About halfway through “Delores,” the performance breaks down and producer Teo Macero introduces a new take of “Freedom Jazz Dance.” No, it isn’t, replies Miles Davis. “No, what’s this called?” asks Macero. “It isn’t called anything yet,” replies Davis. Yep: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 is that kind of release. It’s raw, unpolished and completely behind the scenes.
Over the past few years, Columbia Records has been issuing archival live sets of various parts of Miles Davis’ live career (See our review of Volume Three), generally focusing around 1967-70, perhaps a creative high point, but definitely his most commercial. They’re polished and interesting, but also something of a way to look at how the music (not to mention the band) changed from night to night.
At the same time, there hasn’t been much diving into Davis’ studio recordings in quite some time.
Granted, it’s already been extensively combed through, with a series of box sets. So instead of issuing another series of concerts or another package of alternate versions, the new Bootleg Series release is something of a third path: raw, unedited session reels for a handful of songs, complimented by the issued versions.
I wouldn’t say it’s unprecedented – they’ve done the same with Bob Dylan in recent years – but Columbia’s approach here is different: by offering the unedited reels, listeners can hear new snatches of music, but there’s also a lot of talking: the producer talking with Davis, Davis talking to his band and, occasionally, Davis talking to nobody really in particular. It’s unexpected: there aren’t really that many examples of his talking on any of his records.
This releases zeroes in on a specific moment of his so-called Second Great Quintet: Davis on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums and Wayne Shorter on sax.
By the time of these recordings, they’d been a touring together for a couple of years and been playing individually for much longer. Shorter, for example, had spent time playing with Art Blakey before joining Davis’ band while Hancock had several solo albums to his name and Williams was a young drum prodigy.
Each brought something to the table, but what makes this period so distinctive is the way they interact on stage: they push at the edges, without making their music go too far into free jazz. Essentially, it’s not as abrasive as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or John Coltrane’s Ascensions, but it’s a world apart from Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain. It’s trickier, with times where it feels like the band’s deliberately trying to pull the rug out from under each other; at the same time, each is talented and experienced enough to know how to compliment each other. At their best, it’s music which sounds mellow and “jazzy” on a casual listen, but the deeper one goes, the more one notices what’s happening under the surface.
On two days in October 1966, Davis and the group recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City, attempting six songs: “Footprints,” “Freedom Jazz Dance,” “Gingerbread Boy,” “Circle,” “Orbits” and “Dolores.” These two sessions make up the bulk of Freedom Jazz Dance and represent the sessions for Miles Smiles. (A handful of later dates, ranging from early 1967 to May 1968 make up the rest and I’ll get to these in a second).
As noted above, this release offers a raw look into how these sessions went.
First, they’d quickly rehearse a tune, then start recording takes. Sometimes things clicked right away, but often they didn’t. On the first disc alone, the band works through different ideas on tunes: “Freedom Jazz Dance,” for example, goes slower, with Williams taking different approaches on drums. There are similar starts, stops and discussions throughout the three discs. Teo talks to Davis, the band jokes around and Davis introduce songs by saying “I don’t know what the title is.”
Alone, these raw session tapes are an interesting look at how the band worked on arrangements in the studio, an inside peek at the work they put in to make studio LPs (not to mention live appearances, like the At the Plugged Nickel set) seem almost magical. It’s interesting to compare to the finished takes following them, a kind of before/after sort of thing.
The part of the second and third CDs are dedicated to three performances from 1967, when this group was on the verge of breaking apart: “Water Babies,” “Fall,” and “Nefertiti.” The latter two were released on Nefertiti in 1968, the former on the odds-and-ends release Water Babies in the mid-70s. The playing here is a little more atmospheric: Hancock’s piano on “Fall” shines in particular. They’re an interesting comparison to the first Bootleg Series volume, Live in Europe 1967, which shows how they played these songs live at the time.
However, the real treats come at the end of the set.
There’s a rhythm section rehearsal of “Country Son,” plus something called “Blues in F (My Ding),” a home recording of Davis and Shorter working on a new number. The version of “Country Son” has Williams, Hancock and Carter working on a rough draft of a more soul-jazz styled song from Miles in the Sky; it’s an interesting A/B and there’s a nice section in the middle where Carter works up a groove, Williams’ drumming hits overdrive and Hancock starts soloing where you can almost see the direction Davis would take in the next five years taking shape.
Conversely, “Blues in F” is compelling because it’s so rough and raw. Davis cracks jokes in his raspy voice (“maybe Herbie will switch to bass”), offers to cook food and sings in a jokey voice. But you also hear him working on musical ideas as they come to him: “I’m thinking about writing a blues,” he says as he plays piano, “a blues in F.” He walks Shorter through a new composition, explaining his ideas as they come. These so-called Brownstone Tapes have been referred to often in many of the previous Davis box sets, but this is the first time I can think of where one’s been actually released.
As a whole, Freedom Jazz Dance is kind of a mixed bag.
The session reels are interesting listening, but only really for hardcore fans, the kind of people who already own the albums the also-included master takes were issued on. At the same time, it’s more focused than the 1998 box set focused on this era, which doesn’t include any of the alternate takes/session reels found here. The later stuff is interesting – the take of “Country Son” is so good, I can’t imagine why hasn’t been issued before now – but again, mostly for hardcore fans. All in all, it would’ve been nice to have a slimmed-down set of just the session reels, but I’ll take what I can get of this lineup. Recommended for fans of this period, but the curious should really check out the original albums (or Live in Europe 1967) before diving into this.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.