Thursday, September 25, 2008

THE Quintet

What's the greatest jazz band of all time? Well, in a lot of respects it's a silly question. But if one were to take it seriously, various bands led by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane (among others) all have a case for the title. But my vote would go to a band that changed the way "straight-ahead" and freer styles of jazz are played: the 1964-68 Miles Davis Quintet. You know, the one with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.

I bought the great Miles Smiles album by this group in 1978. To use a well-worn cliche, it changed my life. The "freebop" approach - swinging hard with no (or very abstract) chord changes - appealed to me as a vibrant, vital, contemporary approach to the jazz language. Even though I came upon this album 12 years after it was recorded, and it is now 42 years since the sessions, it seems just as vital today.

The band's approach to standards also remains unsurpassed. It was years before I could "drop the needle" in the middle of any of the 1965 Plugged Nickel sessions and have a reasonable chance of knowing what song they were playing. And I know all those chord changes! This band took the changes "out" to the limits of standard harmony, but could always bring them back to earth. I've heard lots of bands since use this approach, but none has ever gone further than The Quintet.

The outstanding Atlanta drummer Lee Goodness subbed with my quartet on several occasions back in the 90s. He was able to play my music, but it kind of puzzled him - it seemed kind of out in left field to him. A couple of years later, I saw Lee, and he said, "I got the Miles Smiles album and said, 'This is where Jeff Crompton gets that shit from!'"

A couple of nights ago I wanted to hear this band play "Footprints," but didn't want to hear the familiar Miles Smiles version. I had two live versions to choose from. (Ah, the joys of a ridiculously extensive recorded music collection!) I chose an Antwerp concert from October, 1967. What a band and what a show! Miles was great; the interaction of the band was amazing, and Wayne Shorter was just scary. He always sounded good in the studio, but there he never reached the heights he was capable of on a good night on stage. Listen to Shorter on the Plugged Nickel recordings - "armed and ready for battle," as one commentator said.

Before the last Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Ensemble gig, I was talking with Ben Gettys and bari saxist Bill Nittler. I told Bill that Ben had heard this Miles group in 1968. For a few seconds Bill just stared at Ben without saying a word. That's the way I feel about this group.

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