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Miles Davis: The Cool Jazz Sound

John Kelman By

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Miles Davis
The Cool Jazz Sound
Disconforme 2869033
Recorded 1959; released on DVD 2004

Any chance to see archival footage of Miles Davis in performance is a treat, mainly because, for a career that spanned six decades, so little of it seems available. And so EFORFilms, responsible for releasing the Jazz Casual series on DVD, has a sure winner with Miles Davis: The Cool Jazz Sound. Originally broadcast in 1959, this 25-minute television performance brings together Miles' quintet of the time, featuring saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, along with Gil Evans and his orchestra, performing compositions culled from the albums Kind of Blue and Miles Ahead.

As great as it is to watch Miles and the quintet in action (and it is a quintet; even though the credits at the end of the program list Cannonball Adderley, he's nowhere to be found), it's almost as entertaining to see how different things were at the time. No PC folks concerned about the message that might be sent by seeing people smoking on camera; the narrator smokes throughout, and even Miles himself, after soloing on the one quintet track, "So What, can be seen in the background behind Coltrane, having a quick puff before he's needed back at the mike.

But PC rants aside, the good news is that, while there is a brief spoken introduction and conclusion, almost the entire show is dedicated to the music — the quintet's reading of "So What, followed by Gil Evans' Orchestra performing "The Duke, "Blues for Pablo and "New Rhumba. Considering that the recording is over 45 years old, the sound is remarkably good — you can actually feel Chambers' low notes in your belly. The high end is a little lacking, so Cobb's gorgeous cymbal work is to be imagined perhaps more than heard, but still, the overall recording has weathered well.

Everyone is in fine form, with Miles being in particularly good shape; while there are clearly cameras moving around the set, there's a relaxed ambience; nobody seems self-conscious of the fact that the cameras are rolling. Coltrane and Kelly get ample space to solo on "So What, with Chambers and Cobb as subtly swinging as always.

But the majority of the show is dedicated to Miles with the Gil Evans Orchestra, and it's a joy to hear the arrangements, and watch Miles navigate between the written parts with well-positioned and clearly-conceived statements. It's also a rare opportunity to see Miles playing the flugelhorn; given his penchant for a warm middle-register tone, it's curious why he didn't use the instrument more in his career.

The source tape is obviously old, with times where it clearly flutters. And there's a slight delay between the audio and video, only noticeable if one is playing close attention to the players' hands — but these deficiencies are a small price to pay for a vintage performance that, unlike other similar archival footage of Miles, is complete and uncut.

Miles Davis: The Cool Jazz Sound gives contemporary audiences a chance to see Miles in one of his peak creative periods, and at a time when many modern fans weren't even a twinkle in their parents' eyes. It's important that this kind of archival footage be rescued from obscurity and released, so that a more complete picture of an artist with the kind of long career and stylistic diversity as Miles can be preserved.

Now if only some footage of Miles' second quintet with Hancock, Shorter, Carter and Williams can be similarly rescued.

Personnel: Miles Davis Quintet: Miles Davis (trumpet, flugelhorn), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums)
The Gil Evans Orchestra with Ernie Royal, Clyde Reasinger, Louis Mucci, Johnny Coles, Emmett Berry (trumpet), Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Bill Elton, Rod Levitt (trombone), Julius Watkins, Bob Northern (french horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Danny Bank (bass clarinet), Romeo Penque, Eddie Caine (woodwinds)

Track Listing: So What; The Duke; Blues for Pablo; A New Rhumba

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