The Miles Davis Quintet: Miles Davis: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

C. Michael Bailey By

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The Miles Davis Quintet
The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions
Prestige Records
2006 (1955-56)

The noted Irish-American author Thomas Cahill has written a series of books called "The Hinges of History" where, instead of concentrating on war, outrage, and catastrophe, the author illuminates stories of grace, great gift-givers and the evolution of our human sensibility. Cahill brings to life those personalities who had the greatest impact on who we are.

In the realm of jazz music, we have an artist who regularly installed hinges in the history of American music. He was (and is) Miles Davis. The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions represents one such hinge, the transition between the decline of bebop and the ascent of hard bop; the assimilation of East Coast Cool into New York Hot; the definition of what jazz is.

Prior to the spring 1956 sessions that would produce five Prestige recordings, Miles Davis had already placed his stamp on the letter of American music. Davis performed and recorded with Charlie Parker between 1945 and '49, appearing on Parker's Savoy and Dial sides, contributing to the modern jazz (bebop) of the period. In 1948-49, Davis assembled the nonet that would record Birth of the Cool, Davis' experimentation with medium-sized, arrangement-driven bands responding to the excesses of bebop with a more intellectual approach to performing. Between 1950 and '55, Davis recorded and performed regularly for the independent Prestige Records, struggled with heroin addiction, and produced a few masterpieces, including the long players Walkin', Bag's Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants.

1955 proved to be a watershed year for the 29-year-old Davis. Free from heroin, Davis turned his attention to music full time and made an historic appearance in July 1955 at the Newport Jazz Festival with Thelonious Monk for an impressive performance of "'Round Midnight" (included on 'Round About Midnight, Columbia, 2005) that would bring Davis the attention of Columbia Records, stimulating a contract offer. This enabled Davis to form a full-time band, a band that turned out to be his first great quintet.

On October 18th, Davis unveiled this quintet, comprised of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, on the Steve Allen Tonight Show. A week later, the quintet entered the Columbia Studios to begin recording what would become 'Round About Midnight. While Davis had already decided to move on to the larger Columbia Records, he still owed Prestige five albums. Over the rest of the year, Davis alternated recording for Columbia and then Prestige until his contract with the latter was honored.

The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions documents Davis' efforts to complete his obligation to Prestige. 32 songs from his current band book were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in three sessions, the latter two marathons, held between November 1955 and October 1956. Ten days following the group's first Columbia session, Davis recorded the first of the Prestige dates. Where the Columbia sides were meticulously constructed over many takes, the Prestige recordings were typically spun off as single performances. The Prestige management asked Davis to record as if performing live in a club. With an already impressive book, these players simply recorded what they played on the bandstand every night.

The November 16, 1955 date produced six sides, including Benny Golson's "Stablemates" and the standard "How Am I to Know." Over the next year, the quintet would join Rudy Van Gelder two more times, on May 11 and October 26, 1956 to record a total of 26 sides, including "Four," "If I Were a Bell," and a followup "'Round Midnight" to the one recorded for the Columbia album "'Round About Midnight." On the Columbia recording, this Thelonious Monk standard provided John Coltrane the environment for the finest recorded solo of his early career. Arranged by Gil Evans, "'Round Midnight" condensed into five minutes what Miles Davis was all about in the '50s, perfectly framing the trumpeter's most significant contribution to hard bop since "Walkin.'"

Included with the original recordings presented in the order recorded are previously unreleased live recordings of this band from the period of the Prestige recordings. These include the quintet's appearance of Steve Allen's Tonight Show ("Max is Making Wax" and "It Never Entered my Mind"), just a day after the first Prestige recordings of this collection. Also present are 1956 recordings from Philadelphia's Blue Note ("Tune Up" and "Walkin'") and 1958 recordings from NYC's Café Bohemia ("Four," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Walkin'" and "Two Bass Hit"). It is very easy to note the confidence of this band as it recorded over this period.

What of this music, then, fifty years later? No other collection of recorded jazz has had as great an influence, not just on American music, but American culture as this. From movie soundtracks to written fiction, when the aural image of jazz is elicited, it is this music that presents itself to our collective subconscious. Somehow, we all know that this is what jazz is supposed to sound like. The specter of the natty Miles Davis in Italian suits blowing unfiltered cigarette smoke through a Harmon mute is the visual picture of jazz.

From the creative realm, the quintet might have looked a bit like a band of marginal misfits: Davis, a middle-register specialist; Coltrane, sporting the harshest tenor tone around; Garland, a lounge pianist; Jones, a loud and overbearing drummer; and Chambers, a kid not old enough to be doing what he was doing. Under the direction of Davis, this band produced a seismic shift in American musical thought that can readily be heard on this collection.

For the traditionalist, this was Miles at his best. His arrangements were all well defined and performed in a delineated fashion. Davis was still a year away from increasing tempi and allowing arrangement to disintegrate into ravenous particles. This is the perfect instrumental jazz to listen to to understand what jazz is.

Discography of The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

The New Miles Davis Quintet Prestige 7014/OJCCD-006-2
Cookin' With the Miles Davis Quintet Prestige 7094/OJCCD-128-2
Relaxin' With the Miles Davis Quintet Prestige 7129/OJCCD-190-2
Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants Prestige 7150/OJCCD-347-2
Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet Prestige 7166/OJCCD-296-2
Steamin' With the Miles Davis Quintet Prestige 7200/OJCCD-391-2

Track Listing

CD1: Stablemates; How Am I To Know; Just Squeeze Me; There Is No Greater Love; The Theme; S'posin'; In Your Own Sweet Way; Diane; Trane's Blues; Something I Dreamed Last Night.

CD2: It Could Happen To You; Woody'n You; Ahmad's Blues; Surrey With The Fringe On Top; It Never Entered My Mind; When I Fall In Love; Salt Peanuts; Four; The Theme (Take 1); The Theme (Take 2); If I Were A Bell; Well, You Needn't.

CD3: 'Round Midnight; Half Nelson; You're My Everything; I Could Write A Book; Airegin; Tune Up; When Lights Are Low; Blues By Five; My Funny Valentine.

CD4: Steve Allen Introduction; Max Is Making Wax; Steve Allen Introduction; It Never Entered My Mind (The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, 11/17/1955); Tune Up; Walkin' (The Blue Note, Philadelphia, 12/08/1956); Four; Bye Bye Blackbird; Walkin'; Two Bass Hit (Café Bohemia, New York City, 05/17/1958).

Enhanced portion of CD 4: Transcriptions of Miles Davis Solos: Max is Making Wax (The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, 11/17/1955); Tune Up (Original Studio Version); Tune Up (The Blue Note, Philadelphia, 12/08/1956); Four (Original Studio Version) Four Café Bohemia, New York City, 05/17/1958).


Miles Davis: trumpet; John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Red Garland: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Philly Joe Jones: drums.


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