Preface to the 2020 Italian edition of “The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles”

Miles Davis, il Quintetto Perduto e altre rivoluzioni by Bob Gluck, Quodlibet/Chorus (Spring) 2020

Italian edition of The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles by Bob Gluck (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Preface by Claudio Sessa (editor), Quodlibet/Chorus


This is not a book on Miles Davis.

There are several books on the great trumpet player, also in Italian, and satisfy almost all the needs of his many admirers. But this is not a book on Miles Davis. This is a book that tells how a specific, magnificent, revolutionary musical season of Miles Davis has been inextricably connected with the historical period in which it was immersed.

At the end of the sixties, while his group (the historical one with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) was slowly reconfiguring, Davis for some time wanted to document on disk truly “special projects” that they would transform in a sensational way the idea of ​​jazz album itself: in particular the studio works In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In this way he never had the opportunity to bring the new stable group into the recording studio, with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette with the leader and Wayne Shorter. Years later, this formation would be remembered as the Lost Quintet (which in fact, as told in this book, over time became a Sextet and finally a Lost Septet, thanks to the inclusion of Airto Moreira and Keith Jarrett).

What profoundly distinguishes this group from the previous one, as documented by several live recordings, is not only the personality of the individual members, but the radical experiments that the ensemble made with electronic instruments applied to increasingly free forms. Here is what has previously been missed: according to the standard narrative, Davis, in the late sixties and early seventies, relentlessly moved from very adventurous jazz to the so-called “jazz-rock”, or rather to a music very influenced by funk. But this is not an accurate interpretation. For a long time the trumpeter developed a multi-layered aesthetic strategy, not at all linear, simultaneously exploring very different territories. And of this research the Lost Quintet is one of the most fascinating chapters.

Bob Gluck, noted scholar and musician, who had already explored in his previous book (You’ll Know When You’ll Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band) another sector of this adventurous universe, helps us comprehend this anomaly. In Chapter 5 he describes the introduction, played live by Corea on an Fender Rhodes electric piano, to the song “Directions” by Joe Zawinul, which at the time was Davis’ opening theme song. We are in March 1970. The public is hit by something that “concerns pure sound experience. And it is wild and otherworldly (…). At first, the Fender Rhodes sounds like a bus honk, sharply articulated and insistently repeated. It is more an electronic than an electric sound, calling to mind more of the electronic music avant- garde than rock, pop, or funk. Its level of distortion is different in kind from fuzz guitar. Fuzz emphasizes a sustained albeit ‘dirty’ sound; these articulations are brief and sharp edged.”

Miles Davis and his musicians were pushing the limits of consensus gained by a large audience. But the constant attention that the group received is not only due to the charisma of the great trumpeter; it also has to do with the aesthetic resonance, we could say ideologically connoted, of an entire generation.

Gluck is not satisfied with reconstructing the profound meaning of the Lost Quintet within the development of Davis’ poetics. He senses the link with everything that happened in the boiling cauldron of that historical period, and shows that there is a network of relationships between seemingly very different groups. Starting, of course, with the most spontaneous and at the same time most unexpected fruit of the Lost Quintet. That is, with the exit of Corea and Holland from the group, the formation of their own trio which later became the Circle quartet. The new band seems, on the face of it, to be the exact opposite of what most listeners assumed to be true of Miles Davis’s music.

Corea and Holland came in contact with Barry Altschul, a drummer centered in the world of free jazz and in particular the pianist Paul Bley; shortly after, the three enter into a relationship with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, a member of the avant-garde association of Chicago AACM. As it happens, the association also includes the drummer of the Lost Quintet, Jack DeJohnette. And by pulling the threads of this intricate ball of yarn, Gluck cannot help but get to another group that emerged from Chicago, the almost unknown (and extraordinary) Revolutionary Ensemble formed by Leroy Jenkins, Sirone and Jerome Cooper, respectively violinist, double bass player and drummer , but all capable of alternating with various instruments.

Following the actors of his lively scenario, Gluck builds a dizzying and fascinating path. On the one hand, Davis’ music emerges from the most glorious past of jazz, from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, who in turn in his complex itinerary represents a point of reference also for all the others; on the other hand we see the icons of new youth music arising, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone. After all, Davis ‘pupils’ were now creating a school of a distinct flavor. We think of Hancock, Shorter and Zawinul’s Weather Report, John McLaughlin: English like Holland and Jack Bruce of Cream, who will enter Tony Williams’ Lifetime. Williams’s “discovery” was greatly assisted by Sam Rivers, another musician who in these pages continues to re-emerge in ever-changing roles. But this is not all; the impression, up to this point, is to have gone through various areas of popular music, but in fact Braxton’s experiences bring us to the heart of the post-academic avant-garde, from John Cage to Gordon Mumma to the group Musica Elettronica Viva (Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum), onward to Stockhausen and Schoenberg. From here, if we observe the roads traveled by electronics (at the center of the experiments of the Lost Quintet), we can even meet Keith Emerson, Wendy (or Walter) Carlos, again Paul Bley; if we explore the research that goes beyond academe, we find the AACM with Wadada Leo Smith, and then Frank Zappa, Evan Parker (also British), and great older men like Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Bill Dixon. Not to mention the African American Diaspora in Europe (Art Ensemble of Chicago, Marion Brown) or various forms of independence from the music business, about which Gluck allows us to observe interesting cases such as those of Dave Liebman and Karl Berger, in addition of course to the three members of the Revolutionary Ensemble.

In the background, almost to represent a sort of “anti-Miles” that marks the beginning and the end of the book with his personality, the great heretic Ornette Coleman is always present, of which Gluck says that ultimately all the musicians of whom he spoke are “children.” There is therefore a sense of cosmic circularity in this essay, which is configured as a map to cross the great experimental season between the sixties and seventies: a season that had as a luminous and fickle referee Miles Davis.

So this is a book on Miles Davis.

~ by bobgluck on February 28, 2020.

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