Sunday, March 1, 2020

Miles Davis - Changes: The 1955 Sessions - Simon Spillett Notes [Acrobat ADDCD3148]

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It's always a splendid occasion when Simon Spillett “stops at” the editorial offices of JazzProfiles and “brings along” another of his well-thought out and well-written booklet note essays to post on these pages.

Simon Spillett is a Jazz tenor saxophonist who heads up his own UK based quartet and big band, as well as, being an authority on the music of many of the great Jazz musicians from the second half of the 20th century, both in Great Britain and in the USA.

He is the author of The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes which Equinox has recently published in a second edition. You can locate my review of it by going here.

In addition to fronting his own quartet and big band, Simon has won several awards for his music, including the tenor saxophone category of the British Jazz Awards (2011), Jazz Journal magazine, Critic's Choice CD of the Year (2009) and Rising Star in the BBC Jazz Awards (2007).

Simon has previously shared essays on Hank Mobley, Hank with Miles Davis, Booker Erwin, Stan Getz, Jim Hall and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. on this page.

Simon has his own website which you can visit via this link.
© -  Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.

“Miles Davis concluded a most successful year in 1955 from many standpoints. His playing was sharper than it had been in some time and as lyrical and probing as ever. Critics and fans alike re-acclaimed him as the leading trumpeter in numerous articles and several polls.”
- Ira Gitler, sleeve note to Miles.

“What're they talking about? I just played the way I always play.”
- Miles Davis, sleeve note to Blue Moods.

“In … [a]  sense, Newport [1955] – and even the formation of a new, regular group – changed Davis not one bit, at least not musically; he continued to hone his music, as he always had. But if there was a difference, it was in how he was now seen by others. Indeed, 1955 can be viewed as the watershed when Miles Davis – bop trumpeter, beloved of the cognoscenti – became Miles Davis, prince of cool, barometric style icon and, dare it be said, a figure visible for the first time on white America's cultural radar.  Perhaps more than any other Afro-American musical figure, Davis represented the face of ascendant black affluence and attainment.” 
- Simon Spillet


“It was hailed as one of the greatest comebacks the jazz world had ever seen, but like every step taken by Miles Davis on his ground-breaking musical journey, the trumpeters sensational “relaunch” at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival was part of much more complex continuum of artistic creation and reinvention. For the perpetually mercurial Davis, musical innovation was never a simple case of before and after. Indeed, sixty years on, and with the enormous benefit of hindsight and wider perspective, it is now possible to view the recordings he made surrounding the Newport gig – all too often talked down in jazz histories, or at best merely overlooked – in a fresh light, the link between the old and the new. 1955 would close with the début of the new Miles Davis Quintet, a band destined to become one of the most widely influential small groups within the music, and an outfit that was also to define the working modus operandi Davis would utilize for much of the following twelve years. The albums he taped immediately prior to the quintet’s launch, however, tell a somewhat different story, with the trumpeter engaged in a fascinated search for instrumentations, sonic textures and new playing partners - changing, revamping, evolving from session to session. These shifting line-ups included a burning bop-based sextet, delivering potent evidence of the lessons Davis had learned from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; a unique never-to-be-repeated piano-less combo utilizing trombone and vibes and a stunning quartet, capable of generating equal parts fire and ice. Gathered together, they form a valuable documentary of a transitional year; prototypical milestones marking the way toward future innovations. This release comes complete with period photographs and an in-depth essay by saxophonist and author Simon Spillett.”

Round About Newport: The Road to 1955

“Miles played thrillingly and indicated his comeback was in full stride.”  

In a mere eleven words the August 1955 issue of DownBeat magazine had perfectly encapsulated in print the reaction of many of those who'd heard the trumpeter at Rhode Island's Newport Jazz Festival the previous month.  But to Davis himself, these were words that just didn't ring true. “What do you mean comeback?” he upbraided DownBeat's editor Jack Tracy soon after. “I never went anywhere.”

There was a strong argument for both cases; to observers like Tracy, Newport had been a turning point. If not quite reversing Davis's fortunes overnight, then it had certainly augured well for the  future. A late addition to a group also featuring Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims, he had been the hit of the festival, mesmerising those present with a rendition of Monk's Round About Midnight. The choice of song was especially apt; Tracy wasn't the only one to think the trumpeters career had been rescued in its eleventh hour.

In fact, Davis's visibility as a front-rank jazz figure had been open to question ever since the beginning of the decade. After the ground-breaking (and perhaps too ahead of its time) work he had set down with his nonet for Capitol Records during 1949-50 – the famed “Birth of the Cool” - things had gone seriously awry. He had become a serious drug user; he couldn't maintain a regular band and worked only sporadically. And, while big on releasing regular product, his record contract for the independent label Prestige, to whom he'd signed in 1951, had thus far yielded only a handful of sessions that could truly be called classic. To some among DownBeat's readership, Davis's patented egg-shell-tender brand of trumpet had even been done better by somebody else. In 1953, Chet Baker had topped the magazines annual popularity poll, coming almost from out of nowhere to eclipse the man who he had begun by emulating. “It was the same old story,” Davis remembered later. “Black shit was being ripped off all over again.” 

Sour grapes swallowed, he couldn't deny that Baker's victory was confirmation that the vanguard of the music had now gone elsewhere, at least in the eyes of the public. Former Birth of the Cool collaborator Gerry Mulligan, with whose quartet Baker had shot to fame, was riding the crest of West Coast Jazz (a movement largely unimaginable without Davis's Capitol sides), while back in New York, gospel and blues influences were transforming pure Bebop into Hard Bop, in turn spawning the twin dynasties of the Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet. The message was clear; steady bands, led by business-like leaders with clear musical agendas, were in. Scuffling, peripatetic, junkie soloists were not.

While there was a vague outline of truth to these misconceptions, Davis's declaration that he “didn't go anywhere” - meaning his musical growth hadn't stopped dead - also had a certain validity. Throughout the early 1950s, often in the most trying of circumstances, he had continued to hone his art. If his recordings of the period – mostly on Prestige, with the odd sortie for Blue Note – hadn't collectively had quite the seismic affect as the Birth of the Cool material, within their scatter-shot remit (during this period he taped sessions with everyone from Al Cohn to Thelonious Monk) there had been several notable landmarks – Walkin' from 1954, the session with Sonny Rollins that produced Oleo and Doxy, and several masterful blues solos, including Bags Groove, Bluing and Blue Haze, had all confirmed that far from weakening, the trumpeter was, in fact, still on the up. 

If this were the case musically, it certainly was not true of Davis's personal life. For much of the first four years of the decade, narcotic dependence had held more sway over his decisions than artistic ambition. The years 1950 to 1953 were littered with stories of junk-oriented self-centredness; pawning his horn, Davis would borrow Art Farmer's for record dates; he would steal from friends like Clark Terry, and, periodically, when things hit rock bottom, had even taken to pimping in order to make his fix. “I was what I used to call 'a professional junkie,'” Davis remembered of this time. “That's all I lived for.”

In 1953, he returned to his family home in St. Louis, and underwent an agonising week of  successful “cold turkey” withdrawal. As his health steadied, music once more became the focus. “I sat down and started thinking about how I was going to get my life back together,” he told Quincy Troupe in 1989, “which wasn't going to be an easy task.”

Indeed, despite being clean, New York's jungle telegraph still hummed with ill-informed rumours about the trumpeters habit. “I think my name in the clubs was still shit, and a lot of critics probably still thought I was a junkie,” he later said. “I wasn't real popular at this time, but that began to change after I played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.”

Whether they are aware of it or not, all great jazz musicians have  a “breakthrough” year. A handful even have such a bent for reinvention that these breakthroughs can occur not once but several times. John Coltrane's year was 1960, as was Ornette Coleman's. Charlie Parker's was 1945, Gerry Mulligan's 1953, but for Miles Davis the year of ascent was 1955. He had begun it signed to a small, well-meaning but occasionally chaotic record label – he ended it signed to Columbia Records, one of the major players in the US record industry, and a company with all the necessary publicity machinery to guarantee him greater exposure. But it wasn't just Newport that turned the trick.

In March 1955, Charlie Parker had died, halted finally, aged just thirty four, by years of hard living excess. From their very first meeting in 1945 up until his death, Parker had been a huge presence in Davis's life. In the beginning, he had taken the shy young trumpeter under his wing and helped him establish himself on the the New York club circuit, but as Davis grew musically so too did his frustration with Parker's larger-than-life, indulgent self. Throughout the trumpeters autobiography, Parker plays a dark, inconsistent role: part mentor, part idol, part repulsive symbol of bop's Rabelaisian excesses -  the ultimate love/hate union. Describing the impact of Parker's passing, Davis reveals that he didn't even bother attend the saxophonist's funeral, closing the subject with the words “Bird was dead and I had to go on with my life.”

Parker's death had also freed Davis of a musical conscience that had hung over him – and jazz -  for a decade. Finally out from the saxophonists imposing shadow, from 1955 to 1960 the music would splinter, fragment and diversify like never before, expanding its territory with a rapidity that was astonishing. Davis would do much the same. Parker had also been the ultimate musical lone-wolf – the uber-soloist – able to unfurl his virtuosity in virtually any setting, as his Norman Granz-produced recordings had confirmed. The 1950s were, however, to be the age of the jazz group. The Modern Jazz Quartet, Brown-Roach Inc., the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, the Jazz Messengers, the Jimmy Guiffre Three, the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims Quintet, the Horace Silver Quintet, the Chico Hamilton Quintet and the Ornette Coleman Quartet would all launch - and reach their first-incarnation apexes - within a few years of each other, but in 1955, nobody could name a classic, regular Miles Davis-led band. Even in the weeks immediately after his Newport “comeback,” his remained a name more associated with a casual stock company of players than a regular, easily identifiable line-up. And yet, almost ironically, an evening which had been anything but well-organised had also sowed the seeds of the first great Miles Davis group.

“When I got off the bandstand [at Newport], everybody was looking at me like I was a king or something,” Davis recalled in the 1980s. “People were running up to me offering me record deals.” This was a typical Davis-styled exaggeration; although it's true that Columbia Records executive George Avakian did shake hands on a deal to move the trumpeter from Prestige that very night, as Avakian's notes to Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-61 (Sony Music  88697856222) make clear, Davis himself had already been suggesting the idea for several years. Newport had been the clincher, Avakian confirmed, but alongside offering to negotiate the release from Prestige, he had another qualifier; “Your sound is unique, but your bands always sound different,”  he told his new signing. “What you need first now is a group that you can hold together.”

Whatever line-up Davis chose, it certainly wasn't going to be the all-star one with which he had just appeared; listening back the Newport set shows it to be archetypal festival fare - a slightly mismatched group thrown together and simply left to get on with it jam-session fashion, in fact not all that far removed from the casual modus operandi of some of the trumpeters own recordings in recent years. Even Davis's famed 'Round About Midnight solo – the very thing on which the gigs legendary status hangs - now sounds more than a little messy. (The songs composer Thelonious Monk certainly thought so; the two men had an argument about Davis's interpretation on their journey back to New York, ending with the pianist refusing to travel any further together.) 

However, one of the trumpeters latest recordings had provided something that might serve as a blueprint for a possible full-time unit. In June, he had taped a quartet session featuring pianist Red Garland -  a lightly swinging, easy-on-the-ear player - and drummer Philly Joe Jones, a dynamic performer with whom he had developed a close musical rapport. The music they played had been equal parts fire and ice, unadulterated modern jazz and yet still dance-friendly. Could this be the basis for a new band? 

Over the remainder of the summer of 1955, it was business as usual for Davis. That meant continuing to work and record with varying line-ups, up until he had a new unit firmly in place. But with so much attention focused on the Newport/Columbia axis and the quintet he would from the following autumn, history has not always been quite so attentive to his other activities at this point. Indeed, the four albums he taped over the course of the year have often been overlooked, undervalued, or dismissed as having little overall relevance in the trumpeters career arc. Eclipsed by the vaunted reputation of the “contract clearing” sessions taped for the label the following year (Cookin'/Relaxin'/Workin'/Steamin'), his three Prestige LPs from 1955 – The Musings of Miles, Quintet/Sextet and Miles – certainly showcase an artist in transition; as noted, the first, the quartet set from June, is very much a dry-run of the methods Davis would employ for much of the remainder of the decade. On the other hand, the quintet and sextet session from August – which find Davis surrounded by a clutch of boppers – stands almost as a farewell to the blow-and-go format in which he had specialised during his time at the label. And while not chronologically the first by his new quintet (that had been for Columbia in October but would remain untapped until 1957) November's session was nevertheless the first of the outfits albums to be released, paving the way for greater triumphs to come.

The ringer in this sequence is Blue Moods, taped for the Debut label a week before the Newport gig, and a session which creates an atmosphere all its own by pairing Davis with an unusual line-up containing several players with whom he'd rarely (if ever) worked. This experiment wasn't wholly successful though, yielding a mere thirty minutes of music, which, if it were possible, actually overplayed Davis's skill as a balladeer.

Despite their diversity, all of these records highlight the folly of attempting to bracket Davis's work as “pre” and “post” Newport. For example, the delicacy of There Is No Greater Love, from the November session, is also present in I See Your Face Before Me, taped in June. In this sense, Newport – and even the formation of a new, regular group – changed Davis not one bit, at least not musically; he continued to hone his music, as he always had. But if there was a difference, it was in how he was now seen by others. Indeed, 1955 can be viewed as the watershed when Miles Davis – bop trumpeter, beloved of the cognoscenti – became Miles Davis, prince of cool, barometric style icon and, dare it be said, a figure visible for the first time on white America's cultural radar.  Perhaps more than any other Afro-American musical figure, Davis represented the face of ascendant black affluence and attainment. 

Clearly knowing his own worth, he was also now the sort of big-deal star that Prestige wouldn't have been able to hang onto even if they'd wanted to. He no longer belonged at a label who made their records in somebody's living room and who paid scale. Fortunately, countering the usual misconceptions and fears about money corrupting art, Davis was to blossom musically as well as financially under Columbia's aegis, a fact once pithily commented on by the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, who remarked that the trumpeter “plays all right for a millionaire.” 

However, the most valuable thing post-Newport 1955 had brought Davis – fiscal guarantees aside – was a certain elevated cachet. Even those who had formerly been asleep to his talent now woke up, and, in a move not uncommon in jazz, his older records soon found themselves being recycled and repackaged; in 1957, Capitol Records collated its recordings of Davis' 1949-50 nonet on an LP with the title Birth of The Cool, the first time they had been collectively referred to as such. The cover photo showed a now classic view of the trumpeter – sunglasses-screened, cool personified, as it were – an image closely allied to the cover photograph used on his first Columbia LP, Round About Midnight, released that same year. The shades also made an appearance on the cover of Prestige's Quintet/Sextet. Miles Davis, it was clear, was now as much a brand as a sound. 

He had travelled this journey in a little under two years. Documenting the moment of transition, and illustrating how in Davis's  hands “cool” meant everything from burning bebop to blues and Broadway ballads, his 1955 recordings deserve a better appraisal than being seen as mere “fillers.”
Gathered together here, they make an intriguing collection of milestones, marking the road to the further discoveries ahead. And while nobody could argue that they contain anything a genre-defining as Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew, likewise nobody could deny their candour. Sometimes flawed, yet always emotionally honest, they consistently capture what was perhaps Davis's greatest gift, one that remained unaltered throughout his life; a talent for being no-one but himself.

The Sessions

Miles Davis Quartet
Miles Davis (trumpet); Red Garland (piano); Oscar Pettiford (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums)
June 7th 1955, Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally issued on Prestige PRLP 7007 – The Musings Of Miles

First issued as the 12 inch album The Musings of Miles, the quartet session Davis headed at Rudy Van Gelder's living room studio at Hackensack early in June 1955 is often seen as the juncture between the 'old' and the 'new' Miles.
Although, on the surface, its contents may seem no more 'transitional' than his previous quartet sessions for the label (originally released on a 10” LP  but reissued in 1956 on the 12” album Blue Haze), there are clear signs of things to come; with both Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland present, two thirds of the Davis' soon-to-be-legendary rhythm section were already in place, and in the albums well-paced mix of bebop and danceable appropriations of popular songs there existed the outline of the format for the future Cookin'/Relaxin'/Workin'/Steamin' series. 

However, coming just ahead of those classic sets (Musings was the first Davis' 12 inch not to merely recycle already released material), the albums merits have become somewhat obscured. One major reference work, The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings even called it “lacklustre,” describing how Philly Joe Jones and bassist Oscar Pettiford were (allegedly) either high or drunk during the session. “Miles is left to hold the music together, playing rather grimly.”
Quite how one can detect anything grim in Davis's blithe reading of Will You Still Be Mine? is moot, although, in the Penguin Guide's defence, within the intimate, close-to-the-mic interpretation of I See Your Face Before Me there are moments when the trumpeters famed musical introspection sounds more like diffidence. (Apparently, there were also tape speed problems during the session).

There were other, perhaps more subliminal messages, that may have given rise to the albums hard-to-pin-down status; although he was to go on to question the practise of appending text to the rear of his albums, the sleeves notes on Davis's LPs later on in the decade were, in general, artfully disguised publicity puff. Anybody reading the rear sleeve of, say, Cookin' or Steamin' would be in no doubt that the record they were holding was an important document of Davis's musical growth. Ira Gitler's note to The Musings Of Miles, however, gave nothing more than a précis of the trumpeters past and brief snatches of his recent thoughts on subjects ranging from drummers to boxing. The music within the sleeve wasn't discussed at all. (This is neither the time nor the place to explore this further, but it is intriguing how, even though sleeve notes are often readily dismissed, even by those with an interest in jazz, those accompanying many 'classic' jazz releases have entered into the listeners psyche alongside the music. Just think of Kind of Blue.)

Davis himself was in no doubt about what the session was all about. “It was a nice little album,” he told Quincy Troupe, “and it really showed [pianist Ahmad] Jamal's influence on me at the time. Both 'A Gal In Calico' and 'Will You Still Be Mine'  were tunes that Jamal always played, and with Red playing with that Jamal feeling, we go close on that album to what I wanted to hear. That kind of melodic understatement that Jamal had, that lightness, we put into this album.”

Make no mistake though, this was Jamal as filtered by Davis, not some vain attempt to graft the trumpeters concepts onto those of another distinctive individual.

The sessions opener, I Didn't, Davis's improvised answer to Thelonious Monk's Well, You Needn't, is a case in point. Garland's overt, locked-hands, tribute to Jamal is only one part of the whole; Davis's solo meanwhile finds him broaching a new language pitched somewhere between cool and Hard Bop, in effect setting down the signature that would mark his music for the next eight years or so.

On Green Haze – a follow-up to the previous years Blue Haze – he again demonstrates his qualifications as one of the music’s greatest blues improvisers (“I like me some blues”), chalking up the latest in a line of classic solos beginning with Now's The Time, through Israel, Down, Bags' Groove and beyond. 

That Davis could be as hot as he was cool is particularly evident on this session; A Night In Tunisia may well be a firm nod towards his bop roots, but Davis's vision of Dizzy Gillespie's famed piece of exotica is oddly abstracted. Philly Joe Jones rattles a tambourine, Oscar Pettiford creates a powerful double-stopping foundation, while the leaders solo unfolds with patience and grace. The performance also gives ample evidence of another of the trumpeters great gifts; the knack for choosing just the right tempo for a song. At a time when Tunisia had increasingly become an over-fast vehicle for grandstanding (witness its development in Art Blakey's bands), Davis preferred a more gentle lope, something not indicative of any technical weakness but rather a reminder that, as a nineteen year old, the trumpeter had played on Parker's original Dial recording, taken at a similar tempo.

Tempo is equally important on the sessions ballad, I See Your Face Before Me, delivered in a near-whisper from behind Davis's harmon mute. The choice of song was almost as telling as its delivery; in his autobiography, Davis had openly admitted to the influence of Frank Sinatra on his ballad work (“I learned how to phrase by listening to Frank, his concept of phrasing.”) and his choice of material - especially so at this point - would often directly mirror  that on the singers recordings. Sinatra had taped his version of the Schwartz-Dietz song in February 1955, for the Capitol album In The Wee Small Hours, issued just two months before Davis chose to record it. (Future Davis sideman John Coltrane's choice of popular songs – My Favourite Things aside – also betrayed a knowledge of Sinatra's discography).

In this collection alone, besides Face, one finds other Sinatra associated material; There's No You, S'posin' and How Am I To Know were all songs in which “The Voice” took an interest, but whereas the vocalists settings for these pieces were generally large-scale and grand, Davis got to the emotional marrow of the material in a far more low-key way.  The effect remained the same though; this was music to romance to.

(In an interestingly amusing tale, recounted to this writer, a veteran Miles fan was, as a young man, thrown out of his girlfriends' parents house for playing “music to seduce by.” The record providing all the action – or as it soon transpired not – was none other than Davis's recording of I See Your Face Before Me.)

The Musings of Miles also provided yet more proof of the leaders skilful ability to balance his own delicacy with the work of players of a far more assertive nature. Philly Joe Jones – who Davis once called “the fire that was making a lot of that shit happen” - was perhaps the finest of the second-wave of modern jazz drummers to have followed the Clarke/Roach/Blakey triumvirate, a fact he demonstrates equally well at either end of the speed spectrum. Listen to his brushes on I Didn't, for example, or to how he maintains the sense of relaxed groove on  Green Haze. He also had all the necessary muscle to handle Oscar Pettiford's pushy contributions. Throughout the session, the bassist seems determined to have his way, fitfully breaking away from the traditional role expected of him to poke, prod and, at times, harry the leader. Green Haze contains arguably his best work of the date, a moody blues solo full of expressive, horn-like phrasing.

In between the heaviness of characters like Pettiford and Jones, Red Garland's blithe playing provides Musings with one of its greatest plus points. As several writers have observed of Davis's bands in the mid-1950s to early 1960s, the trumpeter required at least one “light-relief man” (the term is Jon Voysey's) on board. Cannonball Adderley was often said to occupy this role during his time in Davis' 1958 sextet, in which he bridged the gap between the rather more earnest musings of his leader, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Pianist Wynton Kelly would do much the same thing in Davis's various quintets around 1959/61, following on from where his predecessor Red Garland had left off.

Indeed, so consistent, carefree and breezy was Garland's work with Davis that his time with the band became something of a mixed blessing; on the up side, it raised the pianist to a position of career prominence he would never enjoy again, in turn leading to a recording contract of his own and a series of solidly played albums for Prestige. On the other hand, set alongside such heavyweights as Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones, he was all too easy to overlook. 

The fault was never Garland's though, and as his playing on Musings shows in spades, even early on all the key aspects of his style were firmly in place. Not only were the fashionable Jamal-isms balanced out by equal borrowings from the Bud Powell school (particularly in the right hand lines), the pianist had brought something of even more inestimable value to the table  - incredible skill as an accompanist. Throughout the June 7th date, not only does he shadow his leader with uncanny understanding, he locks together beautifully with Jones's powerful drumming, creating the beginnings of one of the greatest rhythm section partnerships jazz had yet seen.

Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis (trumpet); Britt Woodman (trombone); Teddy Charles (vibraphone); Charles Mingus (bass); Elvin Jones (drums)
July 9th 1955, Audio-Video Studios, New York City
Originally issued on Debut DEB 120 – Blue Moods

Although supposedly “exclusive” Davis' contract with Prestige was open to a certain amount of leeway, as was illustrated when he recorded three 10” LPs for Blue Note over 1952-1954.

By 1955, the 10” format – with which the record industry had introduced 33 1/3 rpm vinyl - was already beginning to be phased out in favour of the upgraded 12” option. Jazz – and modern jazz in particular – expanded into this new vacuum like a balloon. There were drawbacks though: extending an albums playing time also meant altering the width of records grooves – compressing them could ultimately lead to a loss of audio quality – and as a consequence, some record labels edged rather gingerly towards the idea of recording lengthy performances.

Prestige had been among the first to release albums of extended performances (Gerry Mulligan's Mulligan's Too made in late 1951, clocked in at 17 minutes) but Debut Records – the company bassist Charles Mingus had launched in 1952 in order to escape what he saw as the paralysing effect of many of the days record  “producers” - were somewhat slower off the mark. Indeed, the one-off session Miles Davis headed for the label early in July 1955 marked their first effort in the 12” format. Not only was the record a departure for Davis, and the label, it was also something of a technological anomaly; recorded at New York's Audio-Video Studios, the album was cut at 160 lines per inch (other companies favoured 210-260 lines) meaning the resulting grooves were wider, allowing for greater depth and clarity of sound. The down-side of this method was that the finalised master was remarkably brief, having a playing time of less than half an hour. All this technical minutiae, however,  remained undisclosed when the resulting LP – titled Blue Moods – was released later that year, subsequently leading to misconceptions that the session had been either a) truncated because it wasn't a success, or  b) was originally intended to be issued as a 10” format. Worst of all, Debut's first extended effort appeared to seriously short-change the listener. 

Some of these accusations clung, leaving Blue Moods low down on the list of desirable Miles Davis acquisitions, even for the most ardent of fans. However, there were other reasons for its neglect; even the trumpeter himself found the album hard going. “Something went wrong on this session and nothing ever really clicked, so the playing didn't have any fire,” he remembered in his autobiography. “I don't know what it was – maybe the arrangements – but something went wrong.”

There is no doubt that Blue Moods represents one of the most unusual recorded projects from Davis's acoustic years (rivalled only by his 1962 collaboration with vocalist Bob Dorough). It is also made all the more intriguing for being the record made closest to his Newport triumph, which occurred a mere eight days later. On the surface, the unusual instrumentation – a front line of trombone and vibes with a piano-less rhythm section – the mix of musical personalities present (proto-Third Stream exponent Teddy Charles and Ellingtonian Britt Woodman) and a somewhat doom-laden repertoire all conspire to give the album a never-to-be-repeated aura. 

Or do they? Bill Coss's sleeve notes to the original Debut release, issued soon after the Newport re-launch, perpetuate the Davis “myth” as well as any of the proselytising, partisan annotation on the trumpeters later albums.“The pensive Miles,” Coss reported, had been taciturn and detached on his way to the studio, with “his one major comment; 'I hope I won't have to hit Mingus on the mouth.'”

Perhaps this was the source of sessions' air of tightly-coiled tension?
With its concentration on ballads, the date promised to afford the trumpeter a chance to play his strongest hand, with at least one of the pieces performed seeming such ideal territory for the Davis that it is surprising he had never tackled it before. But if the slowly brooding take of the Nat Cole-associated Nature Boy, mournfully outlined over the unusual sonic texture of Charles's chiming vibraphone, Mingus's arco bass and Woodman's trombone, were the sessions jewel, then Easy Living was its diamond in the rough. Yet again, Davis was edging into singer-land; Peggy Lee had recorded her gentle, confessional version of the song just two years earlier for the landmark album Black Coffee (among the first “concept” albums, although not acknowledged as such at the time) but in Teddy Charles' arrangement the theme now took on an almost dream-like atmosphere. Although the mute, the mood and even the title (the living was certainly about to get a lot easier for Davis) all point to the way ahead, in Charles Mingus's wayward bass, Davis was having to confront a very real, here-and-now problem.  Was Mingus drunk, angry or high? Were those really “alternative” chord changes or was he lost? Was this the same kind of ego-stung tantrum he was later to pull when recording with Duke Ellington and Max Roach (the album Money Jungle). We'll probably never know.

As Bill Coss highlighted in his original notes, Blue Moods had also enabled Ellington slide-man Britt Woodman to briefly step into the limelight. The trombonist and Mingus had been associates since the bassists time on the West Coast in the 1940s and would continue to work together on occasion in the years ahead, but at the time of this session Woodman was at his peak; listen to the Lawrence Brown-like purity of his theme statement on Alone Together (a chart featuring an interesting renegotiation of the harmony in the songs middle eight bars) or, for a slightly more expansive example of his improvisational skills, the swing-to-bop solo he unfurls on There's No You. 
Discographers might also note that, despite it seeming an unlikely occurrence, this session was not the sole on-record meeting of Woodman and Elvin Jones; the two would share a studio during the making of John Coltrane's 1961 album Africa/Brass.

Here, the drummer is in the early stages of his development, yet to become the poly-rhythmic powerhouse he was to be a decade hence. “You know that motherfucker can put fire up under anybody,” Davis once said of Jones, although in this case the drummer is required to smoulder more than burn. There is a brief snatch of his embryonic solo style during the four bar exchanges on There's No You, but elsewhere he keeps firmly in the background.

Miles Davis Quintet/Sextet
Miles Davis (trumpet); Jackie McLean (alto sax); Milt Jackson (vibraphone); Ray Bryant (piano); Percy Heath (bass); Arthur Taylor (drums)
August 5th 1955, Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally issued on Prestige PRLP  7034 - Miles Davis and Milt Jackson Quintet/Sextet

Back in Hackensack, post-Newport and, almost as importantly, post-Bird. “I wanted a bebop sound,” Davis said of the afternoon session that produced the album Quintet/Sextet. But despite its superficial resemblance to earlier line-ups Davis had led in New York's clubland (a surviving broadcast from Birdland in 1952 features the trumpeter and McLean in a sextet also including Don Elliott on vibes) the music played at Van Gelder's that day was no mere recreation of past glories. For one thing, Davis's attitude was certainly a far cry from what it had been earlier in the decade, especially where tolerating his colleagues junk-filled existences were concerned. “Jackie [McLean] got so high he got terrified he couldn't play,” the leader remembered in his autobiography. “I don't know what that shit was all about, but after this date, I never used Jackie again.”

When Davis ridiculed McLean for his up-tight reactions, the altoist simply packed up his horn and left, leaving Quintet/Sextet to become – as its title betrays – very much an album of two halves.

McLean's two contributions – Minor March and Dr. Jackle – are what might be termed second-wave bop and at once create an atmosphere far removed from the lugubrious solemnity of Blue Moods. Dr. Jackle (slower than the version Davis would record for the Columbia album Milestones in 1958) is an intense blues, kicking off an energised round of solos by the front-line, each spurred on by the rhythm section of Ray Bryant, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, while Minor March (anything but martial) is a dark exercise in broken melody and rhythmic intricacy, sounding for all the world like a sketch for McLean's later Little Melonae. Alongside Jackson's fluid inventions and Davis's gear-changing economy, its composer reveals as much debt to Sonny Rollins as Charlie Parker. McLean's tone, however, is already his own - a tart, cutting sound that was to grow ever more unconventional as the saxophonist matured.

Unconventional is the word, too, for the Thad Jones's original Bitty Ditty, one of two quintet items taped after McLean had departed. Davis's recording of the theme pre-dates that of its composer by a mere six days (taped for the Debut label). It is also one of the best recordings with which to counter those who argue against Davis' technical skills; not only does he faultlessly negotiate Jones's complex written line, he also makes perfect sense of its underlying solo structure, throwing down an impressive gauntlet to both Milt Jackson and pianist Ray Bryant, who both follow him with inventive solos.

Indeed, Bryant's contribution here – and throughout the session – calls for something of a revision of his talents. Like his near-contemporary Bobby Timmons, the pianist was to ride high on the “soul jazz” wave of the early 1960s, scoring hugely popular hits with Little Susie and The Madison Time, but, again like Timmons, this sudden interest in the funkier aspects of his art led to a sad and unnecessary critical neglect of the other, subtler facets of his work.

Bryant's work on Quintet/Sextet shows a player steeped not only in bop and the blues, but one of the first 1950s modernists to have openly retained something of the Swing Era elegance of Teddy Wilson. Miles Davis was not the only big-hitter to appreciate these skills; Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie would both use Bryant on key recordings around this time (Rollins' Work Time and Gillespie's Sonny Side Up), although, unlike Davis, neither saw fit to tap the pianists fund of compositional ideas. Changes is Bryant's graceful appropriation of some of bop's most-cliched harmonic devices, drawing from Davis a well-paced, muted improvisation that avoids all the pitfalls of “running the changes.” The composer’s own solo is similarly lyrical; listen especially to his deft  left hand accents. “Everyone seems to reach for and find a sad, reflective beauty that gets you 'there.'” wrote Ira Gitler of this performance in his original sleeve notes.  

Not everything had gone smoothly though; Davis's autobiography revealed that drummer Art Taylor had some difficulty with some of the material played on this session, although there is nothing in the surviving recordings to suggest any uncertainty. In fact, despite his relative newcomer status (“[he] has come on swiftly” reported Ira Gitler's notes) Taylor reveals himself to be a model of consistency. Davis certainly held him in the highest regard, to the extent that, when Philly Joe Jones's substance abuse caused periodic bouts of absence from the trumpeters quintet later in the decade A.T. was always the first-call replacement. Prestige's Bob Weinstock also recognised Taylor's solid capability; between 1955 and 1957, as virtual “house” drummer for the label, Taylor would appear on over thirty albums. Many of those recordings would feature him alongside his sometime colleague in the Davis quintet, bassist Paul Chambers, but here it is the redoubtable Percy Heath – of MJQ fame - who is his rhythm partner.

Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis (trumpet); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Red Garland (piano); Paul Chambers (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums)
November 16th 1955, Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally issued on Prestige PRLP 7014 - Miles

Who would you believe? The meddling, not-always-transparent, wise-talking record producer, who Davis would sometimes dismiss from the studio with the words “get the fuck out of here and leave us alone” or Miles himself?
If we are to take Bob Weinstock's word for it, Miles Davis' s session of November 16th 1955 – the first of those mopping up his existing obligations to Prestige after signing to Columbia – was a Damascene moment.

“That's when I first heard Coltrane,” Weinstock told writer James Rozzi in 1994. “Bird had just died a few months earlier, but when I heard Coltrane, even though he played tenor, I couldn't help but think, 'Here's the new Bird.'”
If Weinstock is to be believed, then his opinion placed him firmly in the minority. Many of Davis's fans had scratched their heads over the trumpeter’s decision to include Coltrane, a largely untested player whose work hitherto had mainly been as an R&B sideman, in his new quintet. Some even told him. “People used to tell me Trane couldn't play,” Davis was quoted in J.C. Thomas's Chasin' The Trane. “But I knew what I wanted...”

That said, even Davis had been initially reluctant to try out Coltrane. Only after failing to secure the services of Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley - and following repeated badgering from Philly Joe Jones - had he finally given in. Remembering an earlier encounter in 1950, during which “Sonny [Rollins] set his ears and ass on fire,” Davis was surprised to find by the autumn of 1955 “Trane had gotten a whole lot better.” It was small wonder; five years on the road with bandleaders including Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges had afforded him plenty of time to gain experience and ability. But “the new Bird?” Really?

Some of those hearing the “new” Miles Davis quintet in person during the first few months of its existence certainly thought so, though as yet there was no unanimous decision as to his merits; despite being impressed by the saxophonists “highly intelligent” conversation, Columbia producer George Avakian initially thought Coltrane resembled “a large cherub, though a rather expressionless one.” The saxophonists work didn't make for an easy listen though. “With each note he played,” Avakian recalled later, “he seemed to be pushing to its outer limits.” For some, this was exactly what the music now needed - a player unafraid to chance his arm. Bassist Art Davis was among those in the pro-camp, matching Bob Weinstock's reaction by describing his first encounter with Coltrane as “an experience like I had when I first heard Bird.” 

Stuck in the middle, Coltrane himself openly wondered about whether he truly fitted in a band that was now among the most scrutinised in jazz. “Why Miles picked me, I don't know,” he remembered a few years later. “Maybe he saw something in my playing he hoped would grow.”

And grow it did. The best way to gauge the progress of any jazz figure is to set their work down on record. Even though the somewhat aspic-entombed results of asking a player to go to a studio on a given day to record certain pieces in a certain way may well seem at odds with the entire nature of the music, there is no doubt that those musicians who've had the farthest reaching influence have been those who've made the recording process and the marketing opportunities it affords their ally. 

Duke Ellington and Miles Davis certainly knew the benefits of regularly producing albums, as did John Coltrane himself during the last seven years of his life, each realising that a record, as well as being a revenue generating item, was also a calling card, telling listeners, promoters, journalists and fellow musicians where you were at. However, therein also lay the rub. A record made at one juncture in a fast developing musicians career would, by dint of the fact it documented a particular “phase” of their work, be forever cursed by retrospective comparison (“Oh, I prefer his earlier work,” fans often remark of players like Coltrane and Miles, for example).

In the case of the “first” Miles Davis Quintet – without doubt one of the greatest jazz groups not only of its day but period – there is a definite beginning, middle and end to its recorded history. It ends with both Davis and Coltrane having blossomed to towering heights as great international jazz influences, and with the saxophonist about to grasp the modal baton and thrust toward the 1960s; it begins with Coltrane as, to all intents and purposes, an all-but-unknown fugitive from an R&B background.

Nobody – not even Miles Davis or Bob Weinstock - was yet making any great public obeisance to Coltrane. Take Ira Gitler's sleeve notes of Miles, the band’s first release.  Unsurprisingly, the majority of Gitler's text concentrates on the news of Davis's post-Newport resurgence. John Coltrane's presence warrants a mere two sentences;“Coltrane's style is a mixture of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. 'Trane' previously was with Dizzy Gillespie in Diz's last big band of 1949.” (To be fair to Gitler, he made fulsome redress of this scanty overview in his later notes to Coltrane's own LPs). Nobody said anything about “a new Bird.” Nor could you expect them to. Indeed, to look for the seminal, mature Coltrane in his work on his first sessions with Davis is a little like attempting to see the germ of Kind of Blue in Davis's own 1945 début recording with Rubberlegs Williams. That said, the saxophonist certainly deserved better than the dismissive reviews he received at the hands of the jazz press when the Miles LP first appeared in 1956. Bill Coss of Metronome begun by slating the recording quality (“there is far too much echo on the soloists [and] the ensembles are generally bad”) before declaring “the tenor on the Rollins-Stitt kick is even more out of tune.”

DownBeat's Nat Hentoff was similarly dismissive, baldly stating that “[Coltrane's] lack of individuality lowers the rating.”

But rather than ridicule these writers for their lack of prescience (the only real reward a record reviewer ever gets – as this writer well knows – is the record itself), one must take these comments in context. Coltrane was unknown. In the mid-'50s heyday of Rollins and Getz, his sound was unusually keening (although it's far darker here than it would become circa '57/'58). Davis had made better records. The band was new and largely untried. 

Once under-way though, the quintets progress had been so rapid it had even surprised its leader. “Faster than I could imagine, the music we were playing together was just unbelievable,” Davis famously said of the groups first few months. “Man, that shit we were playing in a short time was scary, so scary that I used to pinch myself to see if I was really there.”

Listening back to Miles, one can get something if not all of this feeling; the record certainly captures the sound of a remarkable fresh band, young and full of creative incentive, although as yet lacking in the sense of contrasting drama that would characterise its recordings from the following year. It also proved that, despite all the critical opposition, Davis had actually done the right thing in basing his personnel solely on new faces; had Sonny Rollins become the regular tenor, Davis would have had to contend with a player who already was straining at the leash of being a sideman. Being a sideman was, up to this point, John Coltrane's forte. And, in choosing a saxophonist so unalike any other tone-wise there was no way this trumpet-tenor-piano-bass-drums five-some could be mistaken for the Brown-Roach band, the Jazz Messengers or any number of the ascendant Hard Bop combinations then coming to dominate East Coast jazz.

The rhythm section was also the key; incorporating the danceable, Jamal-inspired mannerisms first heard on The Musings of Miles, the band now had even greater flexibility via the astonishing virtuoso performance of the teen-aged Paul Chambers. Indeed, listening to Miles sixty years after it was taped, perhaps its most striking aspect is not Coltrane's spearing tone, but Chambers bass – a sound at once large yet mobile, subtle but oddly amplified (happily this was in the days before the double bass ascended to the realms of a plugged-in buzz-saw). Together with Garland's lithesome sense of time and Jones' incredibly relaxed inventions, Chambers helped create a rhythm section unlike any other in the music, and one shortly to go on to become a worldwide influence. At first though, nobody seemed sure what to make of them. In fact, it's now rather amusing to see what contemporary jazz listeners initially thought. Joe Goldberg's astute notes to Steamin' disclose that some observers had dismissed the unit as comprising “a cocktail pianist; a drummer who played so loud that no-one else could be heard; and a teenage bassist.”

Writing in 1959, British critic Alun Morgan was a little more technical, although even he found himself unable to truly explain their methods; “The rhythm section played in an unorthodox, but highly successful manner,” he opined, “with Garland accenting the first and third beats and Chambers playing a kind of continuous bass solo by means of accompaniment.”

If this rather analytical description turns the Davis quintet into a band whose working process could be codified to the point of cliché, Miles reveals that, at the very least, these were clichés of its own making. Indeed, all the facets of Davis' music that were to make its subsequent album 'Round About Midnight such a big-seller for Columbia, and give rise to its methods being copied the world over, are already present. The inclusion of Davis's set-closer The Theme also shows how he was coming to view the process of making records as one involving simply playing a gig in a studio.

In Stablemates, brought in by Coltrane as a favour to its composer, his friend and fellow  Philadelphian Benny Golson, there are the hard (as in complex) and fast rules of modern jazz; tricky chord sequences, switches between Latin and swing rhythms  and a general air of serious art to the proceedings. How Am I to Know and S'posin' present the first examples of the quintets favoured device of taking unlikely pop tunes, re-jigging the tempo and turning them into valid blowing vehicles. Miles's muted delivery in another harbinger, while Coltrane's solos on both pieces – arrhythmic and choppy on the former, garrulous and unhesitating on the latter – effectively bookend his technical capabilities at this point.

The two performances that perhaps most capture the mood of Davis's imminent popularity are Just Squeeze Me and There Is No Greater Love. The Ellington theme gets the same sort of dance-friendly treatment as other items in the bands book (The Surrey With The Fringe On Top, Diane, Bye, Bye Blackbird), the very sound with which Davis insinuated his way into the ears of WASP America.

There Is No Greater Love, however, is pure smooch-inspiring Miles, the kind of muted love song that ultimately defined the trumpeter for an entire generation. (Intriguingly, but not atypically, the trumpeters later versions of this tune would up the tempo considerably.) Overall, today’s listener is struck by how a band which in its day attracted so much controversy now sounds so pretty.

The bottom line, of course, was that Davis was ever-changing. In fact, his ability to shape-shift, and, just when critics and audience thought they had him pinned down, shed his skin and take off in another direction was virtually unrivalled within jazz. It was also his saving grace. Getting any sort of a handle on such a mercurial character would prove nigh-on impossible, the very reason why trying anything more than a loose attempt to codify his work is futile. By the time the press notices of his 1955 Newport triumph had been served, he was already onto the next thing; the quintet, the big-money record contract, the sports cars, Italian suits and glamorous girlfriends. Within a decade he had changed again, moving ever closer to the cutting-edge by forming a new quintet of young stars including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Within two decades he had begun to look more like a rock star than a jazz icon.

Davis' career trajectory therefore is more akin to a winding journey than a series of carefully-planned strategic objectives; one group melds into another; one mode of musical expression imperceptibly becomes something else; hard dividing lines disappear. Therefore one can fully understand his contrary “I always play like that” response to all the critical attention generated by the Newport gig. Yes, he did always play like that –  with purpose and meaning, whatever the setting.

But for all his mischievous puppeteering of the press, Davis knew full that 1955 had marked a watershed. And, like every musician who has realised that jazz is not only an art but also craft, he recognised both good and bad days at the workbench. These markers on the road to and from Newport contain elements of both, but like virtually everything Miles Davis left behind on his forty year professional journey, they can never provoke feelings of indifference. Blue moods or musings,     certainly, but never indifference. “

Simon Spillett
August 2015


CD 1:

1. I Didn't (Davis)
2. Will You Still Be Mine? (Dennis, Adair)
3. Green Haze (Davis)
4. I See Your Face Before Me (Dietz-Schwartz)
5. A Night In Tunisia (Gillespie, Paparelli)
6. A Gal In Calico (Robin, Schwartz)

Miles Davis Quartet
Miles Davis (trumpet); Red Garland (piano); Oscar Pettiford (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums)
June 7th 1955, Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally issued on Prestige PRLP 7007 – The Musings Of Miles

7. Nature Boy (Ahbez)
8. Alone Together (Schwartz, Dietz)
9. There's No You (Adair, Hopper)
10. Easy Living (Rainger, Robin)

Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis (trumpet); Britt Woodman (trombone); Teddy Charles (vibraphone); Charles Mingus (bass); Elvin Jones (drums)
July 9th 1955, Audio-Video Studios, New York City
Originally issued on Debut DEB 120 – Blue Moods

CD 2:

1. Dr. Jackle (McLean)
2. Bitty Ditty (Jones)
3. Minor March (McLean)
4. Changes (Bryant)

Miles Davis Quintet/Sextet
Miles Davis (trumpet); Jackie McLean (alto sax); Milt Jackson (vibraphone); Ray Bryant (piano); Percy Heath (bass); Arthur Taylor (drums)
August 5th 1955, Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally issued on Prestige PRLP  7034 - Miles Davis and Milt Jackson Quintet/Sextet

5. Stablemates (Golson)
6. How Am I To Know (Parker, King)
7. Just Squeeze Me (Ellington, Gaines)
8. There Is No Greater Love (Jones, Symes)
9. The Theme (Davis)
10. S'posin' (Denniker, Razaf)

Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis (trumpet); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Red Garland (piano); Paul Chambers (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums)
November 16th 1955, Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally issued on Prestige PRLP 7014 - Miles

Original sessions produced by Bob Weinstock and Charles Mingus

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