Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Album of the Week, November 19, 2022

Duke Ellington’s run of albums for Columbia Records in the mid to late 1950s was spectacular. In addition to Masterpieces by EllingtonEllington at NewportBlack, Brown and Beige, and Ellington Indigos, the run also included such classics as Ellington UptownA Drum is a WomanSuch Sweet ThunderJazz Party (featuring the debut of the Billy Strayhorn tune “U.M.M.G.”), and the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder

However, by 1962 his contract with Columbia had come to an end, and in a way this ushered in an even more significant period in Ellington’s development, as he began to record sessions for other labels with an array of artists. From this period came his great collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Money Jungle, and two collaboration albums on Impulse! Records, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

It’s worth pausing for a second to acknowledge that we have stepped into the timeline of Impulse! Records. One of the undisputedly great jazz labels alongside Blue Note and Verve (and later, CTI), Impulse! was established in 1960 by producer Creed Taylor, who may be the most significant contribution to jazz music to have come from Pearlsburg, Virginia. At Bethlehem Records, his first recording, a session backing vocalist Chris Connors with Ellis Larkins’ piano trio, earned him the position of head of A&R for the label. He parlayed this brief but successful stint into a role at ABC-Paramount, where he created Impulse! as a subsidiary label with the tagline “The New Wave in Jazz.” Creating immediate success with records by Gil Evans, Kai Winding, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and others, Taylor’s lasting accomplishment was to sign John Coltrane to the label in 1960. Due to Coltrane’s long association with the label, it became known as “The House That Trane Built.” Taylor left Impulse! for Verve in 1961, leaving the session Coltrane recorded with Ellington to Trane’s long-time producer Bob Thiele and engineer Rudy Van Gelder. (We’ll see Creed Taylor again.)

Ellington did not bring along his orchestra, or even his usual horn players, to the session. Without a regular record contract, he could not keep the band together indefinitely. Instead, bringing drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist Aaron Bell, he met Coltrane on more or less equal footing.

This recording found Coltrane at an interesting point in his development. While still performing with the Miles Davis Sextet, he had recorded music with an increasingly avant-garde flavor, perhaps culminating in the residency at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner that saw a release as Impressions. Critics were bitterly divided over the work, misunderstanding Trane’s searching approach, and 1962 apparently brought some retrenchment, with a greater focus on ballads, but no lack of innovation in the playing. Trane had just stabilized the membership in his own Great Quartet, with Jimmy Garrison replacing Workman on bass; Garrison and Jones join Coltrane on this session, and indeed support Ellington on all but two of the numbers.

As with Money Jungle, Ellington paired with the new players brings a sense of fresh spontaneity and depth to the album, many of the selections on which are familiar Ellington standards. The opener, “In a Sentimental Mood,” could not be performed more delicately by the band, with Jones’ muscular but nuanced hand at the drums joining Aaron Bell on bass. Trane’s melodic playing seems to search through the key changes of the tune, but never goes “out” in the way some of his earlier work stretches beyond space and time. Instead, he seems anchored to our world through the combination of Ellington’s gentle arpeggiated introduction and Jones and Bell’s steady, subtle pulse.

Take the Coltrane” is one in a series of Ellington compositions devoted to musicians with whom he collaborated, and it’s a remarkable achievement, highlighting both Trane’s arpeggiated “sheets of sound” and a slyly modal melody. Elvin Jones does unnaturally wonderful things on the hi-hat throughout, and Trane’s solo is of a piece with the work he was recording on his own Impulse! recordings. This recording features both Bell and Garrison on bass, and both plus Jones support Trane under his solo while Ellington steps aside. When Duke returns, he slyly drops in a little “Ooh Pa Pa Da” as though in reference to the bop origins of the tune. It’s genuinely fun.

Big Nick,” the sole Coltrane original on the record, is a fun, loping melody that takes the harmonic ideas of “Giant Steps” and swings them, creating a slow blues that rides on Jimmy Garrison’s loping bass line. Coltrane’s solo takes off for something like the outer stratosphere but never loses the blues progression, so that when he yields the floor to Duke his more straightforward take on the blues feels like a continuation of the conversation, rather than a rebuke. But it really all comes back to the melody, one of the quirkiest and most fun that Coltrane authored.

Stevie” carries on the swing but in a more Ellingtonian harmonic language, swerving from a minor blues into a major key. His introductory choruses veer through at least three different modes before returning to the original minor. Trane mostly stays within the first minor mode for his solo, which carries flavors of “Impressions” in its blistering runs but never goes too far outside. Ellington’s initial take on the melody stays cool in contrast to Coltrane’s heat, finishing with a low tolling note to close out the first side.

My Little Brown Book” is one of the most gorgeous ballads on the record. The Ellington introduction, with Woodyard and Bell backing, revisits the feeling of “In a Sentimental Mood,” but when Coltrane enters on the melody of this Strayhorn composition, we’re suddenly swaying to a half heard melody on an empty dance floor somewhere near midnight. This is Trane at his most romantic, with echoes of his performance of “I’ll Wait and Pray” from Coltrane Jazz, and the rest of the band is there for him, with only small ripples from Ellington disturbing the serenity of the track.

Angelica” is, for me, the standout track here. Just listen to that opening beat from Elvin Jones, and the bounce that carries over to Ellington’s opening choruses, backed up by a jubilant Garrison. Coltrane’s entry keeps the swing going, and he plays it pretty safe for the first few choruses. Then on that fourth, after Ellington drops out and it’s just him and the rhythm, he cuts loose, with sheets of sound swirling around the beat, never losing the swing but somehow taking a step left through a door into, well, a John Coltrane record. After that chorus, he brings it back to the melody, and you can hear Ellington recalibrating his approach before he re-enters. It sums up so much about the connection between Coltrane’s approach and the harmonic and rhythmic innovations that had come before him, and is a complete blast to listen to. And maybe even dance: I want Elvin Jones playing that beat for my entry music as I stroll, sashay and jitterbug into heaven.

The Feeling of Jazz” brings us back to a slow blues to close out the album. True to its title, it bridges both Trane’s searching quality and Ellington’s formalism to give us something that feels like a little of both worlds. Trane’s solo continues throughout most of the song; we are reminded of the time he told Miles, the latter having asked why he played such a long solo, that “it took that long to get it all in.” At the end, Trane finally steps back from the microphone and Ellington and his rhythm section play through the fade-out, the elder titan getting the last word.

In the liner notes to the album, Trane famously remarked, “I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity.” The whole session was recorded in a single day on September 26, 1962 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, just eight days after the recording of “Up ’Gainst the Wall” that rounds out Impressions. But the album speaks for itself, the meeting of two giants and of two sympathetic musicians who bring their separate conceptions of the music into a unified whole. It remains as spontaneous and fresh for me today as when I first heard it almost thirty years ago.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, Someday My Prince Will Come

Album of the Week, April 30, 2022.

To interpret this album, we need to start with Dave Brubeck.

That’s not a sentence that begins many discussions of Miles Davis’s music. But in this case it fits, because the small group album released after Kind of Blue found Miles in a very different place than he was on that masterpiece. For once, he was not exactly blazing a trail.

He picked a good time to regroup, coming off two masterpieces—not just Kind of Blue but the followup album with Gil Evans and his orchestra, the miraculous Sketches of Spain (about which I may write one day, but which is not presently in my vinyl collection). But regrouping was needed. After the European tour, Trane had decided to strike out on his own, taking the tunes that he had explored onstage to the chords of “Kind of Blue” (“Impressions”) and “On Green Dolphin Street” (“Like Sonny”) along with his searching, experimental aesthetic, and forming his own quartet. (We’ll talk about their albums at some point, after I finish telling the rest of Miles’ story.)

Miles had auditioned a few saxophonists, doing live performances with both Jimmy Heath and Sonny Stitt, before landing on the young Hank Mobley. Mobley had been recording a string of ingenious albums for Blue Note, including the classics Soul Station and Roll Call in 1960, and brought with him some of the same athleticism that Trane displayed, tempered with a touch of soul. It was a good match in many ways for the rest of the quintet, which still included soul-flavored pianist Wynton Kelly as well as the redoubtable Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers.

But what Mobley didn’t bring was repertoire, at least, not in the same way that Bill Evans helped Miles tap the vein of modal jazz that underpinned the great 1958-1960 recordings. Miles had to bring that himself, which may explain why this recording featured several standards, including the title track. But why did a Disney song count as a standard? For that we have to thank Dave Brubeck (I told you I’d get there, eventually).

Brubeck in 1957 was a few years away from recording his own masterpiece, 1959’s Time Out, but he had built a strong working group of his own, with Paul Desmond’s distinctive alto providing a lyrical counterpart to Brubeck’s muscular approach to the piano. And Brubeck, while a substantial composer in his own right, was looking for new material that could showcase the quartet’s versatility. He found it, reportedly, at Disneyland, and then had to work hard to convince producer George Avakian to bet on a whole album of Disney covers. The lead-off tune on the second side of Dave Digs Disney? “Someday My Prince Will Come.” (We’ll talk more about Dave Digs Disney at some point, too.)

Miles had been listening to Brubeck for a while — remember, he covered “In Your Own Sweet Way” on Workin’ and “The Duke” on Miles Ahead. And he must have heard, in Brubeck’s version of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” something of the direction he wanted to take his quintet. The only problem was that Mobley, while a great tenor player, didn’t have the right sound for the arrangement.

And so it was that Miles called on Coltrane, one last time. Trane was reportedly reluctant to return to the studio with Miles’s group, being consumed with a much bigger project, the orchestra recordings that would be released as Africa/Brass. But return he did, and in two days in March 1961, he recorded “Prince” and Miles’ composition “Teo,” named for his long-suffering producer. (We’ll hear more about Teo Macero later.)

Something else strikes you about this album, maybe even before you open it: the portrait of the woman on the cover is more direct and beautiful than anything on Miles’ album covers to date. That’s appropriate; so is the music inside. Miles was in love, as it turns out, and his now-wife, Frances Taylor, was featured on the cover because Miles demanded that Columbia feature black women in the album art. The music is accordingly beautiful and melodic, with the Miles originals (“Drad-Dog,” “Teo,” and “Pfrancing” aka “No Blues”) alternating between wistful melodies and soulful blues. 

The recording was not just beautiful, though. Trane arrives late on the title track, after two solo turns by Miles and one by Mobley, but the power he brings to his turn injects it with new energy, simultaneously forthright and yearning.  His solo on “Teo” brings some of the energy and chordal approach that would appear on his own quartet recordings, and spurs Miles to feats of energy of his own, before the trumpeter deconstructs Trane’s approach to the melody. Miles’s second solo on the tune is additive, as he brings elements of his solos from Sketches of Spain, and subtractive, as he takes Trane’s statements and abstracts them, turning the arc of the solo into a stretched-out call that sounds over the rhythm section. 

By this recording, that rhythm section of Kelly, Chambers and Cobb was easily as tight a unit as Red Garland had formed with Philly Joe Jones and Chambers in the early days of the quintet. Kelly was more deeply steeped in the blues than Garland ever was, and his performance on this recording has a soul jazz sound that would rarely appear in Miles’ recordings. This unit would soon strike out on their own as a trio led by Kelly, and they would even record their own Someday My Prince Will Come

As for the originals on the album, “Pfrancing” and “Teo” would both be performed by other players, especially Joe Henderson, who brought both back in his tribute album, So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles). But if the tunes would stay, this band would not. This unit made no more studio recordings after this date, but they appeared in two legendary live sessions. The San Francisco sessions at the Blackhawk were issued as a pair of albums under the title Miles Davis in Person. We will discuss the other live album next time. 

You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, The Final Tour: Copenhagen, March 24, 1960

Album of the Week, April 23, 2022.

As Robert Frost wrote (and S.E. Hinton quoted), nothing gold can stay. This was certainly true of John Coltrane’s sojourn in Miles Davis’ band.

As we’ve seen, Trane had already left Davis’ employ once, to get clean of his heroin habit, after which he rebuilt his career performing in Thelonious Monk’s band before rejoining Miles. The second and final departure happened for a different reason: Trane developed into a star. He had signed with Atlantic Records in 1958, and in April 1959, a month after the first recording session for Kind of Blue, he entered Atlantic Studio in New York City to begin laying down the tracks that would eventually emerge on his debut for the label, Giant Steps. The sessions for the album would continue throughout the year, during which he also recorded material for Coltrane Jazz. These albums, featuring only his compositions, helped him build his fan base further. But he continued to record and perform with Miles during this period, even going on a European tour with him.

This helps to explain the first track of this record, which captures one of the concerts released as The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6. Jazz impresario Norman Granz introduces the players, getting applause for each name, until he introduces Coltrane… and the crowd goes nuts, applauding at least as loudly as they do for Miles.

The performances heard on this record are a hybrid between the style of Miles’ first great quintet (Cannonball Adderley had left the group by now) and Coltrane’s solo materials. Not quite a year after the recording of Kind of Blue, that album’s opening track, “So What,” had picked up the tempo considerably, going from the gentle stroll heard on the album to something considerably faster and darker. The track would keep the faster arrangement from this point forward. And Trane seems to have been let off the leash.

Indeed, as Ted Mills has pointed out, sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the two greats are playing in the same band. With Miles soloing, the band sounds like a fired-up version of the group that made Kind of Blue almost a year previously, but they’re still recognizable as the same group. When Trane steps up, however, the band catches fire.

Trane was just beginning to move beyond the chord-focused explorations that drove his Prestige recordings into explorations of spiritual verities, and you hear some of these directions in his playing in the Copenhagen concert. While there is no overblowing or squalling in the horn, sounds that would come to define the outer reaches of his Pentecostal exploration of the world around him, some of the other trademarks of the classic Coltrane sound are there: the abandonment of cool, the breaking beyond the boundaries of the eight bar chorus, the use of modal scales as a vehicle for spiritual exploration, and of course, the cascading “sheets of sound” in which it becomes difficult to hear the individual notes of his runs as they search out beyond the boundaries of the improvisation for something new.

On its surface, “On Green Dolphin Street” would seem like a strange vehicle for Trane’s search. The song, by Bronisław Kaper with lyrics by Ned Washington, was an MGM movie theme in 1947 and then mostly forgotten until Miles’ sextet resurrected it in a recording in 1958, in their first recording sessions. Their recordings, which were followed by versions by Bill Evans’ trio, Wynton Kelly, and Eric Dolphy, established the song as a jazz standard. But you don’t hear the standard improvisation when Coltrane solos. You hear him taking flight.

After this tour, Trane would return to the studio with Miles’ group once more, for two songs. But he was otherwise off on his own flights of exploration. We’ll hear more from both Miles and Trane soon.

The vinyl version of The Last Tour is an odd artifact; it presents material from one of the European performances of the tour and splits “On Green Dolphin Street” across two sides of the record. A fuller record of the tour can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour, which in addition to the Copenhagen show also presents performances from L’Olympia in Paris and the Konserthuset in Stockholm. I’ve provided links to the performances on the LP below; enjoy!

  1. Introduction by Norman Granz
  2. So What
  3. On Green Dolphin Street
  4. All Blues
  5. The Theme (incomplete)

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Album of the Week, April 16, 2022.

The opening of “So What,” the first track on Miles’ magnum opus, might be Paul Chambers’ most famous performance. Forget everything he had done with Miles’ group to this time; forget his solo records; forget all the great work he did with Trane and Cannonball Adderley and Kenny Clarke and Wynton Kelly and pretty much every hard bop artist in the 1950s and early 1960s. That walking bass line that follows Bill Evans’ introspective opening will forever define jazz bass: simple, functional (it underpins the modal progression of the that serves as the first line of the song’s theme), and utterly unforgettable. Chambers would live not quite ten more years after recording that bass line, and his work would never again have the sort of prominence he had on this record.

Kind of Blue was that kind of record for many of the players who performed on it. It’s that kind of record, period. It’s probably the one jazz record you have if you don’t own any jazz, because everyone has told you to buy it. And they’re right: Kind of Blue is the pinnacle of a certain type of playing, recorded by a group of men who had developed a certain telepathic sense of line and melody and how to step up and when to lay back.

For this reason, Kind of Blue repays countless listenings. It’s not as out there as some of the work that was to come with the Second Great Quintet, but it’s as intricate as a precision timepiece and as effortless as exhaling. So these thoughts are what I observe as I listen today. I might find different things tomorrow.

This was one of the few Miles albums that put the names of each player on the cover, even pianist Wynton Kelly, who only sat in on “Freddie Freeloader.” As we’ve learned in this series, the players matter in all these recordings, but they especially matter here. This is because, as Bill Evans notes in the liner notes to the album (below), almost everything you hear on the album was a first take.

That “almost” is interesting, because it raises the spectre of a self-conscious mythologizing—especially when one learns that there were, in fact, two takes of “Flamenco Sketches,” and that the one on the record is Take 2. There is also, in the liner notes, references to Japanese painting and a description of the different forms of each song, in an attempt to hint at the formal underpinnings beneath the improvisations. Evans notes of “All Blues,” for instance, that it is “a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series,” which is a bit like saying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a set of rhythmic vibrations of air.

Jibes aside, it is impossible to overstate Evans’ contributions to the album, and indeed to this phase of Davis’ band generally. As we learned while listening to Miles Ahead, Miles had been leaning toward a less cluttered conception of his music that offered more freedom for improvisation without the density of the chord changes that had been the formal underpinning of small group jazz since the days of Charlie Parker. Evans brought to his work on the piano a sense of formalism inspired by the works of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, as well as a formal grounding in the modal theories of George Russell courtesy of a working relationship with the noted “third stream” composer over the course of several years. The combination of Evans with Miles’ new modal direction, heard in their initial joint recordings as well as live performances in Davis’s sextet, was electric. But Evans was already looking beyond his sideman work and beginning to record with his first great trio with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian. Miles had to ask Evans to come back and record this album with him.

It is clear that Kind of Blue would not have happened without Evans. First, on purely practical grounds, he by all accounts composed “Blue in Green,” based on a request by Miles to Evans for a piece that centered around two chords, G minor and A augmented. When he was not credited on the record, he confronted Miles, who is said to have offered him $25 in compensation. Based on its similarity to Evans’ earlier composition “Peace Piece,” it’s likely that the pianist wrote “Flamenco Sketches” as well.

But the pianist contributed other elements to the record, most notably an abiding sense of melancholy, particularly in the two compositions mentioned above. But the genius of the album is that the melancholy is not a destination. The form of “Blue in Green” sees the pianist come full circle, repeating the opening figure as though returning again and again to a painful memory. But “Flamenco Sketches,” as it moves through the different scales, opens up that melancholy like a flower, moving beyond and through to a new horizon.

Adderley and Coltrane brought their own strengths to the record. Cannonball brings his own sense of harmonic conception, but his rhythmic approach is more linear than Trane’s, who bent the meter when it suited him. Indeed, his entrance on “Freddie Freeloader” literally stops the time, as the entire band drops out behind his first entrance. Throughout, though, both saxophonists bring an almost psychic connection with each other and the rest of the band, contributing to the frequent description of these tracks as perfect improvisation.

Evans would not record with Miles again. Nor would Adderley, who moved on to form his own group. Trane returned for a few tracks of Miles’ next small-group album, but his swan song with the group was effectively the tour of Europe that they mounted in 1960. We’ll hear that soon.

Listen (again).

Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Music

Monk’s Music

Album of the Week, March 19, 2022.

Today’s #albumoftheweek may seem like a detour from our exploration of Miles Davis’s recording career (via my record collection), and it is, a bit. But in other ways it picks up where we left off last week, with Miles’ band mostly leaving as they fell prey to their addictions. Today we explore what happened next to the most famous of those sidemen.

What happened to John Coltrane was that he found God.

This is not an inference or an exaggeration. In 1964, Trane wrote in the liner notes to A Love Supreme that “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” The newfound spirituality enabled Trane to quit heroin, though not before it irrevocably marked him; there is good reason to suppose that the drug, along with the alcoholism that accompanied his addiction, contributed to the liver cancer that was to kill him just ten years later.

Trane also found Monk, or vice versa, in 1957, and their collaboration made a substantial difference to their respective careers. Thelonious Sphere Monk himself had been struggling for years, after the discovery of narcotics (likely belonging to his friend Bud Powell) in his car led to the revocation of his cabaret card. His ability to perform in public limited and his eccentric composition style granting his music an unfair reputation for difficulty, his record sales for Prestige were relatively meager. In fact, when he sought to go to Riverside, the latter label was able to buy out Monk’s contract with Prestige for only $108.24.

But somehow Trane and Monk found each other in mid-1957 and began performing together at the Five Spot Cafe. Because Trane was still under contract to Prestige Records, he was not able to record widely in the studio with Monk’s group, but somehow the label managed to secure the rights to include him in this recording, which featured exclusively Monk’s compositions—plus, in a note of irony, a horns-only performance of the hymn “Abide with Me,” written by William Henry Monk (no relation).

The inclusion of the hymn takes us back to the evolution of Trane during this period, and spotlights the substantial and lasting difference that his spiritual conversion made in Trane’s music, almost from the very beginning. The single verse of the hymn is played solemnly and straight, with harmonies straight from the hymnbook. Structurally it serves as a prelude to the next track, “Well, You Needn’t,” which features an astonishing solo from Coltrane in full on pentecostal mode.

In fact, “Well, You Needn’t” is an astonishing track from start to finish. Monk’s piano opens by itself, swinging the rhythm and stretching it into something like 6/4, before being joined by the full band. Monk remains gnomic in his solo, approaching the chords of the melody obliquely rather than playing into it, before calling for his tenor saxophonist: “Coltrane! Coltrane!” And Trane enters, blowing leaps of fifths and sevenths across two choruses in something like a holy shout. He then yields the floor to Ray Copeland for a turn at the melody on trumpet, before Wilbur Ware and Art Blakey pick it up. Ware’s exploration of the melody evolves it into a pattern of descending fifths that is then picked up by the redoutable Blakey, who then takes the pattern across all the elements of his drum kit. Coleman Hawkins and Gigi Gryce take the last solos, with more conventional but no less fierce approaches to the melody, before the full band comes back in to close the track. It is nothing short of a master class in jazz improvisation.

The third track, “Ruby, My Dear,” is the one track on which Coltrane doesn’t play, but that is not a reason to skip it. It’s a remarkably tender ballad and on any other record would be the romantic highlight. But not here. On Monk’s Music the second side goes through some gnarly territory with the one-two punch of “Off Minor” and “Epistrophy” before it lands on a new composition, “Crepuscule with Nellie.”

The tune, dedicated to Monk’s wife, was originally to be titled “Twilight with Nellie,” before the countess Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a staunch advocate of American bebop musicians, suggested the use of the French word. The performance is through-composed, meaning that Monk wrote out the entire track rather than sketching the melody and chords as a basis of improvisation. It also means that what we hear in the recording is an unusually true representation of Monk’s original intentions—notable since this version, unlike most covers of the work, keep the rhythm straight rather than ”swinging” the eighth notes in the original melody. Indeed, throughout the album Monk plays with expectations of rhythm, often turning them on their heads, such as the off-center chordal interjections that run through “Well, You Needn’t.” However it happens, “Crepuscule” stands as a romantic highlight, not just of the recording but perhaps of all of 1950s jazz.

Trane’s time in Monk’s group would be brief, yielding this one studio recording and a handful of live appearances that have since popped up on record. He would soon reenter the studio as a leader, recording Blue Trane later in 1957 for Blue Note Records, and an immense amount of material—some 37 sides, released over many albums—for Prestige Records in 1958. In fact, 1958 was a pivotal year for Trane, who rejoined Miles in the January of that year. By that time the quintet had become a sextet, with the addition of another saxophonist who we’ll meet next week.

I first found Monk’s Music at Plan 9 Records in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a happy accident brought on by my habit of rifling through all the Original Jazz Classics CD reissues and buying the ones that had the most interesting liner notes (a habit I wrote about some years ago). The copy shown in the photograph above was a reissue on translucent red vinyl courtesy of Newbury Comics some years ago. Listen and enjoy.

Miles Davis, Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, reissue on Jazz Wax Records

Album of the week, March 12, 2022

With this #albumoftheweek, we have come to the final of Miles’ four “contractual obligation” albums for Prestige Records. Recorded as he was beginning his stellar career for Columbia (about which, more later), the four albums – Cookin, Relaxin, Workin, and Steamin’ – showcase the versatility and talent of the First Great Quintet. It would also be one of the last recordings of this particular lineup.

Miles had struggled with heroin early in his career, going so far as to move out of New York to the Midwest for a few years to give him the space he needed to kick the habit. Unfortunately, his saxophone player, John Coltrane, was still in the thralls of the drug, and left after these recording sessions for a period. He would get clean in 1957 (which is a story for another day) and rejoin the band in 1958.

Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones also suffered from an addiction to heroin; their performances didn’t suffer but their professionalism did, and their unfortunate habit of showing up late for gigs meant that both would ultimately be fired by Miles after the quintet’s first two Columbia recordings, ’Round About Midnight and Milestones. They made his last recordings with Miles’ group in March of 1958 and their last performance in November of that year, on a radio broadcast. Garland would be replaced in Miles’ band by a young pianist named Bill Evans, who had made an impression at Newport; Jones would be replaced by Jimmy Cobb. Both would continue playing and recording until their deaths in 1984 and 1985, respectively.

Paul Chambers would stay in Miles’ groups until 1962, appearing on many of the early Columbia recordings including the band recordings with Gil Evans and the landmark Kind of Blue. He left Chambers in 1962, along with Jimmy Cobb and pianist Wynton Kelly, and the trio would form one of the most memorable rhythm sections in jazz until Chambers’ untimely death from organ failure in 1969, brought on by tuberculosis and hastened by his own heroin and alcohol addictions.

It is sobering to listen to Steamin’ in light of the band’s history, but it’s also a pure pleasure. Trane is great on this album, particularly the opener. And the arrangements are something else. “Salt Peanuts” in particular cooks along at light speed, and the band’s version of Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” is a remarkable illustration of how it could stretch and drive even the most difficult material into something that was wholly its own. It’s a fitting finale for this set of great Miles recordings.

We’ll take a short break from our Miles survey next week, but in the meantime please enjoy listening to this remarkable album.

Miles Davis, Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Miles Davis, Workin’ – OJC 2019 repress, translucent blue vinyl

Album of the week, March 5, 2022.

We are just at the halfway point in our #albumoftheweek run through Miles’ quartet of First Great Quintet recordings for Prestige, and it would be tempting to conclude there is nothing left to say about these four records. That would be a mistake. First and foremost, these records are great because of the music on them — the performances and arrangements — and each one has its own identity. In the case of Workin’, released in 1960 but recorded at the same sessions as Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Steamin’ in May and October 1956, the rhythm section is the thing. In fact, this record might really be said to belong to Red Garland.

That seems a weird (or “vierd,” as Blue Note founder Francis Wolff would reportedly say) thing to say about a Miles Davis album featuring John Coltrane. But the performance leads off with a hypnotic performance of “It Never Entered My Mind,” led by a fluid arpeggiated entrance from Garland before Miles comes in on the melody, backed by a heartbeat-like bass line from Paul Chambers. The third track on the first side, Dave Brubeck’s sublime “In Your Own Sweet Way,” features spectacularly subtle playing from both Garland and Miles on the sweet standard. The second side even features a trio number by the rhythm section without any horns, on “Ahmad’s Blues.” Reportedly the latter number was enough to convince Bob Weinstock of Prestige to sign Red and his trio to their own recording contract.

It’s not just Red Garland’s playing that shines here, though. Philly Joe Jones’ muscular drumming on the beginning of “Four” is easily the most exciting thing about the arrangement, with bombs dropping in and out of the beat throughout the track. And—returning to “It Never Entered My Mind”—Paul Chambers’ subtle bass ground as the melodic line and chords suspend above him, followed by a freer line after the second chorus and even an arco line at the end is practically a master class in the bass.

I haven’t written as much about the horns here. Throughout the album, Coltrane and Miles play together principally on the head and coda of each arrangement and then alternate verses. Again, where Miles typically plays with the cool restraint that was already his trademark in 1956, Coltrane’s playing is still evolving. He has not yet found the “sheets of sound” — the compressed, rapid arpeggios and runs that would become the trademark of his classic sound after his sojourn in Thelonious Monk’s group in 1957. But his lines here still are more exuberant and searching than Miles’. His work on “In Your Own Sweet Way” is an example, as he explores different scales and modes around the changes of Brubeck’s standard.

A note on the cover: the first two records in the series are undeniable classics of graphic design, with Relaxin’ in particular approaching something like mid-century modern high art. Then we get this album, which seems almost pedestrian by comparison, with the blue-tinted photo of Miles. But look closer: the strong lines of the industrial building and the road in the background form their own geometry around Miles, who, even in a tweed sportcoat, looks impossibly cool. Other covers featuring Miles in the 1950s feature him playing his horn; here, instead holding a cigarette, he looks impatiently at the photographer. He’s ready to get back to work.

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.

New Coltrane

VinylFactory.com: Previously unheard 1964 John Coltrane album released for the first time.

This is an even bigger deal, arguably, than last year’s Both Directions at Once, which I liked but which was ultimately a little … unmemorable? The title track of Blue World is a burner that reminds me of “Equinox” and other great John Coltrane Quartet classics. Listen now:

Unmentioned in the coverage I’ve seen is that you can pre-order the vinyl version of the album in the uDiscover Music store, ahead of its September 27th release.

Lush Life

There are certain records, certain tracks, that instantly take you back to where you were when you heard them for the very first time. John Coltrane’s “Lush Life” (the first version he recorded, the 1958 version with Red Garland, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, and Louis Hayes) is one of those albums, and one of those tracks.

The whole record is unusual in Trane’s discography. The first three tunes are performed by a pianoless trio (Red Garland apparently forgot to show up for the session), and they show a keen sense of rhythm and a searching intelligence while still demonstrating Trane’s mastery of playing over the chords. The fifth track, a quartet session with Garland, Chambers, and Albert Heath on drums, is a straight ahead reading of “I Hear a Rhapsody”–a nice enough performance, but unremarkable by itself.

No, it’s the title track that makes one sit up and pay attention, as I did when I brought it back to my dorm room in the fall of 1990, a story which I’ve told before. All the more if you think of the story (not the words. The words themselves have so little poetry that it’s a miracle that Johnny Hartman brought what he did to the song five years later)–the sad, romantic story of the man who was idly bored until a miracle of love came into his life, and then quietly heartbroken when love departed. So he tries to bolster his spirits, only to confront his own solitude: “Romance is mush/stifling those who thrive/I’ll live a lush life/in some small dive/and there I’ll be/while I rot with the rest/of those whose lives are lonely too.”

Only the artistry of Strayhorn could take us through the gorgeousness of the tune into the depths of that solitude within a single song. One thinks, he must have been a lot of fun at parties.