Question about Miles Davis at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall
April 12, 2009 3:41 PM   Subscribe

How much of the Miles Davis concert recorded on Feb. 12, 1964 at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall was (not) improvised?

Available in various cuts on a number of CDs (My Funny Valentine, Four and More, The complete concert...), this is commonly regarded as one of the great Jazz concerts in history. The line-up is Miles Davis, George Colemen, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

I've listened to this recording many times. I think the concert is pure genius, but recently it struck me that it is so perfect that I wonder how much of it is improvised and how much is, well, rehearsed. This is at least true for the not-so-up-tempo standards of the concert, such as My Funny Valentine, All Of You, Stella By Starlight, I Thought About You, There is No Greater Love, maybe not so much for the other tunes.
Some of the exhibits:

* The arrangements are more complex, in terms of harmonies and tempo, than in other recordings, even by Miles with other sidemen.

* The execution is too flawless. Usually, in a solo, there'll inevitably be instances where the soloist is temporarily lost - if only for split seconds - and you can hear how he is trying to get back into the song. Not so here, even though the solos (especially sax and piano) are extremely complex including phrases and musical thoughts that seem to me longer than usual, they never miss a beat.

* There seems to be more coordination in the rhythm section than in other Jazz combos.

For example, compare this version of Stella By Starlight with the one recorded by the same rhythm section on Ron Carter's "Third Plane". The latter sounds much more improvised, whereas the Lincoln Center version sounds much denser, more thought out and more ... meaningful.

Or take the end of the sax solo / beginning of the piano solo in All Of You: there is this coordinated figure of bass and piano which ties in perfectly with the end of the sax solo. Then at the beginning of the piano solo, Tony Williams not so much echoes, but underlines some of Herbie Hancock's figures, like he knows what's coming.

So what gives?
Is my hunch correct, that there is actually less improvisation going on at this concert than at other great Jazz concerts? If so, how much of the solos are rehearsed? All of it? Just some? How'd they do it?
posted by sour cream to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The execution is too flawless.

You do know that all the tracks on Kind of Blue were complete takes, with Flamenco Sketches being a complete take on the first try. And they all saw the music for the first time on the days they recorded. Bill Evans said they "only received sketches of scales and melody lines to improvise and go on from Davis. Once the musicians were assembled, Davis gave brief instructions for each piece and then set to taping the sextet in studio."

This is the caliber of Miles Davis and his band mates, and I don't think it varied much for live performances, esp. when they were being recorded.
posted by furtive at 3:51 PM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

What furtive said. Miles Davis is a stone cold badass.
posted by danb at 4:00 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just found out that bit about Kind of Blue. It's breathtaking, but I think these guys really were that good.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:41 PM on April 12, 2009

There is an element of rehearsal in that these guys have played the same songs together (and separately) before, but it's really a conversation between brilliant interlocutors who know each other and understand how to develop the topic, hand off at the appropriate time, and are open to signalling.

OK, they have their riffs, but the majority of what is happening here is group interaction.
posted by Wolof at 12:24 AM on April 13, 2009

Here's a clip from Miles' autobiography talking about the way they pushed each other every night on stage. This quote specifically references the quintet after Shorter's arrival, but because Miles didn't usually rehearse the bands for gigs, this most likely applies to the Coleman version of the quintet too.

(Miles in Europe has the same lineup, and is just as exciting, IMO. I'd also like to recommend Miles' In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk featuring the Wynton Kelly/Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb/Hank Mobley quintet. Both top-notch live Miles.)
posted by GamblingBlues at 4:14 AM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

You have to understand that these guys lived, breathed, ate and fucked music every waking moment of their lives. Yes, they were really that good.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:21 AM on April 13, 2009

I believe it's come to light that there was a little more rehearsal involved in Kind of Blue than was traditionally thought. Still, these guys are masters. Maybe George Coleman less so (I don't think he was in the band much longer after that). Anyway, this is jazz. That's what people do. It's a language of sounds and patterns that enables people to improvise at incredibly fast tempos and interact in incredibly complicated ways on the fly.

If you think that's hot, check out recordings of Coltrane and Miles, or Miles and Wayne Shorter. Insane stuff.

I'm not sure if this is the recording, but I think it is: Miles quotes his original solo from So What at the start? I think this is the one. So you get the idea that they've been playing this material a lot. But they'd play just as hard if it was brand new.

I'm also not sure: is this the benefit concert where Miles told the band right before they went on that he'd donated their salaries to charity for the show, just to piss them off so that they'd play harder? I think it is.

Honestly though, I never liked this album that much. Too frenetic. If you are interested in amazing interplay I think there are better recordings. For a random suggestion check out Bags and Trane which I think is one of the greatest unsung jazz recordings of all time.

Basically though on any jazz album, with great players you could put a sheet of music in front of them, press record and go.
posted by sully75 at 12:48 PM on April 13, 2009

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