The Miles Davis quintet of the mid-to-late 1960s occupies a weird place in the trumpeter's canon. Critics (this one included) will tell you that it isn't just the best band Miles ever led, but one of the choicest small groups in jazz history. If you're not a jazz nerd, though, you may not know it existed. This is because the outfit-- rounded out by tenor saxist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams-- doesn't register on Miles' pop-cultural timeline. The group issued a string of brilliant studio LPs during its 1965-68 run, yet there's no Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew among them; by this period, Miles had pushed way beyond the sumptuously chilled-out sound of the former but hadn't arrived at the murky psych-jazz of the latter.
So if the Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams band (often called Miles' second great quintet, in deference to his stellar 1950s group) was transitional, a checkpoint between consensus masterpieces, why should you care that there's a new box set featuring previously unreleased live recordings from this time? Given that nearly every microphase of Davis' career has been expanded into box form by this point-- ask an expert before gifting a random one at Christmas-- casual consumers are right to be suspicious. But Live in Europe 1967, which presents five concerts from October and November of that year on three great-sounding CDs and one DVD, is no footnote: This set, Volume 1 in a new Davis Bootleg Series built on the Bob Dylan model, offers a chance to hear one of the greatest bandleaders of the 20th century push his collaborators into a creative frenzy and be pushed back in return.
Aside from Carter, each of these players would become giants of electric jazz (Davis and Hancock transitioned into something like pop stardom), and the period documented on this set represents their farewell to their bebop roots: both an ecstatic celebration and a ballsy deconstruction of how small-group jazz had been played for the previous two decades. Live in Europe 1967 won't soundtrack any romantic dinners or inspire dorm-room acid trips, but it does show off the central thrill of jazz-- spontaneous interplay among dangerously skilled players-- as well as almost any other collection you could name.
That "among" is key. As much as this set testifies to the leader's own vision, the real takeaway is the virtuosity of other musicians, and how Miles' anti-hierarchical aesthetic spurred them toward the riskiest, most engaged performances of their careers. No player on this set reaches more than Tony Williams. A famously precocious drumming prodigy-- he first recorded with Miles in 1963 at age 17-- he was exactly the kind of daredevil Miles was looking for, a player naturally inclined toward pure outrageousness. (By 1967, he'd already explored cutting-edge improvisation on deeply unusual masterworks such as Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch.) Williams is in particularly wired form here on the version of "Footprints" from November 2 in Copenhagen (disc two). During Miles' trumpet solo, the drummer casts himself as Donkey Kong to Davis' Mario, throwing out flaming barrels for the leader to navigate; Williams keeps time on the ride cymbal, but runs a near-constant interference pattern of asymmetrical fills and swelling cymbal flurries. (You can hear the legacy of Williams' pot-stirring percussion style, rarely better documented than on Live in Europe 1967, in players like Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, who loves to slide around a song's central pulse, sending bits of rhythmic shrapnel flying at his bandmates.)
As dazzling as Williams sounds, what really catches the ear is how the entire band provides the improvisational boldness that Miles was after. On the Copenhagen "Footprints", Herbie Hancock plays like a deranged outsider artist. Instead of providing a sturdy foundation underneath Wayne Shorter's saxophone solo, he offers squiggly little phrases, like jumbled fragments from a 20th-century classical score; on the outro, he answers the horn players' theme statement with a mocking paraphrase. Ron Carter, meanwhile, constantly reconfigures the piece's waltzing bassline, jumping between half-time and double-time, and mixing in percussive slaps and low, droney digressions.
These performances represent an upending of the soloist-and-background model of small-group jazz up to this point. Miles' second great quintet wasn't the first to play this way; by 1967, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor had each exploded the conventions of 1940s and 1950s jazz in their own ways. Yet none of these other artists had figured out how to combine deep, risky interactivity with such sustained coherence. Many of the pieces on Live in Europe 1967 play like cooperative action paintings, with everyone allowed but no one entitled to be the center of attention at any given time, and with the overarching logic of the compositions keeping chaos in check. It's at this stage, just before the quintet's dissolution-- over the next two years, as Miles engaged with electric jazz, Carter would exit, followed by Williams and Hancock-- that the conversation is at its most lively and lucid.
Crucially, though, freedom, as it was interpreted by this band, didn't always equal volume and density. Some of the strongest moments on Live in Europe 1967 are also the calmest. During "Masqualero" from the November 6 Paris concert (disc three), as Miles plays a poignant, slow-building solo, Hancock settles into a haunting, repetitive figure and Williams quiets to a whisper, marking faint tempo on the hi-hat. Later, when Hancock's solo begins, Williams drops out entirely, leaving the pianist and Carter to play a delicate, free-floating duo. During the same set, on "Walkin'"-- a staple of Davis' 50s repertoire-- Williams and Carter guide Shorter into an up-tempo frenzy and then gradually fade to silence. The saxophonist moves into a rare unaccompanied passage, playing an abstracted kind of bebop, full of tumbling phrases and murmuring digressions.
By late 1967, thanks in large part to John Coltrane (who had passed away in July) and mavericks such as Albert Ayler, shrieking, high-density free jazz was in full flower. As you can hear in Live in Europe 1967's many boldly stripped-down moments, Miles and his band were aiming for a different kind of freedom, one where aggression coexisted with near-stillness. Funk was in the mix too: During the October 28 "Masqualero" in Antwerp (disc one), Williams and Carter keep up an infectious Latin pulse behind the soloists, providing a danceable base for Shorter to tear off his heated phrases and also foreshadowing Davis' groove-based experiments, which would begin in earnest on 1969's In a Silent Way.
Miles clearly savored this band's broad dynamic and emotional range, and constructed its sets accordingly. Unlike the quintet's studio recordings, the concerts on Live in Europe 1967 take the form of unbroken medleys. On four out of the five sets here, the tempestuous "Footprints", a Shorter original, segues into the Thelonious Monk favorite "'Round Midnight", which begins each time as a beautifully sparse dialogue between Davis and Hancock. Other transitions keep these long sets feeling brisk. In Antwerp, a lengthy version of Miles' hard-swinging, midtempo "No Blues", gives way to a turbulent three-minute sprint through Hancock's "Riot"; in Paris, "No Blues" snaps into Shorter's moody, Spanish-inflected "Masqualero", a striking shift that immediately reengages the ear. Live in Europe 1967 marks the first time we're hearing this band engage with such a wide range of material; a previous second-great-quintet live box, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965, featured mainly well-worn jazz standards.
As much microscopic variety as there is in these shows, it's important to note that Live in Europe 1967 documents a single tour with a more or less fixed set list. Davis did vary the repertoire occasionally-- trying out "Walkin'" and the standard "I Fall in Love Too Easily" in Paris-- but buyers interested in a more diverse overview of what this band could do might be better off picking up one of their studio releases (E.S.P., from 1965, and Nefertiti, recorded just a few months before the shows heard here, are both great starting points). Don't let the repetition scare you away, though. All five concerts here have their own rewards and idiosyncrasies; the best path through the box is to treat each segment like the concert it originally was and savor it individually.
The DVD, which documents two shows not featured on the CDs, is a sharp addition. There's a bit of arty treatment-- often two players appear superimposed in the same frame-- but on the whole, these are tasteful black-and-white concert films that put you in the midst of the onstage action. You see the youthful Williams bearing down fiercely on his ride, Shorter entering a closed-eyes trance while playing, and Hancock cocking his ear, tuning in to his bandmates' improvisations with genuine curiosity. And in the middle of it all is Miles: his usual, unflappable self. This is one of our last glimpses of the trumpeter in pre-psychedelic mode; the sequined pants and wraparound shades would arrive by 1969, as Miles flipped for Jimi and Sly and started co-billing with future rock legends at the Fillmore and the Isle of Wight, but here he sports natty suits (the sidemen wore tuxes), embodying the same model of 50s cool that won the trumpeter a mention in a 1960 Esquire list of "Some of the Best-Dressed Men in the United States."
That shift in fashion wasn't just superficial; Miles' music changed drastically in the period following Live in Europe 1967. LPs such as 1969's In a Silent Way and 1970's Bitches Brew are still some of the most compelling jazz-crossover experiments ever attempted. And Miles' sidemen would make equally important contributions to the movement that came to be known as fusion: Shorter with the vibrant Weather Report, Hancock with his funky Mwandishi and Headhunters bands, and Williams with Lifetime, one of the grittiest and heaviest of the early jazz-rock groups.
These impending transitions are part of why Live in Europe 1967 is essential: You get to hear exactly how these virtuosos were behaving just before the big change occurred. They were still operating in an old mode, small-group acoustic jazz, but they were interrogating it relentlessly, seeing how far they could stretch its conventions without ditching them altogether. Before they could break into the larger world of pop, they had to reach jazz nirvana, and that's what they attain on Live in Europe 1967. The aesthetic here is less easily definable than those heard on Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, but it's no less significant. At its heart, jazz thrives on bold, sensitive interaction in the moment, and Live in Europe 1967represents the pinnacle of that practice.