Miles Davis' E.S.P. at 45rpm

E.S.P., recorded over three sessions in January 1965, marked a major turning point in the music of Miles Davis. Throughout his life—as a sideman to Charlie Parker in the 1940s, a rock-jazz fusionist in the '80s, and the many phases in between—Davis was a restless spirit, a cauldron of change, the spark of several evolutions in the history of jazz. But unlike his earlier shifts, which were followed by brief interludes of backpedaling (for instance, his reversion to hard bop and standards after the modal breakthrough in Kind of Blue), E.S.P. stands as his decisive pivot to modernism.

The key moment in this pivot was the hiring of Wayne Shorter. Miles had shuffled through a few tenor saxophonists after John Coltrane left the band in 1960—George Coleman, Sonny Stitt, Sam Rivers—but none quite gelled with either Davis' trumpet style or the simmering tumult of his new, younger bandmates: pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams.

Shorter compacted the elements and lit the fuse. He was an acolyte of Coltrane, possessing a similar hard-brushed tone and fleet energy. But he was also an inventive composer who layered complex harmonies and shifting rhythms over sharp-hooked melodies.

All this galvanized Hancock, Carter, and Williams to a new level. They'd been inspired by the "free" rebellions of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and the new direction of Coltrane—movements that left Miles cold (or perhaps envious at being left behind), until Shorter came along and carved an accommodating path. The E.S.P. sessions are ensemble sessions, even more than Kind of Blue had been, with each musician not only composing one or more of the tracks but making indelible, inimitable contributions throughout to every aspect of the sound.

This was especially true of Williams, who, barely 19 years old, laid down a style of propulsive polyrhythms that no one had ever heard, many have since tried, but none have quite matched. Hancock, already a master pianist familiar with Ravelian harmonies, comped with tone clusters more spare and jarring than Bill Evans' did for Miles' previous great combo (and more fitting for this new type of music). Carter fashioned a more pliable anchor for bass, expanding the notion of time-keeping. And Miles was still very much Miles—and very much the leader, choreographing the sudden shifts with the slightest breath or accent.

Mobile Fidelity's 45rpm two-disc vinyl reissue—mastered from the original ¼-inch, 15ips, two-track tapes by Krieg Wunderlich—captures the sound's bloom and detail with more warmth and detail than any previous pressing, including Columbia's original. (In the mid-'60s, the label's producers started messing with post-production EQ and compression. Sony's most recent CD of this album, digitally remastered by Mark Wilder, sounds better than the original, though not nearly as good as this MoFi LP.) The instruments all sound present, especially Carter's bass, which is clearer, pluckier, and woodier than on any other album by this band; I'm left with a deeper appreciation than I've had for his role in shaping the new Miles sound.

My only qualm—and it's slight—concerns the album's provenance. Unlike most of Miles' sessions in the decade before and after, this one was recorded not in Columbia's 30th Street Studio in New York but in its Los Angeles studio, about which little is known, including the name or techniques of the recording engineer. (Some at Sony have researched the matter, so far to little avail.) It seems to have been a less spacious venue, and Fred Plaut—Columbia's New York engineer—wasn't there with his brilliant technique of enhancing reverb in a non-electronic way. Perhaps as a result, E.S.P. sounds a bit more dry and cramped than the best of the New York sessions—but I want to emphasize a bit. This is still a terrific-sounding album, and, for some reason, the final track, "Mood," an adventurous, spare piece composed by Miles and Carter, has something close to that New York sound.

Miles' "second great quintet," as this group is called, recorded six albums from 1965-68—after E.S.P., there were Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefetiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. All of them are vital assets of any jazz collection, and MoFi's 45rpm pressings (which exist for all the titles except Miles Smiles, and I hope it's on the way) are the best way to hear them.

fetuso's picture

What a coincidence; I just listened to the Mofi sacd of Nefertiti this evening. I also have the ESP mofi sacd. The sacd versions sound great, better than the regular cd versions. I would have preferred the vinyl, but I can't afford to buy everything I want on vinyl

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for the review- FK.
Keep up the excellent Jazz coverage. Happy Listening!

Allen Fant's picture

Equally- Thanks! for sharing -fetuso.
I have been wanting to buy those MoFi SACD titles as well.

I own the entire MD catalog on CD, 1st pressings, plus, a few early SACD titles from 1999/2001.

dalethorn's picture

I've seen this in a couple places now, describing the MOFI remastering, but cannot find when that remastering was done.

AxiomAcoustics's picture

The SACD was released the middle of last year and the 2x45 at the end of last year.

AxiomAcoustics's picture

Nice profile of this fantastic reissue of an engaging and important Miles Davis album Fred, but I'm curious to know where you confirmed the above source information? If you notice the language used on the top banner it states: "Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab", not "Original Master Recording" as all other MD reissues have used, except for "My Funny Valentine".

When this language is used it is because the "original tapes" were not available or the provenance was not able to be confirmed. So it's impossible to state that these two titles were actually mastered from the original masters. This is not a complaint about MoFi, indeed just the opposite; they should be praised for their cautious and transparent language in a market where "Mastered from the original tapes/masters" is thrown about wantonly by most other labels. And they still sound fantastic, despite the inability to unequivocally state the source.

Have you heard otherwise since it's initial release that this was indeed mastered from the original 1/4" 2-track as you state?

John Atkinson's picture
“You’re right. I checked with John Wood of Mobile Fidelity, and this pressing of E.S.P. was indeed mastered from a production copy of the original tapes. Sorry for the misunderstanding. This might also explain the sonic shortcomings of this release, which I emphasized - and should reemphasize here - are slight. It’s still a terrific recording in every way, and the MoFi 45 sounds better than any other pressing I’ve heard, including the original.” -- Fred Kaplan
AxiomAcoustics's picture

Thanks for running that down and clarifying things Fred. Many other labels would likely still consider this to be "from the original master tapes".