AMN Reviews: Bob Gluck – The Miles Davis Lost Quintet & Other Revolutionary Ensembles (U of Chicago Press: 2016)

9780226180762Until the recent opening of the archives and subsequent series of releases, the 1969 Miles Davis Quintet—the so-called Lost Quintet—was something of a legend, much talked about but rarely heard by itself except on a few hard to get bootlegs: The music world’s equivalent of apocryphal texts concealed in jars in the desert. This quintet–which in addition to Davis included Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette–is now the focal point of Bob Gluck’s engaging narrative history of some of the most innovative American music of the late 1960s-early 1970s.

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The Lost Quintet proper only lasted for a single year, from March 1969-March 1970. The group never made a studio recording by itself, although as early as 1968 its members recorded studio material with Davis as elements within larger ensembles—the best known of these probably being the expanded group that recorded Bitches Brew in August 1969, just after the quintet had come off of a European tour. The group was active at a time when Davis famously—or infamously, for some contemporaries—was turning his attention to funk, rock, and the integration of electronic instruments into the basic acoustic jazz ensemble. This turn signaled a significant change in the sound of his music, for while his mid-1960s working quintet of Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams had undoubtedly pushed against the boundaries of jazz conventions, the new group, in both its core and expanded versions, would push further still.

The mid-1960s quintet opened up time, using it as an elastic structural element that allowed rhythmic cycles to expand and contract as if they were following the variable measure of the breath, all while maintaining continuity through a steady, underlying pulse and a basic preservation of song forms. By contrast the Lost Quintet brought timbre—at the local level—and texture—at the global level—to the forefront in order to shape performances and to structure improvisations. Consequently, their sound was deeply rooted in a plasticity emerging from the dynamic interaction of timbral forms. The Lost Quintet was able to open up timbre in this way in significant part because of Corea’s innovative use of the electric piano in a predominantly acoustic setting. Through his use of tone clusters, open space, percussive attacks and liberal application of ring modulation, Corea took the instrument and converted it from a conventionally harmonic role to one of providing intermittent blocks and slabs of sound verging on pure, pitchless timbre. Holland similarly explored an expanded role for the double bass, drawing on extended arco techniques as well as a rapid, flamenco-like pizzicato that blended individual notes into abstract, mobile masses.

Whereas the mid-1960s quintet hinted at a dissolution of tonality, the Lost Quintet took the hint and dismantled it, getting as close to free jazz as a Miles Davis quintet would. As Gluck shows, Davis had been paying attention to developments on the frontiers of jazz, particularly those of his former sideman John Coltrane but also those of Ornette Coleman, with whom Davis had a complex, often uneasy relationship marked by a sometimes sublimated, sometimes overt competition for leadership of the new music. Gluck shows that Coleman’s use of collective improvisation was a source of inspiration to Davis, and played a role in the Lost Quintet’s move into open forms. With Coleman’s example before them, the group opened up a creative field that Holland and Corea were subsequently to explore further on their own.

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By the second half of 1970, Davis was beginning to move toward music centered on firm rhythms and foundational ostinati. After playing the Isle of Wight Festival with him in August, Corea and Holland left Davis to continue pursuing open form music. Earlier in the year they had gotten involved with the Chelsea loft scene—a mix of free jazz sounds and countercultural ambience centered around saxophonist Dave Liebman and others. There they met and formed a trio with drummer Barry Altschul, with whom they recorded the classic The Song of Singing that April. At the Village Vanguard the following month, Anthony Braxton sat in with the trio, and the quartet Circle was born.

Braxton, originally from Chicago’s South Side, had recently spent time in Europe with fellow members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians such as Steve McCall, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. While overseas he encountered and played with, among others, the avant garde group Musica Elettronica Viva and forged a long-running musical relationship with experimentalist Richard Teitelbaum. Braxton, whose influences included Cage, Stockhausen and Schoenberg as well as Coltrane and Coleman, would bring into Circle a characteristic blend of adventurous improvisation phrased in the angular language of advanced Western art music.

In tandem with Braxton and Altschul, Corea and Holland took the timbral experiments they had been conducting with Davis and pushed them further, albeit now in an acoustic context. In addition to Braxton’s vast collection of reeds of all ranges, the group drew on the disparate sounds of double bass, cello, acoustic guitar, piano played inside the case, chimes and various other tuned and untuned percussion. Combined with its generally open-textured approach, Circle’s instrumental color and chromatic vocabulary gave it the sound of a new music chamber ensemble improvising collectively—although in concert the quartet might also play the standards Nefertiti or There Is No Greater Love.

Circle dissolved after only a year or so, and the 1970s found its four members taking different directions. Corea went on to play more accessible music, eventually forming the successful electric fusion band Return to Forever. Holland and Altschul played for a while in a trio with Braxton and later became the rhythm section for that epitome of stream-of-consciousness collective improvisation, the mid-1970s Sam Rivers Trio. And Braxton focused on developing his own unique system of combining composition with improvisation.

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The third group Gluck considers is the Revolutionary Ensemble. This trio of Leroy Jenkins, Jerome Cooper and Sirone (Norris Jones) was—for the 1970s—highly unorthodox in its makeup, its main instrumentation consisting as it did of violin, percussion and double bass. Like Circle, the Revolutionary Ensemble was formed in New York in 1970. Jenkins and Cooper were back from Europe; Sirone had come from Atlanta. The Ensemble made an early connection to Ornette Coleman, holding initial rehearsals in his studio as well as in the studio of visual artist Fred Brown. Here was another parallel to Circle, which had also gotten its start in a loft milieu. Unlike Circle, though, the Revolutionary Ensemble would for the most part remain in the world of lofts and alternative performance spaces like Joe Papp’s Annex and the Mercer Arts Center, the usual commercial jazz venues being largely closed to them. Despite the lack of a professional organization to promote them, though, the Ensemble was active in the New York area, playing on radio programs, giving concerts and even playing a Sunday afternoon date at the Village Vanguard. They also released five recordings between 1972 and 1977, albeit mostly on small labels.

The group’s style of improvisation, which Gluck describes as the “parallel play” of three musicians playing as individuals, was as unorthodox as its instrumentation and marked one of the outer boundaries of open-form playing.  Early releases and recordings of live performances show the group building improvisations from fully independent lines that exploit the pungent, microtonal possibilities inherent in having two unfretted string instruments playing simultaneously. But the Ensemble could also employ walking bass lines and song forms structured by opening melodies played by both violin and double bass in parallel motion.

Of the three groups Gluck focuses on, the Revolutionary Ensemble was the least integrated into the network of relationships making up the economy of jazz at the time. And yet ironically, it was the longest-lived, lasting from 1970-1977 and then reuniting in the early 2000s. During its initial lifetime, the group showed that performers could get their music out through an alternative infrastructure of noncommercial venues and what we now would call DIY spaces. In this respect, it may have had the most lasting relevance for today’s experimental musicians.

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Before now, the stories of the Lost Quintet, Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble could be pieced together from scattered and sometimes fugitive sources. Gluck’s book is valuable not only for narrating the collective history of a not-well-enough-known moment in exploratory music, but for describing three different ways of settling the field opened up by 1960s experiments in formal organization and instrumentation. Gluck’s analyses of the differences among the three groups, and of the underlying similarities that nevertheless made them commensurate, are astute and make accessible a music that can place great demands on the listener. The inclusion of a detailed timeline and thorough discography helps to situate these three groups precisely within a time that, in retrospect, was uniquely fecund.

http://www.press.uchicago.edu

Daniel Barbiero