LP REVIEW: Miles Davis – Miles Smiles

Miles Davis – Miles Smiles
(Music On Vinyl/Columbia MOVLP1071. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Recorded over two days in late October 1966, in Columbia’s New York studios, this reissued album charts the progress of what is regarded as Miles Davis’s second great quintet. The first one — featuring Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers and a certain John Coltrane — roamed the earth from about 1955 to 1958. The new model quintet lasted a year longer, 1964-68, and moved through considerably more modernist terrain.

Orbits bring Miles Davis on stage, so tart and sharp that Herbie Hancock’s exploratory piano sounds positively mellow by comparison. Miles can be heard growling encouragement in the background as Hancock solos. The trumpet erects a jagged scaffold which is swiftly clad by the rhythm section until Wayne Shorter’s tenor creates a cloud of sound. Miles is double tracked at the end, playing us out with the help of his doppelganger.

On Circle Miles’ intro is much more conventional and elegiac, a recollection of past triumphs with the likes of Gil Evans. The soft pulse and stutter of brushes on the drums from Tony Williams provides the canvas for his colours. Herbie Hancock neatly supports Davis, mortar between the bricks until Wayne Shorter’s tenor sax lifts the lid off and reveals a treasure box full of beauty in this piece. Williams moves on to cymbals, softly dashing punctuation, and the quintet as a whole project the feeling of a group wonderfully in harmony and settled in together. It’s hard to believe this only their second album. Hancock takes the high ground on piano, Ron Carter on bass at his back, softly supported by Williams. Following the delicate splendour of Hancock’s solo, Miles Davis’s trumpet is high pitched and crystal clear. The restraint and minimalism — and beauty — here suggests haiku. It’s a mood rather agreeably exploded by the harsh rasping of Miles checking in with producer Teo Macero, asking in his murdered voice “How did it sound Teo?”, like the intrusion of a yokai demon.

Dolores sees Carter and Williams effortlessly maintaining a searing, breathless pace with Hancock soloing on top in scales tied in a Möbius knot. Miles and his henchman Shorter sing repeated fragments of a barebones melody as Williams breaks surface on the drums. Extraordinary as it seems, Freedom Jazz Dance raises the stakes with what feels like an increase in pace from the rhythm section, though that could be an illusion, like the slow-down lines painted at a road junction, caused by an undoubted increase in complexity of the patterns played. Miles is exultant, in his element, using chords from Hancock as the launch pad for his clipped, cryptic utterances. Shorter is richer, rounder, smoothing out the troubled ripples of the musical surface. Carter and Hancock form a tight double act in one corner while Williams builds a tower of rapid percussion in the other. Then Davis and Shorter roll onto the scene, like behemoths occupying a barren Dali landscape, and show us what a double act really is.

Ginger Bread Boy begins in a manner which is only mildly modernist and its echoes of Dizzy and Monk are so accessible that they make hard-edged bebop sound as comfortable and chummy as Dixieland. A telling index of how far the music had come in a few short years. Carter’s wide open bass speaks volumes. Davis of the demon voice is back again and has the final word: “Theo, play that. Theo, Theo, Theo… play that.”

But it wasn’t just Theo who would be playing back this 1960s milestone, again and again. This is music which roots excitement deep in your solar plexus. It’s a magnificent snapshot of one of Miles Davis’s greatest bands reaching there peak, and is very well served by a high quality vinyl release by Music on Vinyl.

Categories: miscellaneous

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