Like any credible person, I dig Miles Davis. But I particularly dig his quintet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. "All-stars" is not nearly the word — these guys turned out to be a Mt. Rushmore of modern jazz. So it was really exciting to hear about Live in Europe '67, the DVD that's included in the soon-to-be-released 71-disc (!) The Miles Davis Complete Columbia Album Collection. After many years of listening to their music, I could finally see these guys play!
Live in Europe '67 is in black-and-white video but both concerts — October 31st in Stockholm and November 7th in Karlsruhe, Germany — are well shot and the remastered sound is very good. (There are no plans to release the DVD separately, so if you don't have a pal at Sony/Legacy or don't want to shell out the 300+ simoleons for the box, even though it's an excellent deal, you can also watch it all on Youtube, but picture and sound quality are both sorely lacking.) I've gotten kind of obsessed with it.
When Live in Europe '67 was filmed, the Davis band was headlining a European package tour tour with Sarah Vaughan, Archie Shepp and Thelonious Monk — a mindblowing bill. It must have been a pretty weird time for Miles Davis though. His friend and former bandmate John Coltrane had died that summer, he'd endured some serious health problems, he was going through a divorce, he'd recently turned 40, free jazz was the "new thing" but it wasn't his thing, and his records weren't selling as well as they used to. Davis also happened to be making some of the most brilliant music of his career, with a recent string of incredible studio records: ESP (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), and Nefertiti (1967), cut with four younger musicians who challenged and inspired him like few had before.
All kinds of revolution was in the air — this was just after the "Summer of Love" when Sgt. Pepper ruled the pop charts and psychedelia began radicalizing popular music. Out there in the world, racial unrest was raging even as Thurgood Marshall had been named the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court. To different degrees, African-Americans, gay people, young people and women were all experiencing a heady rush of both liberation and rage.
All of that was the volatile backdrop for changes within Davis’ quintet, which had formed in 1963. Up until ‘67, Davis had made the band play relatively genteel takes on the standards and Davis originals that his previous quintet had covered. But by the fall of '67, this line-up was well seasoned, they now had an extensive catalogue, virtually all of which they'd written themselves, and each of them had received rapturous critical acclaim. Carter, Hancock, Shorter and Williams had graduated to another plane of music-making and were tired of playing music the old way. It was time, as Mr. Burns from The Simpsons would say, to release the hounds.
Both nights, an announcer introduces each musician as they walk on stage. Carter, nearly as tall as his bass, is a saturnine figure with a whisk-broom mustache; Shorter immediately exudes a sweet and unassuming manner; Williams appears even younger than his 21 years; Hancock looks like a divinity student. Everyone is in tuxes with bow ties except Davis, who sports a light-colored pinstripe suit with wide lapels, a handkerchief jutting from the pocket, a fancy watch popping up past his sleeve; he is, as always, impeccably stylish.
Other than that, there's no ceremony about taking the stage. Davis doesn't acknowledge the audience or even the band; he just steps to the mike and begins playing the head of the first tune, even as Carter and Williams are still getting settled; nonetheless, everyone jumps right in and it's off to the races.
Both sets open with "Agitation," Carter and Williams playing at blazing speed, with Hancock playing desolate, Debussy-like chords that paradoxically seem to accelerate the music. Out of nowhere, Williams presses out a swelling snare roll and everyone shifts into a relaxed swinging rhythm. Dramatic shifts like that are the rule: At the Stockholm show, everyone stops as Hancock completely breaks the momentum with a very bleak, eerie solo on "Agitation." Carter craftily eases it into a swinging rhythm that Williams soon latches onto – it’s really brilliant. They don't do nearly the same thing days later in Karlsruhe, so how did they know to stop for Hancock’s solo in Stockholm? Put it this way: there’s a reason they called one of their albums ESP.
They pull this tempo/rhythm magic trick constantly, whether at the top of a solo or at some mysterious point within it, spontaneously changing direction en masse, like a school of fish. The band called that approach "time, no changes," which essentially means that the progressions were in the rhythms and not the chords. Instead, the band riffed off of a kind of communal tonal center, following the soloist; that requires phenomenal concentration, sensitivity and teamwork to pull off. Watching the musicians in this trance-like state — in particular, Shorter plays as if deep in prayer — is a great cue for how to get into this music.
They're playing large auditoriums before seated audiences of well dressed northern Europeans, with blinding bright TV lights and big '60s cameras cluttering the stage, but it seems to have zero effect on their staggering intensity and focus. During Shorter's solo on the Karlsruhe "Footprints," the camera pulls right into Hancock's face as he lays down sparse but strategically propulsive chords, profoundly thoughtful and deliberate. The way he lays his hands on the instrument, it's more like he's feeling its aura than actually playing it.
This is a far cry from any of their previous live recordings. For one thing, Williams is explosive, chopping up the rhythms, dealing out thunder and lightning with a plangent bass drum and cymbals, his left stick dancing on the snare like a bead of water on a hot skillet. And while Davis still calls for older tunes like "Walkin'" or "'Round Midnight," the band deconstructs them at breakneck bebop-velocity tempos – way, way faster than the originals Davis recorded over a decade before with a much different band. It's more like "Sprintin'." It's as if they were in a hurry not to get to the end of the tune but to get to the next kind of music.
The Stockholm show in particular is shot fairly claustrophobically, favoring very long close-ups of the musicians' faces, particularly Shorter and Davis. And that’s good, because that's where the action is — their faces. During a solo on the Stockholm "Footprints," Shorter shudders with passion just before peeling off a quiet, fleeting little lick; that’s not something you’d catch on record, and it's just so heavy and intense. It’s funny how many of the profile shots of Davis with his horn look like potential album cover photos. Look at Carter's wonderfully equine face, impassive, as both sets of fingers seemingly dance to their own tune, producing a blazing yet steadfast anchor. And check out Williams' fierce expression as he unleashes salvo after salvo of bass drum and cymbal bombs, determined to kick this music a little further down the road.
The cinematography is pretty straightforward but you can still catch interesting little moments, like Davis' odd tic of pressing his index finger to just in front of his right ear and shaking his head after he finishes a solo or when, in the midst of the Karlsruhe "I Fall in Love Too Easily," Davis seems transfixed by the huge, vivid shadow of Williams on the curtain, his arms flicking out at the flapping cymbals. Later in the set, during "Walkin'," Hancock sits with his hands resting on the keys, and you can see he’s as alert and engaged as he would be if he were playing; when Shorter walks away from the mike, Hancock seamlessly kicks into an uncanny imitation of what Shorter just played, with Davis observing from a distance, index finger resting pensively on his embouchured lips.
Interesting that Davis generally plays short solos, and when he's not playing, he walks off stage. And yet his sensibility, not to mention his huge charisma, looms over everything, beginning with the band's cool, austere intensity. As they play this fast, intricate music, no one seems to tap their foot or sway or snap their fingers while the other musicians are wailing away. They're heads-down, eyes-down, locked in their own five-way world. There are almost no breaks between tunes, leaving little space for applause, so the sets unfold like one long suite. They're in, as jazz critic Frédéric Goaty says in the set's liner notes, "a state of grace."
Part of what was revolutionary about this band was that the usual foreground/background dynamic is compressed or even inverted:: Hancock and Williams (and, more subtly, Carter) don't play behind the solo, they play with it. Liberated from comping or timekeeping, the rhythm section is incredibly expressive, which not only means that you can tune in to any of the players at any time and hear something really exciting, but that you can listen to the entire band through the prism of any instrument that’s playing at the time, a Cubist jazz. It all fits together, a sprawling, loose but ingeniously interlocking sound, something the frequent montage effects of the Karlsruhe footage seem to be emphasizing. Listen to the way Hancock plays spare chords to offset Williams' busy drumming, and never drifts much lower than the middle of the keyboard, allowing Carter to fill out the low end. Both Davis and Shorter play elliptically, allowing plenty of space for all the wild invention exploding behind them.
And that ties in to what was happening in at the time – the "new thing," i.e., free jazz. Davis' quintet certainly wasn't playing free jazz, but it wasn't bebop either. Some have called it "freebop," but that's a hideous term. Suffice it to say, it was one of those rare middle ways that are more fascinating than the extremes, pushing the envelope with style and precision, experimenting with form instead of dispensing with it. The approach influenced everything from the dense, prodigious jamming that would soon dominate heavy rock to late-'90s jungle techno.
Miraculously agile and telepathic, Davis' "second great quintet" had taken the "time, no changes" approach as far as they could take it. And when artists as protean as those guys have taken something as far as it can go, you just know something else exciting is about to happen. Sure enough, when he got back from that '67 European tour, Davis added electric guitar and then electric keyboards to his music and changed his approach to arranging – distorted electric keyboard would pick up the guitar chords and also play more or less in unison with the bass, and there would be a definite backbeat and a blues flavor; you could kind of dance to it. Fusion was born, and Davis never returned to the electrifying acoustic music captured on Live in Europe ‘67.