Revisiting Miles Davis at The Plugged Nickel

Have you ever heard the Miles Davis recording Live at The Plugged Nickel? It’s one of the best recorded documents of the classic 1960s Miles Davis Quintet, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with it this week.

I listened to it a lot when I was in college, and while I enjoyed it, I really didn’t know what the group was doing. That’s OK, because I absorbed it and it’s come out in my piano playing in many ways over the years. But at the same time, it’s nice to be able to understand it a bit as I listen to each tune.

Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock have given us priceless insight into what the group was doing at the time the recordings were made in the Chicago club The Plugged Nickel on December 22-23, 1965. Shorter and Hancock tell us that they, along with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, felt that the group’s playing was getting a little stale. So they made a plan: during their stay at the The Plugged Nickel, they would play a kind of “anti-music,” whereby each of them would play the opposite of what they would normally play. To go against their usual musical impulses to see what would happen. When Miles told them at the last minute that Columbia Records would be recording their sets at the club, they were surprised but decided to stick with the plan. Of course they didn’t tell Miles what they were going to do!

Listening to the recording now, we can hear this in the music. Just as a groove is beginning to build in intensity, Tony Williams abruptly plays slower. Ron Carter’s bass lines are more abstract than ever before, and Herbie Hancock is moving further away from his previous Wynton Kelly-inspired bluesy comping inflections. Compared with the group’s live recordings from just a year earlier, the music has a “searching” quality that is irresistible. (It’s interesting to note that their live recordings from a couple of years later have mostly lost this quality as well. The music is still abstract, but they now “know the routine.”) The music from the Plugged Nickel is probing, emotional, and the group is listening to one another as if they literally don’[t know what will happen next. Because they don’t!

With this backstory in mind, I also love listening to Miles on these recordings, knowing that he’s probably wondering “What’s going on?” Nobody was playing the way they had previously played, and he’s extraordinarily quick in the way he responds to this. (Herbie has mentioned this as well.)
Musically, the hero of the week was tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who was “on” in a big way. Herbie doesn’t consider the Plugged Nickel recordings to be among his best work, but he likes the “searching” quality of his playing here. Miles was having lip problems and had to stop playing at times (eg: “Oleo”). Overall, though, the music is magical and documents a pivotal moment in the history of jazz. These are the “Hot Fives” of the 1960s.

Here are my two favorite tracks for the Plugged Nickel recordings, mainly because of Wayne Shorter’s solos on both:

Stella By Starlight

If I Were A Bell

Listen to each of these recordings at least a few times, keeping in mind how the group was intentionally going against their habitual musical impulses. This approach led them to explore uncharted musical territory, which still influences us today.

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