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You can certainly be a genius without being a celebrity; Miles Davis was both. No doubt it’s primarily Davis’ status as an avatar of cool that has moved Columbia to honor the late trumpeter with what will eventually be the most lavish, comprehensive series of boxed sets ever devoted to a recording artist. Genius doesn’t sell records — cool does.
But let’s not be churlish. The label is performing a signal service to music fans by tastefully and intelligently documenting Davis’ three-decade Columbia career. The first box (of a planned eight), 1996’s Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, was a beautiful piece of work. And so is this, the just-released Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-1968, a six-CD, 7 1/2-hour summary of perhaps the greatest phase of a great career.
When he assembled his mid-’60s quintet, Davis had already led several musical lives: brash young bebopper and ”cool jazz” precursor, to name but two. By 1964 he was ready to molt again. Only two ’60s jazz musicians — John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman — were as revolutionary as Davis. Trane and Coleman waged noisy frontal assaults on jazz convention; Davis was more discreet, a secret revolutionary whose music’s allure masked its subversive core. It’s only with 30 years’ hindsight that we can grasp how radical he was.
By the mid-’60s, Davis had little patience for the tried-and-true protocols of jazz improvisation. Abandoning chord changes and other basics of traditional jazz, he gave himself and his young charges — saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Ron Carter — only the sketchiest signposts to follow. Mood and color were of paramount importance; playing by the rules wasn’t. The result might easily have been chaos; with as gifted a group as this, it was magic. The quintet’s music flowed seamlessly, every piece — every performance of every piece — following its own logic (that Davis & Co. never repeated themselves becomes abundantly clear when you compare this box’s dozen alternate takes with the ”master” versions on the set). Here was music that worked on two levels: Beguiling to newcomers, it gave hardcore fans infinite opportunities to plumb its depths.
There was plenty of it, too. Between January ’65 and June ’68, the quintet made six brilliant albums: E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and half of Filles de Kilimanjaro, plus enough unreleased music to fill chunks of later albums, released after the group’s demise. Reissue producers Michael Cuscuna and Bob Belden have sequenced the music by recording date, so you can hear how the band developed.
It’s hard to single out high points in such a wealth of music. ”Footprints,” from 1967’s Miles Smiles, breathes pure mystery — Williams’ splashy cymbals wrap the music in a radiant haze, Carter’s bass whispers its urgent message, and Davis shoots out flames (anyone who buys the line he was a technically deficient trumpeter can start listening here). ”Nefertiti” unrolls indolently, seducing the listener even as it overturns accepted practice (the lead instruments, Davis’ trumpet and Shorter’s saxophone, merely repeat the melody; the putative accompanists, Williams and Hancock, supply all the variations). Miles in the Sky’s ”Stuff” initiated Davis’ adventures in jazz-rock: Suddenly Hancock is playing electric piano, Carter a pure Stax groove on Fender bass. As if inspired by his switched-on rhythm section, Davis uncorks a great, exuberant solo. ”Filles de Kilimanjaro,” further down the electric road, is an aural travelogue, its melody a swift, deliciously luxe train trip to exotic places, a vacation. That’s what almost every bit of this music is.
In his liner notes, bassist/jazz educator Todd Coolman takes today’s young jazz musicians to task for ”looking backward only, without having an eye toward the exploratory, the unknown, the future. Miles Davis had a quality that seems to be missing today: the ability to know the past but keep an eye (and ear) toward the future.” The criticism is unfair. Is it an accident that no jazz band has emerged in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s with the hell-for-leather adventurousness of Davis’ ’65-68 quintet? Or that no individual innovator has matched Coltrane’s or Coleman’s certainty of purpose? In the 1960s, Davis and his fellow titans may have taken jazz as far as it can go, breaking it into its components, holding them up to the light. ”In both reason and practice,” writes poet and critic Hayden Carruth, ”we know that unending novelty is an impossibility…. The age of experiment is obviously over.” After such giants, there may be nothing for today’s jazzers to do but sweep up. A