Top 10 Performances of American Standards from Miles Davis Records

by Jacob Adams

1 August 2012


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5. “All of You”
(‘Round About Midnight)

The Cole Porter standard gets the easy-going, up-tempo treatment here. ‘Round About Midnight was Miles’ debut on Columbia Records. This ensemble (Miles with Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums) had played together for some time before recording this album. During their time on the Prestige label, they mastered the art of covering the pop standard with competence and originality. “All of You” represents the culmination of this epoch of Davis’ career. The rhythm section is so tight on this track that it sounds like a well-oiled machine, yet is still flexible to the needs of the soloists. Davis’ and Trane’s solos seem so effortless that their notes practically float off the record.

4. “I Could Write a Book”
(Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet)

Red Garland starts this Rodgers and Hart tune with a furry. He improvises an angular, bebop-inspired line that establishes the track’s high-energy, virtuosic vibe. Philly Joe Jones’ drumming is really something to behold on this song, as he provides the perfect punctuated snare-drum counterpoint to Coltrane’s sax solo and Garland’s piano solo. Garland in particular shows his chops here, substituting his usual blues inflections for brazen bebop. The tune ends memorably, with Davis improvising tasty melodies over a vamp of the same four chords repeated, before one final “sting” by the whole ensemble.

3. “Some Day My Prince Will Come”
(Some Day My Prince Will Come)

Davis manages to transcend this tune’s origins from the 1937 Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The title track from Miles’ 1961 studio record begins with a Paul Chambers pedal point on bass and a light improvisation by Wynton Kelly on piano. Despite the track’s breezy, jazz-waltz groove, it features some very adventurous playing by both Davis and Coltrane. Davis sticks with his tried-and-true minimalist approach to soloing, though the melodies he constructs are more complex and less reliant upon the original tune than many of his earlier recordings. Tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley plays a fairly traditional bebop-style solo before Kelly demonstrates his rhythmically aggressive improvisation style. Miles plays the original melody once again, as if to remind the listener what song it is. Coltrane starts his solo with basic, insanely catchy melodies, only to deconstruct the entire basis of the tune with his “sheets-of-sound” approach.

2. “If I Were a Bell”
(Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet)

If we’re giving out awards for the most fun standard performance in the Miles Davis catalog, it could easily go to this rendition of Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell” from Relaxin’, arguably the best of Davis’ Prestige recordings. The bell-chime introduction by Red Garland on piano leads to a fast-tempo, particularly swinging version of the melody by Miles. Davis plays a sparse, carefully constructed solo while still using a Harmon mute. The audio engineers forget to turn Trane’s mic up at first as his solo starts. That’s okay, since the rhythm section shifts into high gear as soon as the tenor saxophonist comes in. Trane brilliantly alternates between plain-played, unambiguous melodies and melodic runs that sometimes float in and out of the keys played by the rhythm section. Pretty progressive for 1956. Oh, and there’s also Garland’s bone-chilling use of a block-chord version of the melody near the end of his own solo.

1. “My Funny Valentine”
(Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet)

This is perhaps the cover tune with which Miles Davis is most frequently associated. There’s a reason for that. The Richard Rodgers song from Babes in Arms is gorgeous enough on its own, as its myriad of cover versions attest. In the hands of Davis and company, though, it becomes subtle, sublime poetry. From the opening piano-flurry introduction of Garland to Miles’ understated performance of the melody, to Paul Chambers’ purposeful melodic meandering under the tune, to Garland’s double-time solo, it’s simply one of the most memorable tracks in the history of jazz. Could the tune have been made even stronger by the inclusion of John Coltrane, who played on the rest of Cookin’, but apparently laid out on this one? Hard to say… although, it’s hard to picture it any better.


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