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Miles Davis Quintet: Miles Smiles

Miles Davis Quintet: Miles Smiles

Mobile Fidelity  UDSACD 2201

Stereo Hybrid

Jazz


Miles Davis Quintet


Mobile Fidelity Hybrid SACD Is the definitive-sounding digital edition, teems with clarity and detail. The clarity afforded by history proves Miles Davis' second great quintet vying for the unofficial honor of being the finest small jazz combo to ever record to tape. Originally released in 1966, Miles Smiles is largely responsible for the feat, as it commences a series of five groundbreaking albums - chronologically rounded out by Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro - guided not by chordal patterns but open responses to melodies. Music would never again be the same. Davis and company play against coal-black backgrounds that serve to illuminate every detail, texture, and nuance. Superb separation and plentiful air allow instruments to fully blossom, effectively taking you into Columbia's 30th Street Studio to watch the legendary combo transpire before your eyes. Like the other iconic Davis titles in Mobile Fidelity's reissue series, this analog version also puts a premium on tonality and preservation of individual notes, which arc and decay with uncanny realism.

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Review by Mark Werlin - February 9, 2019

YOU CAN'T JUDGE A DISC BY ITS COVER

Miles Smiles, the second studio album by the quintet of Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, has been issued by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab on SACD, with mastering by Rob Loverde assisted by Shawn R. Britton.

The label at the top of the SACD front cover reads "Original Master Recording." To collectors of MoFi SACDs, CDs and LPs, those words mean "original stereo or mono analogue master tape": the actual tape mixed by the producer, engineer and artist at the time of the album's creation.

But the liner notes on the inside of the SACD cover contain this disclaimer:

"Remixed from the Original 4-Track Tapes by Mark Wilder, Sony Music Studios, NYC"

The recent Sony Legacy box set "Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5" was remastered from session tapes used in the production of "Miles Smiles". On Sony's website for the set, appears this statement:

"Sourced from original four-track analog session reels and master tapes transferred and mixed in high resolution at 24-bit/192 kHz"

Is the remix cited in the MoFi liner notes the same remix to 24/192 done by Wilder for the box set? The quote from the Sony website could be understood to mean that the alternate takes and breakdowns and studio chatter were remixed from the session reels, but that the original album tracks were transferred at 24/192 from master tapes — the absence of commas makes the statement ambiguous. Since MoFi does not provide the source provenance and transfer date for the SACD, that also remains ambiguous.

Are collectors always expected to buy an expensive product on faith? These are albums that many of us acquire again and again in the hope that each new remastering and audio format will be an improvement over the last. Yet we are not trusted to make an informed decision.

MoFi clearly segregates ESP and My Funny Valentine, for which original master tapes either could not be located or were deemed unusable, from the rest of the series by designating them "Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab" rather than "Original Master Recording". But of the latter group, three titles are credited (on the inside of the covers) as remixed by Mark Wilder: Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and Miles Smiles.

Comments by users of this site about the difference in sound quality between the Japanese SACD and the MoFi SACD of Miles Smiles piqued my curiosity. An offer from a site member to send me a copy of SME-SRGS4538 provided the opportunity for comparing the JSACD, the MoFi SACD, and a clean 2-eye Columbia LP pressing.

Here are some observations, based on listening to the SACDs and LP through loudspeakers and through planar headphones with a dedicated headphone amp:

The JSACD sounds similar to the LP, but with a curious emphasis in the middle-high frequencies, the effect of which could be described as lively and bright if you like the way it sounds, or harsh and exaggerated if you don't.

The MoFi SACD sounds noticeably different from the Columbia LP and the JSACD. Davis' trumpet and Shorter's saxophone sound less "forward" especially compared to the JSACD. But the piano, bass and drums on the MoFi release sound more detailed, and except for some of Tony Williams' loudest passages, less distorted. That shouldn't be surprising, since the MoFi SACD was sourced (ultimately) from the original four-channel session tapes rather than an aging stereo master tape.

Mark Wilder posted to Audio Asylum in 2003:

"…our general rule for mastering Redbook or SACD is to use the best available source, period. The tapes are in excellent shape, kept in climate controlled vaults. Tape condition is very rarely an issue."

Was the original stereo master of Miles Smiles an exception to the rule? If so, what source did Wilder use in the late 1990s to master the original US Sony single-layer SACD? Was that the same source used by the engineers at Sony Japan to prepare SME-SRGS4538? There are clear differences in sound between the JSACD and the new MoFi SACD, but those differences are difficult to evaluate without clear and unambiguous information as to the sources, the dates, and the methods.

Does the MoFi SACD present the sound of the instruments as they were originally recorded more accurately than the source of the JSACD? Only those who were in the mastering room can answer that question. As an experienced engineer with a longstanding commitment to the Miles Davis archive, Wilder would transfer the four-track studio tapes with as much fidelity to original sound as possible, without needlessly altering the signal. However it was sourced, the MoFi SACD sounds very good. Though the JSACD sounds similar to the original LP, (possibly) added emphasis in the mid-highs makes me wonder if the JSACD source already had a mid-high emphasis that is more apparent in the JSACD than in the LP.

(Although some titles were reissued on a later Japanese SACD series, Miles Smiles was issued only once on SACD by Sony Japan, as SME SRGS 4538. No provenance for the source tape or mastering engineer is listed, but "SACD produced by Moto Uehara" appears in the album credits. Sony Japan's Sketches of Spain + 3 SACD (SRGS 4502) does include a credit for DSD mastering by Mark Wilder, so perhaps the absence of a credit for Wilder on SRGS4538 was an oversight.)

Mark Wilder has over two decades of experience working with the extant master tapes and the original studio work tapes of the Columbia Miles Davis recordings. In Paul Tingen's interview with Wilder about The Complete Jack Johnson set:

https://www.mixonline.com/recording/miles-davis-365364

Wilder cited the outboard devices he used to recreate the sound of Teo Macero's original stereo mixes, and described his own approach to remixing session multichannel tapes. Since the original stereo master of Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson was in excellent condition, Wilder didn't have to remix it for the CD box set, and MoFi was able to issue it on SACD—with outstanding results. That was apparently not the case with Miles Smiles, and the interview provides a glimpse into Wilder's methods.

Wilder has acknowledged that it is not possible to reproduce the original mixes of Miles Davis' albums exactly, certainly not Bitches Brew, which had a myriad of tape edits and post-production signal processing. My impression, both from the Paul Tingen interview and from listening to Wilder's work, is that he exercises his best judgment and technical ability to convey the nuances and impact of the original performance. He's not remixing to draw attention to himself or to make our audio systems sound impressive, but to focus attention on the music.

THE SESSION

The October 1966 recordings that appear on Miles Smiles are extensively documented in Keith Waters' book "The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Waters sets the sessions in the context of Miles' absence from the jazz scene, and his sidemen's growing reputations, during the interim between the January 1965 ESP sessions and the October 1966 Miles Smiles dates.

During that year and a half, Davis was sidelined by serious illness. He'd recovered sufficiently from hip surgery to perform the December 1965 Plugged Nickel engagement, but then succumbed to a liver ailment related to sickle-cell anemia and alcohol abuse. During that same 15-month period, Hancock and Shorter recorded sessions of their compositions for Blue Note Records that established them as eminent composer-soloists and maturing bandleaders.

When the Quintet regrouped at Columbia's 30th Street studios with producer Teo Macero, Davis selected three Wayne Shorter compositions: "Orbits", "Dolores" and "Footprints", Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy" and Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance", and one tune, "Circle", credited to Davis.

Six years after Ornette Coleman had demonstrated the viability of allowing the soloists to improvise over shifting tonal centers rather than the conventional structures of a 32-bar song or a 12-bar blues chord progression, Miles, who had repudiated Coleman's approach, had come to a point in his own musical development when he was willing to attempt something similar.

"Orbits" opens with a brief head statement and launches straight into the harmonic stratosphere, ungrounded from the strictures of a chord progression. Responsibility for keeping the band tethered falls to Ron Carter, who supports the soloists with close listening and impeccable time. Miles is thoroughly prepared to play over the shifting bass lines — he's a master of melodic invention — and abetted by Tony Williams' aggressive fills, he plays with fierce spontaneity. Shorter, at the beginning of his own solo, is almost hesitant by comparison. Hancock, both in this piece and in "Dolores" and "Gingerbread Boy", plays only with his right hand, which prevents him from harmonizing his single-note lines. It was another daring choice, but necessary to Miles' project of reducing the role of the piano and deemphasizing chord progressions, a goal he would achieve in the performances by his electric bands only a few years later.

Keith Waters notes that Miles either intentionally or inadvertently loses his place soloing on Shorter's unusual 38-bar form in "Dolores". When Miles realizes that he's played past the end of the form, he abruptly pulls the horn from his lips and turns away from the microphone. Shorter is forced to enter somewhere in the middle of the form, which could have led to an abandoned take. But Tony Williams drops down into quieter fills and straighter time, and he and Carter lead Shorter back into the form so that he can solo over his own changes.

While the Wayne Shorter composition "Footprints" has attained jazz standard status, "Circle" takes its place alongside "Blue in Green" as works credited to Miles Davis' authorship that can't be detached from the pianist at the date. Bill Evans didn't receive publication credit or royalties as the co-composer of "Blue in Green" during his lifetime; the most generous interpretation is that Miles was unwilling to fund Evans' heroin addiction. It's debatable if the exquisite "Circle" could have been composed without the presence of Herbie Hancock in the Quintet. Since Miles didn't use any Hancock compositions on the album, "Circle" will have to suffice as an indication of his conflict with the role of the piano, the tension that was pulling him both towards and away from dense, keyboard-based harmonies.

I try not to prejudge a reissue on the basis of my own preferences and presuppositions. The original LP mastering engineer, the Japanese Sony engineering team, Mark Wilder, and Rob Loverde at MoFi were all trying to produce the best-sounding discs they could with the source materials and technology available to them.

Based only on comparison listening and the scant information in the liner notes and websites quoted at the beginning of this review, I am unable to explain or even properly describe the differences in sound between the MoFi SACD, the JSACD and the LP. I contacted Mobile Fidelity and asked if they would provide details about Mark Wilder's remastering of the sources used for the SACDs of Miles Smiles and Miles Davis, Gil Evans: George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

As of this date, MoFi has not replied to my query.

Copyright © 2019 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net

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Comments (11)
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Comment by Downunderman - January 15, 2019 (1 of 11)

Another typically excellent OMR SACD mastering by Rob Loverde, with Shawn Britton assisting.

You just can't go wrong with this run of Miles Davis MoFi releases. Long may it continue.

Comment by Longjohns and Wifebeaters - February 14, 2019 (2 of 11)

This is curious. It's the first one in the MoFi Miles series that's not an improvement over what was already there. Did something happen to the tapes in the meantime? Compared to Miles Davis: Miles Smiles (I have the SRGS-4538), everything sounds foggy/veiled, quite imprecise, softer, and less defined, altogether quite a lot less real and life-like and really a lot less vivid. Now that's as far as the impression of the acoustic space is concerned, too, but it especially applies to the individual instruments, in particular the bass and the drums. (It doesn't damage the impression as much if Miles's trumpet is a little less shrill, for this vintage.) Nothing shimmers, nothing cuts through, nothing jumps out of the mix, the drum skins sound mushy, the bass notes are less well delineated and lack center, the sounds don't ring in the recoding room the same way (the acoustics sound more stuffy and "airless"), the dynamics feel muffled, and the kind of physical impact that can so excite in the previous SACD conversion (especially with Shorter and Williams) is lacking. The bass also sounds like it doesn't go as deep (this is just the resulting subjective impression, not of course anything corresponding to measurable reality). I don't recognize anything of MoFi's sales talk that "this analog version also puts a premium on tonality and preservation of individual notes, which arc and decay with uncanny realism". I hear clearly more of all that, whatever it actually refers to, in the older SACD version (tonality, Individual notes, realism).

I love what they (MoFi) have done to all the other Miles efforts I have heard (I have all the 2nd-quartet and later recordings) -- to me they all are a clear improvement both for the analytically minded and from the sheer enjoyment perspective, at the same time more clear and more natural-sounding, which indeed is quite a feat -- but this one is different. This time that typical freshness is lacking, with the older SACD release representing clearly the more successful result. If there was an issue with the source material, why risk MoFi's good name? Maybe people just kept impatiently asking for this for so long (I know I did, in my mind). Or what is it?

(The listening equipment consists of big-dog dCS & Musikelectronic Geithain gear with appropriate paraphernalia, so it's not that.)

Comment by Downunderman - February 15, 2019 (3 of 11)

Howdy L&W,

Most interesting as you say. I too run a DCS Spinner + outboard clock, but have not heard the other SACD versions of the title. I do agree though that the MoFi does not have quite the sparkle of some of the other Miles MoFi efforts. I put that down to the quality of the tape that MoFi were given to use. I'm agnostic on the flat transfer thing myself, but MoFi makes a thing of it.

The disc you refer to (SRGS-4538) was issued out of Japan in 2000 on SME Records. It is a single layer disc. - Unfortunately it is not logged here on HR Audio. There is also the earlier 1998 Columbia SACD. It would be interesting to know if these two discs used the same remaster.

I'm also supposing the SRGS disc has that signature clean Japanese sound?

One things for sure and that is that the tapes MoFi used are going to be almost 20 years older.

Hopefully Mark's foreshadowed review will be able to compare all three discs.

Nb. My disc is #1,000...….which may, or may not be relevant :)

Comment by SteelyTom - February 15, 2019 (4 of 11)

My understanding is that ESP and Miles Smiles both feature less-than-ideal engineering, so MoFi perhaps is at a disadvantage with those titles. Based on Mark Wilder's excellent track record, I'm sure he did the best he could in remixing Smiles (his remix is featured on MoFi's reissue).

Comment by Longjohns and Wifebeaters - February 15, 2019 (5 of 11)

I don't know about the possible similarity between the US SACD and the Japanese SRGS 4538 that I have; often they (the early JPN and US/Euro releases) were the same, but here the only indication I can decipher is: "SACD produced by Moto Uehara (SMEJ)" with special thanks to some SME New York luminaries.

The early Japanese Sony SACDs are often on the bright, even a bit sharp side, to my ears, although typically very vivid and immediate, a bit in-your-face, compared to later re-workings of the same tapes, as for instance by MoFi. In Sony's classical SACDs this might be attributable to the fact that many, if not all, of them (the early ones, that is) were based on a digital copy of the master tapes, no the tapes themselves. I don't know if the same is true about their releases in other genres. But here the difference really is so audible (OK, I don't want to exaggerate, but it's tangible enough for me not to want to sit through the MoFi "Smiles" again) that I think it must be a matter of tape deterioration or some such thing. But that would be very odd; how could anyone let them go bad in the storage?? The question here is about humanity's treasured cultural heritage…

I love all the other MoFi Miles releases, even when recognizing the inferior quality of the original recording in the ESP (which Steely Tom correctly points out; but the MoFi was still an improvement over the previous remasterings). This one, however, is originally in a different class compared to it, nothing like the somewhat muffled and vague ESP sonics here, and it should not really sound like that, then.

So I'd be keen to hear what's up with this, if anyone pops by here who's in the know.

Comment by Mark Werlin - February 16, 2019 (6 of 11)

L&W, Downunderman and Steely Tom: Lacking a copy of the JSACD (SRGS 4538), I can't compare the audio quality to the MoFi SACD, but I'll take L&W's word for the sonic differences between them -- the dCs player is much more revealing than my Marantz.

I have no further information about why MoFi (presumably) used Mark Wilder's 192/24 transfer of his new remix of Miles Smiles, rather than the original stereo master tape. The 1966 stereo tape might have been lost or determined to be in seriously deteriorated condition. Since MoFi chose to source their SACD of Bitches Brew from the original stereo tape rather than Wilder's remix, I think it's safe to assume that the original master of Miles Smiles was unavailable or unusable.

There is another SACD of Miles Smiles that hasn't been mentioned yet in this thread, one of the discs in the Miles Davis: Great 5 set. What source did Esoteric use? The same as SRGS 4538? or the Wilder 192/24, or some other transfer?

The MoFi SACD of Miles Smiles doesn't sound as open and transparent as Miles Davis: Nefertiti, though both were recorded at Columbia's 30th Street studio. Miles Smiles was engineered by Frank Laico; Nefertiti was engineered by Fred Plaut and Stan Tonkel just weeks after the recording sessions for Sorceror, whereas Miles Smiles was recorded after a long break from the studio. On Miles Smiles, Frank Laico mixed Tony Williams somewhat back and hard right; on Nefertiti, Plaut and Tonkel mixed Williams forward, left and spread into the center, using better microphones as far as I can tell. There also seems to be more reverb on the trumpet in Nefertiti than in Miles Smiles.

Even with sonic drawbacks, the MoFi SACD is very listenable, and the performance has artistic significance that transcends the recording quality.

Comment by SteelyTom - February 17, 2019 (7 of 11)

Thanks for the comment, Mark. No doubt about the artistic merits of the album, one of Miles' peak achievements.

Comment by Mark Werlin - March 2, 2019 (8 of 11)

Thanks to the generosity of a fellow site member, I now have a copy of the Japanese SACD of Miles Smiles SRGS-4538 for comparison to the new MoFi SACD. Not surprisingly, the two versions sound very different, as other commenters have posted. I'll listen closely to both SACDs and A/B them to my 2-eye stereo Columbia LP (CS 9401).

Comment by Mark Werlin - April 2, 2019 (9 of 11)

A full review of the MoFi SACD is now posted, including a comparison between the MoFi release and the JSACD (SME SRGS 4538). Thanks again to the site member who provided the JSACD, and to the commenters who pointed out the differences between the two discs.

Several weeks ago, I sent a query to MoFi asking for further details about the source of the new SACD. I'll update the review if MoFi responds.

Comment by SteelyTom - April 4, 2019 (10 of 11)

Excellent and thorough review, Mark. I find myself torn between admiration for MoFi's work generally, and frustration with MoFi's lack of transparency about source materials. If Sony was willing only to license the Wilder remix of Smiles to MoFi, which in turn used its proprietary equipment/technique to do the best available stereo mastering of the album, why not say so?

Comment by Mark Werlin - April 4, 2019 (11 of 11)

Thanks, SteelyTom, much appreciated.

There was one other listening test I tried but didn't include in the review. Rip the CD layer of the MoFi SACD and run the signal through digital EQ to emphasize the highs. I moved the center of the parametric EQ boost back and forth, widened and narrowed the slope, raised and lowered the level, and still couldn't get the MoFi version to sound like the JSACD or LP. It's not that I'm trying to second-guess Wilder's or LoVerde's choices; I'm just frustrated by the lack of transparency from Sony.

My guess is that Sony will soon reissue the Miles Davis catalogue. This recent article in Rolling Stone mentions that Sony Music is launching a streaming service for the Japan market:

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/every-music-company-is-morphing-into-the-same-thing-811329/