Listening to Miles Davis’s “Lost Quintet”
One can identify a truly creative musician by how that person changes, adapts, and innovates to respond to new information, new situations, and in-the-moment “changes in the weather.” The same holds for creative bands. As I listen closely to concert recordings of Miles Davis’s “Lost” Quintet, 1969-1970, one hears exactly this kind of dynamism. As the personnel gradually changed from the second great Quintet, 1963-1968—first Dave Holland replacing Ron Carter, then Chick Corea replacing Herbie Hancock, and then Jack DeJohnette replacing Tony Williams—the chemistry gets shaken up and morphs. Each player adjusts to the new mix, new input, new directions emerging.
The only recording I’ve heard with Tony Williams remaining in the mix (with Chick and Dave) is so very Tony; it is a virtuoso display, and maybe also a sign that an extraordinary drummer could take hold of the reins of an emerging new band–that hadn’t yet found its moorings as a unit. But soon, with a completely new rhythm section, new things begin to happen. And of course the prominence of riffs and vamps used as musical glue, the terms of engagement change… but not as much as some have suggested. This remains an exploratory, mercurial band until the very end, and continuing after Chick and Dave form Circle and Miles continues with Keith Jarrett and Michael Henderson.
I found 3 1/2 distinct stages in the “Lost” Quintet’s development: 1. In the first half of 1969, Chick and Jack become a musical unit within the band, exquisitely playing off one another; 2. In Fall 1969, on tour after the recording of Bitches Brew, Chick and Dave gel as a duo, in dialog with Jack, with Chick’s playing becoming increasingly angular, serpentine, and dissonant; 3. In Spring-Summer 1970, the sound becomes more electronic as Chick modulates his Fender Rhodes with a ring modulator and other electronic devices, plus Airto Moreira making rather electronic-like sounds on his (acoustic percussion instrument, the) cuica; 3 ½: with Dave playing electric bass, Keith Jarrett on second (actually two more) electric keyboard instruments—Dave and Keith play wah-wah-heavy sounds and along with Chick Corea, creating multiple layers, at times juxtaposed as much as in synch—and Gary Bartz on sax, adding an insistent, distinctly blues-inflected yet sliced and diced motivic layer into the mix. At all points through this development, Jack DeJohnette presents a marvel of multi-layered drumming, offering a clear pulse, but one that contains a constantly changing array of fills and rolls, self-contained interior journeys… all responding to or anticipating an answer from his band mates.
With all this activity, electronics, and high volume, you’d think that everyone find themselves on their own—or become so tightly in synch within the beat that individuality becomes lost. But nothing of the sort happens. The quality of listening actually grows. Not the same fragility of texture offered by the exquisitely close listening Hancock-Carter-Williams version of the Quintet, but something new and different, pointing a way towards how an open approach to improvisation might meet the groove, something that Miles would continue to engage through his first retirement in 1975.