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Miles Davis’s second classic quintet

By Keith Waters


The Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-1960s — Davis’s “second classic quintet” — was groundbreaking and influential. Their approach to live performance allowed attractive new possibilities for group interaction, the use of harmonic and metric superimposition, and developing pathways for extended improvisation. Their studio recordings offered a host of fresh jazz compositions, and were innovative in their harmonic progressions, formal designs, and melodic structures.

All of Davis’s quintet members contributed original compositions heard on their 1965-68 studio recordings. The works form one of the cornerstones of contemporary jazz composition, and they continue to intrigue and inspire contemporary jazz players, who frequently turn to them for inspiration.

“After Duke Ellington, Monk, Horace Silver and others from previous periods whose harmonies were diatonically conventional and quite similar from tune to tune as realized in the many jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards from that period, these new harmonies demanded a different approach,” explains saxophonist Dave Liebman. “The old clichés did not work anymore.”

[callout title= ]they left behind the usual conventions of earlier standard tunes — the forms, the cadences, the harmonies — and they had an openness that allowed for more thematic development in improvisation[/callout]“These second quintet compositions helped open up a whole new way of thinking about jazz composition,” says pianist Andy LaVerne, adding “they left behind the usual conventions of earlier standard tunes — the forms, the cadences, the harmonies — and they had an openness that allowed for more thematic development in improvisation.”

Both Liebman, who performed and recorded with Davis in the 1970s, and LaVerne, who has performed with Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chick Corea, have recently recorded second quintet compositions. Liebman and his group Quest include “Vonetta,” “Paraphernalia,” “Footprints,” “Nefertiti,” “Prince of Darkness,” and “Hand jive” on an upcoming album, while LaVerne performed an impressive solo piano version of Herbie Hancock’s “The Sorcerer” — a 16-bar single-section composition — on Jazz Piano Lineage.

Similarly, pianist Marc Copland returns frequently to second quintet compositions, having recorded a solo version of “Fall” (Solo), and an ensemble version of “Masqualero” (At Night). More recently he has recorded two of the quintet’s 12-bar blues compositions, “Footprints” (Solo), and “Eighty-One” (Some More Love Songs).

In “Footprints” he reworks the composition, using the left hand to create a 2-against-3 rhythmic counterpoint against the melody. With its transparent texture and extended harmonic vocabulary, the version abstracts and detaches the composition from its blues moorings. “Eighty-One,” on the other hand, gently calls attention to its 12-bar blues roots.

“These second quintet compositions — both the writing and performing — were major influences on me,” recalls Copland. “Harmonically the compositions remain very advanced, and the ways the group played them were subtle and cryptic — almost like a riddle. Different people have different opinions on whether or not these works are jazz standards. But as a player, I go back there periodically because I learn something in revisiting them.”

Contemporary musicians find inspiration in individual members of the Miles Davis quintet as well. Liebman singles out Wayne Shorter, who “set the harmonic bar very high. Modulations between chords and scales followed no patterns and one might encounter all sorts of harmonic colors in a few bars, while the melodies had a floating character often with scant reference to the harmony below.” And in a nod to Hancock’s technique with Davis’s quintet of soloing with only the right hand — omitting left hand comping — LaVerne plays a pair of choruses with only right hand improvisation on “The Sorcerer”.

Despite the challenges of the second quintet compositions, jazz artists as diverse as Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Ricky Ford, Mark Whitfield, Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, Kirk Lightsey, and Clark Terry have performed and recorded them. By rejecting many of the conventions of earlier jazz standards, the compositions provided an alternative and potent compositional path. Alongside the work of other 1960s jazz composers — John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Booker Little, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Paul Bley, Gary Peacock — the postbop compositions of Davis’s second quintet put harmonic, formal, and melodic ambiguity squarely in the center of a network of aesthetic values. As a result, they offer solutions that jazz composers continue to respond to today.

Keith Waters is Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and author of The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68 (Winner of the Award for Jazz Scholarship from the Jazz Interest Group of the Society for Music Theory and A New York City Jazz Record “Best of 2011″ Book); Jazz: The First Hundred Years, co-authored with Henry Martin (Schirmer, 2001; Second edition 2006); Essential Jazz: The First Hundred Years, co-authored with Henry Martin (Schirmer, 2005; Second edition 2008); and, Rhythmic and Contrapuntal Structures in the Music of Arthur Honegger (Ashgate, 2002).

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