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Music Review: Miles Davis – The Definitive Miles Davis On Prestige

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One of the great things about the unprecedented career of Miles Davis is the various musical guises he adopted. One can never really get tired of studying him, because of the sheer variety of directions his horn took him. Making sense of it all can be a little difficult at times though, I must admit.

Although Miles had recorded previously before signing with Prestige, the results were not released until later as The Birth Of The Cool. For all intents and purposes, Miles Davis’ recording career began with his (nearly) six-year association with the small Prestige label.

These years were possibly the most crucial of his entire career, as he went from the proverbial “young man with a horn” to leader of one of the most revered bands in jazz history – The Miles Davis Quintet featuring John Coltrane. The Definitive Miles Davis On Prestige is a long-overdue collection that breaks all of this material down in a way that shows the clear progression of the artist.

“Morpheus” was the opening track on Miles’ Prestige debut, Miles Davis And Horns (1951). While the cut was penned by future Modern Jazz Quartet leader John Lewis, it could have been chosen as a “nod” to Davis’ burgeoning narcotics habit. In any event, it opens this collection as well, and shows the trumpeter already surrounding himself with the greatest talents of the day. In addition to Miles, “Morpheus” features Sonny Rollins, John Lewis, Percy Heath, Benny Green, and Roy Haynes.

“Solar” found Miles pursuing a more rhythmic tangent than had come before, a style now referred to as “Hard Bop.” This is the direction Davis would continue to refine for the duration of his tenure with Prestige. Another important feature is introduced on this track as well, “Solar” is the first recording he used a mute on his trumpet – which would go on to become Miles Davis’ signature sound.

The title track of Walkin’ (1954) is generally considered to be the major breakthrough of Davis’ time with the label. Surrounded (again) by an all-star group, Miles displays the economical depth of emotion he would become so famous for. As jazz historian Martin Williams notes: “Beginning now, one passionate note from Miles Davis seems to imply a whole complex of expressive sound, and three notes a ravishing melody.”

The Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, NJ played host to one of the greatest modern jazz summits of all time on Christmas Eve, 1954. In the studio with Miles that night were Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke. The first take of Lewis’ “Bags’ Groove” (11:16) the group recorded that night is included here, and is simply stunning. Check out the way Miles and Monk play off of each other for a start, then listen to the amazing solos each take.

Disc two of the collection is devoted to Miles Davis as band leader. Minus the opening “There Is No Greater Love” from 1955, all stem from another watershed year in his career – 1956. He had kicked his habits (for the time being at least), and was fully in command of his sessions. It was during this time that Davis regularly worked with many of the musicians he would record Kind Of Blue with.

Curiously, producer Nick Phillips only includes one Miles Davis composition among the 12 tracks that make up the disc. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the tracks chosen – I find it interesting that there are so many interpretations selected.

Charlie Parker’s “Salt Peanuts” is an early highlight, from Steamin’ (1956). This was something of a ’Bird standard, and the Davis Quintet gives it some serious heat. Check out the Philly Joe Jones drum solo midway through to see what I mean. The guy just lets it rip with one of the most intense drum solos ever. Sixties-era rock drum solo aficionados take note, you have never heard anything like this before. It is little wonder that Davis kept Philly Joe around for years to come.

“’Round Midnight” came to be one of Davis’ signature tunes of the era, and its inclusion here is certainly warranted, if for no other reason than to hear John Coltrane’s magnificent solo. Another tune that became indelibly linked to Miles is “My Funny Valentine.” My gosh, the pathos that man was able to wring from his muted trumpet are almost incomprehensible. Without saying a word, his horn can make you cry. Certainly from this point on, Miles Davis never looked back.

Fittingly, the collection concludes with “The Theme” from Walkin’ (1956). This short (1:59) piece was Miles Davis’ traditional set-closer all the way up through his live appearances for Bitches Brew, 14 years later. It’s a nice little “show-bizzy” tune, and a bit of an anomaly in the canon. But it sure had legs.

The Definitive Miles Davis On Prestige is a five-star collection in my book. This is a rewarding (and modestly priced) shortcut to understanding the early, phenomenal growth of the jazz icon.

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