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Seven Steps to Heaven is the product of two separate sessions recorded during Miles' search for a new sound in early 1963. Victor Feldman, a young Herbie Hancock and an even younger Tony Williams play with George Coleman and Ron Carter on Basin Street Blues; I Fall In Love Too Easily; So Near, So Far; Joshua ; the title track, and more.
Following the departure of Jimmy Cobb, Trane, Julian Adderley and others in the early 1960s after the KoB period, `Seven Steps to Heaven' was recorded in LA and in NYC in 1963 and is often described as a `transitional album' for Miles. Others point out that everything Miles ever recorded was in some way `transitional', as he never let the grass grow under his feet and was always on his way to somewhere new.
What is certain is that `Seven Steps to Heaven' is one beautiful album full of cool, stretched-out ballads. It usually fails to make Miles' defining discography of `milestones' only because no new ground was broken, no definitive new style established. However the music is absolutely first class, ambient and repeat-listenable in the way of KoB and `In a Silent Way'.
* On tracks 2, 4 & 6 Herbie Hancock plays piano and Tony Williams is on drums (both destined to become members of Miles' great quintet in the mid-sixties) * All remaining tracks feature Victor Feldman on keyboards and Frank Butler on drums * George Coleman plays some fine sax * Ron Carter plays bass on all tracks
All in all a great album and a fine, mellow mood-piece from the period preceding Miles' move towards jazz-fusion resulting in the great defining masterworks `In a Silent Way' and the seminal `Bitches Brew'.
It's good. If you like Miles Davis, and particularly the more mellow ballads, you'll love it.
Miles was not only playing with the music during this "transitional" period after Coltrane but also with ideas about who should hold down the key positions in his next quintet. One possibility was Victor Feldman, a brilliant pianist-vibist-drummer who had emigrated from Great Britain approximately five years before this date. The other was Frank Butler, a drummer whose talent, like Tony Williams', seemed to know no limits.
Whereas Tony readily became the "power stream" that drove the quintet, with the most shimmering, scintillating sound ever produced by a ride cymbal, Frank Butler was a more deliberate and thoughtful "team player," attentive to each and every accent, rest, crescendo and decrescendo of the music, which he helped "sculpt" into a collaborative, yet unified and organic whole.
And when it was Butler's turn to solo, he submitted arguably the most melodic, persistently rewarding solos of any percussionist on record. His most notable contribution would occur with the Curtis Counce Group, which was no doubt the West Coast's equivalent of Miles' first great quintet.
But no need to take my word for it. Listen to his ensemble and solo work on this one track from his first album with Curtis Counce: A Fifth For Frank
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SEVEN STEPS TO HEAVEN is a transitional record, one of the products of Miles Davis' five years wandering in the comparative wilderness between his acclaimed lineup of 1955-59 and the Second Great Quartet of 1964-1968. Four tracks feature Victor Feldman on piano and Frank Butler on drums, with whom Miles didn't establish any lasting collaboration. Nonetheless, during these session the Second Great Quartet was starting to come together. The new bassist Ron Carter performs throughout, and by the time the three uptempo numbers were recorded, Davis had brought on pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams. Only a solid saxophone was to continue to prove entirely elusive, and this marks the only studio recording of tenor George Coleman with Miles Davis.
The lack of a good saxophone also has implications for the material played here. Once Wayne Shorter came on and the Second Great Quartet was complete, Shorter's labyrinthine freebop tunes were to give this band a unique sound and better challenge their technical abilities. SEVEN STEPS TO HEAVEN, however, is made up entirely of standards, and most tracks are ballads. However, the title track, "So Near, So Far" and "Joshua" display at once the band members who were here to stay: Hancock's open exploration of the keyboard feels liberating, while Williams has a confidence with the drum kit beyond his 19 years at the time.
SEVEN STEPS TO HEAVEN doesn't hold up to the albums that follow, but it is hard to really knock it. You might not be impressed by the drummer and pianist on the slow tunes, and you might not remember that Coleman is even on this record at all, but Miles is always in fine form. I feel a deeper appreciation of his strengths with ballands, and he really knows how to transfigure standards.
Recorded live with most his famous quintet with Herbie, Tony and Ron, with Victor Feldman and George Coleman rounding out the performances, this classic jazz album elicits a feeling of the era. Thoroughly enjoyable!
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