Miles: Blue Note and Prestige

Some picks from the earlier years:

Birth of the Cool
Jan 1949 - Mar 1950 / Capitol (Blue Note RVG)

Led by Miles, with arrangements from John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and others, these twelve nonet (and octet) sides investigate a softer alternative to bebop. The somewhat intellectual nature of the music led to it being ostracized by some historical politicians who didn’t want Miles on the whitebread side of the jazz tracks. Well, no one knew “cool” back when the music was being played; the original Birth of the Cool LP assembled the individual sides years later and its title was ex post facto. And you don’t need to read many of Miles’ comments, or listen to much of his later music, to know that he was enthralled by such simple things as a chord voicing, or timbre, or a certain combination of instruments. Through the 1960s and his fusion years, he was into sound, and I think Birth of the Cool represents an early quest for something new in that department. Miles shared this particular quest with a like-minded think tank that included the above luminaries, along with J.J. Johnson, Lee Konitz, Max Roach, and others.

Some tunes have the sparkle of bop, especially “Budo” and “Move”, and with Max or Kenny Clarke in the drum chair, that’s not surprising. Also, a few of Miles’ trumpet solos pull from the bebop bag, and he and altoist Lee Konitz are the best soloists overall. Most of the focus is on ensemble arrangement, lighter than a big band and with an academic touch in places. Cascading canons, counterpoint, inversions, and occasionally unusual chords make up a lot of the charts. Mulligan in particular explores rhythmic twists, as in his dandy “Jeru”. Mulligan’s arrangements are better than his playing on this album, to be honest. Most of the tunes continually evolve from start to finish; for example, every chorus of Johnny Carisi’s complex blues “Israel” takes on a new dimension, and part of the fun of “Godchild” is how the main baritone/tuba line accumulates voices as it saunters along. Some of the tunes (“Venus de Milo”, “Rocker”) are just a little too trite at heart, but dressed up by these charts and spiced with mini-solos, they’re better off.

Gil Evans’ “Boplicity” is a formalized slice of modern jazz, calmer than the title might suggest, and Gil also delivers a brilliant reconstruction of Mercer’s “Moon Dreams”. A few of the scoring strategies Evans would use in later collaborations with Miles can be heard in this piece, like the way he assigns stationary tones to offset busier activities, or the way the high trumpet note in the middle pulls up a couple of other instruments like a magnet to form a dissonant chord. Or one can just enjoy the dark sophistication that enshrouds the piece as it goes along.

Birth of the Cool is the meeting place where nascent thinkers explored new ideas. Forget the neo-critics who dismiss the project as a wrong step; for one thing, it establishes Miles’ interest in original concepts, and it also features some good trumpet playing. Miles was soon on the ground floor of hardbop, and he and Gil would do more ambitious work down the road, while Mulligan would take the contrapuntal notion into his piano-less small bands. By the way, I’ve owned three different editions of this CD, and the RVG, issued in 2001, has the crispest, strongest sound.

Blue Haze
May 1953 - Apr 1954 / Prestige

Eight cuts from three separate sessions, typical of Prestige at the time. I suppose they liked featuring Miles in various “all-star” settings, or maybe it was more of a barrel-scraping necessity. Whatever the case, an agile “I’ll Remember April” is the highlight of the program; it’s from the April ’54 session that also produced three numbers for Walkin’. Three quartet tunes (with Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey) from March 1954 have lesser appeal, like “Old Devil Moon” (the vamp idea is neat but it bogs the band down) and a “Blue Haze” blues that’s rather boring. Miles would keep the catchy “Four” in his working repertoire for years; this take is at an unhurried pace and has a thoughtful trumpet solo. The four oldest tracks include “Tune Up”, where Miles frames bebop licks with melodic creativity, a draggy Mingus number called “Smooch”, and “When Lights Are Low”, a Benny Carter tune that Miles would do much better in the future. John Lewis’ piano solo on “Lights” is a bit cheeky. “Miles Ahead” - not to be confused with the Gil Evans version - sounds like Miles was throwing chord changes around just for the hell of it, and his technically deficient solo further jumbles the matter. So Blue Haze captures a little of this, a little of that, and no stakes are really driven.

April 1954 / Prestige

A high point in the early catalog, Walkin comes from two different sessions, with the same rhythm section in both (Horace Silver, Percy Heath, Kenny Clarke). The first half is made up of two lengthy blues pieces, “Walkin” and “Blue ‘n Boogie”, where trombonist J.J. Johnson and tenor Lucky Thompson join Miles in the front line. Miles is nothing if not a great blues player, and he shines in both tracks, as do the sidemen. “Walkin” would become a perennial live favorite, though the panther-like stealth of this first version would most often be replaced by a faster tempo. In “Blue ‘n Boogie”, Silver’s trademark funkiness and the trumpet-trombone background lines during the tenor solo keep the fire stoked.

The other three tracks feature altoist Dave Schildkraut, who does some nice playing, and Miles keeps his trumpet muted. (Not the piercing Harmon mute he would be known for; this is a darker, “older” sound.) “Solar” allows Miles to drape mysterious thoughts over a moody chord progression. I once read something that said this 12-bar sequence of ii-V changes could be heard as a really abstract blues, but to me, “Solar” as done by Miles (and later, Bill Evans) creates its own atmosphere quite apart from any blues. Miles is equally brooding in “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, while “Love Me Or Leave Me” puts a spring in everyone’s step. Clarke’s brushwork on all three tunes is outstanding, especially “Love Me Or Leave Me”.

As an album that consolidates Miles’ blues roots and explores intriguing song forms in the latter half, Walkin’ is an easy recommendation, especially in the great sounding 2006 RVG remaster.

The Musings of Miles
June 1955 / Prestige

Davis is joined by pianist Red Garland, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Philly Joe Jones on this intermittently groovy session. Garland and Jones would become part of Miles’ soon-to-be legendary quintet, and you can hear that future in the snappy “A Gal in Calico” and the lovely “I See Your Face Before Me”. The blues “Green Haze” is mild fun thanks to Garland’s licks. “A Night in Tunisia” is treated with small-scale drama, yet the performance is awkward in spots, and one might dispose entirely of “I Didn’t”, Miles’ twitchy answer to Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”. Though not a great album, I think some of the tracks make an enjoyable prelude to the quintet of Cookin’, et al.

w/ Milt Jackson: Quintet/Sextet
Aug. 1955 / Prestige

Even though this is a stopgap one-off record, it’s worth a listen, as the eloquent lines of vibraphone wizard Milt Jackson sound great adjacent to Miles’ more tempered ideas, and both inspire elegance in each other. Backed by Ray Bryant, Percy Heath, and Art Taylor, Miles and Milt trade smart solos on four straightahead tunes. Altoist Jackie McLean appears on two tracks, including “Dr. Jackle” (which Miles would revisit on 1958’s Milestones) and the formidable “Minor March”. Not an essential nor generous disc, but still good.

The most famous Miles-Milt meeting took place in December of 1954 with Thelonious Monk. I’ve reviewed that session over on the Monk Prestige page. The tracks from that date were split between the Miles titles Bags’ Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants for reasons I can’t fathom.

Collectors’ Items
Jan 1953 & March 1956 / Prestige

A duplex of sessions recorded three years apart, both featuring Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. The earlier date also has Charlie Parker on tenor, who does a serviceable (if not quite sober) job alongside Miles and Sonny, both in mediocre form. The tunes include the perky bop line “Serpent’s Tooth” (two takes, neither without blemish), the brisk “Compulsion” powered by Philly Joe Jones, and “Round Midnight”, a howling of tired dogs. This perfunctory session was probably recorded out of duty or boredom. At best, you can dig out historical nuggets, like Rollins toying with a lick he would favor down the road, or Miles occasionally playing something thrifty and sweet, but no one would tout this as an exceptional all-star meeting.

The ’56 session, with the rhythm team of Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, and Art Taylor is much better, even though it only has three tracks. The most notable is “Vierd Blues”, a pet Miles theme that has appeared in various guises. Sonny’s solo on this tune is strikingly similar to the “Blue 7” solo he would record on Saxophone Colossus. “No Line” is a brushed swinger with fine muted Miles and skillfully elongated ideas from Rollins. Rollins also stars in the easygoing “In Your Own Sweet Way”, which Miles would remake in nearly identical fashion with his working quintet. All three of these numbers come off quite well.

Overall, this disc is mostly for collectors, as the title says, and one might want to consider instead the Prestige collection reviewed below.

Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins:
The Classic Prestige Sessions, 1951-1956
Released 2009

‘Classic’ is pushing it a bit. Drugged up and stagnant after his initial forays in the bop and cool realms, Miles was not at his best in the earliest 1950s. His technique and imagination are inconsistent in the first selections here, though by the later sessions, Davis meets his capabilities. Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who plays sideman to Davis on these dates, generally sounds more together, not counting some reed problems, and there are many glimpses of his melodic skills. All but one of the 25 tracks on these two discs found their way onto various Miles albums for Prestige, with the leftover being “I Know”, nominally led by Sonny.

The first session, from January 1951, is a low point for Davis, marked by two drab takes of “Blue Room”, a John Lewis composition called “Morpheus” that seems like a confused remnant of the Cool nonet days, and the inconsequential oldie “Whispering”. The best track is “Down”, an advanced midtempo blues with passable solos from Miles, Sonny, and trombonist Bennie Green. Lewis, Percy Heath, and Roy Haynes are the rhythm section.

The next session, from October of the same year, is a sharper batch that produced material for the albums Conception and Dig. Walter Bishop, Tommy Potter, and Art Blakey handle piano, bass, and drums, while young Jackie McLean sits in on alto sax. Considering the strong identities that these horn stylists would acquire down the road, it’s fun to hear them in their formative stages, although Rollins runs into some reed trouble, and even borrowing somebody else’s sax (for “Denial”) doesn’t help. I know Prestige liked to fill reels quickly, but couldn’t they have solved the technical problems before recording? Anyway, the music swings well enough, like “Conception”, “Out of the Blue”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, and a fancy reconstruction of “Sweet Georgia Brown” called “Dig”, which has an extra slab of reverb and thus sounds like the band is twice the size. Miles delivers some fine solos, and his pensive reading of “My Old Flame” – disregard the bum notes – drops hints of lovely ballad performances to come. Sonny does a good job with this tune as well. Only “Bluing” comes across as a perfunctory jam, replete with botched ending.

In January 1953, Charlie Parker (on tenor sax) joined Davis and Rollins in the studio. As reviewed above for Collectors’ Items, some minor gems exist in “Compulsion” and the two takes of “Serpent’s Tooth”, but this session has little artistic purpose, and “Round Midnight” sounds on the verge of nodding off to me.

By June 1954, Miles had gained more focus, as one listen to “Airegin” or “Oleo” (both Rollins compositions) will show. I think you can tag this session, along with the excellent Walkin’ album and the meeting with Thelonious Monk in December, as the point where Miles started really honing his vocabulary and sense of phrasing. This session also contains Rollins’ “Doxy” (kind of a hokey number, but with entertaining solos) and two cordial takes of “But Not For Me”. Horace Silver grabs a couple of spotlights on piano, and Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke handle bass and drums. These selections became part of the Bags’ Groove album, which took its title track from the Miles and Monk date.

The three final selections – “No Line”, “In Your Own Sweet Way”, and “Vierd Blues” – are from March 1956, and like the session with Parker, they wound up on Collectors’ Items. Davis and Rollins continue to move forward on these numbers, particularly Rollins in his thematic pursuits. This and the preceding session contain the most confident performances in this collection.

Miles and Sonny would obviously reach greater heights once their trajectories had separated, but it’s interesting to hear how they functioned together on the way up. The mastering of this set is pretty good, though the earliest tracks are of irreparably mediocre sound quality. Ira Gitler’s booklet essay gives some background on the recording dates. Most of all, I find it handy from a discography perspective. I used to own all of these tracks in the Sonny Rollins complete Prestige box, before abandoning that to chase down individual Sonny and Miles remasters as they became available. Anyone familiar with their Prestige catalogs knows that you’re either going to wind up with some holes or some overlap in your collection, depending on how you go about it. Long story short, this set happens to fit my needs.

The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions
Rec. Nov 1955 - May 1958, rel. 2006

At long last, all of the tracks from the Miles Davis Quintet’s two marathon 1956 sessions are in one place. The resulting albums Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet have been classics for decades, so why not offer the whole deal in a complete batch? In addition, this four-disc box contains an earlier studio visit from November of 1955 (for the album The New Miles Davis Quintet) along with previously unreleased live tapes. The annotation and packaging are great, and the remastering of the studio tracks is okay. It’s punchier than the original CDs though not as overcranked as the Workin’ K2 remaster. It sounds like there’s some unavoidable fuzziness (saturated levels?) in the master reels of the first session.

Miles’ first great quintet includes the leader on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The distinctive styles of the front line - Miles’ thrift versus Trane’s ambition - is the first notable element of the group, but in the end it’s a full five-way chemistry. Chambers’ extensive bass lines carry Jones’ drum grooves, while Garland supports everybody well. The quintet puts forth a traditional sound, as opposed to the open-ended approach of Miles’ mid-60s quintets, but it’s full of personality. I rank Philly Joe Jones up with Art Blakey or Max Roach for straight swing. Coltrane’s style is in the formative stages here, though he improves throughout the box set. Miles appears in very solid form, dropping bop chops into the uptempo tunes and floating through the ballads as only he could.

The first six tracks from November of 1955 tentatively inaugurate the group with highlights like the stealthy “Stablemates” and a wrenching “There Is No Greater Love”, and it’s hard to resist the happy momentum of “S’posin” and “How Am I To Know”. Miles sounds both coy (“Just Squeeze Me”) and strong above the Chambers-Jones swing. Coltrane is less certain of his ideas or how to deliver them; some solos are like puzzle pieces that haven’t been assembled yet, and he’s plagued by random squeaks (and not just in this first session). Chambers steps out with a bass solo on a full version of “The Theme”, which Miles would reduce to a set-capping leitmotif in future performances. These tracks are not as tight as later efforts, although Miles sounds good and the rhythm section is already a lock.

The remaining studio tracks come from two extensive sessions that were intended to net enough material to fulfill Miles’ Prestige contract. The fourteen tracks from May 1956 include such standouts as “In Your Own Sweet Way” (the attractive Brubeck classic), “Trane’s Blues”, “Woody’n You”, and a driving “Four”. One thing that’s obvious in listening to all this repertoire is how congenial the band sounds. Part of that has to do with some of the chosen pop songs (“Diane”, “It Could Happen to You”), but I think the group has an inescapable effervescence in almost any piece. One also hears some perfunctory playing, but even then - in “Something I Dreamed Last Night” or “Diane”, for example - Miles and crew cannot help but entertain. “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, one of the best tracks in the collection, has a good balance of Miles’ honed melodies, Coltrane’s science, and solid groove. Another huge highlight is “It Never Entered My Mind”, where Davis’ ultra-romantic muted sound pines over a beautiful piano backdrop. Coltrane sits this one out, as he does for most of the intimate ballads. Miles also shines in the bebop storm of “Woody’n You”, while “Salt Peanuts” is rather reckless. Garland, Chambers, and Jones get “Ahmad’s Blues” to themselves, although it’s kind of a square number. Most of these May tracks ended up on the Workin’ and Steamin’ LPs.

October’s twelve tracks are even better. Coltrane is improving by the month, it seems, and Miles reaps the benefits of the clicking rhythm section. The last five tunes on Disc 3 make up the Cookin’ album, which is as good as this quintet gets. (If you don’t buy this boxset, you must at least own Cookin’, one of the finest in the Davis catalog.) There’s the dark bop of “Airegin” (penned by Sonny Rollins), the amiable “Blues by Five”, “Tune Up”, “When Lights Are Low”, and the concise beauty of “My Funny Valentine”. Both Miles and Coltrane burn through “Tune Up” - which Trane would abstract into “Countdown” a few years later - and Miles’ hallmark clarity is on display (as is Garland’s pithy prowess) in the blues. Davis’ dramatic take on “My Funny Valentine” remains one of his all-time greatest performances on record, countered so perfectly by Red Garland. Listen closely to Paul Chambers, too, as he moves around in different registers of the bass and adjusts the punctuations as necessary. “Valentine” is simply marvelous.

Other excellent choices from October include “If I Were a Bell”, “You’re My Everything”, and the bass-borne “Oleo”, all three of which went into the Relaxin’ LP, as did the friendly jaunt “I Could Write a Book”. “Half Nelson” revives the urgency of Miles’ bebop days. I’m not sure about the Monk renditions - “Round Midnight” doesn’t match the quality of the quintet’s Columbia version, and “Well You Needn’t” comes off too loose, despite some creative ideas in the trumpet solo.

Don’t bring high expectations to the live disc. The performances aren’t outstanding and the sound is at boot level. From a 1955 Tonight Show appearance come “Max is Making Wax” and “It Never Entered My Mind”; Miles treats both tunes well but the recording is thin and wobbly. Steve Allen’s awkward banter should have been left in the mists of time - it’s painful to listen to. Next up are two Dec. 1956 cuts from a Philadelphia performance, “Tune Up” and “Walkin”. Then come three tracks (and a minute snippet of “Two Bass Hit”) from May 1958, with Bill Evans at the piano. This batch includes “Four”, “Bye Bye Blackbird” (good Trane solo, not so good Miles), and another “Walkin”, all okay but none of them take the reins from the many other versions available.

Back to the studio cuts - were I to assemble my own single-disc tracklist from the ’56 sessions, it would look something like this:

Shipbuildin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

If I Were a Bell
In Your Own Sweet Way
It Could Happen to You
Surrey with the Fringe on Top
It Never Entered My Mind
I Could Write a Book
Tune Up
Blues By Five
My Funny Valentine

Damn, what a good album that would be. And I’d throw in “Stablemates” as a bonus cut.

Back to Miles

Back to Jazz Shelf home page