Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jazz Library 5: A Tale of Two Quintets

As I have described how I began building a jazz library in a series of four posts, you might say that the backbone of that library consists of eight albums in two bunches:

The First Great Miles Davis Quintet (with John Coltrane ts, Red Garland p, Paul Chambers b, and Philly Joe Jones d). All four were recorded in 1956:
  1. Workin'
  2. Steamin'
  3. Relaxin'
  4. Cookin'
The Second Great Miles Davis Quintet (with Wayne Shorter ts, Herbie Hancock p, Ron Carter b, Tony Williams d). The discs are:
  1. ESP (65)
  2. Miles Smiles (66)
  3. Sorcerer(67)
  4. Nefertiti (67)
This body of work pretty much defines the period of jazz that I am most interested in, and displays both the awesome strengths and tragic weaknesses of what was happening to jazz. A lot of books can be written, and I'm sure many have, on what was special about this extended decade. I will mention just one here: Miles and other jazzmen thought of themselves differently than had all or almost all earlier jazzmen.

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington thought of themselves as entertainers. They aspired to immortal greatness, and may have recognized that they achieved it. But they measured their success by how much they pleased their audiences. Miles thought of himself as an artist. An artist recognizes a standard of perfection that is independent of audience approval. The artist may feel some responsibility connecting with the audience, and he surely may feel the necessity of doing so. But he may also feel that his greatest responsibility is to the art, and if the audience is too dense to recognize this, well that's their problem.

When music becomes art, it sometimes works very well. It may be only over time that the greatness of a body of works is recognized. But of course there is always the danger that something will be mistaken by the artist for perfect beauty when it is merely an idiosyncratic affection.

A good way to see what is going on between the mid-fifties and late sixties is to compare the following two recordings, which are ostensibly the same composition: Oleo. But you almost have to look at the titles to know that. Here's the early one:

Miles Davis/Oleo/Relaxin'/1956

Here is a version recorded live eleven years later by the second quintet, at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago. It is found on the seven disc box set, and this is one box well worth owning.

Miles Davis/Oleo/The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel/1965.

I think you will agree that the difference between the two is extraordinary. Which is better? I am content to have both, but I do think that the latter version presents unique problems for maintaining a musical tradition. Almost anyone who doesn't have a tin ear can appreciate the 56 version. The latter is opaque to most people who do not listen to a lot of jazz. But more about accessibility later.


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