“The group I had with Coltrane made me and him a legend. That group really put me on the map in the musical world, with all those great albums we made for Prestige…” – Miles Davis
The Miles Davis Quintet was composed of Philly Joe Jones on drums, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and John Coltrane on sax. They started playing as a group in September 1955, at a Baltimore gig. A ragtag team put together when the guys Miles had been previously working with were unavailable for scheduled club dates. Sonny Rollins was originally going to play sax, but he had checked himself into rehab for his heroin addiction. No one was more impressed by how quickly the band integrated and excelled than Miles. From his autobiography, “And faster than I could have imagined, the music that we were playing together was just unbelievable. It was so bad that it used to send chills through me at night, and it did the same thing to the audiences, too. Man, the shit we were playing in a short time was scary, so scary that I used to pinch myself to see if I was really there.”
The first three discs contain the Quintet’s entire output for Prestige in chronological order recorded over the course of three different days. Each song is a gem and illustrates the talents of these men individually and collectively as they effortlessly create what each song requires, from a tender ballad to swinging number, offering support or taking the lead. “Ahmad’s Blues” was taped as a trio feature so Garland could audition for his own Prestige contact. Coltrane sat out on five other tracks.
The Quintet recreates and reshapes works by the likes of Brubeck, Ellington, Gillespie, Monk, and Rollins, making them their own while staying true to the source. The fact that they were able to create such amazing work over the course of a few hours is astounding, and you can’t tell that these sessions are a rush job because Miles was in a hurry to finish his commitment to Prestige so he could focus on his new deal with Columbia.
The six tracks created on November 16, 1955, were all standards and appeared as the album Miles. “This record was nice,” Miles said. Over the next few months the Quintet performed frequently across the country. In March 1956, between the first two sessions, Miles had a non-cancerous growth on his larynx removed. They returned to the studio on May 11, 1956, and recorded 14 tracks. Miles said, “I remember this session well because it was long, and the playing was great. We did no second takes. We just recorded like we were playing a night club set.” The Quintet began working on Miles’ first album for Columbia, ‘Round About Midnight, before returning for their final Prestige sessions on Oct. 26, 1956. The albums created by the last two sessions are: Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. “‘Round Midnight” was recorded previously for Columbia and is celebrated for Coltrane’s outstanding solo. For whatever reason, Prestige released their version of the song on Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants.
Disc 4 is a rare treat for Miles' fans: a collection of unreleased live recordings. First up is the Quintet on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen in 1955 on the day after their first recording session. Allen introduces the Quintet and gets them, telling the audience, “you will hear none better.” Later, Allen gives Miles Downbeat’s 1955 Best Trumpeter award. The Quintet played two numbers: “Max Is Making Wax” and the ballad “It Never Entered My Mind.”
The remaining tracks were broadcast on the radio program Bandstand USA two different occasions. The Blue Note in Philadelphia, PA, takes place on 12/8/56, six weeks after the last Prestige session. They performed “Tune Up” and “Walkin’.” Miles broke up the Quintet in the spring of 1957. They reunited a year later, formed a sextet with the inclusion of Cannonball Adderly, and recorded the Columbia album Milestones. Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb replaced Garland and Jones in May 1958. Evans can be heard on the disc’s final tracks as he played on the May 17 Bandstand USA broadcast from Café Bohemia in New York.
Disc 4 has a multimedia feature that allows you to view Miles Davis’ solos in transcription form in any program that displays PDF files for three songs: “Max Is Making Wax”, “Tune Up”, and “Four”. The latter two offer transcriptions from the original studio versions and the live performances. If you don’t read music, then you might not know what you are looking at.
Bob Blumenthal’s liner notes are extensive and well written, detailing a history of the group and breaking down each track, succinctly, accurately, turning jazz into words. He is able to describe the music without becoming clinical. Blumenthal has been writing jazz criticism since 1969 and knows the work of this Quintet well, evidenced by his winning one of his two Grammy awards for album notes for Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-61. Blumenthal motivates a writer the same way Miles makes musicians want to be better at their craft.
The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions is a fantastic set. It is worth the price for Davis fans looking to upgrade their collection because the remastering sounds pristine and even the live material sounds clean. Those looking to expand their musical horizons would make a great choice to jump right in. The music is very accessible and as good a place as any to begin your jazz education in the hands of these talented men. Miles sums it up best: “I was playing the fuck out of my horn and had a great group.”