It’s safe to say that Miles Davis was the first jazz artist I was obsessed with. I bought Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream back in the mid-90s, but I didn’t deep dive into jazz until the late 2000s when I bought an AT-PL120. Yes, my jazz journey coincided with my purchase of a record player. It actually started about three weeks before I bought the turn table when my wife and I did a weekend in the Windy City and I bought a copy of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery’s Jimmy and Wes: The Dynamic Duo and Miles Davis’ Nefertiti on vinyl at the great Jazz Record Mart(RIP).
Maybe it was ridiculous and maybe it wasn’t, but in my mind jazz music always felt like it was made for the vinyl medium. Dig this: unfiltered cigarettes blazing, glass of scotch neat, and maybe a candle or two flickering in a sitting room with a needle riding a steady groove in the coolest of circular motions filling the room with bopping piano, slinky bass, blowing brass, and the steadiest of kick ‘n snare as your whole body lets go to the vibes Blue Note, Verve, Columbia, Atlantic, and Impulse! had to offer.
That’s my idea of jazz.
Miles was an artist that had so many eras of music that it felt like getting into a new artist altogether with each of them. From his 40s and 50s era to his cool jazz to his orchestral moments with Gil Evans; then into his second quintet which brought him into the late 60s and the heady electric era clear into the 70s and his acid jazz freakouts, Miles went where the inspiration led. Each of those eras were heady and dense and offered up something new and exciting.
I love all eras of Miles because he knew who to surround himself with. His bands were a who’s who of jazz pioneers. Both his quintets alone were filed with guys that arguably changed the face of jazz as much as their bandleader did. Then when he started exploring with albums like In A Silent Way, Jack Johnson, Bitches Brew, On The Corner, as well as the even more exploratory and out there Pangea, Agharta, and Dark Magus his bands were filled with the DNA of 70s fusion.
For me, though I love all the Miles all the time, my absolute sweet spot is Davis’ output between 1968 thru 1972. His second quintet and into the exploratory workouts with Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way, Jack Johnson and On The Corner are in my opinion as important to the evolution of music as Mozart, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Lennon/McCartney. Nefertiti, Miles In The Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro are records that I can play anytime. I instantly loosen up and just fall into the vibes of Davis, Hancock, Shorter, Carter, and Williams. That group of musicians made magic, no other way to put it.
I’ve been grabbing Davis’ output from this period for years now, having picked up most of what I’ve wanted. One album that had eluded me for years was Water Babies, which was released in 1976. Though it was released in ’76, the songs were recorded between 1967 and 1968 with his second quintet. Much like Big Fun from 1974, those were tracks recorded between the magic years of ’68-’72. I finally snagged an OG pressing of Water Babies and have been listening to it pretty much the last four days.
Water Babies is a starring role for saxophonist Wayne Shorter. All but “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” are Shorter-penned tracks. The songs show Shorter’s knack for mature melodies. Wayne Shorter’s solo work is some of my favorite albums, with Juju and Speak No Evil being two of my favorite jazz albums period. Here he brings that same magic that he brought to his Nefertiti compositions. There’s a dissonance to his compositions, something that I think foreshadowed where jazz was going. Where Miles took things more “out there” and let the counterculture influence where he wanted to take his music, Shorter kept the late night jazz vibes. Suit and tie, smokey clubs, and the tinkling of glasses still felt like the vibe Shorter was in.
There was an intellectual lean to compositions like title track “Water Babies” and the groove-inflected “Capricorn”. The whole band though is absolutely poppin’, with Davis laying down one hell of a trumpet line. Tony Williams riding that ride cymbal like nobody’s business while Ron Carter slays that upright bass. Shorter wrote the magic, and these jazz wizards cast the spell.
“Sweet Pea” brings Nefertiti vibes with smokey sax and end of the evening calm. Herbie Hancock gives us gorgeous chordings and timing. “Two Faced” is an epic piece of music clocking in at 18 minutes, and it’s a preview of where jazz was heading(or had already arrived at) with dissonance and interesting time signatures. “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” is a Davis-penned track and has a funkier feel than what came before, bringing “Mademoiselle Mabry” vibes. This was Davis stepping into the future of jazz, as he saw it.
Miles Davis’ discography has been the most satisfying musical journey in my life. Rich, dense, and filled with so many twists and turns and musical styles. From the suit and tie cool of Kind Of Blue to the orchestral beauty of Sketches Of Spain to the intellectual lean of Miles In The Sky to the acid-burnt excess of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis always seemed ten steps ahead of the rest of the jazz community. Water Babies is just another example of Davis and company’s forward-thinking compositional prowess and musical dexterity.
All I can say is if these were tracks left on the cutting room floor, then that’s all that needs to be said. Musical excellence, top to bottom. Water Babies is yet another compilation album that should have been just an album. And an excellent one at that.