Miles Davis: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

John Kelman By

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

Much has been written about how, by 1955, trumpeter Miles Davis—already fast becoming legendary at the age of 29—had cleaned up his act, kicking his heroin habit cold turkey. Much has also been written about how his solo on Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," with an all-star band at the Newport Jazz Festival, became the stuff of legend.

Much has been written, too, about how this one solo—one single performance—was enough to entice Columbia Records to sign Davis to their growing roster. So eager were they to sign him, in fact, that they worked out a deal with Prestige Records, with whom Davis had a contract running until the end of 1956, that allowed him to record for both labels—an unprecedented move at the time.

What's been less covered is how different the Prestige and Columbia recording sessions were for Davis and his new quintet, featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane—who, also on the cusp of 30, had already been making a considerable name for himself—pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

Three separate sessions between October 26, 1955 and September 10, 1956 would ultimately yield only enough material for the new Miles Davis Quintet's debut on Columbia, 'Round About Midnight (Columbia, 1957). A total of twenty takes—of which only ten were considered masters—were recorded, yielding the seven tunes to be used on 'Round About Midnight. The three remaining masters would show up on various compilations over the years, with the entire fruits of these sessions finally brought together and released on the Miles Davis And John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961 (Legacy Recordings, 2000) box set.

With a "one take" philosophy, the Prestige sessions were considerably more fruitful. Three sessions, recorded between November 16, 1955 and October 26, 1956 would yield 32 finished takes—enough for five albums. And it's these five albums that have been brought together, in wonderfully remastered form, for The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions, a four-CD set that collects all 32 tunes on three discs, and adds a fourth disc with live performances from around the same period.

In many ways this box set transcends the accomplishments of the Columbia box by showing just how vital and immediate Davis' group was. As classic an album as 'Round About Midnight is, it was the result of considerably more investment. The five Prestige titles—especially the last four, Workin' With The Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin' With The Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin' With The Miles Davis Quintet and Cookin' With The Miles Davis Quintet—are all of equal significance. More so, perhaps, because of their sheer spontaneity.

Sometimes the best music is made when there's musical tension between a group's members. Davis' middle register tone was fully formed by this time, and while he may not have been a virtuosic player, his fluid lines and warm tone more than made up for it. Coltrane on the other hand, while years away from the seemingly endless spiritual explorations that would define the latter part of his career, was a more aggressive and unsettled player, seeming to explore every nook and cranny rather than looking for the single thread through a song's changes. The two were perfect foils for each other.

Garland's block chord approach to accompaniment was revolutionary and vastly influential, and he had a lithe approach to soloing that equaled Davis.' Chambers, also like Davis, rarely demonstrated overt virtuosity, but there were few bassists then, and even now, who could make four beats to the bar feel so relaxed, so natural—so plain good. Jones was the link between the disparity, capable of responding with fiery intent to Coltrane's assertive stance, but equally able to swing effortlessly and affably through Garland and Davis' relaxed approach.

The 32 tracks comprise a cross-section of jazz material of the day—jazz tunes from other artists, Broadway tunes and Tin Pan Alley songs. For a quintet who would prove to be so influential, the amount of original material is surprisingly scarce—one tune each by Garland and Coltrane, plus three by Davis, and three takes of his standard set closer, "The Theme." While Davis would begin to write more towards the end of the decade, he remained essentially an interpreter of others' material until the mid-1960s, when the extraordinary writing skills of saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock would come into play with the formation of his second quintet.

There may have been other trumpeters who could run rings around Davis when it came to dexterity, but there were few who could make each note count for so much. While up-tempo tunes like his own "Half Nelson" and Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" and "Airegin" prove Davis could wind his way through faster changes, he was at his vulnerable best on the ballads. And when he put the mute on, as he did for songs like "'Round Midnight" and "My Funny Valentine," there were few, if any, who could match his poignancy and sheer evocative resonance. On medium tempo tunes like "It Could Happen To You," "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" and especially "Ahmad's Blues"—written by Ahmad Jamal, a strong influence on Davis for his own economical style—Davis was on comfortable middle ground.

It was this middle ground that, in fact, differentiated Davis' quintet. With hard bop in full swing at the time with artists like drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, Davis' quintet provided an easier-on-the-ears but no less harmonically-demanding approach. This was one of the reasons, no doubt, for his greater commercial success at the time. Perhaps time has caused this band's innovations to appear less extreme when compared with later albums like Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959), or with the greater freedom of his mid-1960s second quintet and his electric period from 1969 onwards, but this was still a group that, at the time, sounded like no other.

In some ways the fourth disc is a disposable add-on. Taken from a television broadcast on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in November, 1955, a radio broadcast from The Blue Note in Philadelphia in December, 1956, and at New York's Café Bohemia in May, 1958, the sound quality is adequate at best.

Still, it's interesting to hear Steve Allen's introduction..."This is very modern music. Some of you folks who are Guy Lombardo fans will be very puzzled by the first number you hear. I will pause only to say that they are not, as your grandmother might tell you, 'just blowing a lot of notes.' I'm serious about this; every note has a precise musical meaning and you could probe it with mathematics if need be." It puts the group's work into better perspective when they launch into the bright swing of Oscar Pettiford's "Max Is Making Wax," where the band's energy exceeds anything on the studio discs.

Disc four is also worth hearing for the 1958 broadcast, where Bill Evans replaces Garland. Evans had already created a considerable stir of his own with his first two records, New Jazz Conceptions (Riverside, 1956) and Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside, 1958), and it's clear why Davis recruited the more impressionistic Evans. His more spacious approach to accompaniment, and almost spartan approach to soloing, changed the complexion of the quintet, despite Coltrane becoming increasingly expressionistic with each passing year.

But as interesting as the performances are on the fourth disc, it's the studio material on the first three discs that is the real meat of this box set. Joe Tarantino's remastering significantly improves on earlier reissues, bringing the music to life in ways previously unheard.

The eight-CD box, Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings (1951-1956) (Prestige, 1993) has its merits as a chronological account of Davis' development as a leader and sideman over a period of five years. But for those interested only in his work as a leader, The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions is a sonically updated alternative that, with the bonus fourth disc, also differentiates itself with nearly 40 minutes of previously unreleased material.

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

Enhanced portion of CD4: 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.

Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Prestige Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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