“Everything was worth a trial, just to see. Picasso had the curiosity of the juggler seeking the ball best suited to his hand.”
“You get the right guys to play the right thing at the right time and you got a motherfucker. You got everything you need.”
Drawing parallels between the careers of Miles Davis and Picasso is hardly new. Alpha-males run a very real risk of all looking alike, but being a creative heavyweight helps you stand out among the curmudgeonly crowd. Where Picasso would lean heavily on the women he juggled in his life for inspiration, Miles Davis would routinely surround himself with young cutting edge musicians to progress stylistically and maintain his relevance, especially in the rapidly evolving musical landscape of the mid- to late-sixties. In the face of avant-garde innovations pioneered by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor that he could not relate to and was never too keen on, Davis by comparison appeared to be running out of steam and was becoming increasingly frustrated by his inability to “get the right guys”. John Coltrane quit his band after the infamous 1960 European tour to focus on his own direction creating a void for Miles that was nearly impossible to fill, and when his rhythm section deserted him to form the Wynton Kelly Trio soon after, Miles Davis faced the daunting task of a total rebuild.
For Seven Steps To Heaven (1963) Ron Carter filled in on bass and the brilliant seventeen year-old drummer Tony Williams was poached from Jackie McLean’s line-up for half the album’s tracks alongside up-and-coming superstar pianist Herbie Hancock. The three musicians were offered a permanent gig in the quintet, at that time also featuring saxophonist George Coleman. This unit can be heard on the excellent live albums My Funny Valentine and “Four” & More assembled from the same February 12, 1964 concert. The brash and possibly over-confident Tony Williams, who had performed on the seminal avant-garde recordings Evolution (1963) by trombonist Grachan Moncur III, Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond (1963), Andrew Hill’s Point Of Departure (1964), and Out To Lunch! (1964) by Eric Dolphy, was unhappy playing in the band with George Coleman who he reasoned coloured too safely within the lines and urged Miles to replace him with someone more challenging.
“I think Tony was the one who brought Archie Shepp to the Vanguard one night to sit in, and he was so awful that I just walked off the bandstand. He couldn’t play and I wasn’t going to stand up there with this no-playing motherfucker.”
Williams also suggested they try out Sam Rivers, who can be heard with the quintet on Miles In Tokyo (1964). Miles Davis wasn’t particularly enamoured with Rivers’ fiery playing and promptly recruited Wayne Shorter from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In the four years since Coltrane’s departure Davis had used no less than seven saxophonists before the arrival of Wayne Shorter, a period of instability he would grumble about in later years. But his new group quickly locked in and would eventually become famous for devising a new and unique stream of jazz.
With E.S.P. (1965) and Miles Smiles (recorded in 1966 and arguably this quartet’s best studio recording and one of Miles Davis’ finest albums of his entire career) they fine-tuned an energised and free-floating group aesthetic that, while critically acclaimed, was greeted with indifference by the jazz-buying public at the time (his album sales had plateaued at around 10,000 units per release) however modern listeners find plenty in these records to be amazed about. These young musicians were excited and enthusiastic and Davis allowed them plenty of room to develop a searching quality. Each member, especially Wayne Shorter, brought new compositions into the repertoire that moved far away from the standard tunes that Miles had been playing for years. They also motivated him to lift his own game and take his playing slightly further out. Another key to the success of these albums is the consistently astounding performances by jazz wunderkind Tony Williams that effectively reshaped the function of drums in a jazz ensemble. Much has been said of his use of polyrhythms and mastery of metric modulation (a subtle changing of time signatures while maintaining the implied pulse of the music); Elvin Jones had been playing in a similar way around this time, but Williams pulled it all off with tremendous finesse and inventiveness that defined the drama within this music.
Their esprit de corps was in full swing when they came to record Sorcerer, a total group effort where there is no one stand-out voice. Where E.S.P. was a white-light depiction of daytime, Sorcerer reveals itself as a sound-painting of the night. The frenetic vigour of Miles Smiles is here downplayed; mood is the motive on these performances which are built on little more than unelaborated summary outlines and intimated harmonic landscapes. Open-ended rather than free-form and structurally minimal, Davis invokes an updated retelling of Kind Of Blue (1958) with only slightly more fire in its belly. There are thrilling moments of flash and thunder, ‘Limbo’ at times threatens to boil over, but they are passing. Mostly this is about surfaces and planes, Miles’ solo on ‘Vonetta’ hinting at submerged shapes barely discernible, the artist dreaming up cubist canvases having expended fully the charms of his once-fertile “blue” period. Wayne Shorter blows shamanic incantations, the snake-charmer in his soul surfacing on ‘Masquelero’ and the gently spiralling ‘Pee Wee’ where Davis sits out completely and Herbie Hancock’s piano becomes an illusionistic mirror-mosaic. The strongest track is Hancock’s ‘The Sorcerer’, which opens with Shorter sketching an uneven theme which seems as if he is trying out random ideas until Davis abruptly accompanies him, bringing the jagged melody into sharp focus. They engage in a face-off during an unguarded exchange of back-and-forth improvisation, resolved only by another display of scintillation by Hancock.
Featuring a powerful profile photo of actress Cicely Tyson on the cover, who would eventually marry Miles Davis in 1981, Sorcerer is often dismissed as transitional and consequently is overlooked in favour of his more celebrated releases. But Davis was ever the juggler and much of what he conjured during his fifty-year career can be seen as transitional. The closing piece on the album, the novelty-like aberration ‘Nothing Like You’, which was recorded in 1962 with a different line-up and a hard to love vocal performance by Bob Dorough, is totally out of place on this album and needs to be ignored. Presumably included as a tribute to Tyson, its presence dilutes the power and importance of this LP which is an otherwise integral document of this band and another fraction of brilliance from Miles Davis as he again (and not for the last time) reaches beyond himself.