15 February 2010

Remembering the First Miles Davis Quintet

This weekend's post on Red Garland and Charlie Parker at JazzWax had me reminiscing about the mid-1950s Miles Davis quintet with Garland, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Back when I was initially exploring jazz in middle school and high school, this band was the first of the canonical ensembles that I fell in love with. Having read a glowing review of Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet in a book I had, I quickly bought copies of it and three other albums, Steamin', Cookin', and Relaxin', all of which were recorded over two sessions in 1956 as Miles wanted to fulfill obligations with Prestige Records before recording with Columbia. They were among the dozen or so albums that I listened to continually in high school as I developed my taste in jazz. Miles' playing during this period was also a major influence on my jazz improvisation at the time (I was quite taken by his lyricism, and leaned on him heavily as I developed my own sense of melodicism).

In his autobiography, Miles remembers that this band made him a star:
Wherever we played the clubs were packed, overflowing back into the streets, with long lines of people standing out in the rain and snow and cold and heat. It was something else, man, man. And a whole lot of famous people were coming every night to hear us play. People like Frank Sinatra, Dorothy Kilgallen, Tony Bennett (who got up on the stage and sang with my band one night), Ava Gardner, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Richard Burton, Sugar Ray Robinson, just to mention a few.
The band earned this star power, to be sure. Miles remembers "It was so bad that it used to send chills through me at night, and it did the same thing to the audiences, too." Miles had just recently made his mythologized "comeback performance" at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, playing Monk's 'Round Midnight to a captivated crowd. He had also kicked his heroin habit just before this period, and he had found a new energy which drove him to conquer the ears of jazz listeners. He had one of the all-time great rhythm sections behind him: The swinging Red Garland on piano, whose block chords and light touch glued the rhythm section; the fiery Philly Joe Jones on drums, who felt what Miles was thinking, and who Miles described as "the fire that was making a lot of shit happen;" and the extremely hip Paul Chambers on bass, who could make quarter notes swing like you could not believe.

Then there was Coltrane, commonly described as a diamond in the rough during this period in jazz histories. He was still putting his improvisational style together; it was only after his stint with Thelonious Monk a year later that he really sounds like the Coltrane who was the king of jazz in the early 1960s. But his often unmoored, searching solos managed to confound me and captivate me, though I only later really understood what he was trying to do at the time. And Miles himself was on top of his game, fragile and beautiful when playing ballads with a Harmon mute and powerfully melodic when playing without the mute. This band is overshadowed by Miles' later quintet with Herbie, Ron, Tony, and Wayne, but even 50+ years after these recordings were made, they are still engaging to contemporary ears.

The repertoire on these four albums balanced Miles' originals with standards that the band used at clubs regularly, allowing them to use the first complete take of each tune at the sessions. Sadly, a quick YouTube search yields no video of this band, but plenty of audio excerpts from these albums, which follow after the jump.

Trane's Blues, from Workin': an underrated blues solo by Miles which was among the first solos I transcribed in high school.

My Funny Valentine, from Cookin': One of Miles' favorite ballads, which stayed in his repertoire well into the 1960s.

Surrey With The Fringe On Top, from Steamin': Miles learned about this tune from Ahmad Jamal, and delivers a laid-back solo before Trane tears it up.

Oleo, from Relaxin': Trane's solo on this one is possibly his earliest masterpiece.

Ahmad's Blues, from Workin': Just the rhythm section on this one. Chambers kills it on his bowed solo, while Red Garland puts the piano under a spell.

Salt Peanuts, from Steamin': Miles reharmonizes the head, Garland delivers a tasty solo, and Philly Joe shows why he was a badass.

Ahmad's Blues, from Workin': Just the rhythm section on this one. Chambers kills it on his bowed solo, while Red Garland puts the piano under a spell.

Bonus Material: Doug Ramsey's 1977 profile of Garland in Texas Monthly, which covers this period well.

1 comment:

jacked UP jazz said...

Nice post. I will have to come back to view the clips but I learned some new things from your text.