Miles Davis, At Carnegie Hall

Album of the Week, May 7, 2022.

Miles began his Columbia Records recording career alternating between small group sessions and “big band” recordings with Gil Evans at the baton. When it came time for him to make his Carnegie Hall debut, then, it was only natural that the performance include both sounds. The result is one of the more unusual albums in Miles’ career, and one of the most lush sounding albums he ever recorded.

We must first acknowledge the developments that led to this moment. Miles was, by 1961, a genuine star, and Columbia was investing in him like one. Few other jazz artists could have put on a show like this one, just based on cost alone. Gil’s orchestra wasn’t the famous “+19” that played on Miles Ahead—the players on stage numbered 22, counting Evans conducting. But some of the members were doing double duty, with Hank Mobley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly returning from Someday My Prince Will Come as Miles’ quintet.

All the forces on stage join together for the opening number, an unusual arrangement of “So What” that combines the original Bill Evans opening, transcribed for Gil’s orchestra, and even slower and more contemplative in its tempo. Then Chambers enters with the famous bass figure and the whole orchestra plays the “So What” chord, amplified and augmented in several octaves, at which point the quintet picks up the arrangement at the faster tempo of the live versions heard on The Final Tour. This is “So What,” not as a nonchalant question, but as an angry demand. The quintet scorches through the tune, and Mobley’s hard bop roots show through in his solo.

When the next set with the big band comes, it turns the temperature down a bit, starting with a wistful Evans arrangement of Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring is Here” that was never recorded elsewhere, and a set from Miles Ahead: “The Meaning of the Blues,” “Lament,” and “New Rhumba.” Here, as on the original record, the rhumba is the standout, with some of the cool precision of the studio recording traded for a jaunty, swinging insouciance.

(I should note that the order of the tunes on this album depends on what version you have. The original 1961 LP omitted some tracks; the 1998 CD featured the whole concert in its original running order; and my 2LP set rearranges some of the tracks to fit the limits of the LP sides.)

The next set from the quintet is where the heart of this concert begins for me: an extended romp through “Teo” that lacks none of the fire from the studio version despite Mobley taking the tenor solo that Trane played in the first recording. The band segues into “Walkin’,” which by now was the theme for Miles’ group, and then proceeds into a quiet, wistful rendition of the opening chorus of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

And then the fireworks start. The version of “Oleo” that the band uncorks shows off all Miles’ bebop bona fides, with a rapid fire statement of the melody and solo that would not have been out of place on a Dizzy Gillespie record. “No Blues,” formerly known as “Pfrancing,” while slightly slower, is no less assertive, and the band is hot as they play behind Miles, who throws off one impossibly cool trumpet line after another, blowing notes that from someone else would sound like mistakes but seamlessly blending them into his line. Mobley is more conventional here, but no less exciting, shifting in the second 8-bar pattern into double time and staying there for about 24 bars. You can hear why he’s known as the “middleweight champion of the tenor sax.” And the rhythm section gets a great spotlight too, with Paul Chambers showing why he was so widely regarded as a leader on his instrument.

The closing number of the quintet, “I Thought About You” is a stunning performance, with Miles equally tender and wistful before making a forthright declaration of intent, followed by a mid-chorus handoff to Mobley. But it’s Miles’ tune, and he closes quietly, defiantly, and with a shower of applause.

On the LP, the final number belongs to Miles and Gil, who revisit “En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor” from Sketches of Spain. It’s hypnotic, and the band seems to lift and enfold Miles’ trumpet line without ever overwhelming it. It’s a stunning performance.

As we’ve noted, this configuration wouldn’t last much longer. The concert at Carnegie Hall was in May 1961. Miles would record no more that year, returning to the studio with Evans in July 1962 for the abortive sessions for Quiet Nights, an album that ended up being their final joint statement until the late 1970s. By the end of 1962, Kelly, Chambers and Cobb left to perform as a trio, with Sonny Rollins (who had joined the quintet in the interim) departing soon after.

Miles, faced with having to pay thousands to settle cancelled gigs, pulled together a new quintet quickly, featuring Victor Feldman on piano, George Coleman on tenor sax, Frank Butler on drums, and Ron Carter on bass. That configuration recorded part of Miles’ next album, Seven Steps to Heaven, together, but Feldman and Butler would not leave the west coast permanently. So Miles found new members of the rhythm section: a teenage wunderkind drummer named Tony Williams, and a young pianist and composer named Herbie Hancock. We’ll hear more from Hancock next week.

I found my copy of Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall in the shop at the Moog factory in Asheville, North Carolina. You can listen to the album here.

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