Miles Davis: Jazz at the Plaza

Nicholas Taylor

Miles Davis

Jazz at the Plaza

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2007-02-27

1958 was a pivotal year for Miles Davis. Already a firmly entrenched leader in the burgeoning jazz scene of the late '50s, by 1958 Davis began to push his music even further. For one thing, he began experimenting with his new brand of modal jazz. Instead of soloing in the straight, conventional, melodic way, improvisation in Davis's new music danced over the sparse chord changes in a wild flurry of modes and scales, rapidly changing and morphing, beginning and ending, pulsating in the listeners ear with an intense excitement and unpredictability. The other major event of 1958 was the formation of one of Miles's most famous and talented bands, the Miles Davis Sextet, featuring Miles on trumpet, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and the amazing saxophone duo of John Coltrane on alto and Cannonball Adderley on tenor. It is this band that is featured on Jazz at the Plaza, recorded 9 September 1958, and the very same band that would record the epic Miles Davis classic, Kind of Blue, just six months later.

The four song set captured on this album, originally issued in 1973, however, is vastly different from Kind of Blue. Kind of Blue is cool, laid back, sexy, smooth. There is a lazy drag to the music that indicates no one on the record is in a rush. Sounds seem to fall effortlessly into place. The same sextet on Jazz at the Plaza is blistering and moving, tearing through jazz standards at break neck speed, saxophones viciously circling around the constant assault of Cobb's incessantly quick drums, Davis's trumpet stabbing and moving, elusive and violent. The music's intensity and quick rhythms recall Davis's earlier bop sounds, found on such albums as 1949's The Birth of the Cool, more than the subdued intimations that made this group jazz icons. Jazz at the Plaza stands as an interesting and puzzling period piece, documenting the sextet exploring a sound that would soon morph into the rich tapestry of their 1959 masterpiece. The fury of the playing on the album is the inverse of the calm before the storm trope-the band tears through Davis's new modal technique with blinding virtuosity and skill, only to ease off on the pedal for Kind of Blue, channeling these rabid emotions into a more artful and delicate form.

The album's two standout tracks are the brisk opener, "If I Were a Bell", and Davis's thrilling reinterpretation of his already classic "My Funny Valentine". The former opens with the cascading descent of Evans's piano before kicking in with a swinging beat and the entrance Davis's trumpet. His improvisations are sometimes lyrical, sometimes erratic, starting rhythms and leaving them off, wailing and bending before heading back into the thick of things with a few rapid measures of quick, bobbing notes. Indicative of the structure of the album in general, as Davis leaves off, Coltrane picks up and wails out a tightly woven chaos of melody and rhythm, circling around Cobb's drums, quickly cascading up and down his sax like mad. Even back in 1958 Coltrane was nurturing the free and open improvisational style that would make him such a pivotal figure in the '60s. The primary difference between the sextet's sound on this record and the one found on Kind of Blue is in the amount of group playing. On Jazz at the Plaza each player takes his turn soloing, backed by the drums, bass, and piano-the horns rarely play together, except to introduce a theme here or there at the beginning of tune. On Kind of Blue the same sextet exists in a rich and complex interrelation, the trumpet and saxophones beautifully orchestrated and free at the same time. That rich fabric is nowhere to be found on this recording.

"My Funny Valentine" takes this trend even further as Coltrane and Adderley sit out to let Miles take the spotlight, supported by only the drums, piano, and bass. The piano slides slowly in as the bass picks up a sexy, lazy line. Davis comes in tired and weary, only hinting at the song's famous melody. The entire track is a wonderful exploration of all the ways to float around an established arrangement of notes. Miles will be both wonderfully sparse, spitting out single notes at intervals, leaving the listener to fill in the rest, or he will overcompensate, swirling a complex series of notes where there used to be one simple phrase. Moreover, despite its limited instrumentation, the track has the same coolness, the same late night languor of Kind of Blue. In a disc fully of wild improvisation, this is a subtle, elusive gem pointing the way towards Davis's next fateful step.

Despite this performance's historical importance and significance, it does have its flaws. Primarily, the sound quality is dodgy and spotty. For much of the album Evans's piano is drowned beneath the force of the piano and bass, while Coltrane's sax jumps out of the mix, dominating all the other players. The most notable flaw is on the opening track, "If I Were a Bell": in the first few measures Davis comes in loud, dominating the mix, then suddenly he disappears for the remainder of the song, sounding as if he were being recorded from a different room. All in all, this is hardly an essential Miles Davis album. Miles has more interesting releases from this same time period that are also of much better sound quality. On the other hand, Jazz at the Plaza is not without merit. It is the snapshot -- albeit a blurred one -- of a group of musicians on the verge of greatness, beginning to feel each other's tics and idiosyncrasies, forming the bonds of a sextet that would soon alter the history of jazz forever.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.