Wayne Shorter on "If I Were a Bell"

When I first heard about the Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965)
recordings in high school, I had only ever listened to the 'First Great Quintet.' Based on the track listing for these recordings, I was expecting to hear some moderately updated takes of existing repertoire, but I had no way to process what was happening. Where was the harmony? Where was the form? Where was 'one'? 

A few years later, I came back to these recordings while feeling in a slump about playing over standards—the hopelessness of breaking free from 32-bar forms that began to feel like prison cells—and they instantaneously opened my ears to the possibilities of creating vibrant, living music within old forms. It wasn't about making the most pristine or slick melodic/harmonic/rhythmic statement within the form; it was about exploding these forms, overspilling their boundaries with the momentum of the music. 

The opening tune from the first set of the second night, "If I Were a Bell," was especially memorable for how fast Herbie takes the intro after Miles (presumably) snaps out the time—it's even faster than what Miles calls, and it's clear that the rhythm section is going to light a fire under the horn players whether they like it or not. The inaugural utterance of Wayne's solo, to me, is absolutely timeless: a strange, seemingly half-formed throwaway that actually provides a metaphorical miniature for much of what's to come. Like the first phrase, which has two notes within the key (G, Bb) and then two without (Gb, Ab), The solo is filled with movements that seem to slide within and outside of the formal bounds of the song; in reality, though, the band is keeping the form (for the most part) and creating the illusion of "time, no changes" by collaboratively orienting the sound of the band toward a focused, exploratory direction. 

For Vijay Iyer's studio/research class "Creative Music" this semester, I decided to finally transcribe the entirety of this solo to investigate what was going on. I had originally transcribed a couple choruses the year before when I meant to post them as a rebuke to Alex Hoffman's claim that Wayne couldn't play changes, but I ended up never completing that mini-project. This time, I also tried to deal with some of what Ron, Herbie, and Tony were playing, too; I only managed to transcribe most of Ron's walking line, but that proved enough to show that the band does, in fact, stay with the form—even if it doesn't always sound like that. 

On Wikipedia, a claim is made in reference to an NPR story about the origins of these dates:
Research for a Wayne Shorter biography revealed that drummer Tony Williams, during the plane ride to Chicago, challenged the rest of the band to play anti-jazz, in essence sabotaging the gig by playing whatever one wished rather than the standard versions.[2] The band kept to the challenge, and the tunes were then radically altered for the Plugged Nickel performances.
A cursory Internet search didn't seem to pull up much more than that, but I was fortunate to have the chance to interview Herbie Hancock, who's currently delivering this year's Norton lectures at Harvard, for The Crimson. At the tail end of the interview, I couldn't resist asking about this, just to confirm, and here's what he said:

THC: This is a bit of nerdy question, but there’s a story about the infamous 1965 Live at the Plugged Nickel recordings that drummer Tony Williams, on a plane to Chicago, suggested that you and the rest of Miles Davis’s band play “anti-music.” Is that a true story? 

HH: Yeah, that’s true. Well, we didn’t know anything about them recording. What had happened was that we got so good at being able to make the music work—to make it happen—because we kind of knew what each one was going to do based off of what each one was going to play. It just became too comfortable and, to us, it was like stagnation. We had grown to the point where we could do that. Now, what’s next? We needed to push the envelope in some kind of way. It was the idea that came from Tony, but as soon as he said it, I totally agreed with him. We needed to break the rules and play against everything we had done before. The idea was: whatever somebody expects you to do at a certain musical idea, do the opposite.  

THC: Did you tell Miles? 

HH: No! *laughs* 

THC: But he caught on. 

HH: He never said one word. He never said one word. But one thing we knew was that Miles always told us to always be working on something, and this was working on something. But the worst thing was, we walk into the Plugged Nickel and we see a bunch of tape recorders! We didn’t know we were going to be recorded and we were like, “Oh…we decided to do anti-music on the day we’re going to record, so maybe we shouldn’t do this…maybe after the record.” 

But we kind of made that vow—almost in blood!—so we gritted our teeth and we said, “We’re going to do it now,” because otherwise it was like now or never. I think inside we were thinking, “Okay, the idea came, so we better do this idea while it’s hot instead of being swayed,” so we did.

And after the first night they said, “You want to hear some of the tapes back?” Well, none of us wanted to hear anything back because we thought it was awful. We knew that this was like growing pains or something, and we didn’t expect it to sound like anything, you know. 
THC: Did you ever end up listening to it? 

HH: It was I guess months later; they didn’t put the record out for a while. I read that they had put one out—this was before they did the whole collection—and I didn’t want to hear it. Somebody called me up and said, “Have you heard the stuff you guys did at the Plugged Nickel?” and I said, “No, and I don’t want to, either!” So whoever called me—I don’t remember—they said, “I think you should listen to it.” And I said, “Why? You know, that stuff is really bad.” And he said, “No, I think you should listen to it.” And then I listened to this record...and it sounded really raw, and there was a certain honesty in the rawness that I was happy about, and everything wasn’t perfect and all—the i’s weren’t dotted and the t’s weren’t crossed - but... 

THC: But the spirit was there. 

HH: Yeah. And Wayne was killing! And Miles, too, and Tony, and…I mean, there were things in there—not moment to moment, but just in general. It’s not my finest piano playing, but it’s all searching, you know, and it had a value that I never expected.

So there you have it. The results were more than remarkable, wouldn't you agree? In any case, here's the solo, plus most of Ron's walking bass line (my first attempt at transcribing bass lines):

Saxophone only (Bb)


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