The Miles Davis Quintet: Steamin’

The Miles Davis Quintet

You could probably make a convincing argument that Miles Davis’ greatest talent was not, as it widely assumed, his peerless facility with the trumpet, but his ability to pick the absolute best combos with which to work. It may seem obvious, not to say borderline fatuous to make the point at such a late date. But there you have it. Miles was the best because he knew to work with the best. Does the observation seem superfluous? Well, it’s worth restating the case.

Just recently we’ve been privileged to see two new releases spotlighting two of the greatest jazz quintets in the genre’s history. Surely by accident (since the steady stream of Davis reissues certainly means that there must be more than a few happy accidents in regards to these kinds of fortuitous releases), we have been given a brand new printing of the Quintet’s excellent Steamin’ disc, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in 1956, as well as a previously unreleased live recording of the 1963 Quintet’s performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Except for Davis’ presence, the Quintets are entirely dissimilar.

Seven years really isn’t that long at all, but in the context of Davis’ career it encompasses almost a lifetimes’ worth of change and upheaval. Another seven years would bring Davis and his group, no longer a concise Quintet but a legion, to the year 1970, and still more tumultuous change with the releases of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It’s a testament to Davis’ profoundly chimerical spirit that the changes wrought in the context of the comparatively sedate late-’50s and early-’60s jazz world would be, in hindsight, no less cataclysmic in their effect.

This is not to imply that the world of 1956 was in any way a world of stifling conformity. This was the age of hard bop, a mode of playing that remains notable for the accomplished intensity it demanded. Miles wasn’t a rock & roller, not yet, at least, but there’s still something uncompromising in his pose on these records. Bop required fierce attention to detail and prided itself on technical virtuosity. Listen to the runs on “Salt Peanuts” and you might get an idea of just how demanding a form this could be. Davis was, of course, no bop partisan, although 1956’s ‘Round about Midnight, his first for Columbia, would come to be seen as one of the quintessential hard bop artifacts, there’s still a divide here between the bop and the cool, as it were.

Davis’ first major recording, 1950’s Birth of the Cool, were a major shot against the bow of bebop, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t play in the mode when it suited him. He does so here, and the results are dizzying. “Salt Peanuts” is the hardest example here, but “Well, You Needn’t” is pretty fierce too (if less propulsive). This kind of music can be exhausting for both the listener and the musician: everyone gets their chance to go up and down the scale in the most creative way possible. You either keep up, or get passed by the wayside. Hearing Red Garland’s piano dueling with Paul Chambers’ bass across the lower register on “Well, You Needn’t”, it’s enough to take your breath away.

But Miles was after more, and the ability to move freely between these modes was the most important principle in his career, then and thereafter. “Well, You Needn’t” is followed by “When I Fall In Love”, a concise four-and-a-half minute run through the pop form that shows the group playing with as much restraint as they could muster. Call it “cool” or “smooth” or whatever, it’s breathtaking to see how quickly and how well they could switch gears. There’s still a bit of bop in the proceedings, in the way that Garland and Chambers’ weave in and out of Davis’ melody, but the mood has shifted, cooling definitively in one hot second.

Steamin’ was one of a group of Davis’ last recordings for the Prestige label before jumping ship for Columbia in 1956. The circumstances behind the recording are almost as amazing as the records themselves. Over the course of two separate days, 11 May 1956 and 26 October of the same year, Davis and his “First Great Quintet” recorded these sides in order to give Prestige one last gasp of material, in between recording sessions for Davis’ first Columbia albums. The company then released these records over the course of the next couple years, simultaneous with Davis’ Columbia records. The sessions could, probably should, have been unmemorable, considering that they were recorded at the same time the same Quintet was already charging forward with Columbia and already three-quarters out the door at Presitge.

They probably would have been with any other group. But by doing nothing more than running through their repertoire to date, the group cast a particular spell that has rarely been matched in the history of jazz. Although the group only lasted two years or so, from ’55 to ’57, they played with the studied nonchalance of old friends. The playing is intense when it needs to be intense, cool when it needs to be cool, and shorn of the least affectation. They’ve got a couple standards and a couple jazz sides (Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salty Peanuts, Theolonius Monk’s “Well’, You Needn’t”), but the album itself achieves a rather remarkable cohesion. Excessive praise has the unfortunate effect of seeming fatuous, but there’s nothing at all fatuous about this record. If you don’t own it, you should remedy that immediately. That’s about as simple as I can put it.

Lightning usually never strikes twice, but by 1963 Davis had already crafted another great Quintet (actually, a few great Quintet’s and even a Sextet or two, but who’s counting?). Personnel were coming and going at a feverish pace. The only real constant was Miles, who steered the ship with a placid confidence that belied his fiery temper and tempestuous reputation. The massive artistic growth that had begun with Davis’ Prestige recordings continued apace at Columbia, and in just the few years since recording the seminal Cookin’,Relaxin’,Workin’, Steamin’ series, he had already recorded another handful of masterpieces, most notable Kind of Blue, but also lesser (lesser being such a relative term!) gems such as Sketches of Spain and his remarkable reading of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival is notable for the fact that it represents a snapshot of the group at it’s most chimerical, following Davis’ unbelievably prolific fist half-dozen years at Columbia. Soon after this performance, Davis would remain relatively quiet for another year (1964), before forming a third great Quintet (his most long-lasting group) and marching upwards through the rest of the sixties with the forward momentum of bomb-throwing revolutionaries.

But that still lay in the future. In 1963 Miles was at the height of his powers. He is accompanied here by Coleman and Hancock, as well as by Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. (Although Coltrane drifted in and out of Davis’ orbit throughout the sixties, you’ll hardly miss him when you hear Coleman’s fiery run through “So What”.) You get the feeling that Davis was already beginning to yearn for change. The playing is ferocious from all parties. Whereas Steamin’ and it’s fellow recordings are unified by a conscious sense of “cool”, the band seems here to have surpassed all sense of propriety, blasting forward with a passion that fairly mooted the bop formalists. The playing is furious and expressive. “So What” was already an icon of modal cool, but just four years after it’s release it’s already been transformed almost beyond recognition into a hard-bop rollercoaster.

“Walkin'” is ostensibly a bop workout, but there’s something ragged and harried at the edges of both Davis and Coleman’s playing, which transforms the exercise into something a bit more frightening. The emotional ambiguities Davis had introduced into jazz’s vocabulary with the onset of modality have reached fruition. There’s nothing in Davis’ solo turn on “Stella By Starlight” so much as pure, animal longing, an unbearably plaintive tone offset only by the steadfast, unflappable support of Davis’ sidemen.

This would be a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime set for anyone but Miles Davis. Davis would take a similar quintet (minus Coleman, replaced by Wayne Shorter) through its paces two years later in a series of remarkable sets recorded as The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel. There are a few other concerts with similar personnel from around the same time, and the results are similarly magisterial. The depressing fact is that Davis and his crew were running through performances of this caliber on a nightly basis. We should all be lucky, eh?

RATING 10 / 10
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists