Walter Bishop Jr, Art Blakey, Paul Chambers, Kenny Clarke, John Coltrane, Tommy Flanagan, Red Garland, Roy Haynes, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson, Philly Joe Jones, Lee Konitz, Jackie McLean, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver. Those are just some of the names that appear on Concord Music Group’s The Definitive Miles Davis On Prestige, a collection of 24 songs that chronicle the jazz legend’s time with the label during the early 1950s.
And honestly, after that list of players, do you really need to hear anymore?
The only true problem with the release is that “definitive” and “Miles Davis” don’t ever seem to work well together. Jazz fans everywhere will debate the credibility of this collection’s track listing. What should have been included here? What didn’t belong there? The entire notion that anything definitive could be attached to one of the most influential musicians in the history of American music is truly a bit absurd. So the gripes are warranted. Considering this is a release aimed at chronicling a time when Davis was at his most expansive or fearless, narrowing the list down to a mere 24 isn’t just impossible. It’s also not fair.
But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a great (if not excellent) attempt at trying to gather the best of what the trumpeter did while signed to Prestige. The band, in whichever combination it appears, is stellar. The time period, one which saw Davis do what he could to rebound from an alleged heroin addiction, is renowned. And the genre, one that features hard bop in its finest moments, is simply timeless. Argue the track listing all you want. Nobody can dispute the guy is a genius.
The set kicks off with Davis’ debut recording for the label, 1951’s “Morpheus”. The back and forth between the horns and drummer Roy Haynes is an excellent way to set the tone for the entire collection. Clocking in at just under two-and-a-half minutes, it’s one of the shortest yet most climactic pieces showcased. It’s got style. It’s got speed. And most of all, it’s got that famous “cool” factor that only Miles himself could have related through a musical recording.
From there, things only get better as the first disc’s “Four” and “I’ll Remember April” are two classic pieces of forward-thinking jazz composition. The former, one of the outnumbered Davis originals that appear on The Definitive, swings effortlessly like a springtime breeze that you feel only slightly as Percy Heath’s bass provides a triumphant groove-heavy performance that bops with the best of them and Art Blakey’s busy, subtle drums become more interesting with each listen. The latter, on the other hand, is an experiment that succeeds with an enormous amount of ease. Sure, the tempo is quick, and the piano jitters staccato notes lightly, but the piece would be nothing without the stamp Davis’ aggressive playing provides.
Then, as if saying the first 12 tracks aren’t “definitive” enough, the collection’s second disc actually upstages its predecessor by showcasing the Miles Davis Quintet, a group that featured Philly Joe Jones on drums and — wait for it — John Coltrane on tenor sax, among others. It was a group that went down in the annals of jazz music as one of the greats, and it was a group that utterly hijacks the collection by overshadowing almost everything else offered.
Here, we are not only reminded of Davis’ incredible horn playing, but we are also reminded of how great a band leader he was. Case in point: “Salt Peanuts” is a glorified drum solo that sees Jones excel at a level that is nearly unparalleled. The triplets and rolls he is able to get away with, all while maintaining a palpable groove through his shining moments, is a testament to how great a drummer Jones is, but also how great a leader Miles, himself, is.
“The Theme” ties everything together nicely at the disc’s end, and considering how the quintet liked to use the song to close its own sets with, the track’s usage is both fitting and welcome. But you can’t get there without going through 1956’s “Oleo”, maybe the most important track on a collection that showcases this time in Davis’ life. Sure, the playing is tremendous, and the songcraft is nothing short of amazing, but when placed next to the other compositions offered on The Definitive, it stands out for the absolute brilliance Miles was able to convey through this piece of music. Coltrane’s tenor, Red Garland’s piano, Paul Chambers’ bass, Jones’ drums, and Davis’ trumpet all combine for what is the most exciting, expansive track featured. And if you don’t believe this, put the disc on, fast-forward to right around the six-minute mark, and breathlessly listen to how piano and trumpet interact. If you aren’t amazed, you aren’t listening.
And that’s really the overall sentiment toward The Definitive Miles Davis On Prestige, as a whole, anyway. The compositions offered here showcase a man evolving, a man growing, and a man determined to make music the way he saw it. Superlatives and adjectives simply don’t do Miles Davis’ work justice. To think he wasn’t even 30 years old by the time these songs were recorded is yet another reason to be in awe of his greatness. That is, if a collection such as this wasn’t already reason enough.