“I once told Miles, ‘when you had Herbie, Wayne, Tony and Ron on tour in Europe, I wouldn’t have dared to get on the bandstand with you.’ That group was not ahead of its time. They were the time.”
— Jazz impresario George Wein
Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet
Given the enduring impact of Miles Davis’ various bands, it’s sobering to consider how short-lived they actually were. His mid-1950s quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones lasted only a year and a half, as did his road band from the Bitches Brew era, with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. The famous sextet with Coltrane, Chambers, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cobb? No more than eight months in 1958—plus two days in 1959 to record Kind of Blue.
In comparison, the nearly four-year life of Miles’ renowned 1960s lineup of Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams seems an eternity. By remaining a consistent unit from late 1964 to the spring of 1968, and despite Miles being sidelined through much of 1965 with health issues, this band was able to mature, change, try out new ideas, stumble, recover, and proceed anew. Such was their reputation that even before each member departed, they were being hailed as Miles’ Second Great Quintet.
The inevitability of their growth was due in part to Miles’ singular intrepid drive, and to the group’s youthful pliability—Williams was a teenager through much of this period—and unlikely combination of talent. A wispy saxophonist who favored lyrical contours and dashing lines, and not filling in all the blanks. A classically informed pianist of harmonic dexterity and endless invention, comping or soloing. A bassist with an elastic feel and liquid legato to his sound. A drummer who was already a proven master of rhythms and offbeat patterns with an ear for both avant-garde jazz and the burgeoning styles of funk and rock.
Over time, their ability to lock into each other with an acuity approaching telepathy —the title of their debut album E.S.P. was not chosen arbitrarily—became both a defining quality, and a way to mark their development.
In live performance their progress was bold and compelling; fortunately some of it was recorded, as recent hits and older ballads began to give way to newer songs with looser, unusually shaped structures with strange titles like “Agitation,” “Footprints,” “Masqualero,” and “Riot.” The evolution of the Second Great Quintet can be traced through five stellar studio albums: E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, and Miles in the Sky. Each was different and each had some revolutionary aspect. The sum of their influence is still shaping the path of modern jazz today.