Thursday, August 7, 2008

More on Miles' "Second Quintet"

After having spent most of yesterday's post ranting about Columbia's "user hostile" production values, particularly where their vast library of recordings of Miles Davis is concerned, I feel a need to explain why, however unpleasant the Columbia product may be, the compilation of sessions of Miles' "second quintet" with Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums), is what I called an "absolute 'must'" when it comes to learning to listen to jazz. It is not just the abundance of creative approaches that all five of these musicians take in their solos. It is also that, while Miles may be the leader (and probably would not have wanted to be regarded as anything other), when it came to the compositions and charts that were actually performed for these sessions, the regime was refreshingly democratic. In the six discs in the collection, all five of the quintet members get several substantial opportunities to assume the responsibility of composer. Thus, we find diversity not only in solo work (which is where we usually expect it in jazz) but also in the very logic, grammar, and rhetoric of the charts that provide the frameworks for those solos. In other words this was not a "standards" quintet or a "Miles" quintet; rather, it was a "polyglot" quintet, equally fluent in five compositional languages because of the intense intimacy that bound together these five musicians. This makes a marked contrast to John Coltrane's "Classic Quartet," whose language is "pure" Coltrane, applied to both standards and Coltrane originals.

This distinction may also address my concluding point yesterday about why Trane seems to get better radio coverage than Miles. As we build up our listening acquaintance with Trane, even if we do not do it diachronically, we "acquire his language," particularly in the rich diversity of his solos, which always see to have one more thought to add to the perspective. With Miles the "language acquisition problem" is far more challenging. One might say that his language kept changing faster than we can keep up with it, due in no small part to his decision to work in what I just called "polyglot" settings. Thus, it does not lend itself to casual radio listening, where a single performance will get included in a "set" with whatever the announcer seems to think makes for a suitable context. (Don't get me started on "shuffling!") There are, of course, certain "classics" that can hold up under such treatment, two of which, for better or worse, happen to be Columbia products: Sketches of Spain, which I cited yesterday (and, as I just discovered, even figured into an episode of Mad Men), and Kind of Blue. Radio broadcasters have no problems with these albums; but, when we get into those "second quintet" sessions, we are confronted head-on with the distinction that Igor Stravinsky liked to make between listening and hearing. This takes us far beyond the scope of what radio can do for us into a domain where all we have is our own ability to learn to listen to our own recordings (since we can no longer hear actual performances by that quintet). However, if we are serious about wanting to be better listeners, then we should not shirk from the challenge of venturing into that domain!

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