MILES DAVIS: Complete Columbia Recordings #3, 1955-’60, with John Coltrane, review, from HQ, 2000
In 1955 when John Coltrane replaced Sonny Rollins in the new quintet Miles Davis was getting together, jazz was at a turning point - and in so many ways it would turn on this very band. Certainly, the names Miles and Trane must now be the two biggest, most deified in all modern jazz.
The pair have as many similarities as differences. For one, they were both, albeit at different times, heroin addicts. But what really distinguished Miles was, in his own peverse way, his showmanship, or charisma. Not only was Miles the black prince of modernism - and not just in jazz but in all music and art - he was also a virtual pop star (and perhaps the only such [black] star jazz has produced after Louis Armstrong). Miles was an innovator on a par with Trane, or Bird or Monk, but unlike them, he was a great populariser of jazz too.
There is an old (1960s) Miles Davis ‘greatest hits’ album with liner notes by George Frazier, who, in a variation on the great jazz liner notes tradition, spends 1022 of his 1050 words talking about Miles’s sartorial elegence: not session details, or catalogue numbers or even heavy theory, but the cut of Miles’s (Italian) suits, the pervasiveness of his aura ... Miles was, indeed, the epitome of cool in those days when he was young, gifted and black, and beautiful and very well-dressed.
It was a measure of Miles’s sheer popularity - he remains the best-selling artist in jazz history - that Frazier only had to address a mere 28 words to his artistry.
“When not selecting additions to his wardrobe,” Frazier concluded, “Miles Davis is a professional trumpet player. People who know about such things tell me he shows a lot of promise.”
John Coltrane, on the other hand, turned almost as many people off jazz. His determination to go outside the established parameters of Western music led to the ‘free jazz’ of the sixties, the aural equivalent of painting’s abstract expressionism. As a result (free jazz sounds like a cat fight to most people), Coltrane has sold barely a fraction of the many millions of records Miles has. Yet today, it’s surely fair to say, even though he died too young a death at 34 in 1967, Coltrane is the single most influencial figure in modern jazz. Contemporary jazz musicians, and not just saxophonists, are almost uniform in their acknowledgment of a debt to him. There are people walking around today in A Love Supreme T-shirts who might never have even actually listened to Coltrane’s records, but who just like the idea of him.
For Trane, his horn was a vehicle for his spiritual quest (this is the idea about him that people like). Coltrane was at once, however, a firebrand radical force but also a supremely logical, almost linear one. Miles, on the other hand, was a lone wolf, a loose cannon, who zig-zagged from the birth of the cool to modal minimalism to full orchestration before almost single-handedly inventing electric jazz-rock - but always embodying the ideal ‘less is more’. Coltrane proved that more is more.
The meeting of these two seemingly disparate giants is documented, in part, on a new Sony Music 6CD set, the third in a series that’s attempting the document the full breadth of Miles’ Columbia recordings (it follows one on Miles’ orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans, and one on his seminal sixties quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; presumably the seventies Bitches Brew/On the Corner collection is coming...). The meeting of Miles and Trane was one in which the past didn’t just give way to the future, it exploded open a number of futures - and even then, for all its brevity and interruptions (Miles was simultanously working with Gil Evans on albums like Sketches of Spain), it yeilded at least one of the greatest-ever jazz albums, Kind of Blue.
In 1955, around the same time Bill Haley and Elvis were exploding onto the charts with a crazy new teen beat called rock’n’roll - and by which time bebop already seemed played out too - Miles’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival made him into a star. This was some five years after his Birth of the Cool sessions, now acknowledged as the watershed that pointed to a way beyond bop, had fallen on deaf ears. Thus Miles set to forming a new band and to negotiating a contract with Columbia Records, the American label (now Sony Music) that still specialises in turning stars into superstars.
The band Miles got together - numbering, as well as himself, Coltrane (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) - was the first of a series of quintets he led that changed the face of jazz.
Coltrane, at the time, after getting his break in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, was still really just climbing out of the blocks. But it was his tenure with Miles, and his concurrent Giant Steps album (1959), that established him as a star too. By the time he returned to guest on the 1961 Miles album Some Day My Prince Will Come, he almost overshadowed the leader.
How much, either way, does the deification of these two artists affect the way we hear them now? Kind of Blue, the centrepiece of their work together (recorded in ’59, by which time Bill Evans had replaced Red Garland and Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones, plus altoist Cannonball Adderley had been added), is simply one of the masterpieces of jazz. It might even be a perfect record. Certainly, it is ubiquitous, the soundtrack to the tippling of a trillion cocktails and cafe lattes. But does it now seem perfect because we’ve all heard it to the point that it is an icon, timeless and inviolate, or did it become ubiquitous because it was, indeed, perfect or near so? Or did it become ubiquitous because the Columbia marketing machine sold it so well?
The answer to that question, I’m pleased to find myself concluding upon listening a few more times to the album, and to this box-set, is that Kind of Blue probably is as close to perfect as a work of art can get.
Now, I might already have made some pretty grandiose, albeit orthodox claims for both the significance of Miles and Trane and for Kind of Blue itself, but the above contention is not the type I’d ordinarily make. But it is the game the phenomenon of the box-set begs us to play.
How often do we hear that a box-set is for fans only, and/or that it sheds light on the working methods of the artist in question? How often did I read in Bob Blumenthal’s exhaustive session notes - just one ‘chapter’ of this set’s full liner notes - that the alternative take proferred is, indeed, inferior to the one originally released? (Constantly.)
Box-sets are by and large yet another promotional tool for record companies, which rather than costing money as advertising or any of the other traditional forms or payola do, can sometimes even make money. So for record companies (whose costs, after all, are extremely minimal when all they’re doing is exhuming previously rejected material from their own vaults), box-sets are a win-win proposition: Because even if this reviewer carps and says to the casual listener, ‘Look, this is too much information you don’t need, just go direct and get the original albums’, the record company is still getting that exposure, plus the sales it picks up among the trainspotters and the vulnerable.
Having said that, it must also be said the music spread across these six discs is undoubtedly superior to most of the dross coming out back then and still coming out, and that the set’s presentation and annotation is loving and lavish. Putting aside the issue of whether or not the package might just be a very expensive book(let) plus instructional CDs, an essay by George Avakian, the Columbia A&R man who signed Miles to the label, well complements Bob Blumenthal’s notes, and along with the superb photography of Louis Stetner, famous visual chronicler of the New York scene, it does all add something to the already-voluminous literature of the man. (At the same time, Jimmy Cobb’s ‘Reminiscences’ barely deserves the billing, weighing in at a very slight four interview grabs.) The remastering too is pristine, and certainly suggests I’m wasting my time with crackling vintage vinyl.
A point of semantics does need to be made. Whilst this set is called The Complete Columbia Recordings, it shouldn’t be overlooked that it represents only a portion of the work Miles and Trane did together. The original quintet, after all, released no less than five albums on Prestige at around the same time, 1956, that it was cutting its Columbia debut, Round About Midnight, and those albums - Miles, Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’ - are all still available on CD. Admittedly though, it wasn’t till the band’s second Columbia album,1958’s Milestones, that it produced an indisputable classic. These six CDs beautifully explain that evolution that culminated in Kind of Blue, and are a rare treat for fans.
I feel sure though, even as dedicated fan myself of both Miles and Trane, and as much as I enjoyed this set’s illumination, I will not readily return to it. I will instead return to Milestones and Kind of Blue for the complete listening experiences the way they were conceived, no more/no less, with all their coherance and mystique intact, as perfect as I want them to be. The casual listener is advised to do the same; all the original Miles Davis Columbia albums are very available on CD.