When Miles Davis stopped the show at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 with an assured reading of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” it announced a triumphant return to health. It can also now be recognised as the overture to what were to be the great years. However interesting we find the early bebop recordings or the creative restlessness that marks the later work, the Miles we really love, if we are honest, is the late 1950s’ version. The tone of the trumpet—laid-back yet angular, the perfect arrangements, a Quintet of consummate skill and the burgeoning talent of John Coltrane—nothing in modern jazz has ever sounded so satisfying, so complete. As much as we complain that there is more to Miles than Kind of Blue and more to jazz than Miles Davis—it is to the music of that era that we return time and time again.
This set allows us to revisit the first studio flowering of the Quintet. Columbia had just signed Davis, largely on the strength of that Newport performance, and this was his first album for the label. After winning the first of several battles against addiction, Davis was in combative comeback mode. His distinctive sound, which had started to show itself from the “Birth Of The Cool” sessions, had been beefed up by his output for Prestige in the previous year and was now fully formed. He was to gather round him some of the best musicians of the day and though the line-up would be modified over the years a nucleus is in place here, both in terms of personnel but more importantly in terms of a shared creative outlook.
That quintet was put together as much by drummer Philly Joe Jones as by the group’s leader and had a definite Philadelphia bias. Jones recruited pianist Red Garland from his hometown and also an unknown tenor, John Coltrane. From Detroit came bassist Paul Chambers, a teenager who occupied that chair with an authority that belied his years. Chambers and Coltrane were to be with Davis for the longest—Garland and Jones departed earlier, hence their lower profile in comparison to some of the Miles alumni. Yet, outstanding as the later combinations were, simply as a jazz group this early incarnation takes some beating.
Red Garland, despite a reputation for introspection, had a sprightliness of tone and brought out a spirit of play in the band that was noticeably absent later on. He also showed a delicate sense of swing and was at his best behind Coltrane, whose edgy style was made more palatable to a suspicious audience by Garland’s clear melodic lines. Jones was a better drummer than his reputation sometimes suggests. If he had his wayward moments they were not on the sessions with Miles. More driving and direct than his successors, it is his work that holds the uptempo tunes together. Chambers was just there as he always was—unselfish and never out of step. A more modest genius never existed.
Inevitably John Coltrane draws our attention now in a way he probably didn’t at the time. It is fascinating to hear this proto-Coltrane—on some numbers obviously the same musician who has most influenced modern tenor styles and on others just another good hard bop sax. His contribution to the overall development of the quintet was only just second to Miles’ own. Here he is still a junior figure. One advantage of this is that we get rather more Miles than is often the case on later dates. The tendency towards minimalism is there but at this stage in his career being leader still meant taking the lion’s share of solos. In that sense there is more to discover in Miles as player on this album than on any other. As he had never been in better form, this set could be the best example of Miles as trumpeter that exists.
For the re-issue, the original album is intact and in an unchanged running order. Four other tunes from the same sessions are added. “‘Round Midnight” opens proceedings and is worth the cover price alone. Perhaps the most beautiful of modern standards it is one of Davis’ finest outings—a masterpiece of understated eloquence. Some very Big Band-style breaks which introduce the rest of the band may startle at first but generally the piece works as well now as it ever did. You have to force yourself to move on and not simply keep re-winding. The bebop years are then reprised by means of Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha”, already sounding a little quaint in the context of the new sound. Good to hear Coltrane as bopper but only Garland sounds absolutely at home on this number. Two “pop” standards follow—“All of You” and “Bye Bye Blackbird”. Davis was always good at picking tunes from any genre that suited his tone and “Blackbird” was an inspired, if idiosyncratic, choice. His opening refrain is economic and beautiful in its simplicity. He silenced sneerers then and, in the unlikely event of there still being any, will do so again. Coltrane emerges with most credit on “All of You” where his long extended lines are as fulsome as Miles own approach is sparing. More bebop follows in “Tadd’s Delight” which is just that—a delight. The old closing number is the Getz inspired “Dear Old Stockholm”. Much loved by Davis fans, this showed the direction the band was moving in. More modal, haunting and very late night, late fifties—a deserved favourite and a gem in any context.
The pick of the bonus tracks is possibly Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae” with its hard bop flavour. It swings hard and gives a sneak preview of the Coltrane as he would soon sound on dates such as Blue Trane. Maybe it’s just that I like McLean as there are no duds in sight. The further the distance from bebop the more Miles became Miles but the closeness to that springboard that is strongly evident on this disc lends excitement and variety—as well as historical context. Fans will know this material well as it is available in many disguises but there is a rightness about this package which allows us the format of the initial release with some added extras. New pleasures emerge with each play—for me Red Garland was the rediscovery this time around—and as a timid step beyond the familiarity of Kind of Blue newcomers will find it all very welcoming. And yes, he still looks cool and moody on the famous cover photo.
// Notes from the Road
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