[30 June 2006]
In any debate about “the greatest jazz group of all-time”, The Miles Davis Quintet of 1955-58 will always be a contender. Combining power and delicacy, this group made beauty a cool thing. It made vulnerability revolutionary, and it hid defiance in sophisticated hip.
The recipe: Miles Davis’s trumpet at its piquant best, John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone caught in the midst of dramatic self-discovery, and a rhythm section that was like cool lime and chili pepper—the loud and dramatic Philly Joe Jones on drums, the steady and melodic Paul Chambers on bass, and Red Garland’s down-home piano moving from funky to sophisticated on a dime. It was a group that was more than just skilled—it generated automatic jazz drama on every kind of song.
This box set collects the quintet’s work for Prestige, nearly all of it recorded in two famous marathon sessions of basic repertoire first takes. Miles was desperate to sign with prestigious Columbia Records, so he dragged the group in to fulfill a five-album deal in just two months. What should have been foolish, rushed or flat was, instead, unintentional genius—two long, unself-conscious concerts caught by Rudy Van Gelder in his Jersey studio that forever defined how good a jazz group could be. (In addition, the fourth disc of this boxed set collects several live dates—the most bizarre being the group’s appearance on Steve Allen’s version of The Tonight Show.) Once at Columbia, Miles would stay put for about three decades. But, as super-great as the later material would be, Prestige caught Miles Davis on the fly, dashing toward the future with his man Coltrane and his Cadillac rhythm team, never to look back.
Thankfully, we can. And the effect, even if you’ve heard this music many times before, is pure astonishment.
The first session here was for a 1955 record that has appeared simply as Miles, or The New Miles Davis Quintet. The group was not applauded by fans from the start. Miles had been playing with brilliant and better known pianists (John Lewis, Horace Silver) and much more acclaimed saxophonists such as Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean (not to mention Charlie Parker). Critics and fans found Philly Joe too loud and Coltrane’s tone metallic and off. And it’s true, even in the studio in 1955, Trane is sometimes uneasily struggling with chord changes, not at all in sync with Miles’s vision of hip elegance and light-step soloing. But Miles must have realized what he had here: a saxophone player who would be oil to his water and a drummer with a boxer’s bounce who could erase any cocktail lounge vibe from the band. In less than a year, the quintet would be jazz’s hurricane.
The four albums released later—Relaxin’, Workin’, Steamin’, and Cookin’—changed jazz. First, they firmly established a repertoire that jazz groups would follow for years. These were modern jazz cats, but they freely interpreted a standard set of tunes from pop singers, Broadway, and the like without ever seeming square or commercial. Second, Miles used his Harmon mute to permanently add a new texture to trumpet playing. He’d used it before, surely, but here it is embedded in a group concept as more than a fragile solo voice. Third, this group—in ways that are easy to miss because of Davis’s cleverness—orchestrated music for jazz quintet as if it were a tiny big band. Rarely content to merely play the melody in unison or tight harmony, Davis and Coltrane are mostly used in counterpoint, with the rhythm section playing arranged figures or entering and exiting for orchestral effect. It all seems loose and spontaneous, but a good listen reveals that there is much more Duke Ellington (and, as is widely acknowledged, Ahmad Jamal) in the great quintet than you might suspect. The diametrically opposed attitudes of Miles and Trane—pithy concision versus aching, overspilling need—makes this even more clear. Fourth, the quintet buried the hot/cool dichotomy of jazz. Miles’s group was plainly, eagerly both. Capturing the full range of feeling in every track, the quintet was consistently brilliant.
It’s unnecessary to take you through the bulk of the material track-by-track—jazz fans will know it intimately and others should just get it by any means necessary. Miles’s takes on show tune ditties like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “If I Were a Bell” are forever versions—performances to singular that the song is never the same again. His casual way with standards like “I Could Write a Book” freely interprets the melody and breathes like in what can only be called an Armstrongian way. And his approach to jazz standards like “Airegin” and “Well, You Needn’t” is daring enough to make you think he wrote them.
For fanatics, the box set holds out one disc of surprises: previously unreleased live recordings from The Tonight Show and two clubs. The two introductions by Steve Allen are uncomfortable—he first introduces “Miles McDavis” in some kind of a gag, trying to hip his mainstream audience to modern jazz, every note of which he claims will have “precise musical meaning that can be proved by mathematics.” Then he pretends to instruct Miles in how to arrange a ballad performance. Steve, man—not cool. The tunes themselves are a feisty “Max is Making Wax” and the great arrangement of “It Never Entered My Mind” featuring Red Garland’s lovely piano arpeggiation. The later live dates are better, with the quintet at Philly’s Blue Note with “Four” and “Walkin’” then a reconstituted quintet at the Café Bohemia in 1958 (with Bill Evans for Red and Coltrane back from a stint with Monk) playing “Bye Bye Blackbird”, “Walkin’” and “Two Bass Hit”. By 1958, the quintet’s concept had matured and been codified—but they still did it better than their imitators. “Blackbird” is just about perfect—light yet punchy, elegant but whimsical, swinging but much more than just a bunch of guys running the changes.
Of all the terrific Miles Davis box sets that have come out recently, this one seems about perfect. It has the obligatory detailed booklet with superb notes by Bob Blumenthal and great photos. The box itself is handsome, featuring a Davis painting. There are even solo transcriptions of the new material available to your computer. The material—four discs featuring one group over just a few years of continual development—is both focused and important. The only drawback is that the bulk of the material—the two dates that produced the four classic Prestige albums—has been recently reissued in the original form. The music is familiar, but never overfamiliar. Thankfully, timeless music can be heard over and over again.
The Miles Davis Quintet still knocks me out.
Miles Davis Quintet, 1964 - So What