.

The music itself was something else again. Moody, haunting, provocative and lyrical, it conveyed both the questing spirit of '60s experimentalism and the melodic power of mainstream jazz. It was both intellectual and intuitive, abstract and accessible. Quite simply, it changed the jazz world's notion of what hard bop could be.

"It created a new aesthetic of music," says Tom Harrell, a trumpeter who has recorded with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden and Phil Woods. "The music is totally fresh, always and for all time. All of the musicians I've played with have all been influenced by the group."

"It was the perfect marriage between a classical, intellectual harmonic sense, and the seemingly revolutionary rhythmic style," agrees Mark Isham, a trumpeter and composer whose score for the film "Afterglow" explicitly evokes the Davis quintet's sound.

Hearing that band, says Isham, "was a turning point, for me, in my listening to jazz, and [in understanding] what jazz could be, where it could go and what it could embrace."

Indeed, those recordings have been taken as a sort of template for modern jazz by such musical neo-conservatives as Wynton Marsalis, Wallace Roney and Nicholas Payton. For these musicians (and the critics who encourage them), the Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams-Davis quintet isn't just the apotheosis of hard bop; it also represents the greatness of Miles Davis before "the fall" -- before he moved away from bop and into the jazz/rock world of "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew."

To them, Davis' jazz/rock fusion was the ultimate betrayal. It was bad enough that jazz had lost listeners to the simple-minded prattle of rock and R&B; to likewise lose a musician of Davis' caliber was insulting beyond comprehension. What, they wondered, could Davis possibly see in what they heard as the rambling jams and amplified cacophony of rock?

But, the qualities that made those quintet recordings great were precisely the same as those that made Davis' later fusion albums inevitable.

Listening to the group's studio recordings in chronological order, as they are presented on the new boxed set, "The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, 1965-'68" (Columbia 67389, arriving in stores Tuesday), it's easy to hear how Davis' work with this quintet led to "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew." In fact, some of those "jazz/rock" ideas -- the rhythmic layering, the rock-inflected beats, the electric instruments -- had already been tried out with this hard-bop ensemble.

"You can hear in the writing," says Harrell. He cites the 1968 release "Miles in the Sky," which on one track augmented the quintet with guitarist George Benson, as an example. "They use layered sounds in which you can hear them reaching toward what they would do in 'Bitches Brew'

"In the rhythm section, they would set up patterns that would serve as a framework for the two horn soloists, for Wayne and Miles. But then later, like in 'Bitches Brew,' you could hear that he added additional instruments, to add density, I guess."

Why, then, were so many jazz fans shocked when Davis arrived at "Bitches Brew"?

Largely because some of the group's most transitional performances hadn't been released, suggests producer and critic Michael Cuscuna. Although "The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings" crams 56 tracks onto its six CDs, only 33 of those had been issued by the time "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew" were released.

What Davis' band was doing, says Cuscuna, "was clearly an evolution. But we didn't see it at the time. We just saw these leaps. It was a completely different perception then for consumers."

Looking to expand

With its angular themes, complicated chords, and loosely flowing sense of time, Davis' brand of hard bop seemed quite arcane when compared with what was going on in mainstream jazz in the mid-'60s.

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