Recently, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet, the 1960s band that consisted of Wayne Shorter on tenor sax (composing a lot of the tunes), bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and drummer Tony Williams, a lot. [The First Great Quintet was Miles, Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, for those of you wondering.] If you’re familiar with 1970s jazz-rock fusion, you’ll recognize all the names of the Second Quintet from their own fusion projects they started after Miles disbanded this group [except for Ron Carter, who stuck with more traditional styles, though you may recall him from my last post on Gil Scott-Heron]. This quintet was responsible for E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. This group explored elements of tonal freedom, sometimes abandoning chord changes, in favor of less rigid harmonic structures. They did retain traditional meter, making this distinct from completely free jazz.
Personally, my favorite record of theirs is Nefertiti. The simplicity of the compositions and arrangements is beautiful on that album, particularly the title track and “Fall” which primarily just repeat their melodies. And while Nefertiti presents a cool, calm, free group of musicians playing together, hearing the group live was an entirely different experience. This is showcased with the Miles Davis Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: Live in Europe 1967 (the first in a series based on the Bob Dylan bootleg series model), which was recorded in the autumn and winter following the recording of Nefertiti and released in September 2011. Some of the tracks from Nefertiti are performed in expanded, far wilder versions.
Below is “Riot,” which in the studio was a laid-back, low-key tune with a tight rhythm section, strictly sticking to the chords and time. Shorter, Davis, Hancock all offer interesting, if unspectacular, solos. The recorded version of this song was never anything groundbreaking: just a simple little post-bop number. Live, however, “Riot” lives up to its title. In this performance from 11/6/67, Williams’s drums explode, and Shorter, who solos first, brings remarkable energy to the piece. Hancock’s comping is much more lively and rhythmically exciting. Davis follows Shorter and takes the piece someplace pretty and quiet. Hancock continues expanding the harmonies he provides, and Williams takes this as an opportunity to really drop down low and build the excitement back up with fills. In the section following Davis’s solo, Hancock, Williams, and Carter take the piece into very free territory, with Williams ignoring his time-keeping role, instead adding texture and accents. Carter does a good job keeping the group grounded throughout all these changes in musical terrain. The group comes back together at the end for a final statement of the theme.