The musical legacy of Miles Davis is filled with so many seminal recordings from classic groups that it's difficult to define any single period as the most vital. A career that encompasses his work with Charlie Parker, his "Birth of the Cool" recordings, his '50s groups with John Coltrane, his work in the '60s with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, his electric breakthroughs of the '70s and beyond, provides plenty of choices for individual commemoration.
But one can certainly make a case for the fact that the ensemble represented in this stunning, six-CD boxed set--with Shorter on saxophone, Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums--represents one of the most solidly integrated, collectively creative bands Davis ever assembled.
Much of the material is familiar. And, in retrospect, it reveals Davis' great skill in finding young talent, and allowing it to find its own voice, within his musical framework. Shorter's compositional contributions--pieces such as "E.S.P," "Footprints," "Masqualero," "Nefertiti," "Pinocchio" and others--had a powerful effect upon the quintet's music. But so too did the lesser-known contributions of Ron Carter ("R.J.," "Eighty-One") and Hancock ("The Sorcerer," "Speak Like a Child").
The playing is stunning. Davis' solos have the sound of a man who is fully in command of his musical vision, enjoying his brilliant, creative maturity. Shorter's solos are gripping, underscoring the fact that he was a more important voice, at the time, than was generally acknowledged. Hancock plays with a probing musical curiosity which turns every solo into an adventure. Carter consistently lays down ostinatos and counterlines which produce a spontaneous compositional structure. And Williams breaks ground all over the place, fearlessly expanding the palette of contemporary jazz drumming.
The performances are particularly fascinating when one hears them in the context of the years in which they were produced. The mid- and late-'60s were chaotic for jazz, filled with avant-garde rumblings, free playing and a general sense of rebellion against the jazz norms of the '50s. Somehow, the Davis quintet managed to absorb the energy of those musical currents, adding their own individual ideas, and transforming them into a still-captivating flow of sheer creativity.
The set contains 56 tracks (including 13 never before released), chronologically spaced over 27 recording sessions held between January 1965 and June 1968. The material includes everything from the LPs "E.S.P.," "Miles Smiles," "Sorcerer," "Nefertiti" and "Miles in the Sky," as well as some pieces that were included in "Filles De Kilimanjaro" and "Water Babies."
Like the Davis/Gil Evans set, the packaging has a deluxe quality, but is tightly fitted into a binding which can make it difficult to examine individual pages. Nonetheless, the program notes are excellent--especially producer Bob Belden's musically authoritative break-down of the individual tracks.
But the magic is in the music. And, although Columbia seems determined to tap its Davis vaults for every imaginable piece of music, the quality level shows no signs of dropping. This is jazz which belongs in every listener's collection.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).