Ironically, Davis’s signing with Columbia was the occasion for the recording of four legendary Prestige albums, the rights to which Concord Music Group obtained when it acquired Fantasy Records, which owned the masters. Davis had already recorded his first Columbia album, and he decided upon two marathon recording sessions to complete his contract with Prestige. Workin’, Relaxin', Cookin' and Steamin' were the results.
The Prestige masters of the four albums were produced by jazz’s most famous sound engineer, Rudy Van Gelder. And now Concord is releasing the RVG Series, which includes numerous unforgettable albums recorded in Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. Van Gelder, himself a master, has remastered these albums to take advantage of the advances in digital technology. Van Gelder knew the goals of the sessions and the placement of the musicians in his studio and the mix he initially strived to achieve. Now he has taken advantage of a second change to improve on what already had been a famous session.
Davis’s intentions were to record Workin’ as if the record buyer were experiencing a live performance in a nightclub, most specifically the Café Bohemia. Thus.... the inclusion of two versions of "The Theme," the minute-long closer that appears twice on Workin’ as if the album contained two halves of a club engagement.
Reportedly, Davis was calling the numbers in Van Gelder’s studio as he would in live performance before an audience. Thus, the freshness of the album remains, half a century later, as Workin’ teamed two to-be legends of jazz as their careers were accelerating. Of course, this pairing of giants, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, resulted three years later in the best-selling album of jazz, Kind of Blue.
Workin’ contains some tracks that remain landmarks in the development of jazz. Davis’s version of "It Never Entered My Mind," with Red Garland’s flowing patterns behind the trumpet’s introspective interpretation, is one of those recordings that embeds itself in the listener’s subconscious, as did, say, the entire Kind of Blue album, Benny Goodman’s "Sing Sing Sing," Dave Brubeck’s "Take Five," Ella Fitzgerald’s "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," Count Basie’s "April in Paris," Herbie Hancock’s "Dolphin Dance" or "Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit," to name just a few examples. However, by listening to Workin’, one realizes that Davis meant for "It Never Entered My Mind" to begin his imaginary nightclub set. The next track, "Four," has become a jazz standard, especially when Jon Hendricks added words.
Davis exhibits what one would expect to be uncharacteristic generosity during Workin’s "second set" when he includes first "Trane's Blues" and then "Ahmad’s Blues," tributes to two musicians Davis respected. Fortunately, of course, Coltrane was present to perform on the tune in his honor. The contrast between Davis’s understated style and Coltrane’s irrepressible exuberance results in a complementary balance arising from their mutual feeling for the music. Davis’s favorable impression of Ahmad Jamal’s relaxed, natural style is self-explanatory as the two musicians explored the nuances of space and implication, making listeners feel the music even when notes weren’t played.
Davis’s representation of the music as a nightclub gig reaches its highest point, after sustained build-up, when the quintet tackles Charlie Parker’s "Half Nelson," obviously a crowd-pleaser though a crowd was not present to hear the studio performance. At the climax of the logical song choices in Workin', the entire album consisting of a gradual elevation of intensity, Davis leaves the listeners wanting more.... which they got in the next album from the same session, Relaxin'. Then Miles Davis moved on to even greater, and much deserved, fame with his Columbia recordings.
Unusually enough, Workin’ is an example of a search for perfection by the recording engineer as well as by the recording artist. Though certainly receiving much less attention than Kind Of Blue or even Bitches Brew, Workin’ is restored for appreciation by a new generation of jazz enthusiasts.