Miles Davis' Great, Often Bizarre 1967 Quintet

Nov 17, 2011

Most of the material from Live in Europe 1967 has surfaced before — the set is subtitled The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 — but the Belgian concert that performance comes from makes its debut here. This Miles Davis quintet was consistently amazing, not least on its last big tour, when Davis' trumpet chops were in good shape.

These five musicians came up with all sorts of simple or elaborate ways to tweak the music on the fly, and cover for each other if things went haywire. Their interpretations of the band's core tunes varied widely from night to night. Bassist Ron Carter or pianist Herbie Hancock might radically rewrite a tune's chords or structure in the middle of a performance, knowing the others would follow. Drummer Tony Williams set and readjusted the tempos, and created dramatic waves of loud and quiet, raising and lowering the temperature. He's a heavy jazz swinger influenced by rock rhythms. Take, for instance, Williams behind Wayne Shorter on his modernized blues "Footprints." The drummer muscles his way up front, drops way back and then returns with a new strategy.

Stunning as these individual players were, the ways they worked together really make the band. Groups often stretch out live more than on studio albums. But these guys subjected pieces to wild transformations in the studio, too, shortly after first laying eyes on them. These performances are full of deliberate distortions, ambiguities and contradictions, and subtly weird moves. On Herbie Hancock's tune "Riot," when Davis' trumpet gives way to Hancock's piano solo in a lower key, the effect is like a cinematic dissolve, where one movie scene fades into another, and for a moment, you're looking at two at once.

You get a real sense of fun, as these five play their musical games. In a Belgian performance of "Gingerbread Boy," Davis casually quotes a rising phrase from Roger Miller's '60s novelty hit "Dang Me." (You remember.) After quoting it, Miles Davis circles back and transforms that line into a new phrase. No one in the audience in Antwerp may have caught the joke, but Wayne Shorter did. He references the same lick a minute later — what comedians term a callback.

Kicking around that quote from "Dang Me" is a tiny example of how well these players listen and respond to each other. They can change up the music in an instant. In some bands, Davis used visual cues to shift direction, but not much on this tour to judge by the hour-plus concert DVD included in Live in Europe 1967. It was all second nature by then. The music was brilliant, but it was getting too abstract for Davis.

Weeks after they returned to the U.S., Davis started writing more of the band's tunes to exert more control. He added guitarists and electric instruments to their sessions, and put more emphasis on the groove. It was the beginning of his move toward loud electric funk. Umpteen bands in every decade since the '60s have copied or explored ideas raised by this Miles Davis quintet. Its influence sprays in all directions. It's the fountainhead.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

In the mid-1960s, trumpeter Miles Davis led the most flexible of his celebrated quintet's, the one with saxophonist Wayne Sorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. A new set of music from their 1967 European tour is out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a handy reminder of how great and often bizarre that band was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGITATION")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD JAZZ CRITIC: Miles Davis on "Agitation" from his quintet's "Live in Europe 1967," a three CD, one DVD box documenting sets recorded for broadcast at five festivals. Most of it has surfaced before - the set is subtitled "The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1"- but the Belgian concert that performance comes from makes its debut here. This quintet was consistently amazing, not least on their last big tour, when Miles' trumpet chops were in good shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILES DAVIS: These five musicians came up with all sorts of simple or elaborate ways to tweak the music on the fly, and cover for each other if things went haywire. Their interpretations of the band's core tunes varied widely from night to night. Bassist Ron Carter or pianist Herbie Hancock might radically rewrite a tune's chords or structure in the middle of a performance, knowing the others would follow. Drummer Tony Williams set and readjusted the tempos, and created dramatic waves of loud and quiet, raising and lowering the temperature. He's a heavy jazz swinger influenced by rock rhythms. Listen to him behind Wayne Shorter on his modernized blues "Footprints." The drummer muscles his way up front, drops way back, then returns with a new strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOTPRINTS")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Stunning as these individual players were, the ways they worked together really make the band. Groups often stretch out live more than on studio albums. But these guys subjected pieces to wild transformations in the studio, too, shortly after first laying eyes on them. These performances are full of deliberate distortions, ambiguities and contradictions, and subtly weird moves.

On Herbie Hancock's tune "Riot," when Miles's trumpet gives way to Hancock's piano solo in a lower key, the effect is like a cinematic dissolve, where one movie scene fades into another, and for a moment, you're looking at two at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIOT")

WHITEHEAD: You get a real sense of fun, as these five play their musical games. On a Belgian performance of "Gingerbread Boy," Davis casually quotes a rising phrase from Roger Miller's '60s novelty hit "Dang Me." You remember it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANG ME")

ROGER MILLER: (Singing) Dang me. High from the highest tree...

WHITEHEAD: After quoting it, Miles Davis circles back and transforms that line into a new phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GINGERBREAD BOY")

WHITEHEAD: No one in the audience in Antwerp may have caught the joke, but Wayne Shorter did. He references the same lick a minute later - what comedians term a callback.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GINGERBREAD BOY")

WHITEHEAD: Kicking around that quote from "Dang Me" is a tiny example of how well these players listen and respond to each other. They can change up the music in an instant. In some bands, Davis used visual cues to shift direction, but not much on this tour to judge by the hour-plus concert DVD included in "Live in Europe 1967". It was all second nature by then. Their music was brilliant, but it was getting too abstract for Miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Weeks after they returned to the States, Davis started writing more of the band's tunes to exert more control. He added guitarists and electric instruments to their sessions, and put more emphasis on the groove. It was the beginning of his turn toward loud electric funk. Umpteen bands in every decade since the '60s have copied or explored ideas raised by this Miles Davis quintet. Its influence sprays in all directions. It's the fountainhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist for emusic.com and author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the CD and DVD box set "Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1967: the Bootleg Series Volume 1." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews a new documentary on Woody Allen presented by the PBS series "American Masters." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.