Notes & Chords

MilesCC1964I love live jazz recordings. So much of jazz happens in the moment, as musicians bounce improvised ideas off each other and, in the best circumstances, push each other collaboratively to ever greater heights of creativity and expression. The way that a live record can capture that moment, preserve those extemporaneous musical thoughts for all posterity, adds a bit of awe to the mere entertainment of it all.

There are a handful of such recordings that stand out as especially noteworthy and deserving of their fame. The snakebit but sparkling summit of bebop superstars at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May 1953. Duke Ellington’s literally riotous second set at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. The last performance of Bill Evans’ original trio on a summer Sunday in 1961, five swinging sets at NYC’s Village Vanguard, ten days before his innovative young bassist Scott LaFaro was killed in a car accident at the age of 25.

Then there’s the one I’ve been listening to kind of obsessively for the last week, a concert that captures a moment not just in music but in American history as well. On Wednesday, February 12, 1964 (appropriately enough, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday), the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality organized a benefit concert at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall (the building now called Avery Fisher Hall) to raise money for minority voter registration drives in Mississippi and Louisiana. The headline act was Miles Davis, already one of the biggest names in jazz, and his (at that time relatively new) quintet. The resulting two sets were nothing short of legendary.

1963 and 1964 marked a time of transition for Miles Davis as a bandleader. His first great quintet (which had included a young John Coltrane) and sextet (which had included Coltrane and Bill Evans) were quite a bit behind him. Miles was always restless, always looking for new sounds and ways to push forward with his music, always leaving his past behind, and it had been less than a year since he had assembled this particular quintet during the recording of his Seven Steps to Heaven LP.

Herbie Hancock 1964

Herbie Hancock in 1964 (Photo by Francis Wolff)

They were a ferociously talented bunch. Pianist Herbie Hancock, 23 years old at the time, had already made a name for himself as a session musician and had recorded his first solo album (Takin’ Off) for Blue Note Records the year before. Tenor saxophonist George Coleman was a veteran who had gigged and recorded with dozens of the biggest names in jazz since the early ’50s. Bassist Ron Carter had worked with saxophonist Eric Dolphy in the arty, experimental hybrid of classical music and jazz known as “third stream”. The drums were manned by wunderkind Tony Williams, only 18 years old at the time of this concert but already a veteran who had been performing for several years with artists like Sam Rivers and Jackie McLean.

The first thing that leapt out at me about this concert was the absolutely insane speed at which the up-tempo numbers are played. For instance, the group just rampages through “So What”, a piece I knew well from Miles’ seminal 1959 sextet album Kind of Blue; I’d never heard Miles solo with the kind of blistering fire and, dare I say it, fury with which he did on that number. And frankly they never really rein it in on those faster songs. Not that I’m suggesting for a moment that they should have—that crazy blowing, barely on the edge of control, is one of the readiest musical rewards of this concert recording. (Herbie Hancock, talking to Miles’ biographer Ian Carr, attributed the breakneck speed of those numbers to nerves born of the high profile of the event and the venue; while I’m sure they were nervous I’m hard pressed to say that it had any negative impact at all in the end.)

'Four' & MoreThe slower pieces are a different story. On more sedate standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “Stella by Starlight”, the players really stretch out their improvisational chops. In fact, they take so many liberties with the heads of these tunes that it’s hard to tell where the composed part ends and the soloing begins. Again, this is most emphatically not a complaint. As I alluded to above, one of the great joys of a live jazz recording is the preservation of a spontaneous musical moment in time, and many gorgeous moments are contained in those long, languorous stretches of soloing.

The concert was recorded, with the majority of it released by Columbia Records on two LPs; the slower and mid-tempo numbers were released on My Funny Valentine in May 1965, while the smokin’ up-tempo rave-ups were released, along with some of the spoken announcements, on ‘Four’ & More in January 1966. The two albums were later combined, with the set order mostly restored, on CD in 1992, but sadly the only place to hear the entire concert, including first set opener “Autumn Leaves” and pianist Billy Taylor’s spoken re-introduction to the second set—it’s fascinating when he says, “It’s a wonderful feeling to see so many people interested not only in the remarkable talents displayed, but people who are also interested in human rights,” reminding us that this was a notable night in civil rights history as well—is on the quite pricey box set Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964.

George Coleman

George Coleman

The quintet would soon make its last change: Coleman, increasingly uncomfortable with the rest of the group’s avant-garde tendencies, would leave only two months after this recording. He would be replaced at first by Sam Rivers, just long enough to record a live album in Japan, but by the end of that summer Miles had hired Wayne Shorter, and the group that would become known as Miles “Second Great Quintet” was complete. That group would spend the rest of the ’60s pushing the boundaries of post-bop acoustic jazz to their limits, until it seemed that they had no choice but to basically invent electric jazz fusion (with their experiments on 1968’s Miles in the Sky and 1969’s Filles de Kilimanjaro).

But for this one moment, this one historic evening, this quintet made magic. Musician and deejay Mort Fega informed the audience in his introduction on that evening, “The proceedings here on stage are gonna be recorded, so that having enjoyed them out there this evening, you’ll be able to enjoy them over and over again on the Columbia album that Miles is about to do.” I have enjoyed them over and over again, and I’m suitably awed at being able to listen in on what truly was a moment in history.