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
NOTE: The text of this review has been edited to include information provided by the mastering engineer.
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 liner notes on the inside of the SACD cover contain this short statement: "Remixed from the Original 4-Track Tapes by Mark Wilder, Sony Music Studios, NYC"
What kind of master was created in the remix, and when was it done? A phone call from Mobile Fidelity's Rob LoVerde answered my questions about the provenance of the source.
Miles Smiles was remixed by Mark Wilder in 1998 from original four-track session tapes. Wilder created a new analogue stereo master tape directly in the analogue domain. Wilder did the same process with Kind of Blue; a remix from the three-track session tapes to a new stereo analogue master tape. Mobile Fidelity's Rob LoVerde and Shawn R. Britton transferred those recreated stereo analogue masters to SACD for the current set of releases, except where original master tapes were available. 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".
This review differs from my other reviews of MoFi SACDs. Normally, I don't place much emphasis on comparisons between the various reissues, but comments by site users about the difference in sound quality between the Japanese SACD and the MoFi SACD of Miles Smiles aroused 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.
Based on listening to the SACDs and LP through loudspeakers and through planar headphones with a dedicated headphone amp, I can say that 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 peaks in Tony Williams' loudest drum passages, much less distorted. That shouldn't be surprising, since the MoFi SACD was sourced (as Rob LoVerde confirmed) from an analogue master remixed from the original four-channel session tapes.
Something that Mark Wilder posted to Audio Asylum in 2003 was reflected in Rob LoVerde's remarks:
"…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."
The MoFi SACD was intended to represent the sound of the instruments as they were originally recorded as accurately and transparently as possible. "We try to be a clearer pane of glass, we want the original master tape to speak for itself," LoVerde explained. Whether they are working with Mark Wilder's newer analogue masters, or the masters created at the time of the original recording dates, Mobile Fidelity strives to provide the best experience for the listener.
Mark Wilder's contribution to the MoFi projects shouldn't be overlooked. 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.
It was a very encouraging to hear directly from Rob LoVerde, who was more than willing to clarify the provenance of the tape used in creating the Miles Smiles SACD. This review has been edited to incorporate the information he shared in our conversation.
Stereo analogue master tape. 1998 remix by Mark Wilder from the original 1966 four-track session tapes, in the analogue domain, to two-channel tape.
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