[28 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
One of the great draws of jazz music is how its greatest players all tended to collaborate with each other, and the combination of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins on Dig is no exception. These sessions, recorded in 1951 for the Prestige label, feel like a playful and inventive introduction between Davis and Rollins. We can hear them getting to know each other, falling in rhythm with one another. Of course, on top of that, we also get to see two young men just beginning to realize their powers.
Davis was just starting to pull away from his work with Charlie Parker and to make his own way. By 1951, he had already recorded the material that would become Birth of the Cool (which didn’t see release until 1956), and he was just a few years away from a string of unforgettable Prestige releases with his first quintet. Rollins too was quietly making a name for himself. He was just a few years away from creating a classic run of hiw own albums for Prestige, including 1956’s Saxophone Collosus. The impending freedom for both players to create, and the recognition that came along with it, informs at least part of these recordings. These tracks stretch out and jam in a way that was innovative for the time. Gone were the tight, bebop tunes of Parker, replaced with extended takes on some jazz standards that got bigger without losing the tense energy of Parker’s sound.
The title track itself was a heavily played jazz number, but here it feels fresh and expansive. Rollins and Davis trade solos back and forth, growing in intensity as they do, until the two rise as high as they can go and converge for the explosive last minute of the track. It’s a version based in a seemingly uncontrolled inertia. The playing just takes them over and they charge forward with a youthful exuberance. “Denial” too shows them as musicians on fire. Davis in particular blasts the song open with his quick-fire solos, and Rollins drifts in on his wake and keeps the sound churning.
Dig, though, is also an album haunted. 1951 found Davis—along with Rollins and drummer Art Blakey—dealing with drug addiction. He had been loved in Paris in the late ‘40s, and the perceived ambivalence that met him when he returned to New York sent him reeling. Davis turned to heroin, and would spend the first half of the ‘50s trying to shake the habit. These sessions have a sound about them that seems to reflect, intentionally or not, that emptiness Davis felt. There’s a cavernous feel to these recording. You can sense a huge space between the different instruments, and you can almost feel the size of the studio itself. The recording itself also does this hefty atmosphere no favors. Though remastered here to sound better than they ever have, these recordings still often sound murky and uneven. Rollins and Davis are high in the mix, but the other players—in particular Art Blakey’s shuffling, propulsive drumming—get shorted. The percussion here sounds far-off, sometimes flickering and watery, and the intricacies of Blakey’s playing get lost among the unclear ringing of the cymbals.
There are also spots here where it feels more like the players are exercising, rather than recording definitive versions. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” has some crafty playing, especially when Davis drops in a strikingly moody vamp in the middle, but overall the song lays back, like the group is stretching their muscles, getting ready to really play.
Of course, its these peccadilloes—in the recording, in the player’s troubles, in the way they build musical relationships here—that make Dig compelling. It may not be top-tier, essential Davis listening the way the First Quintet Prestige records are, but this is another curious piece in the puzzle of Davis, and to a lesser extent Rollins. It debunks the myth of drugs as muse, since Davis sounds so much more alive and creative in his late ‘50s stuff, but it also shows a young musician just before he hit his stride. In some ways, Dig is a picture of what Davis learned from Parker, and a small taste of what Rollins was about to hit us with, but it’s also a defiant half-step forward towards the music that would make these guys jazz icons.