[16 April 2001]
Last year, Sony Music, which had gobbled up Columbia Records and its huge jazz catalog over a decade earlier, finally got around to releasing what should have been one of its first major repackaging projects—a six-CD collection entitled Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961. Featuring four landmark albums in their entirety—Round About Midnight, Milestones, Kind of Blue, and Someday My Prince Will Come—along with a raft of live recordings, unreleased tracks and alternate takes, all digitally remastered and sounding more glorious than any jazz fanatic dared dream, The Complete Columbia Recordings was immediately hailed as the New Testament for anyone wanting to worship in the Church of Miles and ‘Trane.
Fortunately, for those of us with smaller budgets and/or less appetite for jazz apocrypha (and really, how many of us really need to hear the fifth take of “Ah-Leu-Cha”?), this year Sony has reissued most of the material from The Complete Columbia Recordings on separate CDs. It would be pointless to argue the relative merits of each, since they’re all fabulous, but Milestones deserves special notice as a kind of warm-up to Kind of Blue, Davis’ undisputed masterpiece and arguably the greatest jazz album of all time. It’s Miles’ Revolver to his Sgt. Pepper, a brilliant rough draft to a perfectly realized work of art, and it’s fascinating to listen to, both in the context of that later great album, and in terms of its own greatness.
Milestones was Davis’ first album to employ a sextet. Besides Davis himself, the featured players were Red Garland on piano (replaced on Kind of Blue by the incomparable Bill Evans), Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums (who also left the sextet before Kind of Blue, replaced by Jimmy Cobb), and most importantly, the dual saxophonists Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and John Coltrane. It was this latter pairing that was Davis’ most inspired personnel choice, and clearly the bandleader had a pretty good idea of its potential. For the album’s opening track, Jackie McLean’s zippy bebop standard “Dr. Jackle”, Davis has the two young saxmen trading licks like heavyweight boxers, Adderley’s energetic alto playfully dancing around Coltrane’s muscular tenor assaults. Both men had recorded with Davis in various incarnations of his quintet, but here, working together for the first time (and, not incidentally, drug-free), their contrasting styles seem to feed off each other and push each musician to greater heights.
Besides the Coltrane-Adderley pairing, Davis’ other real masterstroke on Milestones is the title track, a sprightly quasi-bop number that is one of only two original Davis compositions on the entire disc (compared with Kind of Blue, which was entirely Davis’). “Milestones” was Davis’ first real attempt to write in the “modal” style, basically abandoning conventional jazz and blues chord progressions in favor of songs built around a series of tones or scales that give the soloist greater freedom to improvise. “Milestones” only hints at the incredible depths this style of songwriting would open for Davis and his sidemen on later recordings, but it’s still by far the album’s most memorable track, bringing out each soloist’s personality—the cheerfully melodic Adderley, the thoughtful, measured Davis, and the fiesty, garrulous ‘Trane—more distinctly than any other song in the set.
Elsewhere, most of Milestones’ pleasures come not from what it foreshadows of Kind of Blue, but what it has to offer that the later album does not. For one thing, Milestones swings harder than any of Davis’ later modal work, offering uptempo numbers from beginning to end, including a smoking version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Two Bass Hit” and an extended reworking of “Straight No Chaser” that locks into a much tighter rhythm than the casual shuffle of Thelonius Monk’s original. Much of the credit for Milestones’ rhythmic energy probably goes to the two musicians featured here who did not appear later on Kind of Blue, pianist Red Garland and drummer Philly Joe Jones. While neither was as talented as the men who replaced them, Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb, both were forceful, distinctive players, well-versed in bop and swing, and this set showcases their strengths well. Listen especially to their work on the irrepressibly jaunty “Billy Boy”, which also features a bowed bass solo from Paul Chambers that must have left a grin on every face in the recording studio.
It’s also fascinating to listen here to the development of John Coltrane, who is already the flashiest and most technically proficient of the players on this album, but who is still struggling to find his voice, especially on a fairly traditional swing number like “Two Bass Hit” and the straightforward blues of Davis’ other original composition, “Sid’s Ahead”. At times it’s hard to tell him apart from the more conventional Adderley. But in places, especially on “Straight No Chaser”, he suddenly cuts loose with one of his trademark “sheets of sound,” and you catch a glimpse of the great innovator who would blow the jazz world out of the water in the years to come.
For jazz geeks and people who measure an album’s value in running time, there are alternate takes of three numbers, “Two Bass Hit”, “Milestones”, and “Straight No Chaser”. Casual listeners won’t hear much difference, although it is interesting to note that on the alternate version of “Milestones”. Davis plays the chorus cleanly just before the fadeout, whereas on the standard take, which features stronger solos from Coltrane and Adderley, he clearly flubs a note. Apparently this was pretty typical of Davis the bandleader; despite his reputation as something of an egomaniac, he would often preserve the better performances of his bandmates at the expense of his own. No wonder everyone on Milestones delivers such a great performance, and no wonder Miles Davis, in addition to redefining jazz trumpet and creating some of the most memorable albums in history, also helped to develop some of the most talented musicians jazz has ever seen.
Milestones may not be Davis’ most definitive work—there’s not one wistful ballad or muted solo in the whole set, for one thing—but it still ranks as one of his best, and this gorgeously repackaged and remastered version is a must for any serious jazz collector.