I'm a rock and roll obsessed teenager - look at my reviews, and you'll see me gushing about Radiohead, Bob Dylan, The Clash, R.E.M., and Elvis Costello. Which means that I feel somewhat out of my depth trying to recommend The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965 to anyone - I know very little about jazz, and my (growing) collection would look psychotic to anyone who does: I must surely be one of the only people in the world who owns Plugged Nickel and has never heard a lick of Kind Of Blue. So this is more in the spirit of a testimonial than a straight review; I have little context to work with, and I apologize in advance. All I can write about is what I hear.
And what I hear is the sound of a GROUP of soloists, not five SOLOISTS in a group. I don't suppose that makes too much sense to anyone, but what I mean is that despite the long, harmonically amazing spotlights given to Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, the focus (as I hear it) seems to be on the group dynamic - how they liquidly shift time, tempo, and tone around whoever is up front. I'm just amazed at the sixth-sense feeling of these performances, how drummer Tony Williams will toy with the beat while Ron Carter falls in naturally behind him without missing a single note, with Herbie Hancock keeping pace all the time with piano interjections that are more rhythmic than melodic. Speaking of Williams, I normally don't give two sticks about drummers and drumming, but...wow, he's something special, isn't he? Apparently a prodigy in his own day (how old was he when this was recorded, EIGHTEEN?), he cuts up the beat in all sorts of unpredictable ways sometimes, totally flying free, yet he never, ever, ONCE loses the underlying pulse of the song. Furthermore, although he's playing jazz rhythms, when gets loud he sounds almost like (blasphemy, I know) a ROCK drummer to me, pure physicality and muscularity. (I'm talking especially about tracks like "Four" and "Agitation.")
The music itself is both wonderfully quirky and breathtakingly melodic, usually in the same performance - Shorter tends towards jagged, strangely accented bursts of sound which resolve themselves only by implication into "lines" (I think of "Agitation," on the second set of the second night), while Davis takes off on soaringly lyrical runs which are all seduction one moment and pure aggro-fueled energy the next. As for the fact that most of the songs on Plugged Nickel are duplicated two or even three times in the course of the set, it's an absolutely moot point because for all intents and purposes these might as well be 39 different pieces. Except for little fragments of the original melodies here and there, every song on Plugged Nickel seems to be a unique entity to itself, although of course I'm sure there's much that I can't pick up yet.
One thing in particular that I love about Plugged Nickel that I guess most of you jazzers take as a given is the AMBIENCE of the whole thing. Live albums in rock (my realm of expertise) are usually messy, cavernous stadium affairs; the Plugged Nickel is of course a club, and the marvelous production picks up all sorts of wonderful ambient noises that physically transport me to Chicago on a cold, windy pre-Christmas night. Cash registers *ching!*, phones ring, and there are even hecklers of a sort (I agree with whoever wrote that the fellow who keeps on shouting out during Ron Carter's bass solo on "When I Fall In Love" deserves a bop on the head). Even better is the way you can hear the club steadily grow more and more swingin' as the sets progress - by the end of the first night, you can hear a real crowd has gathered. All of this makes the box incredibly intimate; turn down the lights, open the windows, turn up the music, and I defy you to tell me that you're not THERE in front of the Quintet as they play, sipping on expensive liquor, smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, and wishing you could toss a chair at the jerk in front of you who won't shut up.
Another observation: I don't simply see 8 CD's of stunning music, I see a complete package which contributes to the atmosphere. The box, the visual layout, the look of the discs themselves - everything is superb. The thorough, track-for-track liner notes (the content of which remains, sadly, partially inaccessible to me; I don't have the necessary background to appreciate what a "Wynton Kelly groove zone" means in reference to "No Blues," for example) are complemented by the spectacular visual imagery of the jewel case art: all stark blacks and whites, light and shadow. The photograph of that martini glass on the cover of disc 6 alone is work of art.
So that's why Plugged Nickel gets five stars from me, an ignorant and unrepentant rocker. I'm sure as I my ears develop and my sense of history is refined I'll come back and be bowled over by the significance of all of this in terms of the future of jazz, but for now what I am swept away by is the music and EXPERIENCE of hearing it. Music to fly to, music to cry to, intellectual and forceful, gentle and brutal, made by a group of five self-effacing leaders - sweet paradoxes, each and every one. Nothing gets old, nothing gets repetitive, and you get the impression that this is a well they could have drawn water from over and over again without running dry, if they had only felt like it.
I could say that after hearing The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel I'm going to go out and buy all of the Miles Davis Quintet's albums tomorrow, but that would be a lie.
Because, don'tcha know, I already did.