NEWS FROM THE TRENCHES: This week's Pick "Miles Smiles"
This is an expert from the long running weekly newsletter by bassist Steve Hashimoto entitled "News from the the Trenches"...
This week’s pick is Footprints, the Wayne Shorter composition from Miles Davis’ 1966 album Miles Smiles. The band is what’s usually referred to as the ”second great quintet, Miles on trumpet, Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.
This album, and this cut in particular, defined the post-bebop rhythm section paradigm forever, with their telepathic fluidity and almost willful refusal to play in the conventional walking-bass and ding-ding-a-ding ride cymbal mode. The conventional wisdom says that Williams, who was 21 years old at the time of these sessions and had been with Miles for 4 years, was the instigator of this revolution (listen to his ride cymbal throughout the track), but I think that Carter and Hancock were equal co-conspirators. My personal feeling (and I know I’ll get some blowback on this) is that what Tony’s doing here is all about emotion and youthful testosterone and derring-do (one of the YouTube comments here is that Tony “gives no fucks,” which is both accurate and hilarious), but what Ron does comes from a slightly deeper well of experience and knowledge of music from different cultures. Yes, of course Tony is layering different rhythms and implying different time signatures over the basic 6/8 pulse of the composition, but Carter is as well, and the way he’s doing shows a pretty deep familiarity with Afro-Cuban and African music. He implies tumbao feels in 6 and in 4, as well as dropping into walking bass patterns in simple 3/4 and double-time 4/4. I’m not dissing Tony, I’m just saying that I think that most of his experiences up until that point had been playing with jazz cats like Jackie McLean and Miles, while Ron was already a seasoned freelancer before joining Miles’ band, and had certainly played his share of Latin-jazz gigs in New York city and had a wider range of vocabulary to draw from. And of course the openness of Herbie’s conception, both rhythmically and harmonically, is ultimately what allowed everyone in the band to go wherever they wanted.
Again, my personal feeling is that these guys sort of ruined rhythm sections for many years. There are artists that I call ”black hole” artists, artists (in any field) whose work is so daring and revolutionary and seductive that they suck everyone in their scene into their sphere of influence, people like Jaco Pastorius, Bill Evans, Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock. You know what I’m saying, I hope; with all due respect to the innovators, for years every bassist in the world went out and bought a fretless bass and put round-wound strings on it and tried to sound like Jaco (I resisted, he says, patting himself mightily on the back, even though now I primarily play the fretless). For many years I heard young rhythm sections come into the Green Mill jam session and sit in as sections, displacing rhythms and meters all over the place, but very rarely as seamlessly and organically as Tony, Ron and Herbie. And even though Wynton Marsalis’ debut recording as a leader used Miles’ rhythm section and template, I think he eventually realized that at some point jazz music had to reclaim its imperative to swing, and bass players gradually returned to more conservative walking bass lines and drummers looked back to players like Jimmy Cobb, while still employing elements of Tony, et al. Whether or not you agree with me, and whether or not you feel that this is a good thing, well, like I said, this is purely my personal opinion.
One thing that not many people have commented on when describing this cut is Mile’s rare (during this period of his career, at least) use of a quote in his solo; about midway he quotes Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ In Rhythm.
When I first heard this record I was completely mesmerized. I’m guessing it would have been about 1977 or so. Tim Barton, Erwin Yasukawa and I had formed our band Mothra’s Revenge in 1976, and we were all trying to figure shit out and listening to lots of records. My experience kind was kind of identical to the guitarist Robben Ford’s oft-quoted experience, where he says that when he was an up-and-coming guitarist on the blues scene (in the Charles Ford Blues Band), someone told him he should check out this Miles Davis cat. Ford had heard about Miles and had heard some cuts from Kind Of Blue, but he didn’t know the name of that album, so he went out and found this album, mistaking it for Kind of Blue. When he got it home, it blew the top of his head off; he had nothing to compare it to in his vocabulary, and it actually scared him for many years. For me, I already knew Kind of Blue and Milestones and The Birth of The Cool, but I also knew Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, so I wasn’t quite as unprepared as Ford, but this was still completely uncharted territory. I listened to this record endlessly for months, trying to decipher what was going on. I still don’t have the theoretical knowledge to analyze it (I’m pretty much a self-taught street player), but that didn’t prevent me from appreciating it. It’s still one of my favorite records, and it still has that air of mystery that keeps me coming back.
Steve Hashimoto is a freelance musician and graphic artist who writes a long running weekly newsletter entitled News from the Trenches where he talks about his experiences in music from performing to influences and everything in between.
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