Miles Davis - Nefertiti

Sony/ Columbia

Original release date: 1967; Re-release date (with alternate takes) 1998

Nefertiti Cover


Miles Davis (trumpet)
Wayne Shorter (tenor sax)
Herbie Hancock (piano)
Ron Carter (bass)
Tony Williams (drums)


Nefertiti, Fall, Hand Jive, Madness, Riot, Pinocchio, Hand Jive (1st Alternate Take), Hand Jive (2nd Alternate Take), Madness (Alternate Take), Pinocchio (Alternate Take)


The second great quintet was completed with the arrival of Wayne Shorter from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in September 1964. Just as he had been doing with the Jazz Messengers, Wayne Shorter took on the role of one of the main composers in the Miles Davis set up. Indeed, he would produce complete written scores of the seventeen compositions that he produced for the band, with separate scores for each instrument. The quality and range of this material, composed in a three year period is all the more remarkable since at the same time he authored a further over twenty compositions for release on his own albums as leader. However, in an important difference, he did not take on the mantle of musical director, as he had done with Art Blakey. Miles Davis, though he was to offer no compositions of his own until the tail end days of quintet’s life in 1967, remained in musical control in a strong sense. As compositions from Wayne Shorter (and in smaller number from Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Willliams) were submitted to him for approval, he would “change them around”, bringing in innovations of his own that fitted his conception of where jazz should be going at that time. In what is often overlooked, in the six studio albums produced by the quintet, he pioneered innovations in jazz every bit as important as those made with “Kind of Blue” or earlier with the “Birth of the Cool”.

Some have called this music “freebop” and, as labels go, that’s not too bad. Miles Davis was an opponent of free jazz (as developed by Jackie McLean, Ornette Coleman and eventually just before his death John Coltrane), he was convinced (half humorously) that it was a plot to confuse jazz enthusiasts and take them away from real, blues based musics. However, ‘freebop’ does go a long way to describing this new music; the musicians are playing ‘free’ without the regimentation of the changes demanded in bebop, yet the rhythmic pulse of the music is clearly bebop and blues based and atonality is used sparingly. While it has many new elements, this music is still recognizably part of the blues tradition.

In developing the quintet, Miles Davis was applying a long term strategy that he had picked up from working with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie; essentially what they had all learned in the heady days of the birth of bebop in Minton’s Playhouse back in the ‘forties, described by Miles Davis as “the musical laboratory for bebop”. The way the second great quintet played and developed their music was in every sense the continuation of the idea of the group as a “musical laboratory”. Miles Davis’ expectations challenged each and every one of them (including himself) to go beyond what they might have been expected to achieve, a surprising approach given that he was sure that with the arrival of Wayne Shorter he had assembled the most gifted jazz musicians of a generation. This was a continuation of what he had demanded back in 1957 when setting out with the first great quintet with John Coltrane. “I wanted the music this new group would play to be freer, more modal, more African or Eastern and less Western. I wanted them to go beyond themselves. ….. if you put a musician in a place where he has to do something different from what he does all the time…. He has to use his imagination, be more creative, more innovative, he’s got to take more risks…… I’ve always told the musicians in my band to play what they know and then play above that. Because then anything can happen, and that’s where great art and music happens.”

The six studio albums - “E.S.P” (1965), “Miles Smiles” (1966), “Sorcerer” (1967), “Nefertiti” (1967), “Miles In The Sky” (1968), and “Filles de Kilimanjaro” (1968) document the music of this remarkable group. More recently “Live At The Plugged Nickel’ has given new insight into their live performance at this time. Any of the first four albums are worthwhile contenders for 100 Greatest status and all are highly recommended; of those four, many would choose “Miles Smiles” or “E.S.P” since these are regarded as more accessible but, as hopefully is shown here, if one has to be selected, “Nefertiti” is the outstanding album of this period.

Although working with scored and arranged material produced by his young musicians, each recording was a one off performance in which each musician was set challenges that were to be overcome and – almost certainly – to be replaced by new challenges the next time the piece was performed. In that sense all of these studio produced tracks were one off performances; the same strategy that Miles Davis had used with “Kind of Blue” to keep the music fresh, to “put a musician in a place where he has to do something different from what he does all the time.” Even more surprisingly, many of these takes were not performed again. Part of the reason for this was that there was a large fan base for Miles Davis’ by now standard material – people turned out in large numbers to hear “My Funny Valentine”, ‘Kind of Blue”, “Four”, “Seven Steps To Heaven”. The new quintet played this material in public, albeit with an increasing level of innovation, while the newer material was reserved for the “musical laboratory” of the recording studio. As Miles Davis has noted, this was frustrating for the youngsters in the band, doing all that work on a piece to only get to play it just that one time or at most in the couple of alternate takes made in the studio.

So what of “Nefertiti”? Those who talk this down complain about its unnerving quality; even the fact that it sounds down compared with the relative optimism of “E.S.P” or “Miles Smiles”. But as argued here, “Nefertiti” is the greatest of these albums. Not only is it musically more radical than anything that Miles Davis had done before, it is a thoroughly modern conception that retains its radicalism right to the present day, challenging, asking the important questions that jazz should be asking.

What effect did the death of John Coltrane on July 17th 1967 have on the music of Nefertiti? As Miles Davis said, “ Trane’s music and what he was playing in the last two or three years of his life represented, for many blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love they felt….. Coltrane was their pride - their black, revolutionary pride….. When he died it was much like when Bird died for a lot of bebop musicians who looked to him for directions….. it seemed a lot of what he stood for musically died with him….Trane’s death made me real sad because not only was he a great and beautiful musician, he was a kind and beautiful and spiritual person that I loved. I miss him, his spirit and his creative imagination….” Three of the six tracks on “Nefertiti” were recorded on July 19th, just two days after John Coltrane’s death (the tracks are “Fall”, “Riot” and “Pinochio”). Given the strength of Miles Davis’ feeling for John Coltrane and his music, it would be surprising indeed if this tragic event was not represented in this music. In the same part of his autobiography, Miles Davis refers to the turmoil in every aspect of American life that was taking place at the time; the rebellion of the young that exemplified the ‘sixties was well underway by mid 1967 and was making its mark in areas beyond black equality. The unnerving quality of this music is expressive of this turmoil with, perhaps, Herbie Hancock’s “Riot” only the most obvious expression of a view of a world turned upside down musically as well as socially. “Nefertiti” captures that moment of impending change right down at the root of what jazz is and can be.

The opening title track, a Wayne Shorter composition, stakes out this new territory. As has been widely noted, much that had been regarded as going without question in jazz is turned on its head. For as long as anyone could remember, it was taken for granted that the rhythm section was there primarily to accompany the lead players on the horns, with the piano in a dual role emerging from the rhythm section periodically as a solo instrument. On “Nefertiti”, all this is reversed. Trumpet and saxophone together play a truncated 12 bar theme that hardly changes throughout. There is no soloing from either Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter; what they are playing is a sustained ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm - a term derived from the Italian for “obstinate”) against which the drums, bass and piano effectively solo. The prime mover here is Tony Williams whose drumming and the variations that he introduces have been likened to what amounts to a veritable symphony for drums, played against the unchanging melody line of the trumpet and saxophone. Ron Carter on bass and Herbie Hancock on piano also add elements of change and variation within this without soloing as such. The result is a remarkable turnaround, often talked about as “liberarting” the rhythm section. Why should the drums or bass always take on the lesser role to that of the horns? Within this reversal, further unsettling events occur. When Miles Davis had been playing with Charlie Parker, he had no choice but to follow when themes in unison were being played, trying to react quickly to unexpected twists and turns. Here, Wayne Shorter is following Miles Davis and the effect becomes more unsettling as the piece proceeds as the trumpet and saxophone become progressively more out of phase. All this takes place in a form that is recognizably bebop jazz; the syncopated triplet rhythm is maintained, there is no conspicuous atonality, key signatures are respected. And yet, there is room for drums, bass and piano for playing which is every bit as “free” as that in the more outwardly “freeform” jazz that Miles Davis had expressed his dislike for. “Freebop” is not a bad name for this, as we have noted.

A further perspective on the title track comes from listening to Marc Johnson’s excellent 2006 album “Shades of Jade”, in particular the track “Blue Nefertiti”, a Marc Johnson composition. As the title suggests, “Blue Nefertiti” is a reworking of the original “Nefertiti”, but in a novel way. What Marc Johnson’s piece suggests is that you can think of “Nefertiti” in Miles Davis’ hands as a truncated blues in which the main theme is like a short interlude from a blues theme that was never completed; the theme fragment is heard over and over again but is never resolved, never brought into the blues form completely enough to achieve completion. In an ingenious way “Blue Nefertiti”, fleshes out the original “Nefertiti” and returns it to completeness, as it might have been if Miles Davis’ intentions had not been different. And perhaps this explains a further aspect of the challenging nature of the original; the paring down of musical form beyond our expectation. Much of this was to feature further in Miles Davis’ development beyond the second great quintet, his move to electric and fusion based music which further tore up the rule book as far as expectations of order in the forms of jazz were concerned. Many of those developments are signposted in essence here.

“Fall”, a further Wayne Shorter composition, has formal similarities to “Nefertiti”. But now, while trumpet and saxophone operate in the same way by providing a repeated phrase (ostinato) as a point of return against which everything else is referred, there is more variety. The ostinato section is punctuated throughout by points of light created by short solos from the players, first Miles Davis himself, then Herbie Hancock’s piano, then Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and eventually (in what is a rarity in this period) Ron Carter on bass. Drums are now in a more traditional accompanying role. It is the trumpet that keeps the ostinato going throughout, even when Wayne Shorter is soloing. The overall feeling is one of a nagging certainty that cannot help returning, just as it seems the music might climb away into some wholly optimisitic outcome, it is dragged back to earth by the ostinato trumpet theme, perhaps in a recognition not only that John Coltrane’s death is an event that will bring so many hopes crashing down but that the changes taking place in the late sixties will also be limited by factors beyond anyone’s control.

The overall approach taken in this music has been referred to as “time-no changes”. As Ian Carr explains: “the essence of this way of playing is as follows: a melodic fragment sets up the theme of the performance: a pulse (usually 4/4 or 3/4), a tempo and a series of phrases is played against that pulse. The improvisations are explorations of these factors posited by the theme, and so the soloist tends to refer back to thematic fragments.……this came to be referred to as “time - no changes”, because there was a pulse but no set harmonic sequence. In fact, the soloist was free to play any kind of melodic shapes he wished because the bass and piano players were using their ears to follow wherever his inspiration took him”. Jarno Kukkonen notes further in his very readable thesis: “Once the main theme has been stated the solo sections are completely open without any predetermined harmonic content or formal structures. Although the musicians do not use preset changes they appear to improvise them as they play, occasionally creating the illusion of preset chord changes. Where there is harmonic progression it is usually tonal but ambiguous; individual chords relate to a tonal centre that is never quite defined.

Not that any rigid formulae can be applied; in the real spirit of improvisation and creativity in which this music was created, there is the kind of variety that comes with the experimentation that Miles Davis expected of this ‘musical laboratory’. As a result, the Wayne Shorter piece “Pinocchio” conforms in great part to the time-no changes approach but here this was also combined with conventional forms. Miles Davis’s solo is based on the time-no changes approach; however in his solo, Wayne Shorter follows the harmony of the piece only during the first chorus, abandoning it for time-no changes thereafter. Only during Herbie Hancock’s solo are the form and harmony maintained throughout. Again, however, in the alternate take of “Pinocchio” the structure in quite different. The tempo is slowed, there is no leaway for soloing by trumpet and saxophone and they play the main theme in unison throughout, leaving piano, drums and bass as the effective soloists beneath the repeated main theme, just as in “Nefertiti”.

In “Hand Jive”, a Tony Williams composition the time- no changes approach is worked around continued strong running bass lines from Ron Carter and almost free improvisation from drums and piano. However, considerable room is created for improvisation by Miles Davis on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. The above noted ambiguity about the tonal centre of the music is very evident here.

The two Herbie Hancock compositions, “Riot” and “Madness” are similarly complex though still within the time – no changes orbit. “Madness” seems to capture musically the idea of cultures colliding as the opening theme, announced against a jaunty running bass and drum accompaniment, literally collides with a shock against a sudden break up of the rhythm before stretching out again with Miles Davis’ long unsettling trumpet solo and Wayne Shorter’s lithe saxophone solo. When Herbie Hancock solos himself, it is initially against an almost static beat until once more the pulse picks up. In “Riot”, the pulse is shuffling, almost reggae like with Tony Williams’ drumming bringing in constantly shifting rhythms while trumpet and piano make tonally ambiguous contributions before being dragged back to the founding theme.

Yes, this music is complex and yes, it does have an unsettling, challenging quality; the sound of bop but with a complexity well beyond the notion of improvisation upon changes authored by George Gershwin. It also represents a giant stride beyond the breakthrough of modal jazz pioneered with “Kind Of Blue. Its innovation is tremendous, opening the way for the jazz of the future.

Star Rating *****

Related reviews: Miles Davis "Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival"    Miles Davis "Cookin'"   Miles Davis "Kind Of Blue"

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"Miles - The Autobiography" by Miles Davis with Quincey Troupe
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"Miles Davis - The Definitive Biography" by Ian Carr
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Complete Miles Davis sessionography

Major information resource on the music of Miles Davis
Miles Ahead- essential Miles Davis site

Free chord progressions for some Miles Davis compositions with listenable piano chords / drums and printable score
Miles Davis at Song Trellis

Review by Tyrone Williams at "Other Voices" of Gerard Early (Ed): "Miles Davis And American Culture"
Review: "Miles Davis And American Culture"

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good article about a most remarkable album. One suggested correction : the piece Nefertiti is based on a 16 bars theme, not 12.