Miles Davis – Seven Steps to Heaven

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As everyone else has already noted: a transitional album; this is the half-debut of Miles Davis’ second great quintet. On piano, Davis enlists a young Herbie Hancock after being introduced to him by Donald Byrd, whose (incredibly overrated) “Watermelon Man” was making the rounds that same year. On drums, he enlists an even younger Tony Williams, whose youthful exuberance in his way of accenting beats caused a disconnect with other, older musicians but challenged Davis. On bass, he enlists Ron Carter, who needs no introduction. But I say half-debut because 1) Wayne Shorter is missing and 2) half of these six songs are with a different group: Frank Butler on drums, Victor Feldman on piano and again, Ron Carter on bass. And the album’s sequenced such that the even-numbered songs are with (the majority of) the second quintet, possessing a N.Y. post-work feel. The songs are sprightlier; heavier; ready for the night. And the odd-numbered songs are with Feldman and Butler, possessing a sunny weekend out in the West Coast feel. Those songs are lazier, more reflective; ready for the afternoon to last forever. What arises from the itinerant approach is one that keeps you on your toes through constant movement from place to place; transportive, I called it before. Preferable, I think, to the alternative, which would have been to have the first half be the N.Y. songs and the second half the West Coast ones (sort of like, say, what Ray Charles did on The Genius of Ray Charles). And I say “transitional album” because, in addition to the differing styles of the two groups, the second great quintet goes on to do bigger and better things.

Preferring faster and heavier music, I think the even-numbered ones are the better draws of the album: the easy seven-note melody of the title track (co-written by Victor Feldman), backed by Tony Williams’ fluid and rather unpredictable drumming (he gets one of the choruses to himself so you can see what I mean). “So Near, So Far” has choruses where Davis and Coleman intertwine; Davis, playing the main theme and Coleman arpeggiating underneath, occasionally coming together and with Williams linking each phrase to the next (he does this during the solos too). Choruses aside, the Herbie Hancock gets the best solo of either song, the exploratory and fast-paced one on “Seven Steps to Heaven” contrasting with the calmer, block chords of “So Near, So Far.” And the band smoke their way through “Joshua” (written by Feldman) perhaps innervated by Ron Carter’s bass.

The slower songs don’t have to cater to me, of course, but I simply think there’s something lacking: the inexplicably intrusive volume of Miles Davis on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” detracts;  and though Davis’ playing on both “Basin Street Blues” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” seem emotionally-charged and both Carter and Feldman provide nice colour, neither song engages for their entire duration.

Somewhat lazy review for a somewhat lazy album. Oh, well – I needed to clear some space on my Ipod.

B

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