ESP marks the beginning of a revitalization for Miles Davis, as his second classic quintet — saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams — gels, establishing what would become their signature adventurous hard bop. Miles had been moving toward this direction in the two years preceding the release of ESP and he had recorded with everyone outside of Shorter prior to this record, but his addition galvanizes the group, pushing them toward music that was recognizably bop but as adventurous as jazz’s avant-garde.
Outwardly, this music doesn’t take as many risks as Coltrane or Ornette Coleman‘s recordings of the mid-’60s, but by borrowing some of the same theories — a de-emphasis of composition in favor of sheer improvisation, elastic definitions of tonality — they created a unique sound that came to define the very sound of modern jazz. Certainly, many musicians have returned to this group for inspiration, but their recordings remain fresh, because they exist at this fine dividing line between standard bop and avant. On ESP, they tilt a bit toward conventional hard bop (something that’s apparent toward the end of the record), largely because this is their first effort, but the fact is, this difference between this album and hard bop from the early ’60s is remarkable.
This is exploratory music, whether it’s rushing by in a flurry of notes or elegantly reclining in Hancock’s calm yet complex chords. The compositions are brilliantly structured as well, encouraging such free-form exploration with their elliptical yet memorable themes. This quintet may have cut more adventurous records, but ESP remains one of their very best albums.
Miles Davis’ second classic quintet existed fairly briefly – from 1964 to 1968 – but had a profound effect on jazz from that point until the present day. Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock each became superstar players in their own right. E.S.P. was their first studio album, recorded in January 1965. It was recorded in Columbia’s Hollywood recording and mastering facility. Columbia’s recordings beginning in the mid 1960s rarely sounded as outstanding as its output from the prior decade. Music lovers have long speculated the cause was switching from a vacuum tube to a solid state recording chain.
The best original pressings were always a bit woolly sounding. When Mosaic Records released a box set of the quintet’s output, things got a little better. Still, how could Columbia’s great staff of recording engineers take such a nosedive? This new reissue by Impex proves that Columbia still had what it took to make great sounding recordings – E.S.P. sounds like a fabulous recording for the first time. Chris Bellman of Bernie Grundman Mastering, using an all-tube mastering chain, has wiped away the grunge. I can’t wait to hear what the later 30th Street pressings sound like cleaned up. Priceless!
WAYNE GARCIA, THE ABSOLUTE SOUND, MAY/JUNE 2014
When Miles Davis lured tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter from Art Blakey’s band in late 1964, he created his “second great quintet.” Shorter would become the band’s most prolific composer, and alongside pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and Davis—on drums the brilliant Tony Williams—here was a remarkable compositional force: one showcased on 1965’s, modal-themed E.S.P. The opening title track illustrates the record’s uneven sonics—initially a bit cool and lean, but nevertheless nimble and with fine delineation.
As Impex’s note states, the LP really takes off musically and sonically on the second side, which boasts richer, more cohesive sound. Employing an all-tube mastering chain at Bernie Grundman’s facility, Chris Bellman has delivered an outstanding reissue of this pivotal LP that features the last of Davis’ acoustic groups. Compared to my original Columbia pressing, which sounds very good, there’s a greater sense of immediacy—check out Williams’ beautifully textured drum intro on “Agitation,” followed by Davis’ muted horn, given more subtle as well more explosive dynamics, and a finer sense of instrumental detail, body, and texture. On “Iris,” Shorter steals the show, and “Mood,” with Miles at his most rarefied, inward, and lapidary, is like an intimate conversation between close friends.