Miles Davis: E.S.P.

Recorded in January 1965, E.S.P. was the first album recorded by Miles Davis’ legendary “Second Great Quintet,” a group that featured the young Herbie Hancock on piano, an even younger Tony Williams on drums, (still a teenager at the time of this recording), and the bassist Ron Carter. The group had been through a succession of saxophonists until finding the ideal final member in Wayne Shorter, who had just left Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The jazz poet and music critic Amiri Baraka referred to this group (which stayed together as a musical unit longer than any of Miles’ bands before or after) as “the all-time classical hydrogen bomb and switchblade band.”

The album’s title and cover (with Miles’ first wife Frances staring out at the listener), pointed at a new musical direction for Miles Davis and the seemingly telepathic interplay by the band members. Over the next four years, this group pushed the boundaries of acoustic jazz to their limits, including new approaches to the basic elements of the music: melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure. This was the first Miles album in years that did not feature any pop songs or ballads. All of the songs were written by members of the band, although Miles usually rearranged them, often drastically altering the original piece. As Herbie Hancock recalled:

“Miles took the first two bars of melody notes and squished them together, and he took out other areas to leave a big space that only the rhythm section would play… He’d take the inherent structure and leave us room to breathe and create something fresh every night. There were the basic elements of the song, but not used exactly as they were in the composition”

This change in musical style was led to an interesting division in repertoire between the band’s live performances and studio recordings. Over the next four years and five albums, the albums from the quintet continued to feature original music that became increasingly adventurous and abstract. However, Miles didn’t want to risk losing his paying audiences at club gigs and concerts, so in live performance, the band continued to perform the popular show tunes and ballads that Miles had been playing for years, (although the group did apply their working esthetic on this music and stretched it considerably, as well.) Agitation was the only song from E.S.P. to make it into Miles’ live repertoire. Columbia Records (Miles’ label at the time) also released older “traditional” material from previous recording sessions side-by-side with the quintet’s new music, which confused many listeners.

Today, the “Second Great Quintet” is regarded as one of the greatest groups in the history of jazz and remains as influential on musicians as ever. This is the album that launched it all. (Buy it here.)

Suggested Reading:

John Szwed. So What: The Life Of Miles Davis.