Following These Footprints

Check this out.

A few years back I opined that the second great Miles Davis quintet was the greatest group of musicians ever assembled in one collective. I stand by that, and reprint the piece, below.

Listening to what they do on the seminal Wayne Shorter composition, “Footprints”, is as good a case that can be made for their sublime status.

Even after 20+ years, I find myself out-and-out marveling at what Tony Williams does on this track. The double-time, the outside-the-pocket pyrotechnics, the swing and the mother-loving soul. This is, truly, as good as it gets.

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Circle”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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Herbie Hancock is Cooler Than Us And He Always Has Been

Everyone knows that Herbie Hancock is one of the coolest men on the planet, and has been for almost half a century. Anyone who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much; all we can offer them are condolences. Only Miles Davis, with whom Hancock worked for several crucial years (in both mens’ lives) during the mid-’60s, can possibly be invoked in any discussion of popular musicians who consistently shaped, then challenged the vanguard over a substantial period of time. These artists not only made new music but changed music on at least a handful of occasions.

Most folks know, and love, Hancock from what was likely their first association with him: the song (and more significantly, the video) “Rockit”, which was prominent in the MTV rotation circa 1983. The import of this one song is impossible to overstate: it not only spotlighted black men on the then-lilywhite music video channel, it spotlighted a jazz band. On top of that, it served as a mainstream introduction to scratching and turntable pyrotechnics. To say the earth was no longer flat, sonically speaking, after “Rockit” is only hinting at its influence.

But before the ’80s, Hancock made music that remains fresh and vital. Just looking at some of the album covers from the ’70s era (below) should hearten the faithful and intimidate the weak. Street cred? Can you say soundtrack to Death Wish? That not impressive enough? How about Antonioni’s Blow-Up?

          

Of course, Herbie arguably made his most enduring music in the ’60s. In 1963 Miles Davis asked Hancock (along with bassist Ron Carter, tenor sax player Wayne Shorter and seventeen year old wunderkind drummer Tony Williams) to join his new quintet. To put it as simply as possible, this is the best band ever assembled in jazz history; only John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet comes close. And while many geniuses, from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman, led top-tier collectives, there is really no touching this ensemble. Perhaps nowhere is the uncanny dynamic of the group displayed in fuller effect than on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”; there are great live versions here and here but the definitive version is the one that appeared on Miles Smiles (from 1967):

Incidentally, at the same time he was making history with Miles Davis, he was recording a string of albums under his own name that, taken together, would easily put him on the very short list of all-time greats.

       

“Speak Like A Child”, from 1968:

 

Taking the electronic mantle from Miles (after the shot-heard-round-the-world of Bitches Brew, which remains controversial 40 years on), Hancock reinvented his own language with works that were equal parts jazz, fusion and what is now called “world music”: in 1973 he dropped Head Hunters and it became an instant classic. Here is Hancock and his band, performing “Butterfly”, from 1974:

Easing into the ’80s, there is of course, this, the aforementioned “Rockit” (Herbie could even make the early ’80s seem cool; think about how indescribably lame virtually all of the videos from this era are, and check out how hip and vaguely unsettling this one still seems):

Herbie had nothing left to prove at this point. But he had more to give. A lot more. In addition to being a genius, by all accounts Hancock has always been exceedingly modest and softspoken; a gentleman of the old school. Check out this slice of heaven, Herbie keeping it real with the kids on Sesame Street:

 

And here he is, fresh from winning a Grammy (for 2008’s Album of the Year River: The Joni Letters), playing “Watermelon Man” for Elvis Costello on Sundance Channel’s Spectacle (the original is here and the remake from his ’70s classic Headhunters is here).

It’s all gravy at this juncture. It has been since 1973, if not 1969. Hancock has been the baddest, nicest and coolest cat on the scene for five decades; what could he possibly have in store for us next?

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