Miles: Coltrane and Columbia

In which Miles takes straightahead jazz to new heights.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-61

How convenient for the boxset producers that the trumpeter had tenor man Coltrane at his side for this period of time, thus presenting a “team” theme for this collection. But the main story is all about Miles: being picked up by a major label after some down and out years, assembling his first classic working quintet, recording that band prolifically, and then going on with personnel adjustments to make two of jazz’s most revered albums. The acquisition of Coltrane is yet another example of Miles’ ability to sniff out talent, rather like spotting a potential all-star on a farm team. (Although it was drummer Philly Joe Jones who actualy recommended Trane.) Coltrane had a lot of unsure notes going for him at the time, and with Miles and Monk he began shaping his abilities into a finer art, eventually becoming an outstanding leader on his own. He just happens to be along for this six-year ride and is completely welcome.

The non-submersible units within this box are the three classic LPs ‘Round About Midnight (recorded in 1955-6), Milestones (1958), and Kind of Blue (1959), the last one being pre-installed on almost every desert island around the globe. Surrounding those album sessions are some early 1955 reels, a studio date with Bill Evans in 1958, the two tracks from Someday My Prince Will Come (1961) on which Trane guested, and a couple of live gigs from 1958. All of the studio material is presented in strict chronological order, scrambling the original album programs. The listener is presented with a choice between this all-encompassing presentation or getting the individual remasters, which feature some of the alternate takes herein as bonus tracks. Diehards might insure blanket coverage with the box, but casual listeners will find the three main albums by themselves hitting the high points of this period. The rest is nuance and quantity.

‘Round About Midnight sits proudly alongside any of the apostrophe’d Prestige titles by the classic Quintet. This was a snappy band, Miles and Trane being the frontline dichotomy of economy versus verbosity, and the rhythm section discharging their duties as well as any in the ‘50s. Red Garland’s piano has a much richer effect than it ought to; his right hand lines never wander very far, and his voicings don’t approach any harmonic perimeters, yet there’s always that special something in his solos and accompaniment. Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones form the quintessential bass and drums battery. The drummer had the noted ‘Philly lick’ - the rim click on four - and he also had an incredible resourcefulness at his bare bones kit. Listen to his snare chatter, perfect support, and clever solo breaks, all done with effortless style.

Spearheading the Midnight drama is the title track, in which the Thelonious Monk composition is rearranged into a dynamic triptych by Gil Evans. Miles takes the intro and blows a muted chorus, sounding mysterious as ever, then a blaring fanfare announces Trane’s aggressive statement, and Davis brings it down coolly again. Supreme, and it only required one take. There’s an equal deliberation to “Dear Old Stockholm”, which Miles tested earlier at Blue Note. The pedaled vamps and the subtle stop-time at the beginning of each solo elevate the folk melody into a sophisticated blowing vehicle. “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “All of You” would become live staples for Miles in the years to come, and these maiden studio voyages are still required listening. Their unsentimental romance defines Davis’ sensitivity: “Blackbird” with its wistful, ironic undercurrent and “All Of You” with detached emotion. Trane’s “Blackbird” solo is full of sudden leaps and turns, foretelling his Atlantic adventures. Lest the whole album be too suave for its own good, the band swings hard on “Ah Leu Cha” and “Tadd’s Delight”. Maybe it’s the clear recording, or the arrangements, or the basic zest of the band, but one gets the sense that an invincible Miles was being crowned with this album. Alternate takes of everything except “‘Round About Midnight” are here, and none of them are duds.

Milestones adds altoist Cannonball Adderley and punches the throttle. Tony Williams said it best: “That’s a smoking record, the definitive jazz album. If you ever want to know what jazz is, listen to that album.” The spirited music bears him out. Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle” rockets along with Miles in chop mode and it takes a close listen to tell who’s who when Trane and Cannonball trade phrases. There’s also Monk’s “Straight No Chaser”, moved to the key of F, with Miles’ saintly solo sandwiched between the alto and tenor turns. Garland sits out the “Sid’s Ahead” blues (Miles comps in his stead), though the piano trio gets a spotlight in “Billy Boy”. All seems second tier to the title track, a modal form that offers the soloists room to stretch out. In “Milestones”, there are but two scales that the soloists have to deal with, and it’s not even two, depending on the approach. Anyway, this track is one of the all-time classics, swinging on the definitive “Philly lick” and featuring a simple, hooky theme. Adderley sings happy lines, Trane sounds intrigued by the minimum of harmonic checkpoints, and Miles plays naturally in his self-made element.

And then there’s Kind of Blue, with Garland gone and both Wynton Kelly (on “Freddie Freeloader”) and Bill Evans (all else) at the piano. It’s one of Miles’ best albums in terms of pure trumpet playing. So much has been said about this benchmark that adding anything else is patronizing. I will note that my favorite tracks are “Blue in Green” (can we all just admit now that Evans wrote this?) and “Flamenco Sketches”. The latter reproduces Evans’ “Peace Piece” in the opening vamp and gives the soloists five modes/scales to work through, an idea that Davis would reproduce in the later piece “Spanish Key”. The earlier, alternate take of “Flamenco Sketches” shows the band coming to grips with how they’re going to function within the structure (hear Chambers balk at when to change modes behind Miles) and the master take becomes, well, a masterpiece. Coltrane’s wonderful solo effectively links the modes (that F carrying over from the A-flat major to B-flat major is a beauty) and he emphasizes some sweet tones, like the sixth and ninth. Note also how Trane begins his “So What” solo with elementary snatches of the prescribed Dorian mode before chromatically escaping it.

Backtracking to 1958, following Milestones, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones had left, replaced by Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb. The new drummer could posit a reasonable facsimile of Jones’ stickwork, albeit missing Philly’s X factor. The acquisition of Evans was a major coup for Davis, as the pianist’s “quiet fire” provided the trumpeter an empathetic backdrop. The updated sextet visited the studio in May 1958 to wax classic takes of “On Green Dolphin Street”, “Love For Sale”, “Stella by Starlight”, and Davis’ little ditty “Fran Dance”. The last of these is disposable, but the rest are a high point of the box set. It’s unclear if Miles was starting a new album under his own name, or if he intended these tracks (minus “Love for Sale”) to wind up as they did on the Jazz Track grab bag. If he’d only scheduled a second session and knocked out three more tunes, he would have had yet another classic album under his belt. “Dolphin St.” and “Stella” are superlative. “Love for Sale” is a lot of fun, too.

The live ’58 dates have their flaws. The July 3 appearance of the sextet at Newport is marred by hurtling tempos (slowed only by “Fran Dance”) and a lack of subtlety; such is the case when you’re playing for a ragtag crowd who wants to spill beverages and tap their feet. Paul Chambers’ bass is totally undermixed. (Hilarious omen: George Wein’s intro request for somebody to “tell Chambers to stop messing with the mikes.”) A larger bass presence may have solidified this breakneck music, but as it is, it’s a horn-heavy blowfest. Evans barely registers either. The one obvious thing is that Coltrane had outgrown Miles’ boundaries. His sheets of sound are in effect on “Ah Leu Cha” and “Bye Bye Blackbird”. Cobb pounds hard, but you almost wish Elvin Jones would show up and make the transition official.

In September, the sextet appeared at a record company function and blew through a handful of favorites: “If I Were a Bell”, “Oleo”, “My Funny Valentine”, and “Straight No Chaser”. Coltrane still has the leash taut, and it’s no wonder upon listening to this stuff why he went on to devise his “Giant Steps” matrix. On “Oleo”, he trounces the rhythm changes as much as they can bear, and then Cannonball steps up with no intention of being out-noted. Between the two of them, they play thousands of notes - clock a bar of eighth notes and do the math - and I’m not sure it adds up to anything besides an incredible display of prowess, particularly when Cannonball worries the same phrases over and over. “My Funny Valentine” is nearly a concerto for Davis at this point, although the subpar sound hinders this track. The balance is off through most of the concert, occasionally righting itself into something presentable.

What else is scattered throughout this box? The ’55 session produced quick versions of “Two Bass Hit” and “Budo” along with a nice take on Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae”, which was revisited in a piano-less format three years later. The Someday My Prince tracks return Coltrane into the fold after his Atlantic triumphs, and he solos magnificently, but his head was elsewhere. Which brings us back to the beginning: this box is about Davis establishing himself artistically. We hear his classic first quintet and expanded sextet, and we hear him realize his musical ideals in the streamlined forms of “Milestones” and the Kind of Blue album. The live material doesn’t have the same import as the studio sides, strangely enough.

The booklet material is quite good, with commentary on the music, a Davis timeline, words from Evans and Cobb, and so on. Evans is praised only slightly in the main essay by Bob Blumenthal, who is clearly waiting for Wynton Kelly to arrive. How the 1961 quintet is some sort of rhythm section pinnacle is beyond me personally, but that’s another discussion.

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