In the mid-1960s, trumpeter Miles Davis led the most flexible of his celebrated quintets, the one with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. A new set of music from their 1967 European tour is out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a handy reminder of how great and often bizarre that band was.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Miles Davis on "Agitation" from his quintet's "Live in Europe 1967," a three-CD, one-DVD box documenting sets recorded for broadcast at five festivals. Most of it has surfaced before - the set is subtitled "The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1"- but the Belgian concert that performance comes from makes its debut here. This quintet was consistently amazing, not least on their last big tour, when Miles' trumpet chops were in good shape.


WHITEHEAD: These five musicians came up with all sorts of simple or elaborate ways to tweak the music on the fly, and cover for each other if things went haywire. Their interpretations of the band's core tunes varied widely from night to night. Bassist Ron Carter or pianist Herbie Hancock might radically rewrite a tune's chords or structure in the middle of a performance, knowing the others would follow. Drummer Tony Williams set and readjusted the tempos, and created dramatic waves of loud and quiet, raising and lowering the temperature. He's a heavy jazz swinger influenced by rock rhythms. Listen to him behind Wayne Shorter on his modernized blues "Footprints." The drummer muscles his way up front, drops way back, then returns with a new strategy.


WHITEHEAD: Stunning as these individual players were, the ways they worked together really make the band. Groups often stretch out live more than on studio albums. But these guys subjected pieces to wild transformations in the studio, too, shortly after first laying eyes on them. These performances are full of deliberate distortions, ambiguities and contradictions, and subtly weird moves.

On Herbie Hancock's tune "Riot," when Miles's trumpet gives way to Hancock's piano solo in a lower key, the effect is like a cinematic dissolve, where one movie scene fades into another, and for a moment, you're looking at two at once.


WHITEHEAD: You get a real sense of fun, as these five play their musical games. On a Belgian performance of "Gingerbread Boy," Davis casually quotes a rising phrase from Roger Miller's '60s novelty hit "Dang Me." You remember it.


ROGER MILLER: (Singing) Dang me. High from the highest tree...

WHITEHEAD: After quoting it, Miles Davis circles back and transforms that line into a new phrase.


WHITEHEAD: No one in the audience in Antwerp may have caught the joke, but Wayne Shorter did. He references the same lick a minute later - what comedians term a callback.


WHITEHEAD: Kicking around that quote from "Dang Me" is a tiny example of how well these players listen and respond to each other. They can change up the music in an instant. In some bands, Davis used visual cues to shift direction, but not much on this tour, to judge by the hour-plus concert DVD included in "Live in Europe 1967." It was all second nature by then. Their music was brilliant, but it was getting too abstract for Miles.


WHITEHEAD: Weeks after they returned to the States, Davis started writing more of the band's tunes to exert more control. He added guitarists and electric instruments to their sessions, and put more emphasis on the groove. It was the beginning of his turn toward loud electric funk. Umpteen bands in every decade since the '60s have copied or explored ideas raised by this Miles Davis quintet. Its influence sprays in all directions. It's the fountainhead.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist for emusic.com and author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the CD and DVD box set "Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1967: the Bootleg Series Volume 1."

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