Miles Davis - Milestones

Miles Davis Milestones (Columbia 1958)

Milestones still stands tall as a marvel of balance and power.

Miles Davis - Milestones

Personnel

Miles Davis (trumpet, piano A2), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (alto saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums)

Recorded

on February 4 & March 4, 1958 at Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City

Released

as CL 1193 in 1958

Track listing

Side A:
Dr. Jekyll
Sid’s Ahead
Two Bass Hit
Side B:
Milestones
Billy Boy
Straight, No Chaser


There isn’t much more to ask for in mainstream jazz land than a listen to the First Great Miles Davis Quintet, augmented as a sextet with the inclusion of Cannonball Adderley on Milestones. The band, featuring John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, had been together for two years and its discography consisted of the series of Workin’, Relaxin’, Steamin’ and Cookin’ on Prestige and ‘Round About Midnight on Columbia, all classics in the hard bop canon. Milestones prefigures the most popular album of all-time, the modal masterpiece Kind Of Blue. The title track – titled Miles on the first pressings to avoid confusion with Davis’ earlier and different composition of Milestones – is the first attempt of Miles Davis at modal jazz.

The harmonic idea of using scales instead of chords is not a Miles Davis innovation – he codified and popularized it. And typically, he was involved in its inception. Pianist and composer George Russell, who wrote The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization as the backbone of the innovation and co-wrote the modal-tinged Cubana Be/Cubana Bop for Dizzy Gillespie in 1947, once said that the 18-year old Miles Davis inspired him to develop the theory with a remark in 1944: “Miles said that he wanted to learn all the changes and I reasoned that he might try to find the closest scale for every chord.”

The seeds were sown and eventually developed into a big tree with the release of the modal masterpiece Kind Of Blue. However, it was preceded by the Milestones composition. And it’s the standout tune of the album. Based on two scales, the first relatively simple melody is stated fluently, while the second melody is more staccato. While offering a fresh wave of space for the soloists that was heretofore nonexistent in the chord-driven era, there also exists proper tension between the scales, keeping Cannonball, Davis and Coltrane on their toes. Plainly wonderful. Cannonball Adderley is first in line, which shows you that Miles Davis had the utmost respect for the blues-drenched, Charlie Parker-influenced alto saxophonist from Florida. Five days after Milestones, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley recorded the perennial favorite Somethin’ Else on Blue Note. It was a Miles Davis session but the Dark Prince offered leadership credits to Adderley. Adderley would, of course, be an important constituent of Kind Of Blue.

The three concise statements of Adderley, Davis and Coltrane during Milestones are marvels of economy and smooth propulsion. The way Davis uses space is especially brilliant and undoubtedly influenced the tales of his companions. His subtle and dark-blue, slight bending of notes is the finishing touch, always delivered at the exact right moment in time. Davis perfected his kind of blue-isms with the Harmony mute, but sticks to the open horn on the Milestones album – one of the reasons yours truly is particularly enamored by it. Davis continues his economy of phrasing throughout the session, quoting When The Saints Go Marching In in both Dr. Jekyll and Sid’s Ahead. Couple of saints at work right there in the studio of Columbia at 30th Street, Gotham City.

Jackie McLean’s bop tune Dr. Jekyll (Dr. Jackle on the original pressings) is distinctive for Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers’ snappy backing of the soloists. Generally accepted as a powerful battle between Coltrane and Adderley, I for one am not particularly fond of the frenzied trading of eights and fours between them. The raucous tombola of notes from Coltrane as the sole protagonist during the outstanding, tight-knit cooker Two Bass Hit is more successful, not to say spectacular. Thelonious Monk’s Straight No Chaser – John Coltrane’s rapid development from Davis, Monk and back to Davis again is the stuff of myth – moves along at a leisurely swinging pace. Davis fluffs a note during the end sequence. The fact that Davis agreed on the release of the best take of the afternoon regardless of his imperfect ending speaks volumes about the so-called Dark Prince’s generosity and professionalism.

Sid’s Ahead is a relaxed blues reworking of Walkin’, one of the starting points of hard bop from the Davis bag from 1954. Red Garland had a beef with Davis and walked out of the session. Davis switched from trumpet to piano. Perhaps as a result of the well-worn changes Paul Chambers is daydreaming and introduces his first solo statements while Cannonball seems to obliviously move on into his next chorus of soloing. Or do they miss the expert and forceful accompaniment of Red Garland? Or were the vibes temporarily cast in gloom because of Red’s sudden absence? Perfect irony: Garland was granted a piano trio feature that made it to the release. With sound reason, because Billy Boy is vintage Garland, a swinging, fluent, coherent mix of single lines and his innovative block chords. The spectacular bowed bass part by Chambers is the cherry on top.

A gathering of giants, with top form Miles Davis at the helm.

Miles Davis Quintet - Workin'

The Miles Davis Quintet Workin’ (Prestige 1956/59)

The first two cuts on Workin’ immediately show the impact of Miles Davis (and his First Great Quintet) on the evolution of jazz in the mid-fifties. Davis put the showtune It Never Entered My Mind in a moody package by way of his subdued, husky trumpet. The instant classic Four swings effortlessly but insistently. With a focus on expression, Davis distinctly shaped the kind of jazz labeled as mainstream or hard bop.

Miles Davis Quintet - Workin'

Personnel

Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums)

Recorded

on May 11 and October 26, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Released

as PR 7166 in 1959

Track listing

Side A:
It Never Entered My Mind
Four
In Your Own Sweet Way
The Theme (take 1)
Side B:
Trane’s Blues
Ahmad’s Blues
Half Nelson
The Theme (take 2)


When I was young, stupid, sloppy drunk and just about to metamorphose into a giant insect, I used to propagate the opinion that Miles Davis sounded like a door who had trouble creaking. I wasn’t quite fond of his (Harmon) mute sound. In hindsight, I’m sure it was also my cheeky, cynical way of questioning the overdone worship of the ‘Miles’ disciples. Guys in front of the stage begging for the styrofoam cup that Miles Davis drank from after finishing his take on Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time. Guys that wouldn’t have minded if Miles Davis’d filled it with some of his urinal artistry.

Regardless of the swagger, that door obviously did make a tentative attempt at showing off its creaking prowess. Arguably, the term ‘ugly beauty’, like the title of the Thelonious Monk tune, appropriately defines the muted Miles Davis sound as opposed to his open horn sound. Sometimes it hurts the ear. But that, perhaps, was the inevitable consequence of the goals that Davis set for himself. His acerbic, thin trumpet voice brings about a distinctive feeling. There’s more than a touch of hurt in the playing of Miles Davis, mingling with a distinct soft spot. Understated drama. Simultaneously, his sound has the utmost seductive quality as if it’s the voice of a loose woman peeping from behind a red velvet curtain… A slightly shabby woman, streetwise like any one con man on the corner. So there’s hurt, tenderness and a touch of seediness. More than anything else, listening to Miles Davis at his husky best is like being involved in a conversation of the utmost intimate level. Davis at his thinnest still annoys me from time to time. I wonder if anyone else has been having a beef with the nasal Miles Davis sound? At any rate, I do pretty well today as far as the muted Miles Davis is concerned. (Someday My Prince Will Come!) Times-a-changin’, people-a-changin’ and opinions and feelings seem to change by the minute nowadays. About the only thing that doesn’t change is the quality of Italian espresso.

Not being taken in immediately by the muted sound of Miles Davis, when Clark Terry, Donald Byrd or Lee Morgan were somehow more accesible, the admiration for the notes and vision consequently took some time coming. There’s something to be said for a slowly developing admiration, ripening year after year, like the timbre of a grand piano. The clarity of his ‘voice’ and the way Miles Davis shaped phrases and usually concentrated on fewer, expressive notes, thereby cleverly making use of his strong, individual points, is enough to make one look back in awed wonder. In the mid fifties, starting off with 1954’s recording of Walkin’, Miles Davis breathed musical life into the motto of ‘less is more’ (which was first posed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe in the 1930s), opening up jazz in an original, interesting direction for the second time in his career. Davis later claimed that he changed the course of jazz five or six times. Which makes sense but wasn’t entirely accurate.

The first milestone would be the Birth Of The Cool-session of 1949. Thereafter, the modal Kind Of Blue, the albums of his Second Great Quintet in the mid-sixties, the fusion of Bitches Brew, jazz rock of Jack Johnson and eighties crossover album Tutu are influential classics. They’re also cases in point that Miles Davis didn’t shake all this innovative stuff out of his sleeve as the sole master for all those years, but instead also relied on such brilliant vanguard colleagues like Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Teddy Charles, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Marcus Miller. It’s a notion that matches well with the theory that jazz innovations usually don’t come out of the blue, but are the result of a gelling of jazz spirits influencing one another with their simultaneous experiments. Furthermore, often some of these musicians got their ideas from cats they had never even met in (or outside) the studio, like for instance George Russell, or (modernist) classical composers. A valid theory. Superimposing his one-of-a-kind style over the contemporary developments, Miles Davis was crucial to let such profound changes in jazz come to full fruition. He was a catalyst with guts and vision. At the same time, due to his stardom, Davis became the face of that change for the general public.

Long before these kind of elaborate and almost stupefying discussions, in 1956, the one major upset was the signing of Miles Davis to major label Columbia. A big deal not only for Miles Davis but for the Afro-American community in general. Davis, under contract to Prestige, had the agreement that he could record for Columbia and get albums released once his Prestige contract expired. (The first Columbia release would be the Quintet’s 1957 album ‘Round About Midnight) To fulfill his obligations, Davis and Prestige label boss Bob Weinstock agreed to get it over with and record a couple of spontaneous cuts. The sessions of May 11 & October 26, 1956 led to the release of Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’. Great blowing sessions that showcased the exceptional abilities of everyone involved.

Although an easy way out, Bob Weinstock did took care of structuring the hodgepodge of tunes into a logical order of tracks. He included studio chatter, which was symbolic of the loose atmosphere. (the usage of the two short ‘Themes’, a common jazz practice to start and finish live performance sets, also contribute to that atmosphere) It’s impossible to subdue a smile when Miles Davis announces Trane’s Blues with his gruff, raspy voice. Davis and Coltrane have different ways of dealing with the blues. I feel that Coltrane’s confidence in this tune overshadows the tentative steps of Davis. Nevertheless, Davis’ blend of stacked blue notes and deadpan off-center turns is intriguing.

Davis had recorded Four for the first time two years earlier. It was released on the 10-inch Miles Davis Quartet (Prestige, 1954) and the 12-inch Blue Haze. (Prestige, 1956) The solo on that version is the one people have been crazy about ever since, and small wonder! (Listen Here) Miles Davis is also in very good form on the Workin’-version. Coltrane blows tough tenor, eschewing fast flurries of notes in favor of a more relaxed approach, undoubtly under the influence of Davis. Davis re-visits another tune, Half Nelson. It was initially recorded in 1947 under the guidance of Charlie Parker by the Miles Davis All Stars on a 78rpm Savoy single. (and subsequently under Charlie Parker’s name) The group suavely and swinging flies through the infectious uptempo bop tune.

Ahmad’s Blues – a tune by pianist Ahmad Jamal, who was a big influence on Davis at the time – is a showcase for the rhythm trio. Red Garland stretches out ebulliently on the 32-bar blues with his singular long lines and innovative block chord playing. Miles Davis was enamoured of the tune of another pianist, Dave Brubeck, and seized the opportunity to record In Your Own Sweet Way. Davis initially recorded the tune in March 1956. (Collector’s Items, Prestige) Brubeck recorded it in April, a month after Davis, a solo take on Brubeck Plays Brubeck (Columbia 1956) and a live quartet version appeared on Jay & Kay And Dave Brubeck At Newport. (Columbia 1956) Davis recorded the Workin’-version on May 11. He favored a minor mood over Brubeck’s classical approach and delivered an introspective, smoothly flowing take.

Of the sessions that were released as the Workin’/Relaxin’/Steamin’/Cookin’-albums Miles Davis coolly said: ‘We just came in a blew.’ That’s watertight. It wouldn’t be too much to add, however, that Miles Davis came in and blew in fresh, unique fashion.