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While playing at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel in December of 1965, in a fit of creative daring, the members of Miles’ Quintet—without informing their leader—decided to play “anti-music.” The story has been related in both Michelle Mercer’s biography on saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock’s autobiography. It was the drummer Tony Williams who suggested, “whatever someone expects you to play, [what if] that’s the last thing you play?”
The reason was that after an entire year playing together their music had become formulaic, “exactly the opposite of what we wanted to do,” according to Hancock. The idea was to contradict the clichés: suddenly go quiet when normally they would hit a dramatic peak; push the intensity at the point one would expect the music to fade. It’s one thing to plan to deconstruct, another thing entirely to do it in the moment—and trust yourself and your bandmates to respond creatively and not drop the ball.
It took a few sets before Miles caught on. According to Shorter, the trumpeter never blinked—didn’t turn around to question his sidemen. He went with it, even though Columbia Records was recording multiple nights at the venue—a fact he had failed to mention to the band. In the recordings one can hear the surprise, unexpected pauses, and cries of delight—especially on the first night. Columbia held on to these recordings until the 1980s, when they first released a single LP; subsequent releases featured more, until The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel box in 1995 allowed fans to follow history in the making as the Quintet in effect reinvented themselves onstage—over three consecutive evenings.
Looking back, Shorter puts it this way: “When I heard the guys dropping the bottom out from under me, I knew it was ‘Go for it’ time! I’d been in the band for a little over a year, and the next thing I know we were way out there. It was like . . . this is what freedom means.”
What to call this new idea? It was freedom—from expected changes, progressions, harmonies, structures—but it wasn’t free jazz, not of the same ilk that Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, and other “energy” players of that period. The Quintet never went totally out, turning their back on the rich, harmonic intelligence each had accrued, and importantly, they never lost a sense of swing. “Free-bop” is one term offered for this new approach, and it’s as good as any other. They followed an in-the-moment logic of their own making, requiring a heightened diligence in being present, focusing, and remembering.