Miles Davis: Nefertiti
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2146
Nefertiti will always be known as the final all-acoustic record made by Miles Davis’ classic second quintet. A thematic bookend to the preceding Sorcerer, the 1967 set shares much in common with its equally nuanced predecessor yet deviates by way of its focus on rhythm and exploratory soundscapes.
As he does on Sorcerer, Davis again cedes all compositional duties to his all-star band mates and focuses on his trumpet. Familiar albeit slightly dissonant, rooted in hard bop yet signaling the onset of fusion, the songs are grounded in inquisitive interplay and subconscious impressionism. Nefertiti reveals fresh devices and new directions every time you visit its cerebral worlds. And while each musician is given ample room to solo, the effort stands as an example of groupthink in that no individual stands out or shows off. The groundbreaking title track—during which the horn section recurrently repeats the melody as drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter improvise, thus inverting the conventional sense of a rhythm section—shines as a textbook example of such chemistry and unity.
Throughout, the players’ confidence, and Davis’ trust in them, stamps every piece with rare self-assurance and authoritativeness. In particular, Williams and Carter bring rhythms to the forefront as the horns hypnotize and Herbie Hancock’s piano points in several different directions like a compass gone crazy. Responsible for “Madness” and “Riot,” Hancock contributes brief bursts of speed and slight aggression, but on a record on which complexity and introspection take precedent over blowing hot, the aural steam ultimately becomes opportunity for burrowing into unpredictable turns and deep grooves.
Indeed, the thrilling sense of interplay and inclination of the ensemble to keep searching, moving forward in a concerted manner to uncover then-unheard jazz discoveries, marks Nefertiti as one of Davis’ quintessential efforts. For historians, it’s the signpost to the pioneering fusion the leader would begin to pursue with greater commitment on the record’s follow-up, Miles in the Sky. For the rest of us, the album is music and music-making at its intriguing best.
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Review by Mark Werlin - August 9, 2015
Mobile Fidelity's series of SACD reissues of the Columbia recordings of Miles Davis continues with "Nefertiti".
The working quintet of Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Tony Williams (drums), Herbie Hancock (piano) and Ron Carter (bass) had been performing and recording regularly following Shorter's arrival in September 1964, and had coalesced into one of the most distinctive-sounding ensembles in contemporary music. In June and July 1967, right after the "Sorcerer" LP sessions, Miles brought the group back to Columbia's 30th Street studios to record more new original material written by the band members. Following up on the innovations of the 1966 LP "Miles Smiles", "Nefertiti" moved the quintet further away from the contentious division between an emerging avant-garde of free jazz artists and their established bop mainstream colleagues.
The music on "Nefertiti" stands in its own artistic space.
The six compositions on "Nefertiti" by Shorter, Hancock and Williams mostly dispense with complex chord progressions and multi-part construction; themes are stated succinctly in unison (Madness, Riot and Hand Jive), or repeated ad infinitum and pulled apart rhythmically (Nefertiti, Fall, Pinocchio). Structurally, this is far removed from the theme/solo choruses/bridge/ending form then being written and performed by many musicians who came of age in the bebop generation.
The title track Nefertiti departs from jazz form by abandoning horn solos altogether. A slow-developing 16-bar theme is repeated in unison by the tenor and trumpet while the piano softly strikes sustained chords on the first beat of the measure, bass notes lightly dart up and down, and the beat is sustained with quiet brush work on the snare drum. As the horn theme repeats in an almost trance-like fashion, Hancock adds stronger accents on the upbeats and Tony Williams drives the dynamics, moving freely around the kit, dividing and subdividing the beat.
Williams' conception is a break from the modernist approach developed by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, which was still the dominant drum sound in the mid-Sixties. Only 17 years old when he joined the Quintet in 1963, Williams stood firmly in the avant-garde camp. His contributions to Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" and other "free-bop" Blue Note sessions with Sam Rivers, Grachan Moncur III and Andrew Hill revealed the restless imagination and risk-taking that Miles required to advance his own evolving conception of a jazz quintet.
In his solo on Hancock's tune Madness, Miles plays over the drums and bass only, opening up space for Ron Carter to walk outside the loose harmonic frame of the opening theme. This echoes Ornette Coleman's approach to group performance that Miles had criticized at the time of the Coleman quartet's 1959 controversy-ridden New York debut.
Wayne Shorter's disciplined compositions take precedence over displays of technical virtuosity. Hancock likewise plays with economy and restraint. The arrangement of tunes contributes to an overall sense of unity, with Shorter's thematically similar pieces Nefertiti and Pinocchio (respectively the first and last works) functioning like the opening and closing movements of a 39-minute suite.
"Nefertiti", and the pieces recorded in the following months that were issued on "Water Babies" and "Miles in the Sky" comprise the last all-acoustic music Miles Davis would produce. Enthusiastic about the sounds of Sly Stone, James Brown, Santana and Jimi Hendrix, Miles was ready to incorporate electric instruments and explore minimalist, rhythmically-oriented song structures.
With the exception of Ron Carter, all of the other members of the second quintet would also form electric music ensembles (Weather Report, Herbie Hancock Sextet and Headhunters, Tony Williams' Lifetime), though they would all eventually return to performing and recording acoustic-instrument music. Most of the music on "Nefertiti" (with the exception of the title tune and Riot), did not enter the live repertoire of the quintet, and stands apart from Davis' earlier and subsequent recordings.
The benefits of mastering directly from the original stereo tape are well demonstrated on this release. Played alongside a Columbia two-eye LP, the MoFi SACD betters the sonics of the LP with deeper bass, wider dynamic range, absence of distortion on peaks, and a more vivid presentation of Tony Williams' drums and cymbals. The snare drum and toms have more tone color, and Williams' complex patterns on ride cymbals are revealed with greater detail and clarity. The drum kit was set back from the horns in the spacious 30th Street studios, creating an effect that could be likened to a soundstage. The MoFi transfer significantly expands the depth of that aural space, and reveals greater sonic detail in all the rhythm players.
Shawn Britton has done a remarkable job of faithfully representing the sound that Columbia engineers Fred Plaut and Stan Tonkel captured on tape in 1967. At a time when much of the audiophile market is transitioning to downloads, it is gratifying that MoFi continues to produce such high-quality discs for limited release.
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