Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., Dec. 10, 2004
Miles DavisSeven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 (Columbia/Legacy)
Miles Davis was perceived as a leader of the avant-garde, a trendsetter. Certainly he was from 1949's Birth of the Cool through the mid-Fifties and his highly influential post-bop work with John Coltrane, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones, and late into the decade with his modal experimentation. Once Coltrane left the band in 1960 and was replaced by Hank Mobley, Davis' development seemingly reached a plateau. His recordings with tenormen Mobley and George Coleman, while often impressive, didn't offer much that was new. Or did they? The material the trumpeter cut with Mobley was, by his standards, conservative, but this 7-CD collection of Davis' 1963-64 bands shows him in transition, setting up his revolutionary 1965 ESP LP. First heard here is a short-lived group with pianist Victor Feldman and drummer Frank Butler, together with Coleman, Davis, and bassist Ron Carter. Feldman's two originals, "Joshua" and "Seven Steps to Heaven," gained permanence in Davis' repertoire. The soloing is quite good, but not exceptional by Davis band standards. Later in 1963, Davis installed future greats pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams, and his group improved markedly. Hancock, Williams, and Carter coalesced into a revolutionary rhythm section that created moods from ethereal to furious. Coleman certainly benefited from them, as he not only takes to the tremendously fast tempos the band employed, but also supplies substantive ideas within them. Hancock, too, is tremendous, and deserves credit for his superb chops as well as the rhythmic grace and imaginativeness of his soloing. Throughout his career, Davis was often called a sloppy technician by critics. They should check this set, where Davis disseminates a ton of ideas and articulates them cleanly. In 1964, Coleman resigned from the band, replaced by Sam Rivers, who at the time was heavily into free jazz. Rivers, although he performs competently on a live album cut in Tokyo, was not very interested in improvising on the preset structures that Davis employed. Davis replaced him with Wayne Shorter, whom he'd wanted to employ for some time. Finally everybody in the band was in tune with one another. Davis' quintet with Shorter, heard in Berlin, plays his old favorites, but the band takes liberties with them. The very flexible Shorter was a guy who could play both free and on preset structures during the course of one piece. The risk-taking on Miles in Berlin forecasts the even more daring ESP, the beginning of a great period of creativity for Davis.