Like many this week, I am back home for Thanksgiving, and that has me thinking about what first got me hooked on music: playing jazz. As a precocious preteen musician there was nothing more thrilling than playing in a jazz combo with my friends. We adored the music of Miles Davis and, as the group’s bassist, I particularly liked playing songs with distinctive bass lines, such as Kind of Blue’s “So What” or Miles Smiles’ “Footprints.”
Little did I know that the bass line to “Footprints” was originally played at half the speed I played it—as can be heard on “Footprints” (Session Reel), a track featured on the recently released Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5. Midway through the track (4:15), the musicians pause to discuss something. When they start back up again (4:37), the bass line appears at its familiar pace, with no obvious cause other than the experimentation that is part and parcel of a loose, free rehearsal.
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 is most valuable for these kinds of insights, behind-the-scenes looks at the working process of one of the greatest jazz groups of all times, Miles’ second quintet (in which he was joined by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams). The album’s distinguishing feature is the many “session reels”—let-the-tape-run recordings of rehearsals frequently interrupted by discussion, practice, and experimentation—for tracks that appear on Miles Smiles (1967), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968), and Water Babies (1976).
For a fan of Davis’ music, the session reels constitute an invaluable trove. Sometimes, they provide clues to the group’s creative process, as when Davis works with Carter to get the articulation of a bass lick just right at the opening of the first track, “Freedom Jazz Dance” (Session Reel), or when he explains the genesis of “Gingerbread Boy” at the 0:10 mark of the “Session Reel” version—“I heard that today in my sleep.”
At other times, the session reels offer listeners an intimate sense of being in the room with these legendary musicians that is just plain cool. We get to eavesdrop, hearing everything from the eerie playback of previous takes to the way in which Davis harangues Shorter about ordering a hamburger or a steak on “Blues in F” (My Ding). For music that is largely improvised, not written down, listening to these reels is analogous to sneaking a peek at Beethoven’s sketchbooks.
Of course, Beethoven’s sketchbooks won’t do you much good if what you really want to do is hear the finished symphonies. And to some extent, the same can be said for The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, as some listeners will surely be frustrated that more than half of the album consists of constantly interrupted snippets of music (the other half consists of “master takes” a.k.a. “normal” performances).
Indeed, some may understandably switch to a different album upon hearing that the first track goes on for 4 minutes before the music starts, only for it to stop again after 45 seconds. For devotees of Miles Davis though (and let’s be frank, that’s who this album is for), The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 is a gift, a thrill, and a joy.
Notable Tracks: “Blues in F (My Ding)” | “Circle” (Session Real) | “Country Son” (Rhythm Section Rehearsal) | “Footprints” (Session Reel)