As a piece of music enters the canon of classic work within a given genre, the time and place in which the artist created it gains importance along with the actual music. Listeners assign special qualities to the set of circumstances that allowed creation of this rare music. Ultimately, this music transcends the time and place where it was born. However, there may be nothing truly exceptional about the circumstances surrounding its birth. They might simply be chance, timing, and things generally out of the hands of its creator. Or, they may be the results of a person with a vision so singular, so clear, and so pure that destiny guaranteed greatness. History favors the latter because it’s a better narrative - one that feeds into the Great Man (or Woman) theory that usually unravels with the realization of the contributions of collective effort. Nevertheless, it remains appealing to try and decode the classic work, to somehow uncover its mystical nature. We look for historical clues beyond what the music contains and there’s only so much information to find. The music itself is the primary source, but forever bound in that time and place. When an addendum to that primary source emerges years after the fact in the form of other music created in the same time and place, it is indeed an event. It comes with the promise of bringing us all a little closer to genius, to understanding a little more about the power of classic art, and explaining that mystical nature.
A highly anticipated release featuring two giants of jazz, Broadcast Sessions 1958-59 documents Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet as his focus shifted away from bebop and into modal jazz. These recordings document an era where Miles Davis created a slew of classic albums important not only to jazz, but to all popular music. His guidance to John Coltrane in this period enhanced Coltrane’s own desire for exploration and experimentation manifested in subsequent years. Modal jazz was simply one of many examples of Davis challenging himself and his audience through his art. Davis explains the concept of modal music in his fascinatingly confessional 1989 autobiography written with Quincy Troupe as “a scale off each note, you know, a minor note…What I had learned about the modal form is that when you play this way, go in this direction, you can go on forever.” Davis was yet another reminder that the best artists continue to evolve and change direction. The music he created in this period was one of many left turns that stand as testament to his genius.
Yes, the music created on this record comes largely from the singular vision of the Great Man, but the magic is not his alone. The collection of personnel that contributed to the performances on Broadcast Sessions 1958-1959 represents a true all-star collection of top players: Davis on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans or Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones or Jimmy Cobb on drums, and a host of other musicians. The personnel may shift between tracks, but the music remains consistently strong and affably loose. Solo after solo burn with the intensity of performers not firmly within the cannon of great players but destined to arrive there in the future. Outside the regimented atmosphere of the recording studio, Davis and his supporting cast sound genuinely relaxed but still devastatingly on point.
The quintet/sextet/octet recorded these tracks at four different venues in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Newark for radio and TV broadcasts in 1958-59. History and a strong sense of place are inextricable on this release and add to its appeal. The late 1950s was an exciting, progressive time for jazz, especially on the East Coast. Davis recorded the modal jazz exploration Milestones in February and March of 1958 and later mastered the style on the immortal Kind of Blue in 1959. Broadcast Sessions 1958-1959 features Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”, “Sid’s Ahead” (erroneously listed here as “Sids Ahead”), and an incomplete version of “Two Bass Hit” – all tracks recorded for Milestones. Being able to listen to an album created in the same time period, in the same locations, and in the same general frame of mind as these classic albums makes this release something truly unique.
The announcer’s introduction on Milt Jackson’s “Bag’s Groove” conjures enough romance in itself: “From the jazz corner of the world, uninterrupted, from Birdland on Broadway at 52nd Street Bandstand USA presents Miles Davis”. Then, the band kicks in and you can almost see the neon lights reflect off the night blacktop outside Birdland. It’s one of several moments between and (unfortunately) during tracks where an announcer snaps the listener back to the late 50s and adds to the time-capsule feel of this release. These interruptions mar the album at times but paradoxically contribute to its enjoyment in others.
The work of so many extraordinary players on this release reminds us that many of them still had their best work to come. Sometimes the places documented here would emerge again to play a key role in the creation of more great music. For example, Coltrane would return to Birdland in 1963 to record Live at Birdland and his playing on Broadcast Sessions 1958-1959 shows flashes of his signature “sheets of sound” perfected in subsequent years. Adderley’s playing is in top form as well. As Davis in his autobiography notes, “Trane and Cannon were really playing their asses off and by then were really used to each other”. The very same could be said for everyone involved in the recordings documented here – the synergy between the players borders on telepathy.
Although the liner notes provide solid background, their execution is a bit slapdash. The printing and punctuation errors should have corrected by the staff at Acrobat, especially given the release’s historical importance. However, the music more than makes up for the sloppiness of the liner notes.
Overall, Broadcast Sessions 1958-1959 provides another glimpse into the conditions surrounding the creation of classic music. It’s a focused mind in the midst of creating innovative music destined to transcend time and place. From another perspective, it’s the collective effort of talented people reacting to the specificity of their environment. Still, there’s something infinitely mystical about it all, something that no amount of additional historical information can tell us. Therein lies its appeal and its enduring power.