The Time Is Right for Historic Early Miles Davis Collection
As usual, a major jazz catalog has traded corporate hands again. The new owners of Prestige Records concluded the recently re-released Best of (fill in the blank) collections did not receive the attention they deserved. Sure, whatever, but the upside for jazz fans is some nice new packaging and "collectible" bonus discs with each purchase. And the fact is you just can't go wrong with these classic recordings.
Prestige Profiles Vol 1 features Miles Davis and is chock full of bebop and post-bop gems. These hard-swinging blues-based compositions are balanced with imaginative improvisations. Folks, this is JAZZ! If your Miles Davis record collection only goes back to early Columbia releases, you must buy this representative earlier collection. The groundbreaking music he created during the early 1950s is the reason Columbia offered him the lucrative contract in the first place! His tone was universally praised: passionate, dark, mysterious, relaxed but dangerously adept. Gil Evans vividly described Miles' late-night sound as "hanging like a cloud". His phrasing was remarkably simple, symmetrical, and spacious. His timing was perfect. His impact was historic.
The only reason not to own Prestige Profiles, Vol 1, is that you already have the Prestige LPs: Blues Haze, Bags' Groove, Walkin', The Musings of Miles, Miles, Relaxin', and Steamin'. Inevitably, the sidemen vary somewhat here, but their musical proficiency certainly does not. A retrospective collection like this is a great way to sample several of his early configurations.
The first track, "A Night In Tunisia," is an excellent cover of the Gillespie composition. It opens like a cool film noir, with enigmatic bells and other percussion by Philly Joe Jones and slow pizzicato bass chords by Oscar Pettiford. All of a sudden, Miles dispels the mood with a few intense horn blasts. Pianist Red Garland musters the men for a full-sail pursuit.
"I'll Remember April" showcases a metal-muted Miles. He starts right in with the full ensemble which splinters into several hot harmonies forming an intricately woven tapestry. The song is subtle. If you really listen, they're flying faster and hotter than it seems. Miles and his merry men make it look easy.
"Surrey With The Fringe On Top" from the 1943 Broadway hit musical, "Oklahoma!" presents Miles' classy and classic treatment of standard songs. His horn is still muted, somewhat slurred, and so, so cool. After stating the theme, John Coltrane on sax proves more exploratory, then pianist Red Garland locks it back into a sultry swing, eventually restates the melody, and hands it over to Miles, who simmers it just a little longer. Rodgers & Hart's "I Could Write A Book" originally appeared in the 1940 musical "Pal Joey." The song remains a standard thanks to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Les Brown, Harry Connick, Jr and.... well, everybody, but Miles version is still unequaled. When it comes to jazz remakes of beloved Broadway tunes, these are two of the finest.
"Doxy" is a post-bop masterpiece from Bags' Groove, a sassy, sexy, slow-dance featuring more great solos from all. The exchanges between Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver are particularly arresting. In his liner notes, Eugene Holley, Jr. claims "Walkin'" launched the post-bop movement, infused from the beginning with Miles' signature "East St. Louis blues feeling". The song is a typical 12-bar blues full of atypical performances, particularly J.J. Johnson's immortal solos. The slow tempo and far-reaching solos make for a very long song. On the outro section, right before simmering down, you'll hear some of the highest notes of Miles' recorded career. Unfortunately, this particular recording is saturated with more room reflection than normal for engineer Rudy Van Gelder, almost to the point of distraction (but perhaps only to tempermental audiophiles).
"Airegin" (Nigeria spelled backwards) features minor chords and a Latin feel presaging Miles' Sketches of Spain, which came five years later. Miles is sometimes portrayed as the straight guy. Rollins really nails this one, but then he should, it's his composition. "Oleo", another famous Rollins composition, is unusually upbeat and uplifting for Miles. This recording captures the legendary depth of understanding between him and Coltrane. Bassist Paul Chambers comes out swinging and never lets up.
The road-tested "Theme" was known to live audiences in the early to mid 1950s as the band's set-closer; custom-made to leave people wanting more. Holley accurately called it as a "peppy two-step bebop full of energy and swing." Mr. P.C. graces another timeless tune with one of his longest and finest bass solos anywhere. Listen close on a good sound system. "When Lights Are Low" was written by Benny Carter, whose big band Miles played in for awhile. Apparently this fairly straight-forward ballad made a big impression on the younger Miles. It certainly makes for a nice ending to a great compilation.
The Miles Davis was the whole package: a great sound, a great song sense, an intuitive ability to detect brilliant sidemen, a savvy business sense, a prophetic sense of style, and unforgettable attitude. Absolutely essential listening for all music fans. Even those with only a casual interest in jazz will enjoy this masterpiece.
The bonus disc is a near-perfect compilation in its own rite. The tracks all correlate thematically to Miles Davis, though some more obviously than others. Featuring essential Prestige singles by Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, Red Garland, Gil Evans, John Coltrane, and Art Farmer/Donald Byrd
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.