The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68

by Keith Waters
(Oxford University Press; New York, Oxford)



The relationship of Davis and the jazz avant-garde has proved problematic for Davis biographers, given Davis’s denunciations of a number of avant-garde players, such as Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, and Eric Dolphy.65  Yet his quintet sidemen were inspired by the avant-garde, and the Live at the Plugged Nickel recordings in particular moved decisively toward freer approaches by abandoning, at times, meter, form, and harmonic structure. And the use of “time, no changes” on some of the Davis quintet studio recordings resulted in the elimination of chorus structure by departing from the harmonic and hypermetric structure heard during the initial statements of the head. Further, the absence of piano comping on the “time, no changes” compositions suggested to many listeners a response to Ornette Coleman’s pianoless quartet recordings of the late 1950s. Coleman’s 1959 quartet recordings, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century and his notorious New York debut at the Five Spot the same year, provided for many musicians the entry point for a type of jazz shorn of many of its syntactic conventions. Coleman’s 1960 recording Free Jazz provided a label for the music, which was also identified at the time as avant-garde jazz, or the “New Thing.” While many writers and critics heard Coleman’s 1959 recordings as departing completely from the principles of chorus structure, more recent scholarship points out ways in which the quartet preserved an underlying form during some of the improvisations.66

Earlier examples of free collective improvisation extended at least a decade prior to Coleman’s recordings, including pianist Lennie Tristano’s 1949 recordings of “Intuition” and “Digression.” Billy Taylor has pointed out earlier recordings that made use of free improvisation that were done in the early 1940s by Erroll Garner as well as by Stuff Smith and Robert Crum. And writer Barry Ulanov included an interview with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, in which he discussed recording a free improvisation with drummer Clyde Hart that would have been made prior to 1945, the date of Hart’s death.67 But it was the emergence of Coleman’s quartet, the work of pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Albert Ayler, and the later recordings of John Coltrane that had a broader impact upon the jazz community in general, and Davis’s second quintet in particular.68

There are myriad ways to underscore differences between standard and avant-garde approaches to jazz. Jost’s study of free jazz describes changes in instrumental technique, use of nontempered intonation, and collective improvisation.69  An additional method revolves around the notion of form during improvisation. For example, standard small group improvisation typically relies on chorus structure. This assumes a set of principles for the improviser and rhythm section, identified in the left-hand side of figure 2.1. The upper left-hand box indicates that chorus structure preserves from the head three levels from the metric hierarchy: hypermeter, meter, and pulse. In the jazz tradition, 32-bar AABA and ABAC forms provide common formal paradigms. Thus repeated choruses establish hypermetric regularity at the 32-bar level. Figure 2.1’s left-hand lower box also indicates that the rhythm section and soloist preserve the harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm from the head.

Jazz historians frequently use negative values to describe how form operates in improvisation during free jazz: the music abandons consistent meter, tonality, and cyclic form altogether.70  The right-hand boxes of figure 2.1 suggest that in the context of free improvisation musicians frequently abandon all three metric levels maintained in chorus structure, and abandon harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm. (Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, recorded in 1960, and John Coltrane’s Ascension, recorded in 1965, provide two examples.) The two sides of figure 2.1 indicate a common and useful binary model to accentuate differences in the relationship of underlying form to improvisation. The left side indicates right side suggests the rejection of chorus structure and those three metric levels. Naturally, this dichotomy is oversimplified, but it provides a useful model to dramatize significant differences.

However, it is possible to provide a more nuanced view of formal solutions and attitudes in the 1960s, one that more richly describes formal practice and that more closely acknowledges Hancock’s notion of “controlled freedom,” described in chapter 1. There exists the possibility for intermediate stages between chorus structure (which preserves harmonic structure and three metric levels of hypermeter, meter, and pulse) on the one hand, and the abandonment of harmonic and metric structure on the other. This allows further methods to consider form in improvisation, relative to the number of metric levels preserved from the head and relative to harmonic progression. Figure 2.2 provides a model that does this. The example provides six different possibilities, indicated from left to right as Level 3, Levels 2a and 2b, Levels 1a and 1b, and Level 0. The level number (3, 2, 1, 0) corresponds to the number of metric levels preserved from the head. Thus the left most Level 3, corresponding to chorus structure, indicates the consistent preservation of three levels from the metric hierarchy: hypermeter, meter, and pulse. Levels 2a and 2b indicate the consistent preservation of two levels from the metric hierarchy: meter and pulse. At this level, the hypermeter created by repeated choruses is absent. The lower boxes of 2a and 2b differ according to whether the rhythm section and soloist maintain the harmonic progression (2a preserves the harmonic progression, 2b abandons harmonic progression). Thus Level 2b indicates the practice referred to as “time, no changes.” With this, the rhythm section and soloists maintain two metric levels of pulse and meter but abandon hypermeter. Further, the group does not preserve the underlying harmonic progression from the head.

Levels 1a and 1b indicate the consistent preservation of only one level from the metric hierarchy, that of pulse (with this level, both consistent hypermeter and meter may be absent). The lower boxes of 1a and 1b differ according to whether the rhythm section and soloist maintain the harmonic progression (1a preserves the harmonic progression, 1b abandons the harmonic progression). And the rightmost Level 0, corresponding to typical notions of free jazz, preserves no levels from the metric hierarchy.

Beneath the boxes are listed most of the Davis’s quintet compositions recorded on their first five studio recordings. This displays the group’s fluid and flexible relations to form during improvisation. These formal strategies offered the group a number of intermediate stages between traditional and avant-garde approaches, allowing a continuum along which the group ranged freely.

Further, the list of compositions includes in italics those compositions that appear in more than one location, revealing the group’s use of different strategies within the same composition. “Pinocchio,” for example, appears under both Level 3 and 2b. On the recording Hancock’s piano solo preserves chorus structure (Level 3) while Davis’s trumpet solo and Shorter’s saxophone solo do not (Level 2b: “time, no changes”). Thus, “Pinocchio” suggests different formal strategies within the same composition, and might suggest that the group did not determine the formal strategy beforehand. Note, too, that Hancock’s solo on “Madness” itself resides on two levels: it begins on Level 1a before moving to 2a.

It is important to acknowledge that Davis made use of some of these intermediate levels in earlier works. For example, Level 2a also describes “Flamenco Sketches” (Kind of Blue, 1959). Since the players determined the lengths of each of its five harmonic sections spontaneously during performance, “Flamenco Sketches” thus preserves harmonic progression but abandons consistent hypermeter. Davis revisited that technique with “Teo” (Someday My Prince Will Come, 1961).

These levels suggest a nuanced way to understand Hancock’s notion of “controlled freedom,” which he described as the negotiation of traditional and avant-garde approaches. They also reveal a highly flexible set of strategies by which the quintet offered challenges to accepted notions of chorus structure on the studio recordings. The levels provided do not faithfully apply to all the studio recordings, and those omitted from the example are discussed in further detail in the subsequent chapters. “Circle,” for example, consists of an additive form that allowed for inserted 4-bar sections during the improvisations. “Riot” uses an underlying 16-bar form during the improvisations that is not derived from the head, and the tonality migrates down a half-step with each subsequent solo. “Dolores,” “Masqualero,” and “Stuff” also stray from this model, and are examined more thoroughly. The Davis quintet’s final studio recording, Filles de Kilimanjaro, departed even further; chapter 7 discusses those compositions in detail.


63 Jeffrey Magee proposes a view of Davis’s composition “Solar” as circular in “Kinds of Blue: Miles Davis, Afro-Modernism, and the Blues,” Jazz Perspectives 1/1 (May 2007): 19.

64 David Baker, Lida Belt, and Herman Hudson, eds., The Black Composer Speaks (Bloomington, Ind.: Afro-American Arts Institute, 1978), 122.

65 Waldo Martin, “Miles Davis and the 1960s Avant-Garde,” essay in Miles Davis and American Culture, ed. Gerald Early (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001), 107–16.

66 Eric Charry, “Freedom and Form in Ornette Coleman’s Early Atlantic Recordings,” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 9 (1997–98), 261–94.  Kurtis Adams critiques some of Charry’s conclusionsin “Ornette Coleman and The Shape of Jazz to Come” (D.M.A thesis, University ofColorado–Boulder, 2008).

67 Billy Taylor, Jazz Piano: A Jazz History (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1983), 189; and Barry Ulanov, A History of Jazz in America (New York: Viking, 1952), 239. I would like to acknowledge Carl Woideck for calling the Garner, Smith, and Eldridge recordings to my attention.

68 Hancock discussed Tony Williams’s interest in Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, and Ornette Coleman. Regarding Ornette Coleman, Hancock described how Williams “got me interested in Ornette and got me to the point where I could get into it.” Ray Townley, “Hancock Plugs In,” Down Beat 41/17 (October 24, 1974): 15.

69 Jost, Free Jazz.

70 J. Branford Robinson, “Free Jazz,” entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz,  ed. Barry Kernfeld (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988 and 1994), 404–5.

Reprinted from The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68, by Keith Waters, published by Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press, Inc. 2011.

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