Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Best of the Complete Columbia Recordings

Miles Davis & John Coltrane
The Best of the Complete Columbia Recordings

In hindsight, it’s easy to assume the albums Miles Davis made with John Coltrane and the rest of his fabled first quintet between 1955 and 1961 were seen as something special right out of the gate, that the sessions were treated with a reverence that foreshadowed their tremendous impact.

Then you look at the pay sheet for one of the sessions, the one that yielded half of his best-known album, Kind of Blue. Davis was paid $129.36, while Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans were paid $64.67. Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, on bass and drums respectively, were paid $66.67, the extra two dollars for “cartage” of their instruments.

Think you don’t get paid enough for what you do?

Sure, Miles was a burgeoning star and Coltrane was coming into his own, at least in jazz circles, when the two began a five-year partnership that resulted in some of the best jazz ever recorded. But the reputation these albums have today has evolved over time. With each passing year, listeners realize not only how good these records are, but also that they’re likely never to be equaled.

Any fan of jazz probably owns one or two of these albums in one form or another already. From 1957’s ‘Round About Midnight to the classic Kind of Blue to Milestones, these are some of the best sides of jazz ever cut. Davis and Coltrane’s entire output together on Columbia is gathered on the recently released six-disc set Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961. The best moments from the box are condensed on The Best of the Complete Columbia Recordings.

Davis caught the ear of Columbia Records with a scorching performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. It was a comeback in the eyes of many, a show to reaffirm that Miles still had it after some time off to fight heroin addiction. He signed on while still under contract with Prestige Records. According to the plan, Columbia would stockpile albums while his Prestige contract was in force; Prestige, meanwhile, would create a stockpile of its own so it could take advantage of Columbia’s promotional push by releasing new Davis product at the same time.

While Davis’s last recordings for Prestige — Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’ — were no toss-offs, Miles was conscious of the need to pull out all the stops with his first Columbia disc, ‘Round About Midnight. According to Ashley Kahn’s indispensable book about the time, Kind of Blue, Davis spent more time in the studio recording that Columbia debut than on all the Prestige discs combined.

The album is represented by three tracks on the best-of. “Bye Bye Blackbird”, an old pop song, is joined by “Dear Old Stockholm”, a converted Swedish folk song. On both Davis sets things at a slow boil with his smooth, sustained solos, while Coltrane’s controlled but searching saxophone hints at his work to come. The star of the disc, however, is the title track, a tune composed by Thelonious Monk but one that Davis makes his own with a smoldering take.

Next came Milestones, an aptly titled album in the Davis catalog. It was a solid collection that was a worthy precursor to Kind of Blue. It is represented here by “Straight No Chaser”, another Monk tune, the title track, and “Two Bass Hit”. The take of “Straight No Chaser” here is an alternate take from that found on the album, one released for the first time on the recent box set.

The standout tracks on this disc come from Kind of Blue. No surprise, as it’s Davis’s standout work. In reality, any best-of collection from this era ought to include the whole album, but this disc limits it to two: “So What” and “Blue in Green”. What more can be said about this work? It is among the best jazz has to offer. Ken Burns could have devoted an entire episode of Jazz to the modal masterpiece “So What” and the impact it has had on the genre in the 40 years since its release.

The best-of is rounded out by a take of “Someday My Prince Will Come”, a tune that finds Coltrane back with Davis for a couple of tunes in 1961 after striking out on his own (he’d already made Giant Steps by this time and was clearly ready to lead his own group full time).

So, you’re thinking of buying this disc. Who could blame you? You think it sounds like a great collection, and it’s probably all the Davis and Coltrane you’ll ever need. Box sets are always a daunting proposition anyway, right? Many, this one included, contain alternate takes and other material that makes digestion particularly challenging. If you haven’t heard any of this music before, the easy way into it, it would seem, is to pick up something like The Best of the Complete Columbia Recordings.

But if you have any affinity for jazz at all, any desire to really get into the music, buying this disc is like renting a video so many times you might as well have bought it. Sure, you’ll love the tunes, appreciate the way it offers a way into this dense thicket of song.

Soon, however, you’ll find yourself wanting to hear those other three tunes from Kind of Blue, or want to hear how Milestones and ‘Round About Midnight signaled what was to come. Where does that leave you? About $15 in the hole. Because once you’ve heard some of this, you’ll want it all. My advice? Either spring for the whole set, pricey though it is, or at least get those three indispensable discs. Believe me, you’ll thank me for it some day.