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Seventh Heaven

New Miles Davis box set is pure bliss

By Greg Cahill

"I knew right away that this was going to be a motherfucker of a group," Miles Davis wrote in his 1989 autobiography, Miles, referring to the stellar combo that would go on to create landmark sessions and spawn Seven Steps to Heaven and several other albums. "For the first time in a while, I found myself feeling excited inside, because if they were playing that good in a few days, what would they be playing like in a few months? Man, I could just hear that shit popping all over the place."

Davis had reason to be excited. In 1963, four years after the release of his modal masterpiece Kind of Blue (the biggest-selling jazz album of all time) and its follow-up, Sketches of Spain, he was in a transitional space and looking for a new direction.

Between April 16, 1963, and Sept. 25, 1964, Davis would record with four different five-piece units--which would include pianist Victor Feldman, and tenor saxophonists Sam Rivers and George Coleman--before ending up with one of the greatest jazz quintets of all time, featuring Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and then-17-year-old Tony Williams on drums.

The newly released seven-CD box set Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963-1964 (Sony/Legacy) gathers 50 digitally remastered 24-bit tracks, including eight previously unreleased (three of which are unedited for the first time), chronicling one of the most creative periods in the jazz master's vibrant career. Those sessions provided the grist for such classic LPs as Seven Steps to Heaven, My Funny Valentine, Miles Davis in Europe and Four and More, among others.

It was Davis' crucial post-Coltrane period, a brief era that produced some of the musician's best-known material and would culminate in the formation of his second great quintet.

The tracks are arranged chronologically, beginning with the legendary studio sessions and moving through extraordinary live concert dates recorded in France, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and Berlin, performances that ignited a passion for American jazz among worldwide audiences. Thanks to these live recordings, it's possible to witness the explosive growth of this ensemble. By the time the group reached a February 1964 date at Lincoln Center in New York, the hard-bopping muscularity of George Coleman was in peak form and in sharp contrast to the edgier explorations of his replacement, Sam Rivers. Miles rectified that situation in September of 1964 when he hired the sympathetic Wayne Shorter to fill the reed slot.

Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams would remain pivotal players in Davis' ever changing lineup of sidemen, contributing to 1965's Live at the Plugged Nickel and 1969's revolutionary fusion album In a Silent Way.

For Davis, this was a heady period, one that foretold many of his future problems. At the time these recordings were made, producer Bob Blumenthal notes, the trumpeter owned a five-story New York brownstone, drove a Ferrari and earned nearly $200,000 a year. He was named one of GQ's best-dressed men and was the subject of Playboy's first interview. He also developed many of the health problems, including sickle cell anemia, that would contribute to his 1991 death.

But these sessions reveal an artist who, even if he hadn't reinvented himself quite yet, was capable of considerable creative growth. Even his peers were amazed. When jazzman Jimmy Heath caught Davis' group at the Showboat in Philadelphia in May 1963, shortly after the new album was completed, he told Davis: "Man, they're great, but I wouldn't want to be up there playing with them every night. Miles, them motherfuckers are gonna set everybody on fire!"

The glow of those incendiary sessions still burns.



Spin du Jour

Frank Zappa, 'QuAUDIOPHILIAc' (DTS Entertainment/Barking Pumpkin)

Before his untimely death at the age of 53 in 1993, avant-rocker Frank Zappa dabbled with surround sound and predicted the advent of downloadable music. With the release of this 10-track DVD-Audio disc, his son Dweezil has helped realize that multichannel dream. Culled from the Zappa family vault by archivist Joe Travers, QuAUDIOPHILIAc brings together previously unreleased performances, both live (from the 1975 UCLA Royce Hall concerts) and from the studio, of such compositions as "Rollo" and "Venusian Time Bandits," along with tracks from Sheik Yerbouti, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar and Orchestral Favorites, all in glorious 5.1 surround sound. Bonus features include a vintage video of Zappa discussing advanced surround playback. A true visionary.

--G.C.

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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