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Sorcerer: Miles Davis In The Middle

Read Ben Ratliff's Liner Notes For Miles Davis' Sorcerer

On November 21, 2017

Sorcerer has never quite gotten its due, especially after the fact.

One of the marks of a truly complex artist is that the devoted fan values whichever points of entry into the artist’s work that was most attractive to them in the first place, and judges everything else by that standard. A few of Miles Davis’s records are widely understood as particularly attractive, which in Milesian terms means that they encapsulated a moment in the history of jazz, or in the history of American art, or in the history of 20th-century cool. Those who are attracted to the harmonically ancient elegance of Kind of Blue, or the ensemble counter-intuitions of Live at the Plugged Nickel, or the cinematic unfoldings of Miles Ahead, or the swampy altered-sensorium of Bitches Brew, might not hear enough of any that stuff in Sorcerer and find it lacking. I understand. Those other records are clear; they are markers of something. This one doesn’t work the same way.

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Sorcerer, recorded in May, 1967, has been described by critics and biographers as “uneven” (Francis Davis), “strangely sleepy” (Gary Giddins), “uninspired to brilliant” (Jeremy Yudkin), “curiously unfocused” (John Szwed), “not so satisfying” (Ian Carr), and so on. It may have derived this kind of changeling reputation from the fact that Davis didn’t write any of its tunes; or that from its seven tracks only "Masqualero" was worked into the band's live repertory; or that on Tony Williams’ “Pee Wee” Miles does not play anything at all; or that the rhythm section’s swing feeling throughout is often somewhat convoluted, as if trying to delay satisfaction; or that the last track on this album by an artist obsessed with the absolute present is a song from a session five years earlier with the singer Bob Dorough (the genially dorky voice known to many Americans from ABC-TV’s Schoolhouse Rock!) and categorically different instrumentation from the rest of Sorcerer.

I identify with an overall contrariness in Miles Davis, and his will to quicken the sensibilities of his audience by doing, saying, or playing things that don’t sound or look like what Miles Davis should do, say, or play. The flip side of the negativity in contrariness is the tenderness and curiosity of underdog thinking. Sorcerer is a contrary and underdog-like recording by an artist who must have been at a moment of reckoning; he had not yet figured out his breakout move into electric music to interact with the counterculture, and within the acoustic jazz tradition he may have gone as far as he could go. What should he do? If I understand Miles Davis right, he didn’t like the idea of “should.” If I understand jazz audiences right, this is the reason that we have liked his long game so much.

Remember what James Baldwin said about how Miles Davis’ toughness masked his shyness: “Miles’ disguise would certainly never fool anybody with sense, but it keeps a lot of people away, and that’s the point.” Miles Davis was also as sensitive to cliche, received wisdom, banality, and sentimentality as any artist ever was. He did much to put people off his trail, so much that doing so became part of his artistic strategy and his musical thinking. Whether or not he did this in order to get a response, he got one: the criticism and anecdotes around him starting in the late ‘50s reflects a fascination with Miles’ air of non-compliance, by his not wanting to “please” audiences, not giving them spaces of time to applaud between songs at gigs, and by not facing them directly on stage.

I think there is a way to look at the fact that Miles wrote no tunes on this record—and complete his forbearance on “Pee Wee,” with its 21-bar, never-quite-arriving melody, and the deeply weird moves in some of this music, like Shorter’s beguiling “Vonetta,” under which Williams plays malapropos rolls during Miles’ ballad solo—as a presence of strategy, not an absence of it. These songs live within a kind of tense, impenetrable, sideways-standing middle-state. And the music, as well as the album cover, the sequencing of tunes, the whole package, seem to represent Davis’s stature and state of mind.

The shared characteristic of the musicians in Miles Davis’s second quintet—the tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the pianist Herbie Hancock, the bassist Ron Carter, and the drummer Tony Williams—was that they knew Miles’ history and were ready to build on it. They were also ready to experiment with it. They first assembled for some gigs in fall 1964, and recorded the studio album E.S.P. in January 1965. But it can be argued that they did not really find their true identity as a band until a bit later. In April, 1965, Miles underwent hip surgery. Shortly after the cast came off in the summer, he fell and broke his leg. He was out of commission until November, at which point the band—all of them individually working at the highest level of American jazz, all of them devoted by choice to keep their commitment to Miles—was frisky. And so it can be argued that the group’s true genesis was in late 1965, particularly its two-week engagement at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel club in December 1965, of which Columbia has released seven recorded sets, or about seven and a half hours of music. That was the gig before which Tony Williams suggested to the other band-members that they play “anti-music”—-i.e. play whatever was not expected of them at any given moment, as if channeling the spirit of their bandleader into sound. That record is the genesis for the kind of inventiveness you hear on Sorcerer.

"Sorcerer is a contrary and underdog-like recording by an artist who must have been at a moment of reckoning; he had not yet figured out his breakout move into electric music to interact with the counterculture, and within the acoustic jazz tradition he may have gone as far as he could go. What should he do?"

Miles also took a medical leave for a few months first half of 1966, when he was hospitalized for a liver infection. And the second Miles Davis quintet finally fell apart around June 1968. So: if you correct for Miles Davis’s absences—he’d have another one, several years long, in the first half of the ‘70s—the Sorcerer sessions lie somewhere near the middle of Miles Davis’ active-and-working years as a musician, and somewhere near the middle of his the active-and-working period with his second quintet.

Another bit of middleness and sideways-ness: Miles Davis, who exercised great control over his album covers for most of his time on Columbia records, featured three of his romantic partners on his album covers between 1961 and 1968—Frances Taylor Davis, Cicely Tyson, and Betty Mabry Davis. Sorcerer has Tyson on the cover: the middle of those three women, looking sideways. And Miles Davis was 40 when he made Sorcerer. Officially middle-aged.

It’s not beside the point that one of Wayne Shorter’s gravid, alluring, ambiguous tunes on Sorcerer is called “Limbo.”

And then there is Tony Williams’ drumming. Williams was a dominator, and Miles allowed him to become perhaps the most powerful force in the band. During a 1970 interview with Pat Cox in Downbeat, he described the high point of the second Davis quintet as a group playing in a V-shape—coordinated forward motion—whereas later, when the spark had gone out of the band it had become an X shape, with the leader at the center and the four other members out in their own zones. But I think that sometimes on Sorcerer the point of the V is Williams. His beat is seldom obviously polyrhythmic: the accents in his rhythms slosh and stagger, linking measures together, breaking them up, avoiding regular sequences. If in, let’s say, a four-beat phrase, the one and the four are the clearest markers of where the band is in the music—the beginning and the end of the repeating unit—Williams’ first order of business was to take those markers away. The action in his playing crowded toward the middle of the bar; or maybe it’s clearer to say that everything became a middle. That notion became central, in the years to come, for both the ever-exploratory Hancock and the ever-mystical Shorter. (“The word ‘finished’ is artificial,” Shorter told me with great seriousness in the late ‘90s. “‘First’ is artificial too.”)

"As with a lot of great jazz records, it doesn’t do any good to wish Sorcerer were a masterpiece. This record is staring off to the side, unconcerned with old definitions, steeled for what is to come."

Miles Davis plays brilliantly on Sorcerer: listen to his confiding lyricism on “Vonetta” and his forceful phrasing and turning around of the beat on “Prince of Darkness.” But he certainly chooses his spots. I wonder if he felt so satisfied by his band—in that strangely propitious time, deep into Vietnam and just before the Monterey Pop Festival and the death of John Coltrane, right between the release of the Grateful Dead’s first album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, when jazz had a newly tenuous place in American culture and some people (mostly white people) dared to believe that liberation could be mainstreamed—that he was willing to fade back a little bit. He’d formed a group of players seven to 19 years younger than him who played his repertoire according to his general (if not specific) directives of disruption and constant change. That’s a lot. This music didn’t sound like anyone else’s. It was perhaps the first time Davis could get away with not showing up on a track from his own record, and this ultimately didn’t matter: as certain Florentine paintings from the 14th century are attributed to “the studio of Giotto,” this music all came from the studio of Miles Davis.

Finally, there is “Nothing Like You.” It’s not filler: Sorcerer was already about 38 minutes long, long enough, without its last track. It’s a closing tag, something to bring you back into the world after the shattering experience of “Vonetta.” The trumpeter Leron Thomas recently told me that he thinks of it as Miles’s version of a Looney Tunes move: “That’s All, Folks.”

As with a lot of great jazz records, it doesn’t do any good to wish Sorcerer were a masterpiece. This record is staring off to the side, unconcerned with old definitions, steeled for what is to come.

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Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, and elsewhere. He's the author of four books, most recently 2016's Every Song Ever.

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