I may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but I've finally worked out why Blue Note and Prestige are issuing so many of their iconic mid-'50s albums remastered by original sessions engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Partly it's to encourage those of us who already own the discs to buy them one more time; but more importantly, it gives the two companies an unbeatable edge over the growing number of knock-off labels operating outside the fifty-year copyright rule. The neo-pirates can clone and repackage the original albums with impunity, but they won't be able to rip off the RVG remasters for another fifty years.
Truth be told, in sonic terms some of the RVG editions are pretty superfluous. The sound was cracking on most of the original discs and can only be marginally improved. But the five landmark Prestige albums trumpeter Miles Davis recorded with his first great quintet between November 1955 and October 1956Miles, Relaxin', Workin', Steamin' and Cookin'are prime candidates for Van Gelder's latter-day attentions. Recorded without rehearsals and including only one second take amongst them, Davis made the albums in a hurry over three mammoth sessions in order to complete his contractual obligations to Prestige and allow himself to become fully engaged with his new label, CBS. Van Gelder barely had time to balance the mics before Davis was counting the band in.
But while the clarity, bite and presence of the sound on this RVG edition of Cookin' are all significantly enhanced, it's the music which remains the centre of attention. Cookin' may not have had the big budget and glossy marketing CBS brought to Davis' subsequent releases, butalongside Relaxin', Workin' and Steamin'it contains some of the most alive and moving music he ever recorded. Newly free of heroin addiction (unlike the other four members of the band, who all had monkeys on their backs), he plays his ass off, no longer neurotically inching around the middle register but ranging high and low with Olympian poise and, at times, unprecedented ferocity. His lyricism remains dark and brooding, but it's so rich it sings.
The magic never lets up, but if I had to pick one desert island download, it would be the trumpet and rhythm section-only "My Funny Valentine." It's just six minutes long, and Davis only blows a one-chorus solo, but it's as close to heaven as a mortal can get: the intense, Harmon-muted trumpet leavened by Red Garland's sunny piano and the vibrant, irresistible rhythm machine of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The tune stayed in Davis' live book for nine yearsuntil well after his second great quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams had announced the dawning of a new age with ESP (CBS, 1965)and here Davis reveals his defining take on its beauty for the very first time.
My Funny Valentine; Blues By Five; Airegin; Tune-Up/When Lights Are Low.
Miles Davis: trumpet; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone (2-4); Red Garland: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums.
In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.