Miles and arranger Gil Evans hit it off back in the Birth of the Cool days, and several years later, they began a series of collaborations. Gil’s sophisticated charts formed a perfect setting for Miles’ trumpet style; one complemented the other and both men carried equal responsibility. There are a few lonely critics who complain about Evans’ supposed lack of jazz feel or over-emphasis of European tradition, but their complaints have more to do with gutter sociology than musical appraisal. In the end, Miles’ continual endorsement of Evans counts more than any outside brickbats. And Evans for his part brought out some of Davis’ most resonant playing, also serving as conductor and composing original material for each date.
Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings
May 1957-Feb 1968 / Columbia
This fancy package was the first studio box released in Columbia’s Miles reissue program. I still remember bringing it home on the release Tuesday in 1996 and re-enjoying the classic Miles/Gil oeuvre. Along with the main trilogy - Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain - these six discs also contain the aborted half-album Quiet Nights, other studio get-togethers from the ‘60s, and a slew of alternates and outtakes for the archive-obsessive. The remastered sound focuses on the smallest details while retaining a large dynamic space within the music.
Discs 1, 2, and 3 each present the three main albums in their original running sequences, followed by alternate takes at the end of each disc. Let’s examine that trilogy first.
MILES AHEAD (1957). A jazz-oriented suite with a classical tinge in places. At the bottom of the 19-piece jazz orchestra is the solid swing of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor. Miles sits atop the brass and reeds on flugelhorn. Arranger Evans is mainly concerned with tone colors and contrast of sonorities, his rhythmic sense varying by the need of each tune. Sometimes the abstract orchestral shapes move forward in spite of themselves, and sometimes the accents are right on the linear money. Without wanting to make an unfair comparison, Evans is as much a master of detail as Duke Ellington, albeit in a different way. The arrangements are interesting in themselves and yet they’re designed to house a soloist, which is where Miles comes in.
Johnny Carisi’s “Springville” gets the ball rolling as one of the best pieces Miles and Gil ever produced. There’s a cheery swing throughout and an evolving background of horn choruses. Fifteen seconds in, Gil’s depth of perception is already evident. The brass is supported and then answered by the reeds, and a slight trombone slide (the crowning touch) propels the next bout of phrasing, led by Miles. “Springsville” is indicative of the whole album’s attention to details, from the bass clarinet stratum up to the sustained trumpets at the end. In the delightful middle section, Miles shadows the orchestral figures. From “Springsville” we go to “The Maids of Cadiz” (tufts of soft impressionism) and Brubeck’s “The Duke”, a complex ditty that Evans drapes in a hifalutin score. The refined ballad “My Ship” extends the dramatic style Miles was developing with his small bands. This great performance leads via a snap of drum brushes into the Evans original “Miles Ahead”, a catchy, relaxed theme with good Miles on top. Thus ends the first half, great so far.
“Blues for Pablo” is another Evans original, and as the title indicates, it mixes Spanish gestures with bluesy phrases. I also detect trilling ghosts of Debussy therein. “New Rhumba” goes through some cheeky ensemble parts before settling into a swing that presages the feel of something like “Milestones” from a year later, and Gil proves his jazz-rhythm savvy with syncopated horn kicks underneath Miles’ solo. The welding of “Meaning of the Blues” and “Lament” is as much a feature for Evans’ scoring as it is for Miles confidential lead lines. The arrangement of “Blues” rises and falls on droning tones and includes some classical touches. Same goes for the downcast “Lament”, and again, I hear a memory of Debussy’s “La Mer” at 1:09. The album ends with the prissy pop song “I Don’t Want to Be Kissed”, not an auspicious finale, yet Evans emphasizes a dissonant closing chord just in time.
So that’s Miles Ahead, which I must admit I found dated when I first heard it years before, but I warmed to it over time. At least three of the finest Miles/Gil tracks are here, and the variety of material suggests the potential of future collaboration. The album has been released in different forms over the years, twice on CDs that tampered with the original LP presentation. This mix presents the original master takes in true stereo for the first time, a convoluted story best explained by the booklet essays in the box. More on that when we get to the bonus tracks.
PORGY AND BESS (1958). More personalized playing from Miles (on both trumpet and flugelhorn) and a more consistent program, drawing from the Gershwin pop opera as its single source. It becomes an instrumental tour de force via Evans, who reconstructs the material for piano-less ensembles similar to those of Miles Ahead. Evans also contributes the original “Gone”, a drum feature for Philly Joe Jones that reprocesses a phrase from the much slower “Gone, Gone, Gone”. The humid atmosphere of Catfish Row is summoned by the arrangements, and there are many sophisticated connotations from hot jazz to light classical. The only downside is that some of the passages are less than perfectly executed by the ensemble, but the overall mood dwarfs the tiny flubs.
Almost every track is a highlight unto itself, the most famous being “Summertime”, with its laxed swing and clever counterline (flutes and French horns) that ghosts Miles’ melodies and coaxes the song along. “Prayer” contains one of the best solos Miles has ever played: heartfelt blues inflections over a slowly developing 12/8 background. No trumpeter of the time could have matched the sensitivity Miles displays here, and I don’t know how many musicians period could have improvised with such honesty in a setting that tempts showboating. For poignancy, hear “I Loves You Porgy”, where swirling fabrics and trumpet musings forecast the floating Silent Way sound. Evans’ classical gas is heard in the modulations of “Gone Gone Gone”, and he brings “Buzzard Song” some blaring brass, plush accompaniment, and a unique bass/tuba duet.
Instead of following the original order of the opera, Gil customizes his own program, just as he blends the mooched elements of “Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab” into a virtually original piece. Yet Gershwin’s stronger melodies retain their emotional essence (“Bess You Is My Woman Now”), and Miles plays with an adoration of the material in addition to exploring his own stylistics. His straight jazz solo in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” speaks with the clarity that Kind of Blue would immortalize. As with Miles Ahead, the finale is a lighthearted pop song, “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York”, wherein Gil references a lick from “Gone”, and the flugelhorn solo is backed by slick swing and brass kicks.
A couple of languid stretches notwithstanding, I consider Porgy and Bess one of the best Miles albums thanks to his playing and Gil’s rich orchestrations.
SKETCHES OF SPAIN (1960). Setting sail for European classicism, the album is dominated by the “Adagio” from Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez, here becoming a transplanted concerto for Davis. For some, this lengthy piece is the apotheosis of the Miles/Gil catalog, although it drifts close to background music at times. I love the initial statements of the melody (Miles: “The softer you play it, the stronger it gets”), and the final minute has some nifty harmony. The middle sections have their moments, too, including a couple of subplots that depart from Rodrigo. The piece leans heavily toward a classical interpretation and must be heard in that manner, despite Davis’ occasional liberties. Following the Adagio are two smaller tunes, “Will o’ the Wisp” and “Pan Piper”, that both swell repetitive folk melodies into grandiose jazz-orchestra figures, their stiffness limiting Miles’ playing to some degree. I can’t help but notice that the outtake from the sessions, “Song of Our Country”, has more variety than both “Wisp” and “Piper” put together.
The second half relies more on Miles’ improvisations, even if it’s no less austere than the first half. “Saeta” features another of Miles’ all-time great solos, a pleading testimony in a dark mode. The original LP release contains a chopped and remixed version of this track; the full master can be found as a bonus track. “Solea” is the secret weapon of Spain, twelve minutes of Miles’ raw trumpet inflections backed by overlapping Spanish and swing rhythms. It’s looser than anything else on the album, although the ensemble playing is precisely controlled. “Solea” gets closer to jazz than any other track, if those genre designations matter. Overall, the somber moods and pseudo-classical movements of Sketches of Spain pull Miles further away from straight jazz, but they heighten his improvisational scope (a good thing that the naysayers forget to note in their Gil-bashing frenzies), and I don’t think any of Miles’ trumpeting peers could have delivered this music as convincingly.
Sketches of Spain ended the duo’s main trilogy but not their partnership. 1962 saw them back in the studio for an aborted bossa nova project. They left behind a sequence of half-finished music that Columbia - in the absence of forthcoming Miles studio releases - released as Quiet Nights, much to the ire of Davis. Even with a small-band “Summer Night” tacked on, the LP ran less than a half hour. Disc 4 contains the six big band selections from Quiet Nights, the best of which is the hypnotic “Aos Pes Da Cruz”. Apart from that, it’s hard to judge anything because it all sounds incomplete; “Corcavado” is so slight that a re-run of “Aos Pes Da Cruz” is spliced into the end of it! The bossa craze of the day didn’t push any musical frontiers, and not even Gil Evans is able to highbrow any magic out of it. His charts weigh down the music and his most stylized piece, “Song No. 1”, has little to do with bossa nova at all. Miles sleepwalks for the most part, and the two or three pleasing moments in the tracks are just statistical inevitabilities. It’s not that Miles and Gil ran out of spark, it’s that bossa nova was too cheap for them to bother with, and they apparently realized that in abandoning the project. Hearing Quiet Nights now, the music is harmless. For the superior “Summer Night”, look to the Seven Steps box set and the 1963 session with Victor Feldman.
In the midst of the Quiet Nights sessions, Miles and Gil hooked up with singer-songwriter Bob Dorough, he of twangy voice and eventual Schoolhouse Rock fame. Over streamlined instrumentation - including Miles, tenor sax (Wayne Shorter), trombone, bass, drums, percussion - Dorough sings the execrable “Blue Xmas” (a humbugger co-written with Miles) and “Nothing Like You”. The latter ditty wound up on 1967’s quintet album Sorcerer in an act of perversity. Dorough’s hokey songs would seem to embody all that Davis detested in Ofay Americana yet he happily signed off on this nonsense. Maybe the two had an enjoyable booze-up together, who knows. The third and best track from the mini-session is “Devil May Care”, an uptempo tune that silences Dorough and gets top-notch solos from Miles and Wayne.
Still on Disc 4, we move ahead to 1963 and the proposed Miles/Gil music for a play called “Time of the Barracudas”. The segments of this suite-like track involve an exciting piano-trio improv from Miles’ new rhythm section (Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams) and several short “cues” that make use of Gil’s thinned-out ensemble. (But the love for the soft French horns continues.) Two of the main cues are actually proper tunes, one being the Evans gem “General Assembly”, aka “Barracudas”, a 6/8 modal number Wayne Shorter would cover the piece on his Etcetera album for Blue Note. There is also “Hotel Me Blues”, with a sexy horn vamp and piercing phrasing from Miles. Gil can be heard shouting out cues to the band, but it isn’t a demo or rehearsal quality tape - the recording is quite good. Piecemeal as it is, “Time of the Barracudas” has more integrity than the whole of Quiet Nights and it’s certainly some of their most modern music from Evans and Davis.
The last of the sessions (almost done!) is from 1968 and features four takes of the 4-minute piece “Falling Water”. Low brass, reeds, strings (harp, guitar, mandolin), and rhythm section give Miles a swirling background that has been perfectly defined (I forget where, maybe the box booklet) as an aquarium of sound. The piece is whimsical yet rich, a dreamlike excerpt from a life led in an imaginative world. All takes are loose enough to be imperfect, although it’s hard to tell what perfection would be for such a strange composition. Without any album context, “Falling Water” opens a window to a possible future.
The remainder of Disc 4 and both Discs 5 and 6 delve into bonus tracks from the sessions, the lion’s share from Miles Ahead. Alternate takes, partial takes, inserts, overdubs, basic tracks sans overdubs, and studio discussion is all here in a “making of Miles Ahead” kind of brew. The reason for all the minutiae is the fact that the album had been released in different forms over the years; the 1987 issue attempted a stereo presentation of the original mono LP and used some alternate fragments in the process. Even the proper album is a product of studio assembly. To use one obvious example, notice how Miles’ solo in “I Don’t Want to Be Kissed” is spliced together? In the interest of being Complete, this box corrals everything that had seen release under the Miles Ahead name, along with the background studio work. To guide the listener through the details, the booklet has three helpful sections: a track-by-track description of all the fragments on Discs 5 and 6; a breakdown of the Miles Ahead album (via index points) that shows which takes and inserts were used for the master takes; and a sessionography that shows where each chronological take wound up being released or used, if at all. Granted, the epiphanies are somewhat trivial (“Aha, I hear where they spliced this part into the middle of that one!”) but they do sort out Miles Ahead's construction once and for all.
The other boon of the bonus tracks is that they illustrate certain details of the music, such as Gil getting the correct contour into a “Springsville” phrase, or building up the grandeur of “Gone Gone Gone”, or Miles deciding mid-rehearsal that “I Loves You Porgy” will henceforth be played with a mute. Some overdubbed solos for Miles Ahead are heard in isolation; this might be totally excessive, but I enjoy the track where the “Miles Ahead” solo is highlighted against the (very faint) backing track Miles is dubbing to.
Porgy and Spain have a lesser supply of studio ephemera, mainly alternate takes. (These start appearing on the first three discs, where each proper album program is followed by a supplemental mini-suite of alternates.) The sister versions of “Prayer” and “Porgy” and “Summertime” are decent, while a faster “Boat That’s Leaving Soon” has some flubs. As do other tracks, like the tricky “Gone”, which is attempted in different tempos. For Sketches of Spain, the full master of “Saeta” beats the issued version, while a error-ridden alternate of the “Concerto de Aranjuez” is nearly useless. (More interesting is the Disc 6 rehearsal half the “Concerto”, where Miles sits out.) “Song of Our Country”, heard in three versions, is a fine outtake that features Miles well.
The excesses of this box are admittedly indulgent, and a whole disc’s worth of bonus material could be shaved off, but one gets the feeling that the inclusion of the supplements stems from a reverence for the main albums. Nevertheless, the individual reissues are the way to go for the casual listener and even the Miles devotee who has no interest in how things are put together. For those who want the gory details (like me), the bonus tracks can be fascinating, although they’re not to listen to repeatedly.
The three big albums sit undisturbed and still sound beautiful. Miles found a posh home on these efforts, and Gil Evans proved himself one of the wonders of jazz arranging. His scores stand tall vertically yet tell linear stories, his brilliant knack for timbre and harmony bordering on genius at times. I always hear something new when listening closely to any of these tracks. The partnership of Miles and Gil was a once in a lifetime event, and we’re lucky to have its fruits preserved.