Thursday, September 23, 2004

Review - Seven Steps: Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964

Artist: Miles Davis

Posted on Thu, Sep 23, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Many jazz fans are also baseball fans, and this mutual appreciation tends to manifest itself in two basic themes: American cultural milestones and endlessly anal statistical cross-referencing. The former is obvious, the latter is more subtle. If you listen to diehard jazz afficionados talk, you'll hear – in their recitation of chronological sessions, label affiliations and shared band members – a dull hum that's awfully similar to that of the baseball nut running down ERA numbers and historical DH stats. To say the least, both types can be insufferable. Yet, despite their best efforts to quantify and categorize their loves, they're still unable to drain these still-vital forms of their essential excitements. Trust me, though, it's not for lack of trying.

Seven Steps is the seventh (natch) in Columbia/Legacy's series of maddeningly comprehensive box sets dedicated to the prodigious output of Miles Davis, the Babe Ruth (or Billy Martin) of jazz. Like the other six sets, this collection eschews context for content, and quality of presentation for quantity of product. It is, in other words, an Extraordinarily Important Doorstop.

This isn't to diminish the curiosity factor of peeping in on works in progress or (obviously) to belittle the top-notch performances that are present on all seven discs. But presenting multiple versions – usually three, sometimes four – of the material doesn't illuminate the listener; for all but the most obsessive collector, hearing "Walkin'" four different times is a numbing experience.

Presented in their original forms – the Seven Steps to Heaven and Quiet Nights albums, blazing live documents like Miles in Tokyo – these songs make a lot more sense than when lumped chronologically together as they are here (with other previously unreleased cuts interspersed throughout), for the sake of jazz librarians. These were some of Miles' most impressive small-group recordings, cut with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Sam Rivers (whose playing on the Tokyo live tracks is some of my favorite work of his), Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and others. Miles was working with players who would allow him to take his future adventures into sound. On these cuts, the foundation is solid enough that a sense of driving experimentation is building (the piercing treble of Davis' trumpet pushes into fresh realms of forcefulness). You feel the group peeling away the layers of standards like "My Funny Valentine" and "Autumn Leaves" in an effort to arrive at a brand-new sound.

Sadly, it's tough to get that idea via this collection. The imposing form of yet another Miles box might look good in your CD collection, but is unlikely to get the thorough listening these albums deserve. For all but the most comprehensive collectors, a journey into the original albums is likely to yield much more rewarding results, as well as repeated listens.


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