Pilgrimage Back to Miles. Miles Davis is the single most important figure in jazz music history. There. I said it. I have read a truck load of music criticism addressing a collection of the most influential jazz musicians, but no critic has ever gone out on a limb to name the single most important figure. So, I gladly throw down the gauntlet. I am not trying to discount other musician?s contributions. I am only trying to reveal the true significance of Miles Davis to jazz.
My argument is simple: Miles Davis was present at or instrumental in every major jazz movement after Swing. His musical career, like that of Beethoven, can be divided and defined based on certain seminal works. Like Neil Young in rock music, Miles Davis managed to produce a genre-transforming masterpiece at the end of each of three decades. His small groups were the incubator for some of the most important jazz innovators, not the least of whom was John Coltrane. Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Gillespie, Coltrane: all of them are treasures. But Miles ? Miles was the conscience of jazz while at the same time reading its horoscope.
A Brief History of Miles. Miles was a proté§© of Charlie Parker?s in the mid-40s when Be Bop was in full swing. This was the first era of Jazz Miles was to affect. He made several important recordings with Parker that included "Billie?s Bounce," "Anthropology," "A Night in Tunisia," and "Now?s The Time". After hearing the Gil Evans arranged Claude Thornhill Band, he struck out on his own in 1949, recording his first transmuting masterpiece, the historic Birth of the Cool sides for Capitol, providing the effective genesis of his second era ? "Cool" jazz.
After a few years of Cool Jazz (and heroin), Miles became bored with their respective excesses and sparked the fire that was to be Hard Bop with the release of Walkin? in 1954. Hard Bop was the third era upon which Miles was to leave his mark.
Between 1955 and 1957, Davis assembled his first great quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. After their appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival and the release of the LP Round About Midnight, this quintet hit the big time. 1958 saw the band leader add Julian "Cannonball" Adderley to the fold, producing what biographer Jack Chambers claims was "perhaps the finest small band in the history of jazz." Milestones resulted, planting the seeds for future innovations.
The fourth fault line Davis created in jazz was kicked off with the release of his second masterpiece, Kind of Blue in 1959. Already having explored modal playing and composition with Milestones, Davis? modal vision crystallized in Kind of Blue, producing one of the greatest high-wire recordings in jazz history. Overlapping with these small group recordings, Davis made his landmark orchestral recordings with arranger Gil Evans. They just poured out: Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Quiet Nights. If this had been all Miles Davis had done, his place in jazz history would have been assured.
The 1960s saw Davis? small groups in flux, landing momentarily on the very fine Davis, Coltrane, Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Wynton Kelly quintet whose superb Stockholm recordings are currently documented on the Dragon Label. In September 1964, Miles Davis presented his second great quintet with the assembly of Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Handcock, and Wayne Shorter. This band recorded several albums between 1965 and 1968 that fully consummated Davis model jazz experience. In many ways, this Miles period was his answer to Ornette Coleman?s Free Jazz. Miles was in full favor of freeing jazz from the shackles of the 32-bar, tin pan alley popular song form. However, he had no interest in a total destruction of the music. Davis, like French composer Hector Berlioz before him, was a purveyor of Romantic Exuberance with Classical Restraint. At least for the time being.
Toward the end of the second great quintet, Miles began to experiment with electric instrumentation. This culminated in 1969 with the recording of In a Silent Way and his third and final discursive masterpiece, Bitches Brew, inaugurating the exciting and much abused Jazz-Rock Fusion period that was to effectively take Miles to the end of his career.
Deconstructing Miles. The last five years has seen an expansive if inefficient release of Miles Davis material. Among the most important releases have been the Columbia box sets: The Complete Live at the Plug Nickel 1965, The Complete Miles Davis-Gil Evans Recordings, and the recently released Complete Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968. More of these boxed sets are slated for release. The object of the present review, however, is a less ambitious release, Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall This disc is one of four recently released by Columbia Legacy, the other three discs being live performances by Thelonious Monk ( Live at the It Club ) Benny Goodman (1938?s Carnegie Hall Concert remastered), and Dexter Gordon.
Miles Under the Microscope. Laying on one of Davis? discursive cracks was his band preceding the second great quintet. This group was composed of Davis, Wynton Kelly, Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. This band was still performing the standard Miles Davis book, but Davis was beginning to push the evolutionary envelope with breakneck tempos and unraveling arrangements. In retrospect, it was obvious that Miles was heading in this direction of deconstructionism. It started with his modal experiments and culminated in his electric orgies of the 1970s. This band was captured live with the Gil Evans Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1961 in the now famous Carnegie Hall concert. This concert was the intersection of Miles? large and small combo visions. For the past several years only half of the concert has been available ( More From the Legendary Carnegie Hall Concert ). Now, finally, is the complete concert with fully restored performances, a reissue worth celebrating.
Tempi, Tempi, and Faster Tempi. This is not my favorite Miles. He was simultaneously rattling his book to pieces while refining his modal performances. I prefer his earlier, less frenetic performances of "Walkin?" and "So What." In any case, I cannot deny the historic significance of this rococo period in Davis? long career. The presence of Gil Evans and his orchestra is enough to lend these performances great significance: The orchestra is present on "So What", "Spring is Here", "The Meaning of the Blues/Lament", "New Rhumba", and "En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor." The arrangements are plush, sometimes disorganized, but always interesting.
The outstanding performances in this collection are the ballads. Davis? tone progressively became more full and confident during this period. This is best illustrated in "Spring Is Here" and "Someday My Prince Will Come." "I Thought about You" and "En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor" are played confidently and are still exciting 35 years after the fact.
While this is not my favorite Miles, I do still like it as a transitional recording, betraying Miles restless wandering. The music on this recording is formative. It is not perfect but it was necessary as a prodrome for the second and most perfect quintet.
Personnel: Miles Davis (trumpet); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor); Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone); Ernie Royal, Bernie Glow, Johnny Coles, Louis Mucci (trumpet); Jimmy Knepper, Dick Hixon, Frank Rehak (trombone); Julius Watkins, Paul Ingrahan, Bob Swisshelm (French horn); Bill Barber (tuba); Romeo Penque, Jerome Richardson, Eddie Caine, Bob Tricarico, Danny Bank (reeds); Janet Putnam (harp); Wynton Kelly (piano); Paul Chambers (bass); Jimmy Cobb (drums); Bobby Rosengarden (percussion).