Being something of a purest, I have generally looked askance at the slicing and dicing of the “horizontal” recorded catalog into “vertical,” i.e. thematic, collections, but I am starting to see this perspective as elitist and kind of stupid. Who looses if Prestige gathers great music by Miles Davis or John Coltrane under the Plays For Lovers rubric? No one, actually, and ne wlisteners undoubtedly gain.
In the case of Davis, the notion of the notoriously misanthropic legend tossing out a musical benediction to swooning lovers everywhere seems more than a little absurd, but people are more complicated than they seem, and by making this music so tenderly, Davis was indeed addressing the lover in us all. The 12 recordings – made between 1953-6, mostly with the exquisite quintet of Davis on close-miked muted trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums – of American standards and classic jazz compositions (by Ellington, Brubeck, Monk, Mingus) are all lovely, languid and spacious, and indeed, romantic.
“Nature Boy” (made famous vocally by Nat King Cole), with Miles backed by Teddy Charles on vibes, Britt Wodman on trombone, charles Mingus on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums isn’t so much romantic as it is quietly, luxuriantly eerie and otherworldly with Charles laying down an exotic vibe bed for Davis’s introspective musing on Eden Ahbez’s indelible melody.
Coltrane’s own lover’s collection continues in a similar mode – with his sax out front of course – taken from his first recordings as a leader in 1957 and ’58. Though a bit more effusive than the spare Davis, Coltrane’s urge to freneticism is well contained within these ballad settings, superbly laid down by Garland, Chambers and Arthur Taylor on drums. “Violets For Your Furs” is poignant unto tears, “Slow Dance” is the epitome of just that, and “Stardust” weaves thoughtful magic. Though not as stunningly original as his later work, the legend can be heard taking shape.