This is a portrait of a listening band. A portrait of a band, listening.
Watch Herbie Hancock listening to Wayne Shorter, Wayne Shorter listening to Tony Williams, the whole band listening to Miles Davis. Of course all bands have to listen, to pay attention to one another, but this is a group that moved forward by listening. Musical form was decided upon as part of the performance, rather than existing as a predetermined template. Cross-fading between compositions, the group’s sets were improvised medleys, sometimes only partially played and then abandoned to follow another thread or extrapolated upon at great length in different instrumental configurations.
Among the joys of this concert footage, sensitively shot and edited for German and Swedish television on the Miles Davis Quintet’s tour of Europe in the fall of 1967, are the many modalities of attention it captures — closed eyes, pregnant pauses, internal dialogues. It’s so intimate it almost feels POV.
Check the startling moment early in the Swedish concert (at the 42:10 mark) when Davis stops, points at his ear, glares at Shorter and struts to the back of the stage. Parse this passage, rolling back a little to just before that point, when Hancock looks up from the keyboard where he’s vamping, wondering where Shorter is; now continue to the place when the saxophonist takes his solo. I think Shorter hadn’t been listening carefully enough, he’d missed a cue, which surprised Hancock and miffed Miles.
You witness the authority he commands in the ensemble, not just as band leader, but as combination navigator and captain.
In this band it’s all about listening for the direction to reveal itself or catching a subtle signal thrown by the trumpeter. Davis’ physical motion, like his playing, even in an awkward instant like that, is ever graceful, also mysterious. You witness the authority he commands in the ensemble, not just as band leader, but as combination navigator and captain. And this impossibly brilliant music is more than dead reckoning, more than a simple straight shot from point A to B with solos between. It’s what nautical types call course made good. The deviations are just as significant as the plotted route.
This ensemble is commonly referred to as the Second Great Quintet. Lasting from 1964 to the beginning of 1969, it represented a coming out of sorts for four future jazz legends — Shorter, Hancock, drummer Williams (who was a 17-year-old sensation when he joined the group, just before recording the landmark “Out to Lunch” with Eric Dolphy) and bassist Ron Carter. Davis was already a superstar. Not only in jazz terms but in popular culture broadly. He’d recorded “Kind of Blue” in 1959, one of the most influential records of all time, and he was six months from his first recordings with electric instruments, which would be a primary feature of his music until his death in 1991.
This particular Davis aggregation has left an indelible mark on mainstream jazz of subsequent generations, including today’s. But how mainstream was it? It was definitely popular, as were the Columbia Records albums that tours like this supported. But to these ears it’s also exploratory and experimental — tinkering with the interaction dynamics at the heart of jazz. Davis reserved the right to be both mainstream and experimental. He helped bring experimentation into the mainstream.
Though Miles was outspokenly disparaging of the music of Ornette Coleman at the time, later revising his judgment, it is Coleman whose early 1960s concept seems to me to have opened up much of what this fivesome so richly developed. Which is not to say that it sounds anything like Coleman. It doesn’t. But some of the framework was clearly built using materials that came from the Coleman camp.
Davis held onto the piano, the ouster of which was an important move for Coleman, freeing the saxophonist from regular chord changes and allowing him to adjust form at will, adding or dropping bars or suspending the tonal center altogether. The Davis group certainly retains tonal centrism more than Coleman’s classic quartet did — though it was more tonally focused than is often written — but listen especially to the places (for example, at the 30:20 mark) where Williams and Shorter engage in duets, with minimal bass or piano. These approach the ferocity of free jazz, perhaps recalling contemporaneous sax/drum duos like John Coltrane/Rashied Ali or Willem Breuker/Han Bennink.
And what of the way the band finds its direction, listening and responding organically, almost like the piece is suggesting its own path? That’s a quintessential Coleman technique. You can hear it also in the Blue Note bands led by Coleman’s partner, trumpeter Don Cherry, and on the latter’s albums, such as “Complete Communion” (1965) and “Symphony for Improvisers” (1966), both of which feature long suites made up of discrete compositions strung together as medleys. Much like the ones on this video.
Cherry and Davis could hardly be more different as instrumentalists, and to jazz fans they have come to represent almost antithetical positions. But the mechanics of their music has more in common than might first appear. It’s based on paying close attention to one another. On being a listening band.