IMPEX Reissues Miles Davis' E.S.P.  AAA on 180g

Though the first studio effort by Miles Davis’ “second great quintet” may not be the group’s finest, it is nonetheless a groundbreaking and very satisfying record, especially considering the backdrop.

Around 1963 Miles’ rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Paul Chambers on bass left Davis to form their own group.

Davis had live obligations and formed a new group with ever changing contours. Ron Carter joined on bass along with Herbie Hancock on piano. Of course by then Hancock was recording for Blue Note. Davis found through his friend Jackie McLean about the young Boston drummer Tony Williams and brought him onboard. Thus was formed the rhythm section heard on this record.

With Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley gone, Davis brought onboard George Coleman but eventually decided he needed someone younger and more adventurous. The free jazz great Sam Rivers joined but his deconstructed meanderings were too much even for Miles. When he found out that Wayne Shorter was leaving his stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers he snapped him up.

Shorter made his debut at The Hollywood Bowl in September of 1964 after which the group embarked on a European tour on which it played mostly “old form” music based on 12 bar blues and reworked pop tunes like “Autumn Leaves” and “Stella By Starlight”.

Now surrounded by adventurous composers Shorter and Hancock plus bassist Carter, the group moved well beyond standard constructions, melodies and chord changes. Even tempi shifted within compositions. Nonetheless nothing was as “way out” as the free jazz practiced by Rivers or Ornette Coleman.

If you’re looking for a hook to hang onto here forget it. The modal music of Kind of Blue is positively tuneful compared to this. Whereas that record was Davis way in front of a group this is a far more collaborative effort with everyone digging in and getting a chance to contribute to a far more moody and abstract mix of goods and musical services. Though the recording throughout this period were highly adventurous, the touring unit continued to play the fan favorites.

E.S.P. is like nothing Miles Davis had ever before recorded. It was strong on both improvisation and well-structure composition propelled by Tony William’s multi-rhythmic drumming.

A great place to start would be on side two’s moody ballad “Isis” written by Wayne Shorter. It is dreamy, moody and even beautiful though it floats continuously above ground beyond melody and obvious structure. The album closer, “Mood”, a Davis/Ron Carter collaboration, may remind you of KOB rainy day feel but it is far more abstract and less predictable. Hancock on the left channel and Williams on the right almost don’t need Davis to intrude, but he does with he and Shorter curling snake-like around the rhythmic structure. Only because you know its coming can you almost hear faint wisps of Bitches Brew in a few of Shorter’s blasts.

Another thing you’ll hear is that this is a thoroughly mediocre recording overall, particularly Tony Williams’ drum kit, which on some tracks is inexplicably buried in the mix, pushed all the way to the right channel and hasn’t a hint of shimmer on top or pop in the middle. The cymbals are barely audible—this is the recording itself not just the sound on this reissue.

Another great starting point here would be Ron Carter’s “Eighty-One” a blues based number that would almost be at home on a Blue Note Session. In fact the next tune Herbie Hancock’s “Little One” was re-recorded a few months after this session for his Maiden Voyage album on Blue Note with Carter and Williams again onboard.

The dry, muffled sound and the muted high frequencies tell you this can’t possibly be Columbia’s 30th Street Studios and it’s not. An unknown engineer recorded the album January 20th-22nd 1965 in Columbia’s Los Angeles studio located at Sunset Blvd. And Gower. While Davis, Shorter and especially Carter are reasonably well recorded, the drum and piano sound ranges from acceptable to wet blanket. There’s not much in the way of “stereo” either. Rather it’s assigned channels: piano and bass far left, horns center and drums far right. The dryness tends to further segregate the mix’s “assigned” quality. There’s a hint of what sounds like artificial reverb in places behind Davis’ trumpet but otherwise there’s no bloom air or space to be had.

If you own an original 1A pressing (I do), don’t expect this reissue to improve upon it. There’s not much that can be done. The reissue wrongly uses a black “360 Sound” label but that’s no big deal: Classic used the corporate Warners label for its Led Zeppelin reissues!

Overall the sound of this 180 reissue cut by Chris Bellman almost surely from a flat master tape transfer by Mark Wilder at Battery Studios is as close to the original as can be expected given the tape’s age. It’s slightly more opaque sounding than the 1A pressing and not quite as nimble but it’s sufficiently transparent for all of the subtle reverb tails behind Davis’ trumpet to poke through.

Columbia Records released in May of 1965 My Funny Valentine (CS 9106), a live Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher) recording from February of 1964. It’s an album of standards (plus “All Blue”) played stunningly by the group with George Coleman on sax that went over really well with the fans. E.S.P. was released in November of 1965 and it perplexed many listeners. It was way ahead of its time, plus compared to earlier Davis releases it didn’t sound very good (not sure if that had any effect on sales or opinions).

Heard today, the sound is still not very good, but a good system can help untangle the murk and the music, while still as adventurous as ever, is more easily deciphered and understood by even a jazz neophyte—unless he or she is in desperate need of a “tune”.

This AAA IMPEX reissue is a fine rendering of this important Miles Davis record cut with care by Chris Bellman on Grundman's all tube system. It’s the one where Davis breaks free of both bop and melodic standards and begins charting a new course that would take him and jazz fans into new uncharted (or charted) territory. A fine record and reissue. Just don't expect sonic miracles when none can be had.

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cds23's picture

why people generally regard this as a mediocre recording effort. I don't have an original, but could listen to an orange labeled pressing at my father's place and it sounded pretty much the same as my DSD mastered CD. Anyway, I can hear the cymbals throughout the whole album (and it didn't sound as if any treble energy was added). Yes, it sounds less ethereal as 30th street output, maybe a bit thin at times, but as an upside it offers extremely good bass definition (just listen to Tony's drum solo on "Agitation"), Ron sounds very authentic on "Eight One". Now the follow up album, "Miles Smiles", sounds really bad in comparison and lacks transparency, delicacy and warmth.

daveming3's picture

As Gil Evans once said, "there's always a moment of magic on a Miles Davis record", and ESP is surely no exception. I haven't heard this reissue and ever since I bought the Mosaic vinyl box set that contains ESP, I haven't pulled out my original. Any reissues of this or any of the other studio recording by this group should take the Mosaic releases into consideration, because I think they did a helluva job in opening up the sound on those mostly boxy recordings. While I think it's true that ESP has probably the worst sonics of Miles' studio recordings for this group, the music itself blows right through any sonic considerations. ESP signaled the change into what Herbie called the "controlled freedom" approach of that group, and therefore is a very important record.

John G's picture

I have a 1A with the 360 stereo in black and can't really say I have an issue with how it "sounds".

Michael Fremer's picture
My 1A has the white letters so I assumed all first pressings did. Obviously the changed it during the press run.
John G's picture

Yes, that was the year the label was changed. Here's a better shot showing the dead wax.

Audiobill's picture

This review has made my buying decision very simple. Reviews of this type are reason enough to keep my interest.

Superfuzz's picture

I don't agree with the part of the review comparing this reissue to an original. I also have an original pressing, and it sounds dull, veiled, and lifeless. The IMPEX reissue improves upon the original quite a bit in this regard. Of course the original recording has it's limitations. I'm wondering if Michael compared the two back to back, or was just remembering what his original sounded like?
Also, the label used for this reissue is exactly what was used on the original pressing, the word "stereo" in black letters, just as John G posted above. Soon after they went with white letters. See also:

Michael Fremer's picture
Obviously the change was made during the press run and not afterwards because my 1A pressing has the white lettering. I did listen to both back to back and I think it's a mixed bag with the original being slightly more transparent and the reissue having a creamier midrange. But neither is sourced from what I'd call a great sounding recording. I do have the Mosaic box too but since those are out of print and very expensive I generally don't refer to them.
Superfuzz's picture

Actually I've seen pressings of mid 60's Miles albums using the 1970's label (red with yellowish letters, Columbia written six times around the perimeter), that have original 1A stampers as well. Not "E.S.P.", but I have one for the follow up, "Miles Smiles". The 2-eye label with white lettering was used on pressings up until mid 1970 or so.

dmargo1045's picture

What a great album - one of my favorites by Miles! Shorter's solo on "Eighty-one" gets me every time. I hope that no one stays away from this because of the sound, because it's not bad at all (MF gave it a 7). And the music is exceptional.