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Music Review: Miles Davis & Sonny Rollins – The Classic Prestige Sessions, 1951-1956

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During the 1950s, the careers of trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Sonny Rollins were ascending to their eventual legendary statuses, due to their great musical talents and in spite of their dangerous vices. Over the course of five days from 1951 to 1956, they recorded 25 tracks together for Prestige Records, and were backed at those sessions by well-known artists, such as saxophonist Charlie Parker; pianist Horace Silver; bassists Percy Heath and Paul Chambers; and drummers Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones. All of the material has been previously released over seven different albums, but now it is available in one glorious, two-disc set from Concord Music

Disc 1 opens with John Lewis’ “Morpheus,” an up-tempo piece that brings to mind the hustle and bustle of a city’s nightlife as the horns exchange leads. On the Rodgers and Hart composition “Blue Room (Take 1)” it’s apparent the masters weren’t cared for as a hiss can be heard. “(Take 2)” is much cleaner; however, Rollins sat out so Miles played throughout the piece. “I Know,” recorded for Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet, finds Miles delivering a more than adequate performance on piano as Rollins’ horn takes the spotlight.

Tracks 7-13 are from the October 5, 1951 session, a time when artists were now making full use of the potential LPs offered by allowing their compositions and performances to expand past the three-minute limit previously imposed by 78s. Unbound by time constraints, the pieces stretch to four, five, even ten minutes, and the musicians really soar when they take the lead. On Miles’ “Denial,” Blakey’s presence is the main force propelling the band at a solid pace. “Bluing” finds the band in a sweet, slow groove, almost too laid back as Blakely keeps playing after everyone and Miles can be heard chastising him, “Play the ending, man. You know the arrangement.”

Disc 2 opens with selections from a session over a year later in Jan ’53. Parker is part of the sextet and because he was under contract with another label, he plays tenor sax rather than his traditional alto. These four pieces, including a rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” almost serve as an unintended baton-passing as Parker would die two years later.

Tracks 5-9, recorded on June 29, 1954, reveal a more self-assured Rollins, who wrote three of the compositions. It also provides some foreshadowing, as “Oleo” was the first studio recording Miles used the Harmon mute. Heath’s bass gets a serious work out anchoring the rhythm throughout. There are also two takes in different tempos of Gershwin’s “But Not For Me;” the second is slower and over a minute longer. The final three tracks are from the final session on March 16, 1956. On Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” you can hear Miles satisfactorily say “yeah” when it’s done, a reaction most listeners will have to this entire collection.

Producer Ira Gitler’s liner notes provide invaluable insight into the music, the men, and the moments. There is also a transcription of Miles’ improvised solo on “Down” for those that read notes.

For those that don’t already own this music, The Classic Prestige Sessions, 1951-1956 is a great way to get the combined work of this dynamic duo in one fell swoop as destiny hovered just ahead. Rollins would record his classic Saxophone Colossus a few months later, and Miles would complete his contractual relationship to Prestige with two sessions by his new quintet, which featured Chambers, Jones, pianist Red Garland, and saxophonist John Coltrane, were turned into four albums, before heading to Columbia and making jazz history.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at
  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice piece, this sounds like an excellent package. I have always dug the Prestige stuff of Miles, Sonny, and Coltrane as it (to use your word) foreshadows what was to come from these artists.

    Sounds worthy of checking out.


  • El Bicho

    Thanks. It is sweet having them altogether; I have both the recent Miles and Coltrane Prestige releases as well. Apparently when Glen told me you already reviewed this, he misspoke. Got to watch that guy.