Miles Davis, Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Album of the Week, February 26, 2022

As I mentioned in last week’s #albumoftheweek post, we’re going through Miles’ early albums for Prestige Records. This week is the second of Miles’ last four albums for the label, released as contractual obligations after he was signed to Columbia Records and all recorded on two dates in 1956. Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet thus features the same personnel, the same ambience, and the same concept as Cookin’: Miles with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and John Coltrane in the studio, playing “live-in-studio” takes of their considerable repertoire of standards.

Except that Relaxin’ shows a different side of the Quintet. If Cookin’ showed them at their most serious (“My Funny Valentine”) and hottest (“Airegin”), Relaxin’ finds the band in a much more laid back mode, beginning with Miles’ voice in the opening groove: “I’ll start playin’ and then I’ll tell you what it is.” “If I Were a Bell” is not a well-known jazz standard—Frank Loesser wrote it for Guys and Dolls—but the band swings into it as though it were “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.” The ballad playing throughout the record is outstanding too, with Coltrane’s solo on “You’re My Everything” hinting at the great work he would do two years later on Lush Life and on his early Impulse! recordings.

Other material is less reflective but still swinging, with “I Could Write a Book” and Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” finding the horn players burning over the great rhythm section. On that note, I’ve often thought that Garland, Jones and Chambers could make anyone sound good, but it’s interesting to hear them shift their styles in “I Could Write a Book” to reflect the differences between Miles’ cool, muted playing and Trane’s more aggressive approach. This is particularly evident in Philly Joe Jones’ drumming, which shifts from a quieter tone to a more propulsive, explosive style under Trane’s solo.

Of note, too, is that this record features two heavily bebop-influenced tunes, with both “Oleo” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody’n You” showing the influence that Miles took from his time working with Charlie Parker. All in all, another solid Prestige session for the quintet. Most of the material for the record comes from the October 1956 sessions, coming just a month after the last sessions for Round About Midnight but sounding remarkably consistent with the sound the quintet shows on the May 1956 sessions, here represented by “It Could Happen to You” and “Woody’n You.”

All in all, Relaxin’ is a great document of this great quintet, and fun to listen to. (And to look at, too: Miles may have reserved his original compositions for his Columbia recordings, but the covers for this album and last week’s are absolute works of art.)

Miles Davis, Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Three of the four Miles Davis Quintet albums for Prestige: Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Album of the week, February 19, 2022.

For this week’s installment of #albumoftheweek, we continue driving through Miles Davis’ early albums. Last week saw Miles’ early work for Prestige, with a band that featured a young Sonny Rollins in one of his earliest recordings. But it wasn’t a Miles Davis group; the players came together in the studio but hadn’t spent months together on the road. Miles was in bad shape; hooked on heroin, needing fees from recording sessions to buy the drugs. He was not a top-shelf artist.

Then, in 1955, after spending a few years kicking the drugs, returning to New York, and recording several pivotal albums for Blue Note Records, he played at the Newport Jazz Festival in a group with Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, Connie Kay and Zoot Sims. His performance wowed the critics and the record-buying public alike, as well as George Avakian of Columbia Records, who wanted to sign him. The only problem? Miles still had a year left on his contract with Prestige, and owed them four albums to boot.

Miles addressed the problem with aplomb. He negotiated in his contract with Avakian that Columbia wouldn’t release any recordings he made for them until his contract with Prestige expired. He then entered the studio with a group formed at Avakian’s suggestion and with whom he had recently played a string of dates at Cafe Bohemia: the Miles Davis Quintet. The original membership of the quintet included pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and tenor sax Sonny Rollins. But Rollins was struggling with his own heroin addiction, and Miles fired him and replaced him with another great young tenor player (and heroin addict): John Coltrane. With Trane on board, the group later known as the First Great Quintet was complete.

The chronology of Miles’ recordings in late 1955 through 1956, as he played out his commitment to Prestige, is a little confusing. The Quintet first entered the Columbia studio in October to record Round About Midnight, then three weeks later was in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Hackensack recording The New Miles Davis Quintet. Legendarily, Miles had to pay for the next sessions in the Van Gelder studio out of his own pocket; he returned with the Quintet in May 1956, in between recording dates with Columbia for Miles Ahead, and knocked out material that would end up on three of his last four albums for Prestige. The Quintet returned to Hackensack one last time, on October 26, 1956, to record more material with Van Gelder, including all the tracks on Cookin’.

Perhaps because of the constraints of the session time, perhaps because Miles’ attention was on the more complex sessions for Columbia, the Prestige sessions are relaxed, feature familiar jazz standards straightforwardly played, and for all intents and purposes “live” in the studio. That is not to call them simple or mediocre. On the contrary, Cookin’ in particular, especially its opening performance of “My Funny Valentine” and the second-side opener “Airegin,” rank among the greatest numbers Miles ever recorded.

What is it about these performances? Simply put, they show a group that was capable of listening closely to each other, improvising collectively in unusual ways, and expressing subtlety and hard bop in equal measures. The First Great Quintet had range, from Miles’ cool playing to Coltrane’s fire, Garland’s melodic chords, Philly Joe Jones’ power, and the incredible versatility of Chambers’ bass, both pizzicato and arco (bowed). (Chambers is featured in one of my Exfiltration Radio sessions from a while ago.) And perhaps because the sessions were recorded quickly, they are unfussy, unforced, and genuinely fun to listen to.

My copies of these albums are modern repressings, nothing too fancy to write home about, but there is still a joy in listening to the sound leap off the vinyl. Red Garland’s opening piano melody on Side One caused my sleeping dog to wake up and perk up his ears, but Jones’ brushwork on “When Lights Are Low” settled him right down again. We’ll listen to more from these sessions next time.

Miles Davis, Dig

Album of the week, February 12, 2022.

We’re going to be featuring a lot of Miles Davis over the next while here on #albumoftheweek, so strap in!

Today we’re talking about Dig, which is credited to Miles Davis Featuring Sonny Rollins. I dig Dig — partly for what it is, partly for what it isn’t.

Miles recorded these sessions, which also included two numbers that showed up on the Prestige Records compilation Conception, on October 5, 1951, and they were among the earliest music he released on Prestige. The music wasn’t originally released on a 12” LP, though; it originally came out on two 10” LPs, The New Sound and Blue Period. Thus, this music includes Miles’ first tracks on an LP as a leader (the Birth of the Cool sessions, featuring Davis’ nonet with arranger Gil Evans, wouldn’t be released in compiled form until 1957), and his first full album as a leader for Prestige. It also happens to be Jackie McLean’s jazz recording debut.

It’s also, perhaps more contentiously, the first album to feature Miles’ “first quintet” sound, though it isn’t actually a First Quintet album. The players—McLean and Rollins on saxophones, Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Art Blakey on drums—have no overlap with the personnel of the group that Miles assembled for Prestige later in the decade. But the hallmarks of the classic “hard bop” sound are all there, including Miles’ relatively open chordal voicings and tempi that were less “cool” than his nonet material but also more relaxed than his earliest recordings with Charlie Parker. Put simply, it just sounds like Miles. And it sounds great.

Unfortunately, the sessions were also recorded while Miles was in the throes of his addiction to heroin, so he wouldn’t maintain the high standard of performance on this record for long. Several uneven records for Prestige followed, and he would even turn to pimping during the next few years, all to make money for his drug habit. He wouldn’t turn to greatness until he left New York for St. Louis and Detroit in 1953, kicked heroin, and found a different way to approach the music. We’ll see the fruit of that approach next time.

My copy of this album is a 2015 mono repressing on translucent blue vinyl, bought at Newbury Comics. I was relatively new to buying records at the time and didn’t realize that the translucent vinyl meant that the optical sensor on my Denon turntable, which tries to automatically select 33 1/3 or 45 RPM based on the size of the record on the turntable, would get confused and refuse to play! I now have a slipmat that eliminates the problem by covering the sensor in the platter, since translucent vinyl is, for better or worse, a common feature of 21st century repressings…

Eddie Costa, Mat Mathews & Don Elliott At Newport

Album of the Week, February 5, 2022

For every Miles, Trane or Monk, there is an Eddie Costa.

Even the most enthusiastic jazz reissue program inevitably falls into a rut. You get the umpteenth repressing of Kind of Blue, you get (admittedly fabulous) live concert recordings from a high school janitor who just happened to be taping Thelonious Monk. But you don’t see too many revivals of interest in players like Eddie Costa, Mat Mathews and Don Elliott.

The Clef Series, issued on Verve in the US and Columbia in the UK, consisted of recordings related to Norman Granz, the impressario behind Verve and Ella Fitzgerald. In this particular case, Granz was making a bet on some of the lesser known musicians that played the afternoon sets at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957.

Eddie Costa was on his way up then, a rising star on both piano and vibes, and was recording prolifically with his own groups and as sideman for Gigi Gryce, Gunther Schuller, Shelly Manne and others. He appeared on over 100 recordings before being killed in a car crash in 1962.

Mat Mathews, a Dutch jazz accordionist, was less well known, but he still recorded sessions with Herbie Mann, Oscar Pettiford, Kenny Clarke, Art Farmer, Percy Heath, Carmen McRae, Charlie Byrd and others. And Don Elliott was a multi-instrumentalist, recording on trumpet, vibes, mellophone and vocals in his career.

The sessions on this record are loose and swinging, up tempo and genuinely fun to listen to. They are not momentous, save perhaps in featuring an early recording by Don Elliott’s pianist, who had been studying with George Russell: Bill Evans. Evans would record one more album with Elliott before auditioning in early 1958 to replace Red Garland in Miles Davis’s sextet, and the rest is history.

I found this copy, of the first UK pressing, in my local bargain bin in Burlington. When I want to remind myself that jazz is supposed to be fun, I put this on the record player (or cue up the ripped tracks in Apple Music) and listen.

There doesn’t appear to be a full copy of the album anywhere, but here are a few tracks:

Eva Cassidy, Live at Blues Alley

Eva Cassidy, Live at Blues Alley 25th Anniversary Edition

Album of the Week, January 29, 2022

It was the day after she died that I first heard of her.

I was listening to a jazz radio show on a Sunday morning in November 1996, probably driving back from church in McLean, Virginia, and I heard the announcers talking about a local performer who had passed away the previous day. They talked about her voice and how incredible it was to hear it coming from a small blond girl. They talked a lot, and I had to get out of the car before they actually played any of her music. But it made me want to seek her recordings out.

At that time there were two recordings available: an album of R&B duets recorded with the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, and her only solo album, a recording called Live at Blues Alley. I opted to pick up the latter. And was blown away. Cassidy’s voice was pure but it was also passionate, vital, and utterly unforgettable. And she brought vulnerability with her to the stage; you could hear it in her voice as she introduced her cover of Buffy St. Marie’s “Tall Trees in Georgia.” What she did to Sting’s “Fields of Gold” helped me to understand the impact an interpreter could have on a song. And her bravura performance on “Cheek to Cheek,” the album’s opener, was alternately jaw-dropping, moving, saucy, and brilliant as her voice pivoted from high belting to subdued precision within the same chorus.

Needless to say, I was hooked. And disappointed; I had found an amazing talent and she was gone. After the Chuck Brown duets, there wasn’t anything else to discover.

Except, of course, there was. In 2000, when I was in grad school, I found Eva by Heart. Then the Songbird compilation, which would be the one that would vault her to posthumous fame. I think her official discography lists six studio albums and three live; not bad for someone who died at the age of 33.

Anyway, I’m writing about her today because the New York Times flagged the 25th anniversary double-vinyl reissue of Live at Blues Alley as one of their best recordings of 2021, and I had to pick it up. And it sounds better than ever, after all these years. Heaven… I’m in heaven.

Bonus video: there is actual footage of one of those two nights at Blues Alley, which appears to include songs from the eventual album release with others that wouldn’t see release until Nightbird, a few years later. You can really get the full impact of her performance here. Enjoy!

Bonus bonus: documentary on the Blues Alley performance and how it came about, with interviews with the surviving band members.

Footnote: I had forgotten I had written about this, some eighteen years ago, but thanks to her rediscovery in the UK, Eva was the #5 top selling musical artist on Amazon in their first ten years of business, beating out the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, and others.