Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

After his early development in the bands of the great altoist Charlie Parker followed by his leadership in the so-called "Birth of the Cool" sessions, all in the last half of the 1940s, trumpeter Miles Davis returned from triumph in Europe in 1949 to an indifference in the U.S. that he said fostered his addiction to heroin (after being clean even during his time with the omnivorous Parker).  That descent to hell lasted several years and marked a clear decline in Davis' powers as a player and band leader.

Still, in 1951, as recording technology with the LP was allowing for longer pieces of music and the resulting expanded expression for musicians, Davis signed with the new Prestige label, founded by Bob Weinstock and made a series of recordings that were, generally, hit and miss.

Yet, by 1955, Davis kicked his habit and began making recordings that reflected his healthier status, including works with the great tenor player Sonny Rollins, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, altoist Jackie McLean and others.  He had, however, not had a working band during the first several years of his Prestige era, but that all changed after the trumpeter put on a masterful performance of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, which is thought of as marking his true return to prominence in the jazz world.

In fact, his performance at Newport prompted him to pursue a contract at Columbia Records, which would give him better facilities and promotion for his work, but he still had to deliver product to Weinstock for Prestige.  So, Davis worked out a deal in which he could record for Columbia in 1956, but not be able to release anything until he satisfied the terms of his Prestige contract first.  Weinstock was also compensated for his willingness to abide by the terms of the unusual arrangement.

Davis made his initial Columbia recording debut in October 1955 and followed with sessions in June and September 1956.  The resulting album, the classic Round About Midnight (a strange corruption of the Monk composition mentioned above), could not be released until March 1957 in accordance with the Columbia-Prestige deal.

With his future with Columbia (which turned out, probably, to be brighter and longer-lasting than anyone could have imagined) assured, Davis took his new band into the studios of Rudy Van Gelder in New Jersey and quickly recorded enough material in three long sessions in May, October and November 1956 to be the basis of four major albums:  Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet.  Released between 1957 and 1961, these fine records benefitted from being issues during the years when Davis' Columbia albums, including Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess and others were establishing the trumpeter as a household jazz name.

This 4-disc set of the Prestige recordings from 1955 and 1956 was issued by Prestige's owner, The Concord Music Group, in 2006 and features an excellent 40-page book with background on the quintet and sessions and some great photos of the band members in the studio and at live gigs.

Unlike the Columbia recordings, in which Davis was given more opportunity to rehearse and record, as well as having access to better studio and recording facilities and equipment, the Prestige sessions were marked by the quick, one-take approach that was favored by Weinstock as closer to a live performance, but also done for economic reasons, given that the label was much smaller.  This doesn't mean the Prestige sessions suffer greatly, but there is a discernible difference in hearing the albums from the respective labels.

As for the band, no one in 1955 knew much about the quartet that Davis recruited.  Pianist Edward "Red" Garland had a light, lyrical touch the leader liked from his years with and admiration for Horace Silver.  Young bassist Paul Chambers had a strong, supple sound and remarkable technique, but was still in his teens and not known when he joined the group, though that soon changed.  Drummer "Philly Joe" Jones was better known and, in fact, had served as a sort of talent scout for his boss and was generally thought to be responsible for pointing Davis towards another Philadelphia musician, tenorist John Coltrane.  Davis and Coltrane had met some years before, though the trumpeter did not apparently remember this when he saw Trane again in 1955.

Once the band began working together, including a long stint at the Café Bohemia, it was apparent that something special was happening, though not without problems.  One was the fact that the other members of the band were heroin addicts and, in Coltrane's case, alcoholics and Davis often had a difficult time keeping his sidemen together to make concerts and sessions.  Coltrane appears to have been the most affected by his addiction and was known to show up at concerts in rumpled, dirty clothing, nodding off on the stage, and otherwise being distracted.  Davis fired members of the band on occasion and even punched Trane in the stomach in a rage after finding his tenor player high.

Coltrane, in fact, was a rough talent even at 30 years of age during these early years with Miles because of his addictions.  Davis frequently kept Trane off the mike at recording sessions when ballads were performed, feeling that his sax player was not well enough developed to play on these sensitive tunes and used him for up-tempo pieces.

It was not until 1957, after Davis punched him and Thelonious Monk, who witnessed the incident, encouraged Trane to join his band, that the tenorist's playing improved markedly.  This was not unlike what Davis had done a few years earlier in kicking his habit and when Trane played in the legendary Monk band at a lengthy engagement at the Five Spot during the latter part of that year, he was clearly a changed man.  In fact, Trane was so superior a player once cleaned up that Davis hired him back and the two went on to make the great Kind of Blue not long afterwards.

The Prestige recordings of 1955 and 1956 are full of remarkable performances, including standards, pieces by Davis, Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Rollings and Trane's first recorded piece, "Trane's Blues."  In addition to the studio sessions over three discs, there is a fourth that comprises two songs performed on The Tonight Show in November 1955 (including awkward introductions by sincere jazz fan and host Steve Allen), two songs at Philadelphia's Blue Note club in December 1956 and four tracks recorded at the Café Bohemia in New York in May 1958, well after the group left Prestige.  An enhanced section provides transcriptions of five Miles solos from two sessions and three live performances, as well.

The rhythm section of Jones and Chambers, with Garland's consistent comping, are excellent and, on those occasions where Coltrane was really on, glimpses of his future greatness are in evidence.  Meanwhile, Davis had mastered the art of finding the right note for the right time, of using the trumpet's middle range to execute beautiful lyrical emotion, and of adapting and arranging pieces to fit the band's strengths. 

If anything, his skills as a band leader were as important, if not more so, than that of a player from the time this band came together to make these great recordings.  And, it was only going to get better with the Columbia sessions, as will be covered here soon.

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