In the summer of 1967, Miles Davis entered Columbia’s 30th Street Studio and began recording his fourth album utilizing his second classic quintet with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. Released in 1968, Nefertiti marked the end of an era for Miles Davis. Not only was Nefertiti his last release featuring the second great quintet alone (George Benson joined the quintet on Miles In The Sky) but this was to be Davis’ last entirely acoustic album.
Nefertiti was recorded just merely a month after its predecessor, Sorcerer, which was the beginning of the transformation of Miles’ band and sound. Nefertiti picks up and expands upon where Sorcerer left off as the group begins to settle into explorations of moody grooves with music that unpredictably convenes.
To put the album into even greater perspective, half of Nefertiti‘s six tracks were recorded just two days after the death of John Coltrane. Perhaps this explains much of the unnerving expression that is evident throughout the album.
Most of Nefertiti‘s compositions were written by either Hancock or Shorter and none of them were written by Miles himself. The title cut is the most unusual as it reverses the rhythm sections traditional role with the horns of Davis and Shorter restating the theme over and over while Hancock, Carter and Williams improvise. Since most listeners are melodically inclined, there’s a feeling of absence in the track, as if you’re waiting for the tune to begin. Then, if you’re ears are wise and open enough, while you’re waiting you become captivated by the magic of it all, the liberation of the rhythm section.
“Fall” continues in a manner where the title track left off, with another ostinato pattern. In this case however there’s space for further input in the form of short solos by the horns. Williams holds the track down in the drummer’s traditional role while all the other members take a stab at commenting on the theme with Miles holding the ostinato rooted.
The album’s third track “Hand Jive” produces an ambiguous tonal centre but with plenty of room to solo, which Davis and Shorter take flight with. Carter’s bass is the vehicle that drives the track continuously forward, while Williams pushes him and at times seems as if there’s something he’s trying to get out of his system.
The two Hancock penned tracks “Madness” and “Riot” are quite similar in that they convey even greater complexity. The theme for “Madness” is almost a musical contradiction seeming to begin as one theme and ending as another. The track almost immediately takes off with Miles’ solo followed by Shorter’s and then becomes immediately grounded at the end of Shorter’s solo. Hancock then intervenes with an interlude of his own and gradually begins to get off the ground until the theme brings it all back full circle again.
“Riot” is very much a groove oriented canvas for Williams to exploit. It’s the shortest running track on the album and features brief solos by the horns and Hancock over top of the syncopated samba-esque beat conjured up by Williams.
Rounding out the album is Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio”, which serves as a reminder that although the album pushes all the boundaries and is at times deeply complex, it’s still rooted in bebop. However, it is bop far beyond that of improvisation upon changes.
Six months after the recording of Nefertiti, Miles and company would be back in the studio recording Miles In The Sky, which ushered the band straight ahead towards what was to become known as fusion. There was still plenty of bop influence hiding in the tracks of the album but change was certainly underway.
That change of course came another six months later with the release of this quintets final album Filles de Kilimanjaro. With more and more of Davis’ band plugging in just a year after the Nefertiti dates, Miles was securely on the launch pad to his electric period and not necessarily in a silent way.