1958 was a pivotal year for Miles Davis. Already a firmly entrenched leader in the burgeoning jazz scene of the late ‘50s, by 1958 Davis began to push his music even further. For one thing, he began experimenting with his new brand of modal jazz. Instead of soloing in the straight, conventional, melodic way, improvisation in Davis’s new music danced over the sparse chord changes in a wild flurry of modes and scales, rapidly changing and morphing, beginning and ending, pulsating in the listeners ear with an intense excitement and unpredictability. The other major event of 1958 was the formation of one of Miles’s most famous and talented bands, the Miles Davis Sextet, featuring Miles on trumpet, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and the amazing saxophone duo of John Coltrane on alto and Cannonball Adderley on tenor. It is this band that is featured on Jazz at the Plaza, recorded 9 September 1958, and the very same band that would record the epic Miles Davis classic, Kind of Blue, just six months later.
The four song set captured on this album, originally issued in 1973, however, is vastly different from Kind of Blue. Kind of Blue is cool, laid back, sexy, smooth. There is a lazy drag to the music that indicates no one on the record is in a rush. Sounds seem to fall effortlessly into place. The same sextet on Jazz at the Plaza is blistering and moving, tearing through jazz standards at break neck speed, saxophones viciously circling around the constant assault of Cobb’s incessantly quick drums, Davis’s trumpet stabbing and moving, elusive and violent. The music’s intensity and quick rhythms recall Davis’s earlier bop sounds, found on such albums as 1949’s The Birth of the Cool, more than the subdued intimations that made this group jazz icons. Jazz at the Plaza stands as an interesting and puzzling period piece, documenting the sextet exploring a sound that would soon morph into the rich tapestry of their 1959 masterpiece. The fury of the playing on the album is the inverse of the calm before the storm trope-the band tears through Davis’s new modal technique with blinding virtuosity and skill, only to ease off on the pedal for Kind of Blue, channeling these rabid emotions into a more artful and delicate form.
The album’s two standout tracks are the brisk opener, “If I Were a Bell”, and Davis’s thrilling reinterpretation of his already classic “My Funny Valentine”. The former opens with the cascading descent of Evans’s piano before kicking in with a swinging beat and the entrance Davis’s trumpet. His improvisations are sometimes lyrical, sometimes erratic, starting rhythms and leaving them off, wailing and bending before heading back into the thick of things with a few rapid measures of quick, bobbing notes. Indicative of the structure of the album in general, as Davis leaves off, Coltrane picks up and wails out a tightly woven chaos of melody and rhythm, circling around Cobb’s drums, quickly cascading up and down his sax like mad. Even back in 1958 Coltrane was nurturing the free and open improvisational style that would make him such a pivotal figure in the ‘60s. The primary difference between the sextet’s sound on this record and the one found on Kind of Blue is in the amount of group playing. On Jazz at the Plaza each player takes his turn soloing, backed by the drums, bass, and piano-the horns rarely play together, except to introduce a theme here or there at the beginning of tune. On Kind of Blue the same sextet exists in a rich and complex interrelation, the trumpet and saxophones beautifully orchestrated and free at the same time. That rich fabric is nowhere to be found on this recording.
“My Funny Valentine” takes this trend even further as Coltrane and Adderley sit out to let Miles take the spotlight, supported by only the drums, piano, and bass. The piano slides slowly in as the bass picks up a sexy, lazy line. Davis comes in tired and weary, only hinting at the song’s famous melody. The entire track is a wonderful exploration of all the ways to float around an established arrangement of notes. Miles will be both wonderfully sparse, spitting out single notes at intervals, leaving the listener to fill in the rest, or he will overcompensate, swirling a complex series of notes where there used to be one simple phrase. Moreover, despite its limited instrumentation, the track has the same coolness, the same late night languor of Kind of Blue. In a disc fully of wild improvisation, this is a subtle, elusive gem pointing the way towards Davis’s next fateful step.
Despite this performance’s historical importance and significance, it does have its flaws. Primarily, the sound quality is dodgy and spotty. For much of the album Evans’s piano is drowned beneath the force of the piano and bass, while Coltrane’s sax jumps out of the mix, dominating all the other players. The most notable flaw is on the opening track, “If I Were a Bell”: in the first few measures Davis comes in loud, dominating the mix, then suddenly he disappears for the remainder of the song, sounding as if he were being recorded from a different room. All in all, this is hardly an essential Miles Davis album. Miles has more interesting releases from this same time period that are also of much better sound quality. On the other hand, Jazz at the Plaza is not without merit. It is the snapshot—albeit a blurred one—of a group of musicians on the verge of greatness, beginning to feel each other’s tics and idiosyncrasies, forming the bonds of a sextet that would soon alter the history of jazz forever.