Miles Davis Quintet: Miles Smiles
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2201
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:
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 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