Miles Davis – “Petit Machins (Little Stuff)”
1968 was a supernova, a cosmic explosion that shook the window panes of culture, an eruption of the highest order whose reverberations still waft here and there through the air of today, a phantasmagoric imprint on history: paradoxically here and not here. It was not the one and only year of monumental change in the ‘60s, of course — that could be tagged to pretty much any year that decade, and justifiably so — nor was it a historical closure, as the issues that beleaguered the mind of the globe then remain relevant in more ways than one. But my perennial obsession with 1968 leads me to look at the artifacts surrounding it (and, admittedly, much today) as somehow imbued in the light of the time, maybe a phenomenon of constructed memory but certainly not rote lust for the past. The more I untangle the evental nature of that year, the more well-equipped I feel to live consciously today.
Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet was in a state of radical change in 1968. After a run of five studio albums, Miles’ group — comprised of Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and of course led by Miles — was shedding members and picking up new ones in preparation of albums that would send quakes through the Great House of Jazz and, quite frankly, music at large. The sixth and final album of this period, Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), recorded in ‘68 and released at the beginning of ‘69 in the States, bookended the Second Great Quintet and laid down a comfortable landing pad for Miles’ electric period. Hancock and Carter were already absent on two tracks, replaced by Chick Corea on keys and Dave Holland on bass. Dead center in the tracklist, “Petit Machins (Little Stuff)” is, to me, the red-hot farewell from this era, the last track of the Second Quintet that would retain its signature interplay and signal some of the changes to come. Like the album at large, it stands between then and now, a remarkable document of transition screamed into the void ambivalently with the anticipation of greatness ahead and mourning for greatness behind.
The track opens with a spasmodic jolt. An elliptical call and response surges between the horns and Hancock & Carter, over Williams’ pounding march on the snare. As it jerks along, the song seems to gradually fall apart, stretching the melodic center incredibly thin after Miles’ and Shorter’s solos. Williams’ cymbal-heavy drumming thrusts ahead with an undeniable propulsion, and Hancock’s fleet-fingered runs fly just about parallel. The hypnotic effect of this headlong loosening is owed in equal part to legendary producer Teo Macero’s exacting control of space: there’s just enough anxious action and just enough sparsity in the arrangement for Macero to coat the whole thing in a cavernous (but not overwhelming) reverb. The mastery of space that Macero had is part and parcel tracks like this and “He Loved Him Madly” from Get Up With It (1974), their moody atmospheres unimaginable without it.
But the track never so fully commits to its spiral downward as to lose control; Shorter’s solo never reaches a peak madness as Steve Grossman does on Black Beauty (1973), and Macero doesn’t totally obliterate spatiality like he does across On the Corner (1972). The melodic center might be stretched, but it snaps back during the outro, as Miles wraps the whole thing up with the refrain from the beginning. There’s a dual cocksureness to the playing and fickleness regarding the boundaries explored, as if they knew they were on the precipice of something really out there that was as-yet unrealizable. But isn’t that the way momentous transitions appear to us in the rearview? So totally dependent on the changes later realized, so totally unable to realize them in the moment.
Maybe it’s this historical insecurity, more than anything else, that gives “Petits Machins” its nervous twitch and dour mood. It’s a deep-seated concern over change and the need to rush into it, to avoid becoming nothing more than a flotsam atop the foggy river of time. That’s why we need to revisit and reassess music like this now, in the age of the greatest global physical, economic, and social insecurity in decades. Escapism serves well to get us through the monotony of quarantine, sure, but we need to understand how to funnel this crisis through art, and we need to be able, or at least attempt, to comprehend the myriad ways it subconsciously manifests in our work. If art can doubly speak for an individual and a collective during a time like now, Miles’ ambiguous dive into his electric period is a worthwhile model.