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Understanding Ron Carter and the 2nd Miles Davis Quintet

Discussion in 'Bassists [DB]' started by peteroberts, May 24, 2004.

  1. I have been listening to the 2nd Miles Quintet recently (Ron, Herbie, Wayne, Tony, Miles)...E.S.P., Nefertiti, Plugged Nickel, Miles Smiles, etc. I have listened to Ron's lines in these songs and really don't have a clue what's going on most of the time. Even some of the songs; on 'Plugged Nickel' they play the head of 'Stella', then the solos seem to be free format. I don't know, I'm just guessing. I'm trying to understand what was happening in that band. I listen to something like 'Orbits', and I look at the chart, I just don't hear how Ron's lines follow that chart. He always sounded a little strange to me harmonically anyways, he does stuff like use the 2 (9) as a chord tone...I dont know. If someone could shed some light on this I would greatly appreciate it. I'm hoping I can use this info to take my own playing to the next level.
  2. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    This was one of the big breakthroughs in Jazz history - that quintet played together a huge amount and were such good musicians that they were able to go wherever they wanted - it was the real beginning of collective improvisation - where any of the players could suggest a direction for the music and the rest of the band would follow and run with it!

    Nowadays - virtually every small Jazz group of professional standard I see at a gig, does something like this - but before that great "second quintet" , it was almost unheard of and while soloists would play "out" - it was a different ballgame , for the whole band to play "out" together!!

    Not eschewing time and structure altogether, like "Free Jazz" (which has always been too much for some)- but working together to make music spontaneously and with as much flexibility as possible.

    As I say - it's the basis of most live Jazz gigs I've been to and in a way I'm disappointed, as an audience member, if a good Jazz combo , doesn't do a certain amount of "collective improvisation" and spark off ideas between themselves - in the spirit of the tune and the moment, but not slavishly following the changes. :)
  3. Nick Ara

    Nick Ara

    Jul 22, 2002
    Long Island, NY
    I try to catch RC' shows whenever I can. Last year, I think I saw him 9 times. There are definite "Carterisms" that, over the years, have become his signature. Way before some guy named Jaco came along, Ron was popularizing the use of harmonics, hammer-on's, pull-off's (all Bluegrass terms, I know). And just when you think you've heard it all, RC would unleash a flurry of 16th notes, appropriately played at the appropriate time. Breathtaking!

    I wish you could attend one of his clinics. I reported on one back in February where he had us write a walking line in the key of F, then the same line using non-chord tones, then the same line with rhythmic variations. Then he played his version of these exercises. Without straying far from half postion he played some incredible stuff. He can make odd-meter, odd-note choices work so well and somehow fit the moment. We were all spellbound.

    The mid-60's was an experimental period, to be sure. What with modal approaches, Coltrane's visions, etc., Ron has often said that he was very fortunate to have been in a band that functioned as a "laboratory" for new ideas. At the time, he didn't think they were making history, just a different kind of music.
  4. that's what I'm wondering most about. How does he do it? Can you shed some light on the choices he would make?
  5. I can't shed any light for you, but I can say that I am in the same boat. I've been very obsessed with this group for a while. Ron Carter is definetly one of my favorites, and all of the others are top 3 on their respective instruments. Undoubtedly one of the most amazing groups to ever play together.
  6. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Yup - I'd agree with that - I think that's why Plugged Nickel is seen as such an important "document", as you can listen to several differnet versions of tunes and compare how each differs and how the band worked together.

    I think it probably only makes sense as a whole - that is - the band working together and sparking each other off into different areas - rather than trying to separate out what Ron Carter was doing - he might have been following a phrase from one of the others and taking his cue from a sax phrase, for example - so it might seem inexplicable out of context and looking at the changes - but makes perfect sense in terms of a "musical conversation" !! :)
  7. I guess so, but his note choices are weird. How many other bassists use the 9 as a chord tone? OK, I'll give you Chuck Rainey, but who else? At least I can begin to understand Rainey.

    Has anyone transcribed bass lines from Miles Smiles, ESP, Nefertiti and posted them online? That might be a good place to start.
  8. JazznFunk


    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    Lakland Basses Artist
    I use the 9th as a chord tone all the time. Might not be the smartest choice to use on the "one", but I certainly consider it valid, since it shows up in so many places all the time. In fact, my theory professor (oxymoronic term perhaps?) in jazz theory I said that he expected us to consider the 9th to be a valid chord tone from day one. When I first started playing bass I remember using it in lines even before I knew what it was called. So there ya go.... some affirmation that the 9th rules!
  9. Adrian Cho

    Adrian Cho Supporting Member

    Sep 17, 2001
    Ottawa, Canada
    My regular band plays a lot of the Miles 2nd quintet material in addition to other stuff that was played by the groups of Herbie Hancock and Shorter at that time, so I'm playing this stuff on a regular basis. There is a huge diversity in the material and the approaches on some of these tunes but one thing that's important is that in many cases or perhaps I should say at certain times, the actual note choices matter very little. It's not so much what you play but how you play it. That band was about energy, energy, energy and excitement. They would almost blow the roof off the place with the way they played some of those tunes. You listen to say the live versions of Joshua and Seven Steps To Heaven on the "Four + More" album and despite the fact that the tempo is all over the place, there is some serious stuff going on there.

    To begin with, some of the tunes are harmonically right out there anyway and the forms are also quite unusual. Pinocchio is a good example. However even the tunes where the harmony is more straightforward or modal in nature - say Joshua or Milestones, going seriously out for a while is the way to build up serious tension and you absolutely have to do that. If you just play it straight it's completely boring and you totally miss the excitement of the way that music was played. And that tension applies to the time and feel too.

    I would really not bother analysing those lines at that level - what is this note in the chord and why was it played? You need to look at things at more of a macro level. You want to create some tension for a while (which you likely will resolve at some point). You want to push the soloists in a certain way. OK, so play what you think might help to achieve that. Here are a few of my own devices that I find myself often using because they are effective:

    Modal tune in say D-. I will outline G7 for a whole eight bars which makes the D- the II of an implied cadence which I will never resolve. Now if you want to analyse that, it means I'm playing the IV of the D- minor chord on the first beat of the bar continuously. However I don't think of it that way. What I think is that I'm trying to confuse the listener and the soloist. Sometimes I will then sequence up to outlining A7 creating even more tension (still over D-). Or I will repeat A continuously for four bars and then resolve to the tonic in some way. If you outline D- all the time and do nothing else for 14 heads of the song, then it will be boring as hell.

    Time-wise I might go into a half-time or quarter-time feel or suspend the whole thing out by only playing on the first beat of the bar and then perhaps breaking and then starting up again. This often works well on the bridge of some songs like Joshua or Milestones for example. This totally throws both the listener and the soloist. A couple of weeks ago we had a sub trumpet player. We didn't even talk the tunes down. We just started playing Seven Steps To Heaven. I went into quarter-time feel on probably the third chorus of his solo. He was totally confused for about three seconds and stopped playing but then he was totally into and went with it. However about eight bars later I switched back to the regular feel which was effectively four times faster (or so it seemed) and the drummer hammered this home with some kind of explosion on the drums and it was like all hell had broken loose. But that's the fun of playing that stuff. Excitement, excitement, excitement.

    I've been doing this thing lately where in the bridge of Milestones, I'll just start playing double stop fifths descending down by semitones in half notes I think. It totally turns the harmony and time on its head. Then I start walking again in A- or in G-, wherever I happen to be and the tension is resolved. I haven't bothered to figure out harmonically what those chromatic descending double stop fifths means but it certainly has an effect on things!
  10. Nick Ara

    Nick Ara

    Jul 22, 2002
    Long Island, NY
    Excellent analysis and suggestions to a question that is more complex than it initially seems. Thanks, Adrian!
  11. Adrian Cho

    Adrian Cho Supporting Member

    Sep 17, 2001
    Ottawa, Canada
    One thing I should have mentioned is that in my band, firstly since we are playing this music forty years later, we probably play it with a bit more of an edge to it. Also, since I am the leader in that band, I am very much the guy that is pouring the gasoline on the fire as Tony Williams did in the original band. My regular drummer in this band is a young guy who is quite inexperienced. He plays mostly experimental rock and tries hard to get this stuff but waits for cues from me a lot rather than initiating stuff himself, probably because he's scared of screwing up. However he's getting better. So sometimes I use devices that are pretty heavy-handed like repeating something a few times until people notice it and then resolving it. However I will also often be more subtle and just imply things in the harmony or time.

    The great thing about this music is that it's a wonderful playground - a lot of room for the rhythm section to experiment. Indeed if they don't then it's boring as hell and doesn't exude the same energy and excitement as the original performances.
  12. I saw trumpeter Wallace Roney's band with Geri Allen a couple of years ago, and they make this type of playing seem like child's play. Wallalce referred to it as "meter modulation." A simple example might be Wallace playing a quarter-note triplet figure in the original tempo, which the bassist might pick up on, making Wallace's triplets the new tempo in 4/4 time. This might go on until another rhythmic figure is introduced. All the while, of course, they're also modulating keys, etc. And somehow, they all land on "one" at the appropriate time. Amazing to hear.

    The lesson I've learned lately, though, is that the more I try to analyze what the band is doing, the less I enjoy it. I just try to let myself be "swept along." :rolleyes:
  13. Adrian Cho

    Adrian Cho Supporting Member

    Sep 17, 2001
    Ottawa, Canada
    Yes "metric modulation" is the term I have heard. Of course like anything it can be overused and then it loses its effect but it can also be used to totally surprise the listener and the soloists and then the effect is great. Footsteps as played by the second quintet is interesting because RC does crazy stuff every time they get to a certain point (where the changes go F#, F#, E, Eb). Tony plays one thing and then Ron is playing 2, 4, 6, 8, or 12 notes per bar over the top of Tony. It's almost predictable that he's going to do SOMETHING each time you get to that point in the chorus but you never know what.
  14. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I tend to agree, I love gigs where bands do stretch out , but show this "telepathic" ability to play together - but analysing does tend to give you a headache!! ;)

    So , I remember at last year's Jazz Summerschool, in one class, I got to talk to Julian Siegel about this and what he was thinking about as a soloist - he plays DB and Sax!!

    So , he was talking about starting with a 32-bar tune - then maybe picking a part of it - maybe 8 or 4 bars, then just looping it inedefinitely - or maybe he would see the chord sequence or parts of it going past at twice or half the speed of the rhythm section - or maybe backwards?

    So he demonstrated this, while playing a Tenor Sax solo, with Pete Saberton, a great pianist, who would sometimes go with him and sometimes stick to the chord sequence - it was amazing how - even when they were playing completely different sequences in their heads it still sounded good - dissonant, at times, but it sounded like it made sense.

    But as I said : if, rather than just listening, I tried to analyse what they were both doing and where they were - the it started to give me a headache!! :D
  15. Adrian, thank you, thank you, thank you. Exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for. You had some good ideas about creating and resolving tension...I think I understand more now. Thanks again!
  16. Seconded - I was so impressed I printed it off to take home!
  17. Adrian Cho

    Adrian Cho Supporting Member

    Sep 17, 2001
    Ottawa, Canada
    If you don't have access to a band to play this stuff, I recommend getting the Aebersold "Magic Of Miles Davis" play-along. I can't remember what volume it is. It has Joshua, Seven Steps, and fast versions of So What and Milestones. Obviously you don't get any of the interaction with the band which is sort of a lot of the fun of playing that music but it will let you hear some of the harmonic stuff I was suggesting. What you will miss on unfortunately is any interaction with the drummer. For example, on that recording, the drummer (can't remember who it is but Todd Coolman is on bass) always plays a latin sort of thing on the Milestones bridge. It gets boring after a while and it's actually quite hard to hook into without being next to the guy.

    I should also mention that Todd Coolman is the man when it comes to studying the second quintet. He wrote the liner notes for the second quintet boxed set (6 CDs I think) and actually won a Grammy for the notes. His Ph.D dissertation was on the interaction between the members of that quintet. It's available on microfiche. I purchased a hardcopy. Unfortunately all the music didn't come out clearly in the printout though. Todd interviewed Tony, Ron, Herbie and Wayne for his research.

    I would also say that if you are into this stuff that the various live versions of things are where it is at. The NY concert where all the guys are pissed off after Miles told them backstage that they were all playing for free, is the classic one. Tony comes out and goes nuts, basically trying to play so fast that Miles won't be able to keep up. There are bootlegs floating around of performances from Tokyo, Berlin, etc. John Goldsby is also someone that knows a lot about this group and this music is the reason why John can be justified in calling Ron Carter possibly the greatest rhythm section bassist ever.
  18. oh man I gotta get a copy of that NY concert! I guess there is a story behind that ... do you know it?
  19. Adrian Cho

    Adrian Cho Supporting Member

    Sep 17, 2001
    Ottawa, Canada
    The concert was a benefit for the registration of African-American voters in Louisiana and Mississippi. The proceeds were going to the NAACP and some other like causes. Miles decided that in support of this (remember this was the 60s) that he would play for free and not only that but the whole band would play for free. He told the band and they were pissed. Apparently they had a big argument about it and when they come out to play, as Miles said in his autobiography, "everybody was madder than a motherf***cker with each other". The tempos for some of the songs are all over the place. Tony is trying to play faster and faster and Miles is trying to keep up. The tempos for the fast songs are much faster than the studio recordings. Some of the creative stuff going on is wild and you can hear the signalling going on which is sometimes picked up immediately and sometimes not (but then they'll get it the next time around). Basically the tension spurred them onto some great creative playing. Davis said in his autobiography than George Coleman played the best that Miles had ever heard him play.
  20. thanks for sharing...people still talk about this band like it was THE band in jazz.

    Who are some of your favorite artists that are making this kind of music today? I want to get some recordings.

    Thanks again so much for the insight.