Miles at the Plugged Nickel

A couple of years ago when Columbia finally got round to releasing the full recordings of Miles historic date at the Plugged Nickel we asked what made this gig so special?


Miles had so many great bands that to single out the one that was captured live at the Plugged Nickel might seem pointless. It isn’t. Featuring Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums, this is undoubtedly one of the boldest and most exciting combinations of musicians ever.

“I knew that (they) were great musicians, and that they would work as a group, as a musical unit. You get the right guys to play the right things at the right time and you get a motherfucker…”

With the disintegration of his old band that had featured Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Red Garland, Miles was to survey the musical scene around 1964 with jaded eyes. The free jazz championed by critics who’d been too slow to get on the be bop bandwagon, had, Miles felt, turned a lot of people off jazz and on to rock and RB. He knew that he himself couldn’t turn back, but it took the creative spark of these young players to fire him up again.
“The way I had been playing before these guys came into the band was kind of getting on my nerves. Like a favourite pair of shoes that you wear all the time. After a while you’ve got to change them.”
So here was a man who’d been credited with changing the course of jazz not once but twice already – ‘cool jazz’ springing from his 1948 nonet recordings (Birth of the Cool) and ‘modal jazz’ from Kind of Blue – taking a back seat and learning from his juniors.

“Creativity and genius don’t know nothing about age; either you got it or you don’t, and being old is not going to help you get it. I understood that we had to do something different. I knew that I was playing with some great young musicians that had their fingers on a different pulse.”

By 1965, the band had really come together. They recorded six studio albums over the next four years: E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968). Other albums would later be issued from other cuts at this time, but strangely, few if any of these tunes were being performed live.
“People were coming to hear those tunes that they’d heard on my (earlier) albums; that’s what was packing them in the door. But the band wanted to do the tunes we were recording and I know that was a sore point with them.”
Although there were a number of recordings of this band live, with Herbie Hancock in particular always plugging in his tape recorder, very few of these tapes were to come out in Miles’ lifetime, something that was a sore point with him as he clearly loved the band that he had at this time.
“There were some live recordings that I guess Columbia will release when they think they can make the most money — probably after I’m dead.”
Although 1965 was creatively one of Miles’ high points, there were a number of problems. One of them was with the precocious, talented drummer Tony Williams. Because he was so young he was not allowed to play in many clubs – unless they put aside an area for young people to sit and consume soft drinks. At one point, Miles even suggested that Tony should wear a moustache and smoke a cigar.
More seriously, Miles’ health was suffering. His hip had to be replaced with a plastic joint after an earlier operation failed and he was drinking, snorting and cavorting to the very limits of his constitution not to mention his marriage to Frances, his first wife.

“I was starting to go now to these after-hours joints where everyone was coked out of their minds, and she really hated all that. I would be gone for a couple of days and wouldn’t even call home. Then, when I did come home, I’d be so worn out that I’d fall asleep while I was eating my food.”

After the operation in April of 1965, he took time out from playing until November of that year. The following month he played at the Plugged Nickel, where Teo Macero was on hand to capture the sound. It was a triumphant return but the recordings were not released until after Miles’ death, when parts were issued as Live at the Plugged Nickel and Cookin’ at the Plugged Nickel.
With the discovery of a three-track master, which covers parts lost by the other tape in Columbia’s possession, they have decided to release the full eight CD package, which covers all the sets played over a two-day period just before Christmas 1965. The sound quality is surprisingly good and you can clearly discern the cash tills, clinking glasses and arguing drunks that would drive many a jazz musician out of the clubs and into the concert halls.
Over the eight CDs you can hear how each and every time the band would play one of Miles’ classics like ‘So What’, they would approach it differently forcing new twists and interpretations out of these old tunes. In that small and now vanished Chicago club, musical history was being made. Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock faithfully keeping everything together in the rhythm section while Tony Williams would be sparking off new ideas to be picked up on by Miles and Wayne Shorter.
“The music we did together changed every fucking night; if you heard it yesterday, it was different tonight. Even we didn’t know where it was all going to. But we did know it was going somewhere else and that it was probably going to be hip, and that was enough to keep everyone excited while it lasted,”
Miles always believed that a break from each other was good for a band and these nights at the Plugged Nickel were to prove no exception. None of them had played together between April and November and these were the first dates that the whole band could play together. Perhaps he was a little concerned though, as he asked Teo Macero not to record the first of the three nights. After that first night, Miles came up to Macero and chided him for not recording it anyway. They were better than back on form, they were smokin’.
“I have always believed not playing with each other for a while is good for a band if they are good musicians and like playing with each other. It just makes the music fresher and that’s what happened at the Plugged Nickel.”

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