This new book, available now from The University of Chicago Press, examines a number of issues relating to Miles Davis’s so-called ‘lost quintet’ – the short-lived band featuring Wayne Shorter on saxophone, and new arrivals Chick Corea on keyboards, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. This line-up has been referred to as the ‘lost quintet’ because – as good as the band was – they never recorded an album together as a quintet.
The band did all appear on the album Bitches Brew, which was recorded in August 1969 and January 1970, but of course this album featured a number of other musicians, including Joe Zawinul and John McLaughlin, to name but two.
It’s also worth noting that we have gained greater insight into the band as a result of the release of the Miles Davis Bootleg Series, Volume 2 – Live In Europe 1969, which we reviewed here.
As the book’s somewhat clumsy title suggests, the book is written from a fairly academic standpoint, rather than trying to tell the story of the band in a chronological fashion, and then examine the band’s influence. Author Bob Gluck is more than qualified to write such a book; he is a musician and jazz historian, and also the author of a book on Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Band, entitled You’ll Know When You Get There.
Gluck’s new book contains some fascinating stories and insights in relation to the formation of the band, and what each musician brought to the table. I found the stories about the break-up of the band particularly interesting; Miles was happy to let the new band members improvise quite freely, but after a while, found this new direction was not entirely to his liking. Reading between the lines, one suspects he was worried he might start to lose his audience, whereas he wanted to create a more rock and funk driven sound – as demonstrated by On The Corner – that allowed him to grow his audience, and probably to make more money too.
Gluck also provides some detailed musical analysis of the interaction between the band members, and what we learned about the band from the release of the full June 1970 Fillmore concerts, which we reviewed here.
There are a few issues with the book. The first is that it has clearly been pieced together from a number of articles written by Gluck. As a result, the narrative flow is sometimes lacking, and certain facts are repeated – which could have been avoided with more judicious editing.
Secondly, one or two of Gluck’s contentions are somewhat questionable. For example, he claims that one of the concerns expressed about the ‘lost quintet’ was that the music was not jazz, but rock. Such a claim is easy to dismiss, given the degree of freedom and improvisation on display, but might have been more valid when discussing On The Corner era band, which employed more traditional rock-style drumming and funk-oriented bass.
Finally, the comparisons with other revolutionary ensembles – most notably Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble – are only sporadically interesting. The discussion of Circle, a direct offshoot of the lost quintet, is useful, and perhaps helps us to understand the limitations of fully improvised music. It also left me with a desire the re-evaluate Circle’s output from this period.
The analysis of the Revolutionary Ensemble was less revealing, in part because their music is less familiar, but also because the band played a relatively minor role in the history of this era.
I would rather have read more about how Miles’s music started to change after the break-up of the lost quintet; certainly the music became more ‘rock’ and ‘funk’ oriented, but I would contend that the improvisational elements – which remained a key part of the music – were also less successful. Miles started playing less trumpet, and even playing organ, and one or two of the musicians he hired – naming no names – were simply not of the same calibre. Gluck touches on this only briefly, as it is outside his main thesis – but this might have made for more interesting reading to the average reader.
That said, there’s a wealth of fascinating material in this book – provided the reader has the patience to cherry-pick through the more peripheral elements.
A more thorough overview of late-period Miles can be found in Paul Tingen’s book, Miles Beyond: Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991. Whilst this book also has its flaws, it provides more of the big picture history and analysis than most jazz fans will be looking for.