Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings
of Miles Davis, 1963–1964
The Music Box's #6 specialty package for 2004
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2004, Volume 11, #10
Written by John Metzger
Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963–1964 is yet another formidably insightful box set in the estimable canon of Miles Davis. The collection fuses material that appeared on 10 different albums with eight previously unreleased selections and a trio of tracks restored to their full lengths, and by presenting all of the music in chronological order, it offers a thorough examination of the turbulent period in which the legendary artist’s second classic quintet took shape. While little of the music on this seven-disc package is quite on par with the groundbreaking explorations by the final line-up of the ensemble, it is still an extraordinary endeavor, one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its individual components.
What is, perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of Seven Steps is observing the manner in which Davis approached this transitional era. Indeed, the mutation of his band can be viewed as a puzzle in which perfect clarity — and hence the sort of transcendent bliss for which he strived — could only be achieved through the chemical reaction invoked by assembling the proper combination of musicians. Interestingly, Davis had his eye on drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter well before either joined his entourage, but both had prior commitments that kept the collaborations from happening. Thus, the rotating door that marked this era of continuously constructive evolution began, and although it, at first, might have appeared as if Davis merely was biding his time until Shorter and Williams were available, one could also argue that for developmental reasons the moment was not yet right for such a union to occur.
Seven Steps begins with eight tracks plucked from a pair of recording sessions held in April 1963 with an ensemble that included drummer Frank Butler, pianist Victor Feldman, saxophone player George Coleman, and bass player Ron Carter, who, incidentally, was the only musician to survive the 18-month period chronicled on the collection. Some of the material from this era found its way onto Davis’ 1963 outing Seven Steps to Heaven, one selection (Summer Nights) was tacked on to the end of Quiet Nights (the trumpeter’s controversial final collaboration with Gil Evans), and another tune (So Near, So Far) resurfaced on the set of leftovers titled Directions. Not surprisingly, all of the tunes are remarkably solid — even an early rendition of Feldman’s Joshua swings — but the highlight unquestionably is a hauntingly emotional interpretation of Sammy Cahn’s I Fall in Love Too Easily. In essence, the collective painted a moving aural portrait that follows a solitary figure into and out of a relationship, but it’s the manner in which the ensemble connected with the composition’s sentiments that makes it so compelling. A sense of sorrow-drenched anguish poured through Davis’ initial muted trumpet solo, but mid-flight, the sadness miraculously mutated into joy as the band picked up the tempo. Just as seamlessly, the forlorn ambience returned near the conclusion of the performance. In essence, this depiction offers proof to those who need it that for all his creativity and technical proficiency, Davis never lost sight of the all-important emotional and heartfelt aspects of a performance, a notion that separates a great many musicians from artists.
By the following month, Williams had joined Davis’ ensemble, and after Feldman opted to return to his lucrative job in Hollywood, Herbie Hancock auditioned for the newly-opened pianist slot. Davis knew immediately that he was onto something special, later admitting as much in his autobiography, and the lone New York City session that completed the recording of the Seven Steps to Heaven album crackled with electricity. Both versions of the title track — not to mention the remodeled renditions of So Near, So Far and Joshua — were appreciably more distinct. The manner in which Coleman and Davis intertwined their melodic leads during the early stages of So Near, So Far; the burbling grooves that Carter and Williams employed to anchor the master version of Seven Steps to Heaven; and the lively performance of Hancock on Joshua alluded to the heights that the ensemble would soon reach.
The true test, however, was how well the band would perform within a concert environment, and in July, Davis took his group to the Antibes Jazz Festival in France. Portions of the event were featured on Miles Davis in Europe, but Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963–1964 presents the set in its entirety for the first time. What’s truly striking about the material is how quickly the collective had gelled and how much it already had begun to grow. Indeed, the ensemble insightfully reinterpreted a variety of Davis’ familiar standards with a newfound sense of gleeful exploration. On a playful rendition of Autumn Leaves as well as a scintillating version of Milestones, for example, the rhythm section of Carter and Williams positively simmered, allowing the trio of Davis, Coleman, and Hancock to probe the songs’ vibrant melodies, aggressively battering them with brutish force. Likewise, Coleman lent a ferocity to the wildly rampaging ride of Joshua while demonstrating how he, like Hank Mobley, not only complemented Davis quite well but also provided the crucial bridge between John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. Even Johnny Mercer’s I Thought about You and Cole Porter’s All of You were treated with a feistier touch, although amazingly, the ensemble never failed to find the soulful space of either tune.
The next stop, at least as far as recorded material is concerned, was New York City’s Philharmonic Hall for a pair of lengthy sets in February 1964, nearly seven months after the Antibes Jazz Festival, and once again, the event featured a slew of imaginative reinterpretations of Davis’ concert staples. Most of the songs were released via My Funny Valentine and Four & More — the former highlighted the ballads, the latter the more up-tempo selections — but on Seven Steps, the music is presented in the order in which it originally was performed.
Without question, the rapport among the band members had developed to the point where the ensemble was a rather formidable force, capable of communicating almost telepathically, and as a result, the music that emanated from the collective at this exquisite concert is arguably the finest representation of the Coleman-era. Sounding fully energized by his counterparts, Davis pushed his band forward, challenging the musicians every step of the way, and more often than not, they suitably rose to the occasion. On nearly all of the songs, the group quickly dispensed with the more familiar thematic interludes in favor of intensely adventurous improvisation. Tunes like So What, Joshua, and Walkin’ were tackled at breakneck speed, while standards such as Stella by Starlight and My Funny Valentine stood in sharp contrast, revealing a stunningly beautiful sense of lyricism within their haunted and sometimes rather ethereal refrains.
In essence, Davis’ experiments in jazz were mirroring James Brown’s ruminations in the R&B world, and both artists were driven to make bold new advances in music. To do so, Davis needed a strong foundation, and with Hancock, Carter, and Williams, he certainly had found it. By this point, the trio had become a wholly integrated unit, and the manner in which it fed the free-flowing rhythmic grooves is still a joy to behold. Likewise, Davis’ interplay with his ensemble is enlightening, especially given the 20/20 hindsight of knowing where the collective eventually would land. Indeed, there’s a subtlety to some of the interactions that he had with his group, most notably with Williams, that would further evolve in the coming months. However, good as Coleman was — and his contributions to the Philharmonic Hall material, particularly on All Blues, My Funny Valentine, and All of You were utterly masterful — he wasn’t willing to climb as far outside the songs as Davis wanted to go. Perhaps knowing this, Coleman resigned in Spring, although financial considerations also played a role in his departure.
With veteran saxophonist Sam Rivers in tow, Davis took his ensemble to Tokyo for a performance at Kohseinenkin Hall in July 1964. It was the legendary trumpeter’s first concert in Japan, and regrettably the band’s set was noticeably subdued, especially considering Rivers’ penchant for playing in a more avant-garde style. His last-minute addition to the group undoubtedly was a factor in the lack of chemistry between him and Davis, although the certainty that it was Williams, not Davis, who brought Rivers into the troupe likely played an even larger role. To be sure, there were moments when it seemed as if Davis and Rivers were heading in opposite directions, and as a result their ideas didn’t always mesh quite right. Despite this, the music — all of which long has been available on Miles in Tokyo — was quite moving, even if it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. My Funny Valentine was given a particularly resonant treatment with Davis’ trumpet echoing the longing within the song’s unsung lyrics, while both So What and Walkin’ featured more thoroughly integrated interactions between Rivers and the rest of the ensemble.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the distance between Davis and Rivers, however, was the fact that Wayne Shorter, the saxophonist that the bandleader had been trying to bring into his ensemble since 1960, would soon be free from his commitments to Art Blakey. In fact, soon after returning from Japan, Davis fired Rivers and began to pursue Shorter, adding him to his group just prior to embarking upon a European tour. The final disc in Seven Steps features the newly christened quintet performing in Berlin in September 1964, most of which was previously released on the Miles in Berlin collection.
Although the ensemble unquestionably was in the early stages of development, its music exuded the natural, organic chemistry shared among its members. Shorter, in essence, played the perfect counterpart to Davis’ lofty ruminations, echoing them in kind and carrying them even further, and with a rhythm section that was clicking completely, there were many indications as to the directions in which the group would soon head. The rapid pace of Milestones (as well as So What) allowed the band to oscillate between swinging hard bop and avant-garde exploration as it significantly pushed the songs’ boundaries outward, and the rendition of Stella by Starlight, which heretofore had been unreleased, was magnificent, each note reflecting a wealth of emotion that radiated a quiet, reflective tenderness. Likewise, the quintet’s treatment of Autumn Leaves was delightful — surely the finest of the three interpretations contained on Seven Steps — as the musicians playfully communicated with a stunningly soulful air, and Walkin’ tucked some of the overall collection’s most potently brilliant improvisation inside its frenetic rhythms.
There’s no question that the better days of Davis’ second quintet were still to come. It would be pointless to argue otherwise given that the periods chronicled on a pair of previously released box sets — the 8-disc effort The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 and the 6-disc package The Complete Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet (1965–1968) — featured more consistently powerful and inventive moments from the ensemble. Keeping that in mind, however, Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963–1964 — much like last year’s The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions — is a spellbinding compilation of material, and, taken as a whole, it offers a prismatic view of Davis’ thought process as he and his band evolved into a veritable tour de force. In other words, even if the ride was occasionally a little bumpy, in retrospect, it still makes for a fascinating journey across some of the most luxurious terrain one is likely to encounter.
Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963–1964
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box