Miles Davis: Year-Long Celebration of Five Decades and Many Miles

Chris M. Slawecki By

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On October 27, 1955, Miles Davis signed with Columbia Records, where the mercurial trumpeter, composer, bandleader and conceptualist remained through most of his career. After 1955, Davis recorded and released nearly all of his greatest music through Columbia. Now part of Sony / Legacy, the label has embarked on a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of that contract signing by releasing a succession of new and newly-remastered titles throughout 2005.

The series began this past January with three releases: The remastered single-CD version of My Funny Valentine, a set of ballads aflame with Davis' whispered intensity; the Kind of Blue DualDisc, which combines an audio CD of his classic 1958 album (plus the only available studio alternate take) with a DVD that presents the album in 5.1 Surround Sound plus a 25-minute documentary on the making of the album; and the remastered single-CD version of A Tribute to Jack Johnson issued to coincide with Ken Burns' PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

It is worth mentioning that Davis himself would have most likely hated these reissues as "been there, done that. Most likely? Almost definitely! Still, they provide valuable mileposts for devotees and the curious who may be traveling these Miles for the first time.


'Round About Midnight: Legacy Edition
Seven Steps to Heaven
'Four' & More Recorded Live in Concert
Miles Davis in Europe
Miles in Tokyo
Miles in Berlin
The Best of Seven Steps
The Cellar Door Sessions 1970

New Beginnings

'Round About Midnight: Legacy Edition (1955-56)
With John Coltrane and Zoot Sims, tenor saxophone; Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophone; Red Garland and Thelonious Monk, piano; Paul Chambers and Percy Heath, bass; Philly Joe Jones and Connie Kay, drums.

The series' most recent installment is a deluxe two-CD version of Davis' first studio album for Columbia at the helm of his first great quintet with Coltrane, Garland, Chambers and Jones.

The beauty and genius of Davis' balladry on 'Round About Midnight is justifiably legend. "His playing is characterized by both the nervous, jagged lines of the bop school, wrote producer George Avakian for its original liner notes, "and the pensive relaxation of the cool period which followed. It opens with his profound meditation on the Thelonious Monk composition that inspired its title, and its brilliance continues with his muted playing through two pop selections, "All of You and especially the stark opening to "Bye Bye Blackbird, where he sounds like a man sad and utterly alone.

Though this reissue provides four new, unreleased studio takes on disc one, its true bonus harvest comes from a previously unreleased 1956 concert by this band—now the first commercially available live performance by the first great Miles Davis quintet—on disc two.

It's a performance that looks both forward and back, played with so much energy! Its centerpiece is an early recording of the elegant, celebrated "Walkin' blues, a staple of Davis' repertoire into the next decade, illuminated with probing, burning explorations from Coltrane, Garland and Chambers. But it also includes rare examples of Davis revisiting with 'Trane, a more modern player, the bebop style that the leader was resolutely leaving behind: The rhythm section scrambles the opening "Max is Making Wax ; later, the band whipsaws and bounces through "Woody N'You and "Salt Peanuts, featuring Davis' space-walk along Dizzy Gillespie's upper trumpet stratosphere and hard-rocking beatdowns from Jones. Davis always killed at least one ballad in concert; in this case, the quiet, direct "It Never Entered My Mind, a remembrance haunted by gorgeous piano and trumpet.

This new concert is prefixed by Davis' famous performance of "'Round Midnight with Monk at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival: Sitting in with Gerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims from the Mulligan Sextet, bassist Percy Heath and Connie Kay (the Modern Jazz Quartet rhythm section), and pianist Monk, his opening solo to "'Round Midnight at Newport sounds as good as anything that Davis ever played. Ever played. It was the strength of this performance that compelled Avakian, who was attending the festival and served on Columbia staff, to sign Davis to his Columbia contract.

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Repositioned Transitions

The celebration continued this past March, with the release as six standalone titles of the material that collectively comprised last year's deluxe The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-64 box set.

Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)
With George Coleman, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock and Victor Feldman, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Frank Butler, Tony Williams, drums.

This truly transitional recording straddles two different bands. Davis, Coleman and Carter recorded most of this material with Feldman and Butler in Los Angeles.

Davis' extended solo to open "Basin Street Blues seems to float in time, and sounds simply timeless. He continuously brings together then shreds apart the definitions of "ballad and "blues : Playing so beautifully it sounds like a ballad, painting in the pained and resolute tonal colors of the blues. Coleman lays out on the other blues, "Baby Won't You Please Come Home ; the extra space gives Feldman room to explore harmonies like Bill Evans, and Davis' unrelenting reinvention of the melody and feeling of this blues is consistently profound.

Recorded in New York, "Joshua and the title track were the trumpeter's first dates with Hancock and Williams, and offer the first recorded preview of Davis' "second great quintet.

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'Four' & More Recorded Live in Concert (1964)
With George Coleman, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums.

This reissue makes the original album available on CD for the first time in the US. This set of up-tempo numbers is the complement to the set of ballads from these performances released as the album My Funny Valentine.

"The tempos border on ridiculous, the original liner notes correctly observe, as the band plays like they're already running late for the last plane home. "So What, for example, the light yet compact blues from Kind of Blue, shifts gears from a trot through a gallop to flat-out sprint, its chords whipping past so quickly that they're felt more than heard, and then they're gone!

Davis has said that Coleman "played better that night than I had ever heard him play. The saxophonist blows pure fire in "Joshua and "Seven Steps and hits 'em long and hard and straight in "There Is No Greater Love, swing of the straight-ahead variety you rarely heard from any Davis band.

'Four' feels like the beginning of something amazing, especially in the rhythm section, where you hear Williams mutating the jazz drummer's concepts of melody and time with playing as liquid and shiny as mercury.

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Three From the Road

This series also includes three concerts with the Hancock/Williams/Carter rhythm section plus either saxophonist Coleman, Sam Rivers, or Wayne Shorter. Each concert is now available as a standalone CD title for the first time in the US, and each shows Davis' vision focused on opening up the angular rhythms and blues of be-bop into more modern currents: On turning "bebop into "free-bop.

Miles Davis in Europe (with Coleman), recorded at the 1963 Antibes Jazz Festival, exercises the same "ridiculous tempos as 'Four' on "Milestones, "Walkin' and "Joshua. Williams simply rips through "Walkin', his snare and tom-tom pops as percussive and colorful as a Fourth of July night sky. Davis and Coleman both blister "Milestones with cascades of white-hot notes, more a reconstruction than a revisiting of the original. The young Hancock proves a master on an epic workout of the warhorse "Autumn Leaves.

Together, the quintet flies funky and free in the space-time opening to "All of You, genuinely warm and humorous and personable.

In his reissue liner notes, Harvey Pekar wonders if this Coleman band gets overlooked between Davis' first and second great ensembles because it played the same repertoire as the first but moved the music toward the second.

Judging from the sound of their reaction when he walked onstage, the crowd had long awaited this first Davis trip to Japan. Miles in Tokyo (Rivers, 1964) is his only album featuring free saxophonist Rivers, who joined Davis' band about two weeks before this performance.

Rivers does stretch the middle sections of "Walkin' and "So What harmonically and rhythmically out a bit father than would have been safe, seeming to bring Hancock's "Walkin' solo out into somewhat more galactic explorations. In this version of "So What the bass line and chords also sort of just flicker by, an unseen current of musical electricity. How Carter's fingers can move this quickly and accurately just does not seem humanly possible. The same can be said for rhythm partners Hancock and Williams, too.

Hancock introduces "My Funny Valentine with the sparkling beauty of Bill Evans, matched by Davis, who comes in a bit stronger but still sadly beautiful. Ending the set with "All of You, Davis resolutely swings, moving almost completely off-mike to sound barely more than the thought of a whisper, then more stridently stepping out bop cool and sharp. His rhythm section twirls yarn after yarn of more modern colored threads.

Miles in Berlin (Shorter, 1964) is the first recording with his new, ("the second great ) quintet. It's a pretty standard program that includes "Autumn Leaves, "Walkin' "Milestones and "So What. But Davis had been interested in Shorter for several years and with him finally onboard, the music turned different.

Intimidated? "I knew there were big shoes to fill in terms of my saxophone predecessors in Miles' groups—Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Shorter allowed in the original liner notes. "But I'd been listening to Miles since I was 15 and he played with Charlie Parker, and so I thought back to the way he played with Bird.

Throughout, Shorter plays adventurously and strong. In the opening "Milestones, he seems to hear and navigate the space among the rhythm section very well. Hancock's solos also shine in that space, for certain. Shorter flexes his muscles in "So What, played so fast for so long it almost sounds like a matter of course, his saxophone rampaging up the current against Hancock's cascading chord waterfalls. In passages of "Stella by Starlight, their saxophone and piano dance, dipping and twirling, suspended together in space, grasping only onto each other.

"Autumn Leaves, in between "Milestones and "So What, serves as a solid landmark for where Davis' music was at this time. There's no locating the original melody in this reconstruction, at least until Davis returns to brooding upon its climactic line just before the lights turn dark and cold.

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The Best of Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-'64 (1963-64)
With George Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock and Victor Feldman, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Frank Butler, Tony Williams, drums.

This new single CD overviews the entire 1963-'64 box set: Davis' first recordings with the Hancock/Carter/Williams rhythm section ("I Fall in Love Too Easily and title track from Seven Steps to Heaven); "All Blues and "Stella by Starlight from the My Funny Valentine/"Four and More concert; "Autumn Leaves, with Hancock and Coleman shining in featured spots, from In Europe; "If I Were a Bell with Rivers In Japan; and "Walkin' with Shorter, the eventual saxophone chairman who completed Davis' second great quintet.

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Still the Heavyweight Champ

The 50th anniversary Miles celebration will continue on September 20 with the release of The Cellar Door Sessions 1970. This forthcoming six-CD box compiles five hours recorded across three December 1970 dates at the Cellar Door in Washington, DC, a club favored by jam master Les McCann and other jazz funk royalty.

By this time, on the other side of Bitches Brew, Davis played exclusively with electronic instruments, almost always running his trumpet through electronic effects and wah-wah pedals. Here his crew cranked up the brittle, jagged, multicolored electric pinwheel sound in which he would more or less continue to work until he retired for several years in 1975. Throbbing with powerful pulses of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Sly Stone, this sound is modern - fiercely modern - electronic rhythm and blues.

Though it's tempting to joke that Davis played two songs during this period, the fast one (such as "Directions ) and the slow one (like "Yesternow ), Bob Belden's liner notes likely hit closer to the truth: "This is the real jam band, the only band that could recreate one chord in so many different ways.

Live/Evil, released in 1972, is the only previous release (in edited form) of some of the music on the forthcoming The Complete Cellar Door Sessions 1970.

Together for about three months at the time of this Cellar Door engagement, the group featured Gary Bartz, (blue of heart, abstract of mind: a near-perfect fit) on alto and soprano saxophone, with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Michael Henderson rampaging in the rhythm section. Percussionist Airto Moreira made all but the first set and John McLaughlin, whose slashing guitar amped up the primal electric fury of Davis' Tribute to Jack Johnson, recorded earlier in 1970, sat in the last two sets.

Every member of this band except one had proved, in their own way, to be an established or emerging major jazz player. Henderson was the wild card. The bassist had played for Stevie Wonder for five years, and with Aretha Franklin, on Marvin's What's Going On and...well, you know: Could his jazz chops make it?

Henderson proved one bad mamma jamma in dusting up the Cellar Door funk. And while the other band members were prone to wander off in inscrutable explorations, Henderson's repetitive, thunderous funk basslines provide the only consistent fulcrum for the listener to grab and hold onto. In this howling, electronic improvisatory maelstrom, Henderson was the funk of Gibraltar.

The accompanying boxset booklet includes personal essays from every surviving band member. Henderson's remembrance notes that, despite all the blows Davis absorbed from the jazz and critical communities for "dirtying jazz music with funk, Miles dug it enough to employ this funk bassist for five consecutive years.

These sets regularly featured Davis' tunes "Honky Tonk and "What I Say plus Shorter's "Sanctuary (from Bitches Brew) and Josef Zawinul's "Directions, which Davis adopted as his concert opener while Zawinul was in his employ as keyboardist. The tunes, however, mostly served as frameworks to be filled in with improvisatory sketches. In these circumstances, the musicians' ability to listen and to change direction in a heartbeat to play off what they heard, was paramount—especially for Jarrett, whose keyboards, in the absence of McLaughlin's guitar, provided the only middle ground between the rhythm section and the horns.

The only time that even some of this music was previously heard was is in edited segments on certain selections from the double-live Davis set Live/Evil (1972). For example, "Funky Tonk on Live/Evil is really edits of "Directions, "Inamorata and Jarrett's "Improvisation #4 from Saturday night's third set, disc six in Cellar Door Sessions. (The rest of Live/Evil comes from Davis studio sessions with Carter, Hancock, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Hermeto Pascoal and Steve Grossman.)

Reflecting upon what might have been and what became of jazz fusion in the 1970s, Adam Holzman writes almost wistfully in his 'Overview' opening this Cellar Door: "Electric jazz might have gone in a different direction if this music had been released sooner... It's mighty tempting to be grateful that it eventually was released at all.

Related links at AAJ
More Miles Davis CD reviews
Building a Jazz Library: Miles Davis

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