Gimme Five: Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings (2013)

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Miles Davis collaborator Jimmy Cobb joins us as we explore nine Columbia albums that capture the earliest flowerings of the Miles Davis legend — the moment when his muse began to match his own prodigious powers.

Cobb is the last surviving member of Davis’ legendary Kind of Blue sessions, a career-defining piece of the just-released Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings from Legacy Recordings. He actually appears on five of this set’s nine discs, however, including 1958’s Porgy and Bess, 1960’s Sketches of Spain, 1961’s Someday My Prince Will Come, 1963’s Miles and Monk at Newport — as well as 1959’s Kind of Blue.

That gives him a unique perspective on the many revelatory joys found here, even as Davis moves from hard bop into a jazz-classical hybrid, into modal themes and into world music via collaborations with John Coltrane over six albums, with Gil Evans on three, and with Thelonious Monk on another. Included is a fully annotated booklet with complete sessions information, along with an in-depth examination of the period by Marc Myers of the Wall Street Journal.

But where to start? Here’s a look at five key moments from The Original Mono Recordings

JAZZ TRACK (1958): Not an essential album, by any means, but one that’s sure to be one of this set’s off-handed discoveries for casual fans. Jazz Track, never before available in any Davis CD collection, was originally fashioned out of two separate studio sessions — beginning with 10 rather meandering songs that Davis composed for the soundtrack of a French-released murder-mystery film by Louis Malle. Joined by drummer Kenny “Clook” Clarke and a few Parisian players, Davis is (pardon the expression) muted throughout, perhaps owing to its use as incidental music in L’Ascenseuer Pour l’Echafaud — and that Davis was said to have improvised the music while watching an early edit of the movie.

Things pick up considerably, however, later on with the addition of three tracks from a May 1958 session that serve as a preview of the looming successes on 1959’s Kind of Blue. Davis is joined for the first time by Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley for a fascinating early version of “On Green Dolphin Street,” which finds this gently ingratiating opening statement featuring Jimmy Cobb’s feather-light brushwork turned on its ear by brawny solo statements from Adderley and Coltrane. There is a delightful waltz-time reimagining of “Put Your Little Foot Right Out,” re-cast here as “Fran-Dance,” as well as a simply enchanting take on “Stella by Starlight.”

That last song, recorded minus Cannonball, illustrates how embryonic these collaborations still were, however: Davis actually asked Cobb to replicate one of predecessor Philly Joe Jones’ moves from an earlier version — which had Jones switching from sticks to brushes during key moments. “That was the way they had played it, before I even got there,” Cobb tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “That was the way Joe and Paul and (former pianist) Red (Garland) played it, and that was the way he wanted it. He wanted the brushes for his part. At that point, he wanted to hear some familiar stuff on familiar stuff.” Still, the sense of history in the making is palpable. — Nick DeRiso

MILES AHEAD (1957): This was initially billed by Columbia Records, in the flatly obvious tone of the day, as Miles Davis plus 19, with Gil Evans. Right. Still, it was that last guy, the 20th man, who was the important one. After a burst of creativity in the late 1940s — the clearest result being the very cool but obviously embryonic Birth of the Cool on Capitol — Evans didn’t work with Miles Davis again until the late 1950s. Davis seemed better for the reunion, as this record touched off an incredible rejuvenation for someone who had already done seminal work with the jazz legend Charlie Parker.

Highlights, and there are many, included the title track, Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke” (handpicked by Columbia A&R guru George Avakian) and “The Maids of Cadiz” by Leo Delibes — the most obvious example here of Davis’ more general impulse to reformulate European classical music for a new age. In fact, Miles Ahead marks the beginning of a striking second period of collaborative vitality for both Miles Davis and for Gil Evans — showcased through out The Original Mono Recordings.

Evans said they were done in three, three-hour sessions — with no rehearsals. His chromatic, counter-rhythmic charts are bluesy, new and sure. Throw in Miles’ long, cerulean notes — and there are still few recordings of any kind that approach Miles Ahead. Featuring talented sidemen like Wynton Kelly, Lee Konitz, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, it remains infectious, loose and sheer genius. — Nick DeRiso

KIND OF BLUE (1959): This is widely proclaimed to be the best jazz album of all time. To me, such a declaration seems to downplay so many other jazz records that are phenomenal and hugely influential in their own ways. Maybe it’s more pertinent to ask: which jazz album should be the cornerstone of any jazz record collection?

Such a jazz album should have a cool, confident swagger: “So What.” Such a jazz album should swing: “Freddie Freeloader.” Such a jazz album should have a whimsical, emotional quality to it: “Blue In Green.” Such a jazz album should maintain a reverence for the blues: “All Blues.” Such a jazz album should incorporate exotic flavors: “Flamenco Sketches.” And most of all, a cornerstone jazz album should be performed by musicians who have the wherewithal, creativity and commitment to render all of the above: Davis and Cobb, of course, but also Adderley, Chambers, Coltrane, Bill Evans and Kelly — and every one of these legends was at or near their towering peaks.

Kind Of Blue incorporates all these attributes because of its reverence to great jazz of the past: the pioneering, improvising nature of Armstrong; the elegance and sophistication of Ellington; the modernist harmonics of Parker; and the reserved cool of Miles’ own music that he introduced a decade earlier. By using these building blocks, a new form of jazz was forged — one where the songs and solos are built around an overarching key, not the chord changes. That form became known as modal jazz, which would dominate much of the jazz in the sixties and remains a major part of the overall genre today. — S. Victor Aaron

SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME (1961): Davis’ seventh album featured a front line of Hank Mobley, Kelly and — though, alas, only for two tracks — a now-departed Coltrane. Mobley doubles with Coltrane on the opening title song, originally featured on the 1937 Disney animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

That sets the stage for a date that, unlike the Kind of Blue sessions, found Davis adding a smattering of shined-up pop favorites — including “Old Folks” and the closing “I Thought about You.” Coltrane returns for “Teo,” while Mobley takes the lead on “Pfrancing” and “Drad-Dog,” each of them Davis originals. “Someday My Prince Will Come,” meanwhile, is fired by a distinctive rhythm track, as Cobb’s ringing cymbal figure is joined by a thrummingly insistent signature from Chambers.

“The engineer in the 30th Street Studio (Frank Laico), he had it down,” Cobb says. “He knew every spot in that place, just where the instruments sounded the best. He had a certain way of miking the drums, so that you could hear the stick and cymbal so clearly. He had the microphone right down on the cymbal — and you could almost feel the wood hitting it. (Longtime Davis producer) Teo (Macero) didn’t know what kind of rhythm he wanted for that. So I added what I thought would work. It came out as something different. That’s usually what would happen. Miles sessions were Miles sessions; most of the time, you didn’t have any music beforehand. He would just come in and we’d start playing. He would call tunes, and he would just say: ‘This is straight ahead, or this swings, or this is a ballad.’ It was pretty easy and relaxed.” — Nick DeRiso

SKETCHES OF SPAIN (1960): Careful listeners found a hint of what was to come in this album-length exploration of Latin-infused modal themes when Davis closed his iconic Kind of Blue project with “Flamenco Sketches.” That sets the stage for this sensual triumph of orchestral jazz, less improvisational than Davis’ most recognizable albums but filled with an unparalleled sense of graceful lyricism.

Sketches represented a high point from a period marked by dizzying creativity: “Everybody had a lot of freedom,” Cobb tells us. “He told us what he wanted them to do, but it was only in patterns, and that’s what we did. I remember on one tune, Miles said: ‘This time, I want it to sound like it’s floating.’ That’s about all he said.”

Working again with Macero, who would be a musical confidant of the trumpeter’s into the 1980s, Davis darkly sophisticated, fiercely individualistic lines are mirrored and expanded upon by charts constructed by Gil Evans — who also contributed a pair of originals. In between, Davis also took on a trio of Spanish standards. That kind of rangy cultural fusion was even then coalescing into a sub-genre dubbed Third Stream. Sketches of Spain, as usual, found Davis out front — fashioning a stirring moment of alchemy by adding elements of world music into an already established synthesis of jazz and European classical music. — Nick DeRiso

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