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Miles & Miles
The new complete Davis, 1963-’64

Almost every note on all seven discs of Seven Steps: The Complete Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963–64 (Legacy) is worth hearing, a claim that can’t be made for every Columbia Miles Davis multi-disc set. The Gil Evans and Jack Johnson boxes, for example, surround the original (and unarguably essential) albums with so many alternate, incomplete, and unedited takes as to be fanatics-only compilations. With music from more than six top-shelf Davis albums and eight previously unreleased tracks, Seven Steps, on the other hand, is both brilliant and thorough.

The set covers the months prior to the arrival of Wayne Shorter, when either George Coleman or Sam Rivers held the saxophone chair, and it chronicles the increasingly daring rhythm-section experiments of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. This may have been a transitional period in the Davis quintet, but the music rarely sounds uncertain. In fact, one of his greatest performances, the New York Philharmonic Hall concert that fills two discs, was recorded with "transitional" Coleman aboard.

Falling as he does between Coltrane and Shorter, Coleman is the unsung tenor hero of the Miles Davis story. A hard-bop gladiator of fearsome proportions, he has the quintessential hard-bop combination of virility and smarts. He can crunch notes with the speed and fervor of Coltrane, but he can cook up a bad-ass blues swagger as well.

Seven Steps to Heaven marks the arrival of the new rhythm threesome. It opens with a California rhythm team featuring pianist Victor Feldman and drummer Frank Butler that ting-a-lings along serviceably but never ignites the proceedings. It’s the only disappointing music in the set. Back in New York, Davis brings Hancock and Williams aboard, and what a difference! Williams’s aggressive hurry-up-hurry-up-hurry-up ride cymbal provokes Davis and Coleman into action. You can sense them figuring out new phrasing, new spots in which to leave space, as they push themselves to match his speed and agility. Hancock’s comping — harmonically fresh, and attuned to every fluctuation in Williams’s attack — provides further inspiration. They were on to something new, and Davis knew it.

Shortly afterward, Davis, infuriated that Columbia had released Quiet Nights (an inferior compilation of an aborted Gil Evans date and a track from the Seven Steps session), vowed not to work with producer Teo Macero for the remainder of his contract. The result was that his next albums were concert recordings. The first, recorded at the Antibes Festival in France, is remarkable for the fresh ideas the band mine on the Davis warhorses "Walkin’ " and "Bye Bye Blackbird," which they take at a relaxed tempo that encourages some of the best playing on the date. The rhythm section just won’t let Miles coast, and his engagement with their ideas is sublime.

The quintet reached their apex at Philharmonic Hall in a benefit concert for black-voter registration. Davis waived the band’s fee without telling the members, and the resulting tension within the group inflamed the music. Miles bristles and slashes viciously on versions of "So What," "Joshua," and "Four," all of which are taken at a mad gallop. The ballads, especially "Stella by Starlight," have a pressurized lyricism that often borders on the explosive. The rhythm section’s elasticity is at an exhilarating peak too, slippery and unpredictable no matter the tempo. Coleman is at his cockiest, alternating between a rippling harmonic attack on "Walkin’ " and a funky melodicism on "All of Me."

Coleman left after the Philharmonic Hall triumph, and Williams recommended his Boston mentor Sam Rivers as a replacement. Rivers was a provocative choice, with free-jazz proclivities that had the potential to stretch the band in new directions. As it turned out, he was a near-miss, though hardly a failure. On the Tokyo concert released from his stint with the group, he sticks to the harmonic structures of the tunes all the way, but his sense of space and phrasing doesn’t quite mesh. Miles is playing it a bit safe too, and the overall effect isn’t as pulse-pounding as it is with Coleman.

After great effort, Miles at last coaxed Shorter away from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and his arrival is one of the great "ah-ha" moments in jazz. The final disc, originally released as Live in Berlin, comes from their first tour. It’s obvious from the opening notes of Shorter’s "Milestones" solo that here was the perfect saxophonist for the band. The harsh beauty of his tone and his uncanny ability to throw down a fresh response to the rhythm section’s careering path through numbers like "Autumn Leaves" and "So What" provided the goad to further innovation that the group needed. Seven Steps not only offers great music, it gives you a sense of history unfolding. And in the arrival of Wayne Shorter, almost a sense of destiny fulfilled.

Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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