Monday, December 8, 2008

Nefertiti: Development in Progress

I like the idea of an album acting as a way to catch up with what an artist or group has been up to. Not simply a document of what went on in the studio but of what was happening all around them. A creative ensemble without parallel, there's absolutely no way the Miles Davis Quintet wouldn't deliver an aural catch-up session with each release. Nefertiti's running order, in fact, reflects their chronological development since Sorcerer hit the shops half a year earlier. Thus, while a somewhat extreme example of what they'd been up to, the title track kicks things off practically right where 'Vonetta' had concluded Sorcerer.* Many find the repetition of Davis and Wayne Shorter's lines to be unlike anything they did before but, judging by their recordings as far back as E.S.P., it's likely they had this type of thing in mind for quite some time. Sometimes it's impossible to divorce an album from its best known track. The soothing, yet somewhat off-putting 'Nefertiti' frequently fools the listener into the delusion that the entire album is chock full of equally calm tunes. Deeper, more thorough listening, however, reveals that the title track is nothing but a blueprint for the remainder of the sessions.

Shorter's opening numbers - 'Fall' in addition to 'Nefertiti' - provide a nice introduction to what was going on but it's with Tony Williams' 'Hand Jive', however, that 'Nefertiti' really begins to take off. While a lesser composition than those by Shorter or Herbie Hancock, the performance easily compensates. Williams' drumming is positively manic throughout and, not to be upstaged, Davis rises to the occasion to deliver some superlative playing. Hancock's groovy pieces, 'Madness' and 'Riot', provide a less schizophrenic account of the Quintet's energy and, much to his credit, Shorter even responds with the far less meditative 'Pinocchio' to close things out. By this point less than forty minutes have passed but it's hard to believe that this much development has taken place in such a short amount of time. In a way, at least for some who aren't me, this burst of creative energy is the album's own undoing: it simply doesn't hang together as a unified work the way a more coherent but less fascinating record might. In this respect, and in this respect alone, it is the poor cousin to Sorcerer.

filles de Kilimanjaro, recorded a year later, is frequently described as Davis' great transitional album of the period but an equally good case could be made in this regard for Nefertiti.† Not just a showcase for how much his Quintet had developed since Sorcerer but displaying a development in progress over the course of the month or so it took to record. Not since Louis Armstrong cut the Hot Fives and Sevens had the studio been put to such good use as a creative tool and it hasn't proved as effective ever since.

* This is purely from the listener's perspective, mind you. It matters little that 'Vonetta' wasn't the final track cut for Sorcerer, nor that 'Nefertiti' happened to be the first tune laid down at these sessions. Album track listings create a chronology all of their own.

† Having said that, just what works of Davis' aren't transitional? This is a topic I could go off on but am saving for a future entry.

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