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Seven Steps: the Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963 - 1964

Sony Jazz C7K90840 7CDs


Disc 1: Miles Davis (trumpet); George Coleman (tenor saxophone); Victor Feldman (piano); Ron Carter (bass); Frank Butler (drums)
Discs 2 - 5: Miles Davis (trumpet); George Coleman (tenor saxophone); Herbie Hancock (piano); Ron Carter (bass); Tony Williams (drums)
Disc 6: Miles Davis (trumpet); Sam Rivers (tenor saxophone); Herbie Hancock (piano); Ron Carter (bass); Tony Williams (drums)
Disc 7: Miles Davis (trumpet); Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone); Herbie Hancock (piano); Ron Carter (bass); Tony Williams (drums)

Track Listing:
Disc 1: 1. Joshua, 2. I Fall in Love Too Easily, 3. Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, 4. So Near, So Far, 5. Basin Street Blues, 6. Seven Steps to Heaven (take 3), 7. Seven Steps to Heaven (take 5), 8. Summer Night
Disc 2: 1. Seven Steps to Heaven (rehearsal take), 2. Seven Steps to Heaven, 3. So Near, So Far, 4. Joshua, 5. Introduction by Andre Francis, 6. Autumn Leaves, 7. Milestones, 8. I Thought About You
Disc 3: 1. Joshua, 2. All of You, 3. Walkin’, 4. Bye Bye Blackbird, 5. Bye Bye (Theme)
Disc 4: 1. Introduction by Mort Fega, 2. Autumn Leaves, 3. So What, 4. Stella By Starlight, 5. Walkin’, 6. All Of You, 7. Go-Go (Theme and Announcement)
Disc 5: 1. Introduction by Billy Taylor, 2. All Blues, 3. My Funny Valentine, 4. Joshua, 5. I Thought About You, 6. Four, 7. Seven Steps to Heaven, 8. There Is No Greater Love, 9. Go-Go (Theme and Re-Introduction)
Disc 6: 1. Introduction by Teruo Isono, 2. If I Were a Bell, 3. My Funny Valentine, 4. So What, 5. Walkin’, 6. All of You, 7. Go-Go (Theme)
Disc 7: 1. Milestones, 2. Autumn Leaves, 3. So What, 4. Stella By Starlight, 5. Walkin’, 6. Go-Go (Theme)

Fans of Miles Davis will no doubt be ecstatic at the release of another boxed set from Sony; the previous collections, perhaps more than anything similar in jazz, have achieved enormous critical acclaim, even attracting several Grammy Awards. But as Bob Blumenthal states in the volume’s accompanying linear notes, Seven Steps ‘tells a different story than the others in the Columbia / Legacy series’. It is a not a portrait of Davis’s relationship with other prominent musicians. Nor does it focus on the sessions surrounding the creation of a groundbreaking album. Rather, the theme of the collection is the gradual formation of what would become known as Davis’s Second Great Quintet - with whom he would go on to record E.S.P. Seven Steps presents to the listener the chronological evolution of this group through the course of six different albums: Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Davis in Europe, My Funny Valentine, ‘Four’ and More, Miles in Tokyo and Miles in Berlin.

The story of the quintet’s development begins in early 1963, when Davis put together an entirely new band for a series of gigs in California. Having been recommended by John Coltrane, George Coleman took over the saxophonist’s position, and, in turn, introduced two fellow Memphis musicians - Frank Strozier on alto sax and Harold Mabern on piano. Paul Chambers had likewise praised Ron Carter, who became the bassist in the new group. And, whilst Davis was keen to attain the services of drummer, Tony Williams, the seventeen year old’s commitments with Jackie McClean left the space open for Frank Butler, who was selected to complete the tour.

After several performances, Davis sensed the need to reshape the structure of the group. Feeling that Stozier and Mabern simply weren’t fitting in, he substituted Victor Feldman for Mabern and eliminated the alto sax position. In this state, they opened for the first two weeks at the Renaissance club. Then Miles brought the quintet in to the studio, where an album was recorded in two consecutive days (April 16th and 17th, 1963).

It is these recordings that make up the first disc of Seven Steps, setting off the collection with some wonderful tunes, tightly and skilfully executed by the musicians. ‘Basin Street Blues’ is particularly striking since, despite the notable lack of risk-taking amongst this initial line-up, it demonstrates clearly their capability for astonishing emotional expression. The tune is firmly led by Davis, who, making use of the Harmon mute, produces a plaintive and moving sound throughout. It is Feldman’s solo, however, that forms the high point of the song, mixing bold, staccato chords with loose, dreamy passages, and displaying a strong grasp of tension and release through perfectly placed crescendos. The pianist also shines on ‘Summer Night’, where the finesse, restraint and delicacy of his touch make it clear why Davis was attracted to his playing and even offered him a permanent position. Unfortunately, however, this was not to be as Feldman was reluctant to leave his work within the Hollywood studios. And so, after the recordings, Davis returned to New York in search of a pianist and drummer.

By this stage Tony Williams was free to join the group and, to complete things, Davis auditioned Herbie Hancock, who had previously been in Donald’s Byrd’s band. In this new form, the group looked promising, leaving Davis, as he mentions in his autobiography, ‘feeling excited inside’.

His enthusiasm was justified; the initial meeting of the quintet at Columbia studios produced superior versions of the three compositions attempted with the previous group. From the beginning of ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ on disc 2, it is clear how different this band is from the last - bolder, freer and distinctly more aggressive. Williams, in particular, brings new life to the sound, with his energetic and challenging approach. Even the already-established musicians adopt dramatic changes in his presence. Coleman sounds more comfortable with the tunes and connects more clearly with Davis (particularly so on ‘So Near, So Far’). Davis himself is more daring and confident, as is Ron Carter on bass; on ‘Joshua’, notably, he spans all ranges of notes, and brings a bold and thumping quality to the other musicians’ solos. Altogether, the group work marvellously, achieving the rare combination of sounding both polished and daring. It is little wonder that after the studio sessions, Miles put this new line-up on the road - a musical voyage depicted over the course of the next few discs of Seven Steps.

The first concert covered is the Antibes Festival, held in Juan-les-Pins in France. At first glance, the selection of songs looks familiar - standards and well-established Davis classics - but, as the group begin, we realise we are listening something entirely new. ‘Autumn Leaves’ is strikingly bouncy and quicker-paced than usual, giving Herbie Hancock a great opportunity to show what he has brought to the band. His solo is filled with rich, complex textures and consistently challenging harmonies, never settling for an easy option when an interesting one exists. Williams complements his playing perfectly, building the solo to an intense cacophony of block chords and crashing cymbals, and paving the way for Carter’s pensive bowed bass solo.

This heightened sense of empathy within the group continues on tunes like ‘Milestones’, where Coleman’s mesmerising, highly-reflective solo is echoed the swirling mesh of Hancock’s. On ‘Walkin’’, similarly, the group connect with unbelievable passion and force. Whilst improvisation is clearly dominant, it is never at the expense of a thematic whole; these musicians are acutely aware that individual virtuosity must reflect the intentions of the group.

Disc 4 then follows the quintet to the Philharmonic Hall in Manhattan, where they played at a benefit in support of the efforts of various civil rights groups. Without consulting his fellow band members, Davis had announced that he was waiving all fees. Naturally, words were exchanged, and, to Davis, this explained the phenomenal standard of the group’s work that night: ‘I think that anger created a fire, a tension that got in to everybody’s playing, and maybe that’s one of the reasons everybody played with such intensity.’ Certainly, something had had a positive influence; this is by far the best work to date, expertly balancing tightness and risk. ‘So What’, as usual, is performed considerably faster than the version on Kind of Blue; but unlike many similar performances, it loses nothing from the increased pace. Davis’s soloing is utterly breathtaking and brilliantly supported by the rhythm section; Williams’s sense of tension is impeccable, whilst Hancock shows himself completely prepared to follow the trumpeter wherever he strays. It is the ballads, however, that truly shine. Davis playing has never sounded so rich than in the simple, uncluttered clarity of the classic, ‘Stella By Starlight’. And performing open-horn on ‘My Funny Valentine’, he leads the group in to a bolder rendition than any than have gone before. In fact, the sense of risk that has been growing amongst the group seems to reach a climax here. Whilst maintaining the form and beauty of the ballad, the performance is free and spontaneous, with a no-holds-barred approach to the raw expression of emotion. Davis’s horn weeps softly one moment, then wails with violent passion the next. Even Coleman - generally associated with a comfortable virtuosity - sounds completely unrestrained on the recording, bringing about some dramatic rhythmical changes, and managing to draw out out an upbeat element from the largely melancholy ballad.

Despite his efforts, however, Coleman wasn’t entirely happy with the exploratory direction the band was going in. Williams, in turn, was critical of his playing; he knew that order to break musical boundaries, one had to be prepared to make mistakes, and that Coleman’s style would undoubtedly inhibit any further breakthroughs. So when Coleman resigned, Williams took it upon himself to find a more risky saxophonist for the group. When US club dates and a tour of Japan approached, Davis finally agreed to hire one of Williams’s mentors, the notoriously avant-garde, Sam Rivers.

From the very beginning of disc 6 (which covers the 1964 concert in Kosheinenkin Hall, Tokyo), it is clear how different a saxophonist he is. His solo in ‘If I Were a Bell’ slurs from the higher to lower registers in a way that Coleman would never have attempted, even creating some discordance. At one point, he relentlessly repeats a two-note phrase that completely dismantles the flow. Even as the solo reaches its climax, he only ever hints at the theme in order to return the musicians. Overall, as Michael Cuscano puts it, the results are ‘interesting but not comfortable’. Luckily, however, the saxophonist Davis wanted was about to become available. His name was Wayne Shorter and, with his presence, the Second Great Quintet was complete. The final disc of Seven Steps brings us one of their earliest performances, recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie on September 25, 1964.

On the opening tune, ‘Milestones’, the influence of the new saxophonist is clear. His consistently abstract, challenging phrases cause an abandonment of the hard-swinging sound in favour of a more spontaneous approach. Occasionally, this can seem somewhat casual, with Williams losing some of his force in attempting to follow the anomalies. In general, though, the results are pleasing, and more absorbing than anything on the collection. ‘So What’, again, is a delight to listen to, filled with fascinating and unique touches. Hancock’s playing is free and inspired, and less restricted by the tonal demands of the other musicians. Williams, likewise, is at his most experimental, supporting Davis’s solo with a tribal beat that creates usual dissonance. It is Shorter himself, however, who really stirs things up. Supported by lively, frenetic drum rolls and repetitive, well-placed block chords, his solo probes in all directions, bending notes, weak and quivering, as though unable to settle on anything. Restlessness is the theme, highlighted by constantly varied rhythms and textures.

It is ‘Walkin’, though, that illustrates best exactly what this group can do - that gives the clearest premonition of the timeless recordings they would go on to produce. Davis is at his utmost best - passionate, daring and bold. Shorter, similarly, proves his worth. Whilst clearly aware of the blues tone, he is also prepared to challenge it in his solo, straying at one point to a jaunty swing, then switching quickly to quite the opposite. Here is he backed up brilliantly by Hancock, whose fingers tremble eerily on minor key reflections. Finally, both saxophonist and pianist round off their work with hints of ‘Milestones’, both bringing about a sense of completion, and reinforcing the importance of theme.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the best line-ups in jazz, and there is plenty of material available for anyone interested in their work. But Bob Blumenthal is right to assert that none of this would have been possible were it not for the events of 1963 - 64: ‘It turned out that Miles Davis had rebuilt his music from the rhythm section up, and - true to form - never looked back.’ In saying this, the value of Seven Steps is not just an historical or esoteric one. Neither should the collection be looked upon as merely a picture of an eminent musician drifting through a transitory stage. Movement, experimentation and development are present everywhere within Seven Steps, creating some of most absorbing recordings that Davis ever made - unedited and unabridged for the first time. And what better way to present them than in this luxuriously packaged set, complete with painstakingly detailed notes and numerous rare and unpublished photos? Seven Steps may not be cheap, but to the true Miles Davis fan, it will undoubtedly be worth every penny. This is one of the finest jazz experiences you are ever likely to find. It truly can not be recommended enough.

Robert Gibson

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