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Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel

January 2019

1965 was not a good year for Miles Davis. It began well with the recording of the pathbreaking E.S.P., but Davis soon had to cancel gigs because of chronic hip pain, and on April 14 he underwent hip replacement surgery. He was on his way to mobility when he broke his leg on August 4. That recovery was interrupted by a second hip surgery. The rest of the quintet stayed busy with recording dates on Blue Note and other labels. Quintet engagements in the late summer and fall, including gigs at the Plugged Nickel in July, August, and October, were canceled. The first post-surgery live performances of the quintet seem to have been in Philadelphia (Showboat, November 8-14); Detroit (Grand Bar, November 16-21); New York (Village Vanguard, November 24-28); and Washington DC (Bohemian Caverns, November 29-December 4). A review of the quintet's December 2 performance in Washington remarked on Davis' new approach: "As a long-time fan, I had expected Davis' melancholy low register lyricism, his striking poignancy and his strong melodic line. But I was unprepared for a new Davis sound... Gone is the flowing melody. In its place are little flurries of notes coming out in clusters. They were placed like so many images in a poem" (John Pagones, Washington Post, Dec 3, 1965, B13).

For years Davis had spent the weeks around Christmas in the Chicago area, where he had family. This was a good time for an extended stay at the Plugged Nickel, a tiny club at 1321 N. Wells Street in the neighborhood known as Old Town. The quintet was booked there from December 21 through January 2, and Columbia was on hand for an on-site recording. All of the music performed on two nights, Wednesday and Thursday, December 22 and 23, was recorded. The music remained unissued until 1976, when two LPs were released by CBS/Sony in Japan: At Plugged Nickel Chicago, Vol. 1 (CBS/Sony 25AP 1) and At Plugged Nickel Chicago, Vol. 2 (CBS/Sony 25AP 291). These LPs were highly sought after in the states, but Columbia held off a domestic reissue until 1981, just after Davis' prolonged "retirement." The two-LP Live at the Plugged Nickel (Columbia C2 38266) appeared early in 1982. Another four tunes were released by Columbia five years later on Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel (Columbia CJ 40465).

These recordings almost didn't happen. After nearly a year of Davis not performing, Columbia was eager to record him in a live setting, to show fans that he was back. (Davis was also still angry at Teo Macero over the release of Quiet Nights in 1963.) Macero sent trucks full of recording gear to the Plugged Nickel, and it was in place when the engagement began on Tuesday, December 21. But Davis refused: no recording. (He claimed that it was Tony Williams who was dead-set against recording, but this may have been fabricated.) This was a huge waste of resources, of course; Macero told Columbia that the expenses should be deducted from Davis' royalties. Someone relented, and recordings were made on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

What Davis and Macero did not know was that on the way out to Chicago, Tony Williams had suggested to the group that they play "anti-music" -- "What if we made anti-music? Like, whatever somebody expects you to play, that's the last thing you play?" As Herbie Hancock later explained, the young group had grown so close musically that playing together had become too easy and comfortable, and they all felt they needed to do something to make it more challenging. They didn't bargain on the fact that Columbia would be recording their performance, but nevertheless they stuck to the plan. "Controlled freedom" Hancock would later call it, although he apparently refused to listen to any of the tapes from the performance; and it was not until the LPs were released in 1976 that he realized that, as he put it in an interview, "it sounded really raw, [but] there was a certain honesty in the rawness that I was happy about." (Wayne Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer has a nice account of "anti-music" at the Plugged Nickel in a 2004 NPR essay.)

Sony SRCS 5766-72 (March 25, 1992)

Shortly after Davis' death in 1991, Sony Japan decided to release the lot -- more than seven hours of music -- and in March 1992 the first edition of The Complete Plugged Nickel 1965 was released on seven CDs. The set was very limited and it sold out almost immediately. Not surprisingly: think of all that pent-up demand. For years fans and collectors had been listening to the same two CBS/Sony LPs; here was a motherlode of the Miles Davis Quintet in an intimate live setting.

As was customary with Sony, the box was beautifully produced, in a heavy textured cardboard box containing seven CDs in jewel cases. The graphics were striking and colorful, and the sound was revelatory.

Mosaic MQ10-158 / Columbia Legacy CXK 66955 (May-July 1995)

After the favorable reception of the Japanese set, Sony USA began the process of preparing a domestic reissue. A grand project was conceived: Sony USA would collaborate with Mosaic Records to release most of Miles Davis' Columbia recordings, with the CDs appearing on Sony's Columbia Legacy label, and Mosaic releasing the music on their 180-gram Q-LPs. The 1965 Plugged Nickel recordings would be the first installment in this multi-year project. (More about this project, including some early publicity, is available elsewhere on this site.)

At first the producers of the domestic project -- executive producer Michael Cuscuna, Bob Belden, and Steve Berkowitz and Kevin Gore from Columbia -- worked with masters provided by Sony Japan. The project was suspended, however, when archivists in Columbia's Manhattan storage facility came upon a cache of twenty-five 1/2" three-track "B reels," recorded on a second deck as backups for those times when the reels on the master deck were being changed. These new reels included more than twenty minutes of music that was missing from the supposedly complete Japanese set! All the tunes that were issued in edited form on the Sony Japan set could be restored to their full length. (For details on the restored passages, what was restored and where, see the notes to the December 22 and December 23 sessions elsewhere on this site.)

The Mosaic/Legacy team remixed the three-track reels to produce masters for The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions (Mosaic Records MQ10-158) and The Complete Live at Plugged Nickel 1965 (Columbia Legacy CXK 66955), released on May 1 and July 18, 1995 respectively.

The Mosaic set is remarkable for its sound -- the Q-LPs rival any high-end vinyl today -- but also for its beautiful large-format booklet with insightful notes by Bob Blumenthal. The design of the Columbia Legacy CDs, on the other hand, was eccentric: almost no color, and the teeny-weeny fonts and wildly varied typography made the notes practically illegible.

Mosaic MQ10-158 / Columbia Legacy CXK 66955 covers

Sony SRCS 7351-57 (February 1, 1995)

Sony Japan released a follow-up to the original set in February 1995, a few months before the Mosaic and Legacy sets appeared. Using the same masters and graphics that were used in 1992, the second Japanese edition, also quite limited, was pressed on gold CDs, and the color of the box was changed from matte black to dark blue. Once the Mosaic and Legacy sets were released and it became clear that the Sony version was not the "complete" Plugged Nickel after all, the boxes were adorned with stickers indicating that they contained the "Teo Macero edited version."

The Music

The Plugged Nickel recordings were made at a pivotal point in the life of the second quintet. Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams were pushing Davis towards freer and harmonically more adventurous playing. Once Wayne Shorter joined the group, the emphasis shifted from playing standards toward performing original compositions which gave the group the freedom it needed. The quintet's first studio album, E.S.P., recorded in January 1965, contained only originals (three by Carter, two by Shorter, one each by Hancock and Davis). Yet the group's live performances still centered on audience-pleasing standards like "My Funny Valentine," "Stella by Starlight," "If I Were a Bell," and "On Green Dolphin Street," along with brisk-tempo versions of Davis originals like "So What" and "All Blues." Although one new Davis original is performed here -- "Agitation" from E.S.P. -- the rest of the fare is familiar, though the levels of freedom and abstraction are new.

These sessions are well recorded, and the club atmosphere is intimate and relaxed. You hear the telephone and the cash register ringing, chairs shifting, bottles and glasses clinking -- and lots of audience chatter (more on this shortly). You hear the occasional dropout, and sometimes during soft passages, e.g. when Davis is playing by himself or with sparse piano accompaniment, there is audible print-through, caused by the magnetized tape signal bleeding from one layer of spooled tape to adjacent layers -- listen at 0:48-0:52 of Davis' opening statement in "I Thought About You" (12/22 set 3), or at 0:31-0:35 of his opening statement in "I Fall in Love Too Easily" (12/23 set 3), or at 1:35-1:41 of his opening statement in "Yesterdays" (12/23 set 4). The one systematic sonic defect is the slight under-miking of the piano. There are subtle differences in the mix and the stereo image of the various sets -- these were the subject of vigorous discussion back in the days of the Usenet group rec.music.bluenote -- but the bottom line is that these recordings are terrific examples of live jazz in an intimate club setting.

In the notes to the Mosaic set Bob Blumenthal gives a masterful set-by-set, tune-by-tune commentary on this music. The impressions I will record here are much more subjective. I was in college when I picked up the then-recently-released CBS/Sony LPs at a local record store. They blew me away. I was completely unprepared -- I guess I was expecting something like a small-club version of the 1964 recordings from Lincoln Center.

But here was Miles Davis taking huge liberties with the melodies of the standards. Listen at 0:45-1:08 of the opening to "My Funny Valentine" (12/22 set 2) -- a 12-second pause between the first and second phrases of the melody, enough time for members of the audience to invite Davis to "bring it on, baby." Or listen at 0:41-1:12 of the opening to the "I Fall in Love Too Easily" (12/22 set 3), where there's a 16-second pause in the statement of the melody! His fractured statement of the melody of "When I Fall in Love" (12/22 set 2) leads someone in the audience to sing the phrase that he is waiting for Davis to play, and laughter ensues when Davis plays it (listen at 0:20-0:44).

And here was Wayne Shorter channeling Coltrane, or even Albert Ayler -- and being appreciated for it! Listen to the last two minutes of his solo on "Four" (12/22 set 2), where he and Tony Williams work themselves into a frenzy. The audience loves it. And listen to the applause following his egg-scrambling solo on "No Blues" (12/22 set 2, 9:40-13:00).

And here was Herbie Hancock sounding at times like Cecil Taylor, with jagged atonal runs, dissonant chords, and dense clusters. Listen to his accompaniment during Wayne Shorter's solo on "Agitation" (12/23 set 2): dissonant chords and runs under the saxophone (even playing inside the piano), combined with Williams' boisterous drums, build to a crescendo, before Hancock takes off on a more traditional solo of his own. Judging from the audience reaction, they dug it (listen at 5:00-8:00). Or listen to the cacophanous climax of Wayne Shorter's solo on "So What" (12/23 set 2, 6:39-9:00) -- and note again the enthusiastic reaction from the crowd.

Ron Carter -- "check-point Charlie," Tony Williams called him -- is rock-solid and reliable, but he has his tricks, too. Listen to the way he transforms the loping even tempo of "No Blues" (12/22 set 3) to something like the stop-start rhythm of "Eighty-One": Hancock and Williams join him while Davis solos over them; but he soon calls them back to the groove -- and the crowd loves it (listen at 0:36-1:40). There are lots of examples of Carter and Williams playing games with time. Here's one that they play often. Listen to their accompaniment during Herbie Hancock's solo on "When I Fall in Love" (12/23 set 3). The solo begins at 9:17 at a brisk tempo. At 10:24 Williams halves the tempo, and he returns to the original at 11:08 -- but Carter keeps going with the brisk tempo throughout. And soon after Williams has gone back to double-time, Carter then halves his tempo, so they're once again playing against each other. They're back in sync by 11:44. Throughout, Hancock seems unperturbed.

And Tony Williams! One minute he's lightly swinging along with his brushes, the next he's dropping bombs and filling the tiny Plugged Nickel with the kind of power-drumming that looks forward to his Lifetime group. And the way he doubles and halves tempos on the fly -- examples abound, but listen at at the 10:00 mark of "No Blues" (12/22 set 3). Or shifts the tempo from four to three -- again, many examples; listen at 4:55 during Davis' solo on "I Fall in Love Too Easily" (12/23 set 1). And listen to his accompaniment during the first half-minute of "The Theme" (12/22 set 3) -- just a snare drum roll!

Davis, it must be said, is not at his best. He was out of practice after his protracted medical problems of 1965. On the Wednesday-night sets he sounds like he may have had a bit too much to drink. He plays much better on Thursday night. Some details of these two extraordinary nights are available in the setlists below.

Setlist: December 22, set 1
Setlist: December 22, set 2
Setlist: December 22, set 3
Setlist: December 23, set 1
Setlist: December 23, set 2
Setlist: December 23, set 3
Setlist: December 23, set 4

The Ambience and the Audience

When I heard the first "complete" Plugged Nickel in 1992, the intimate ambience struck me almost as forcibly as the music. It really was "like you were there." You can hear Davis' exasperation when he plays phrases he's particularly unhappy with -- e.g. at 0:24-0:28 and 0:47-0:52 of "I Fall in Love Too Easily" (12/22 set 1), or at 1:38-1:45 and 3:10-3:15 of "My Funny Valentine" (12/22 set 2), or at 9:20-9:26 of "When I Fall in Love" (12/22 set 2), or at 1:28-1:35 of "I Thought About You" (12/22 set 3), or at 3:08-3:13 of "Stella by Starlight" (12/23 set 1), or at 14:32-14:36 of "Yesterdays" (12/23 set 4). And the telephone, the cash register, the clink of glasses and the shifting of chairs -- just what you'd be likely to hear in a crowded ten-table club on a cold winter night on the north side of Chicago.

The people you'd expect to find are there, too...

Rough spots

In the "producer's note" at the end of the Mosaic booklet Michael Cuscuna writes, "The masters for this set were remixed from the original three-track masters, greatly improving upon the sound of all previous issues and eliminating some distortion that appeared on the original 7-CD set issued in Japan. However, throughout the live recording, there are times when the engineer is changing settings on the recording console ... making for less-than-consistent and trouble-free sound." Here are some of those places. Most occur just after an instrumental change.

Fluctuations in levels, etc.

Where are the reissues? (updated November 2023)

All of the sets mentioned above are long out of print. The 2009 boxed set The Complete Columbia Album Collection (Columbia Legacy 86975 24922) included the contents of the two original Japanese LPs, but since then the only reissue has been a five-LP box on the French Klimt label: Live at the Plugged Nickel 22-23 December 1965 (Klimt MJJ349CLP).

On October 6, 2023 Sony Japan released a handsome boxed set of the complete recordings on eight dual-layer SACDs, Sony SIC7 10001/8. This is limited edition of 1500 copies released in conjunction with Tower Records. Get it while you can.

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