Miles Davis 

Seven Steps: The Complete Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964

Miles Davis led several classic lineups during the mid-to-late-'50s that featured John Coltrane on tenor sax, and another in the mid-'60s with Wayne Shorter. The interim saw a period of transition, during which Davis tried to replace the irreplaceable after Coltrane's departure, and watched his rhythm section resign because he wasn't getting them enough work. Miles tried out his old friend Sonny Stitt and hard-bop icon Hank Mobley in the tenor chair, but neither seemed modern enough. George Coleman, who had a smooth, bluesy approach somewhat similar to Mobley's, was a somewhat better fit, and shortly after hiring him, Miles assembled the dream rhythm team of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Hancock filled the shoes of his two pianist predecessors brilliantly. He could be as impressionistic as Bill Evans or (almost) as down-and-dirty as Wynton Kelly. Tony Williams at age seventeen was already one of the all-time great drummers, and bassist Carter was the perfect replacement for Paul Chambers.

This new unit sprang into the jazz consciousness with "Seven Steps to Heaven," a track that gave the title to a mid-1963 Davis LP and, more than forty years later, to this essential boxed seven-CD set. From the get-go, this was a different kind of rhythm section, for whom testing the absolute limits of modern jazz structure was business as usual. Almost all of the music heard here was recorded live, with the group's proclivity for takin' it to the limit given free rein. The interplay between the bandmembers is fantastic, but one does notice that Coleman isn't as sure-footed in this constantly shifting terrain as his boss.

Who could be? Miles turned to the great Sam Rivers, one of the few leading free jazz stylists who was also at home with the methodology of the hard-boppers, but Rivers lasted long enough only to make one fascinating record with Miles, Live in Tokyo. And then Davis landed the horn man he had wanted all along, Wayne Shorter, and you can finally hear, on the Berlin concert that closes this set, how the final piece of the puzzle fit in.

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