[6 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Though Miles Davis recorded some excellent work for Prestige, it isn’t until he joined Columbia Records that his most memorable, classic stuff began coming out. In fact, his best Prestige work came out after he signed with Columbia in 1955, as he worked with a newly assembled quintet – with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and “Philly” Joe Jones – to crank out four albums to satisfy the rest of his contract with Prestige. Columbia’s George Avakian signed Davis at an interesting time. Before he signed him, Davis didn’t have a working band going, mostly because he was considered difficult to work with. He was a man on the outside until a legendary performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, which lead Avakian to bring him into his label’s fold.
The Original Mono Recordings collects nine classic records from this fruitful time in Davis’s career. Amazingly, this huge glut of music only spans about five years, but, despite the short time period, Davis was not interested in finding a formula and riding it out. Placed back to back in this collection, these records reveal a man coming fully into his powers as a band leader, a composer, and a trumpet player while still remaining restless. Davis pushed the envelope of what was popular in some places, swam against the tide in others, and displays remarkable range on these albums. It’s no wonder they’re all, on their own, essential listening.
The first album here, ‘Round About Midnight, is a collection of popular songs and standards, but it’s hardly by the numbers. This is the last recording of the full quintet he brought over from the last Prestige records, and they smolder through “‘Round Midnight”, Davis’s tense, pensive playing leading into the beautifully wandering song. Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha” is every bit as fiery and frustrated as any version you’ll find, and Davis trades fierce vamps with Coltrane while Jones stomps along on the drums and Garland’s piano fills in the space between Chambers’s brilliant bass rundowns. The album moves through tempos and focuses, using the blue-light slow pace of “Bye Bye Blackbird” to feature each player, while other songs like closer “Dear Old Stockholm” drive home the power of the band as a cohesive unit.
It’s a perfect survey of the bebop sound, but it pushes at the edge of that sound, and it’s a record that could have spawned a string of similar records. But instead Avakian reunited Davis with Gil Evans to record Miles Ahead. The big-band record kept Chambers at bass and added Art Taylor on drums. The idea was to feature Davis as the lone soloist and have him up in front of a big band. Big-band jazz was hardly all the rage, so it was a risky move, especially since Evans’s last work with Davis, the recordings that would become Birth of the Cool, wasn’t a huge hit. And yet this works. It’s an album generally considered preamble to bigger, better collaborations between Evans and Davis, albums like Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain (both included here), but Miles Ahead does have its own moments of greatness. The call and response between band and Davis on “Springsville” is outstanding, the darker spaces of “My Ship” show the softer sides of both Davis’s playing and the band’s muscle. “Blues for Pablo” shows the dynamic, ever-shifting skills of Chambers and Taylor, anchoring everyone here – even Davis – to brilliant effect. Even if sometimes the balance is off here, and Davis fades into the size of the band, Miles Ahead is still remarkable in its own right.
The next album, 1958’s Milestones, brought the old quintet together, but they grew to a sextet with the inclusion of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax. It returned to the smaller band sound of ‘Round About Midnight, but this stuff cooks at a higher temp. The band rips through Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jekyll” with a charged gusto. The best moment on the record comes from a Davis original, the expansive 13-minute “Sid’s Ahead”, which starts with slow-burn blues, the band in tight lock-step with one another, before the solos come. Davis finds all kinds of new space with his horn, and Adderley and Coltrane follow suit with restrained yet unpredictable solos.
Milestones was out just a year before Kind of Blue, Davis’s most well-known album and the best-selling jazz record of all time, but there was plenty of deviation between the two albums. One of two rare releases coming back into print as part of The Original Mono Recordings is Jazz Tracks, a set that compiles Davis’s soundtrack for Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator To the Gallows), and a few tracks from a session recorded just before Kind of Blue. Davis travelled to Paris to record the soundtrack with a group of French musicians, and Davis led the band through an improvised recording made while they watched the film. It’s a remarkable spacious and haunting sound, something that sounds far bigger than its 25-minute runtime. It’s both quieter and more tense than the other recordings included on Jazz Tracks
Davis's work for Elevator to the Gallows is also an interesting contrast to Porgy and Bess, his and Gil Evans’s beautiful reimagining of the Gershwin’s classic ragtime musical. Along with Sketches of Spain, these two epic big-band records might benefit the most from the mono remastering on these discs. Despite the enormity of sound on each album, there’s an intimacy in the way they play on these discs, something that puts them in line with the smaller bands rather than setting them apart. In these warm recordings, these big bands thrive rather than trudge along. They pulse with Davis’s own dynamic energy, and more perhaps than on Miles Ahead, he and these bands seem in sync.
This box set is rounded out by the classic Kind of Blue, which saw Jimmy Cobb take over for Jones on drums and Bill Evans (or Wynton Kelly on “Freddie Freeloader”) on piano, and the excellent 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come. This album saw Davis’s final recording with Coltrane (on the title track) and some excellent work from Hank Mobley throughout the record. Also included here is the hard-to-find Miles and Monk at Newport, which acts as a sort of bookend for this entire collection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the two legends playing together, but it does gather a brilliant performance from Davis’s quintet in 1958 and two cuts from Monk playing in 1963. The two set seem to connect, as Davis would spend the early-‘60s moving closer to modal forms, something Monk traded in well. It also shows that Davis and his bands were hardly things that needed to be shined up in the studio. These live cuts are every bit as crisp, and perhaps even more vibrant, than some takes from those late-‘50s records.
All together, The Orginal Mono Recordings is – like it was for Bob Dylan, who got the same treatment – a celebration of an artist at a crucial and fruitful time in his career. These versions are the best sounding versions to come out on disc yet, and the mono approach makes for an intimate trip through a huge expanse of music. As much as Davis keeps us guessing here, the perfect sound quality and perfect music draws us in far more than it keeps us out. If Davis was difficult to work with before this, he found some way to play well with others, and the listener is bound to get drawn into that magnetism as well. These are well-known albums, classics even, so another reissue may seem unnecessary. But the true success here comes in how this quality sound, and quality packaging, along with the hard-to-find stuff, makes these classic records sound fresh.