seven steps

On 16th April 1963, a group of musicians led by Miles Davis gathered at Columbia Studios in Los Angeles.

It was a period of transition for Davis, who was trying out a new line up.

On piano was a 29 year-old British multi-instrumentalist named Victor Feldman, who Davis later recalled in his autobiography ‘could play his ass off.’

During the sessions that followed, the quintet led by Miles Davis recorded a Feldman tune that half a century later is a jazz standard – ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’

Another tune ‘Joshua,’ named after his recently-born son, was also recorded and so great was Feldman’s contribution that Davis immediately offered him the piano stool in his band.

But in one of those ‘what if’ moments in music and life, Victor said ‘no,’ preferring to stay home with his young family and develop the more lucrative session work available to a musician of his many skills.

A few weeks later, Davis assembled yet another line-up to record in New York, this time featuring more new names – a teenage Tony Williams on drums and a replacement piano player called Herbie Hancock.

The rest, as they say, is jazz history.

What would have happened if Feldman had said ‘yes,’ we’ll never know.

But what we do know is that as well as a distinguished career in jazz, he then went on to establish himself as a ‘first-call’ session player – on piano, vibes and percussion – for the era’s great rock and pop artists.

In my blog today, marking 25 years to the day since Victor Feldman died aged just 53, I thought I would riff on the ‘Seven Steps’ theme.

Here are 7 recordings that show off Victor’s many talents as multi-instrumentalist and songwriter.

Step 1

Born in London on 7th April 1934, Feldman’s life as a child prodigy on drums and later on vibes is worth a separate blog. But he’s certainly up there with British jazz legends like George Shearing, Tubby Hayes, John Dankworth and of course Ronnie Scott.

It was Scott who in 1955 encouraged a young Victor to leave Britain where he was a superstar and try his luck in the home of jazz – America.

This 1965 tv recording perfectly illustrates their musical and personal rapport.

Victor Feldman and Ronnie Scott – Summer Love


Step 2

Feldman’s 1958 US album, the aptly titled ‘The Arrival of Victor Feldman’ (Contemporary S7549), featured Stan Levey on drums and Scott La Faro on bass.

What he does on vibes with Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Bebop’ has to be heard to be believed.

Victor Feldman – Bebop


Step 3

Feldman’s role in American jazz is explored in Ted Gioia’s superb book ‘West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California¬† 1945-1960’ where he states: ‘Feldman never gained the jazz reputation he deserved.’

One of the jazz gigs that raised his profile was with Cannonball Adderley in 1960/61, best exemplified for me in the live club recording¬† ‘At The Lighthouse’ (Capitol Jazz).

‘Azule Serape’ with Victor on piano is a Feldman tune that Adderley played for many years.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet – Azule Serape


Step 4

There are hundreds of examples of Victor’s session work recorded from the mid-60s to the mid 80s to choose from. But here are three of my favourites.

His vibes work on ‘Razor Boy’ from Steely Dan’s ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ (MCA) shimmers.

Steely Dan – Razor Boy


Step 5

As a percussionist, his contribution to the sound world of Tom Waits 1983 record ‘Swordfishtrombones’ (Island)¬† is evident in pretty much every track.

On this tune, Victor is credited with Hammond B-3 organ, drums and bells.

Tom Waits – In The Neighborhood


Step 6

And perhaps the FM radio hit that most people know featuring Victor’s work – ‘Sailing’ by Christopher Cross.

Once you’re listening for his percussion flourishes, you hear the song in a new light.

Christopher Cross – Sailing


Step 7

Finally, Miles Davis’s 1963 album ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’ (Columbia) is a fascinating document – Victor’s playing on the ballads ‘Basin Street Blues,’ ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’ and ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’ is exquisite.

Feldman’s ‘Joshua’ is another standard. This 1964 ‘live’ recording shows it off wonderfully.

Miles Davis Quintet – Joshua


I’m delighted that Josh Feldman – he of ‘Joshua’ fame – has created a website to celebrate his late father’s life and music.

So head off there to learn more about a remarkable musician and performer, who Britain and America and the world of music should celebrate on this day in particular.

Victor Feldman RIP.

Victor Feldman – official website

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