Not only does Seven Steps to Heaven showcase Miles Davis in his prime; this seven-CD set tells a fascinating story. These 47 cuts, eight previously unissued, capture Davis at a juncture. Having left the band that produced Kind of Blue and other brilliant albums, Davis was searching for a new sound. He would eventually settle on another superb band, but for 18 months in 1963 and 1964, he was in flux. Seven Steps charts his journey, through some of the finest music of his career.
The sessions begin at Columbia Studios in Los Angeles in April, 1963, but because Davis was angry about Columbia's release of Quiet Nights (which he considered unfinished) he refused to go into the studio to fulfill his contract. Consequently, the rest of the cuts are live concert performances at Antibes, France (July, 1963), New York's Philharmonic Hall (February, 1964), Tokyo, Japan (July, 1964), and Berlin, Germany (September, 1964).
Davis' initial group has Victor Feldman on piano and Frank Butler on drums. But Feldman did not want to leave his steady west-coast work and Davis already had his ear on another drummer, 17-year old wunderkind Tony Williams. You can hear Williams growing into a powerhouse player on cuts like "Walkin'" on disc three. His tour-de-force solo brings the audience to four ovations. Herbie Hancock, who takes over on piano, is at his straight-ahead best throughout. But Miles' search for a sound is nowhere more in evidence than in his choice of saxophonists.
On the first five discs, George Coleman holds down the sax chair, proving to be a melodic snake-charmer on cuts like "All Blues" and "My Funny Valentine." On disc six, avant-garde leaning Sam Rivers takes over and the group, live in Tokyo, responds by breathing fire on every cut. Rivers' "Valentine" is more frantic than funny. The band's sound with Rivers is intriguing, but it's not the one Miles wanted. By the final disc, after four years of trying, he hires Wayne Shorter to complete his next great quintet. Shorter brings a more melodic, yet abstract style to his solos, inspiring Hancock to move in a more impressionistic direction.
Aside from Davis, Ron Carter is the only other player on every cut. Fresh out of the Eastman School of Music, Carter arrives full-blown at the top of the jazz world, reading his band-mates perfectly and responding to every nuance. Even with all of the musical changes going on in the band, Davis is at his technical and aesthetic peak throughout, injecting urgency and emotion into every performance.
Although playing the discs in chronological order is satisfying, it is often more illuminating to jump from disc to disc to chart the evolution of a particular composition. "Joshua" begins as a mid-tempo tune on disc one, but by the rendition on disc three, recorded two months later, it has become an up-tempo vehicle for some of Davis, Hancock, and Coleman's wildest improvisation. If getting a grip on all of this sounds like a daunting task, the extensive essay by Bob Blumenthal provides an insight-filled guide.
--- Ron Netsky