Can there be any argument that (aside from possibly John Coltrane’s classic quartet) this is the greatest small jazz band ever? With Miles Davis’s band, you had five deeply individual players, all of whom were capable of shifting gears on a second-to-second basis, and they may never have done that better than they do here. If Live in Europe 1967 – The Best of the Bootleg Vol. 1 falls slightly short of the rightly-celebrated “Live at the Plugged Nickel” series, it has plenty of compensating virtues. The most notable is the leader’s own playing, which is infinitely sharper here. His chops were up, he was kept on his toes by the impossibly high standards imposed by his sidemen, and he played throughout this recorded tour like a man with something to prove.
As was true for the entire 1966-67 phase of the band’s club and concert performances, both tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams are on fire from start to finish, the former combining profound intellect with unending daring, the latter challenging his bandmates (and himself) with an almost terrifying relentlessness. Pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter are equally impressive; Hancock would never again play with the technical fluency that he did during this period. Nearly telepathically attuned to Williams, he was the band member most inclined to vary his approach to a tune during the middle of a solo, shifting from frenetic single note lines to deep half-speed groove. Carter’s role was less visible, but it was as essential: He was the pivotal member, assigned to consolidate incoming data and feed it back in a way that unified the band.
Live in Europe 1967 – Best of the Bootleg Vol. 1 presents the band’s working repertoire of the time, culled from its “ESP” and “Miles Smiles” albums and adding older material like “Green Dolphin Street” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” At this point, the tunes were little more than palimpsests, codes over which the group could roam freely. Miles, generally moved between approaching tunes aggressively (“Agitation” and “Gingerbread Boy”) and allowing them to float in near stillness (“Round Midnight”) But even within these models, there was a great deal of latitude: the moment Wayne Shorter sinks his teeth into “Round Midnight,” all bets are off — he tears into the music with pure ferocity.
Part of the beauty of this group was that, in the course of one number, the piece could morph into five or six distinct shapes, yet somehow retain its integrity. The album is best heard uninterrupted, with no breaks between tunes, as they were played. There’s not a moment of Live in Europe 1967 – Best of the Bootleg Vol. 1 that doesn’t command attention. It is truly essential jazz.