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Miles Davis Seven Steps; The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963 - 1964 Review

Compilation. Released 2004.  

BBC Review

More cash flow issues for the Miles Davis obsessive as Columbia unleash seven CDs of...

Peter Marsh 2002

If heaven is Miles Davis' second quintet (and some would say that it is), then this luscious set is indeed aptly named. It's got seven discs in it, for a start...

The previous sets in Columbia's series have all been centred around particular bands or recording projects. This one is different, documenting the period of transition between Davis' work with the first great quintet (with Coltrane, Adderley et al) and the second (with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams).

Coltrane was (unsurprisingly) a hard act to follow. Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt and Hank Mobley all failed to fit the bill for various reasons (Miles was particularly fond of Heath but the saxophonist's parole officer put a ban on him touring with the band), and the period was marked by what Davis felt were some fairly indifferent recordings and performances.

By the first disc of this set, Davis had settled temporarily on the quintet that cut Seven Steps to Heaven in early 1963 (featured on disc 1 here). Though the trumpeter's ear had been caught by the talents of both Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams, neither were available. Bassist Ron Carter was in place however, and the pianist's chair was taken by LA session master Victor Feldman (soon to leave for more lucrative studio work). George Coleman was the tenor saxophonist, and Frank Butler filled in while Davis waited for Williams to finish his stint with Jackie McLean.

Despite their considerable skills, this band was still very much in the shadow of the Coltrane line-up. But with the arrival of Hancock and Williams a month later, things shifted up a gear or three. Live recordings made at Antibes and in particular the Philharmonic Hall gig of February 1964 (all included here) show how.

The set lists drew on a selection of Davis classics plus a few standards. Though there was still a nod to the hard bop flavours of the Mobley and Heath groups (particularly in the furious pace of "So What"), Hancock's crafty reharmonisations of the material, coupled with Williams' crisp, explosive drumming kept the material in a constant state of flux and fizzing with energy.

Coleman's earthy, precise tenor proved to be a problem for Williams, who craved a more adventurous foil for Davis. When Coleman left (citing late payments and a lack of gigs), the drummer lobbied for his old bandmate Sam Rivers to take his place. A live recording from Tokyo seems to be the only document of this short lived line-up. Though it wasn't an entirely successful one (Rivers' embryonic avant garde approach didn't sit well with Davis), the version of "My Funny Valentine' remains for my money one of the trumpeter's loveliest ballad performances, and Rivers is admirably fearless throughout.

Not long afterwards Davis finally bagged Wayne Shorter, who'd just quit Art Blakey. The final disc of this set captures the new quintet on a visit to Europe with a broadly unchanged set list. "Autumn Leaves" is pulled apart and stuck back together with a level of invention and beauty that hints at things to come, and it's fascinating to hear the band tackling tunes they would soon abandon in favour of new self composed material.

There's not a huge amount here that'll be unfamiliar to the Davis collector. We do get a few alternate takes from the studio sessions and a fairly glorious"Stella by Starlight" on the final disc, but Columbia'slisting of concert announcements among the 'previously unreleased' material is a bit questionable.

But of course, it's all remixed and remastered and (call me superficial), the packaging and annotation counts for a lot. And of course, the music's pretty good too...a fine investment and an essential companion to the glorious Plugged Nickel set.

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