An anecdote from Michelle Mercer’s informative book about Wayne Shorter, Footprints, reveals that just before a week-long engagement at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel nightclub in December, 1965, the members of Miles Davis’s group felt the quintet was becoming too stale and decided to play “anti-music,” meaning they would consistently deliver the least predictable phrase or response. Miles, who wasn’t informed of this radical plan, quickly adjusted and embraced it, resulting in a perpetually fascinating on-the-spot deconstruction and rebuilding of his classic catalog. Significantly, he would mostly eschew standards and play almost exclusively original material the rest of his career.
Nobody thrived in the high-wire environment of the Plugged Nickel, where the structure depended on how well you listened and creatively reacted, better than Shorter, whose solos are nearly always the unifying apex of the song. Of special note is his work on “Yesterdays,” where he builds an incredibly swinging solo up from shards of notes; and “So What” and “Stella by Starlight,” which have their familiar melodies juggled and tossed into a new order like dice in the hand of a gambler at the craps table. The success of the Plugged Nickel experiment had a profound effect on Miles moving forward, as he and various bands would play almost exclusively original material for the rest of his career.