The Miles Davis box set Chronicles: The Complete Prestige Recordings 1951 – 1956 is an eight-CD collection from the man critic Kenneth Tynan once called “a musical lonely hearts club.” Tynan’s statement describes the muted-trumpet sound that became the signature of Miles Dewey Davis. But this style of playing took some time to develop, which is sometimes forgotten when assessing a 50-year career that changed the course of jazz. Prestige was not the first label he recorded for, and his work there will always be overshadowed by such later efforts as Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew. Yet the Prestige years are crucial, for they represent the period in which the man with the horn came into his own.
One of the biggest obstacles in evaluating Davis’ Prestige recordings was the haphazard way in which they were originally released. Prestige had a lot of music in the can, and it seems like it just gathered up enough to fill an LP whenever the mood struck. Or maybe when a bill needed to be paid. In any case, the chronological Chronicles contains the results of 17 sessions with a revolving company of 34 musicians, recorded over a five-year span. The grand total is 88 tracks which time out to nearly nine hours of music.
The music is a fairly standard mix of ballads, hard bop, and cool jazz. A big attraction is the opportunity to hear legends such as John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Lee Konitz, and even Charlie Parker among them – playing in support of Miles.
In listening to Chronicles, there is no way of getting around what was going on in his personal life at the time of the recordings. The first song on the first CD is “Morpheus,” and the title is a perfect allusion as to what was happening. The first three discs were recorded between 1951-1954 while Davis was struggling with hard drugs, and it shows in his playing. One historic moment is “Round About Midnight” which was recorded with Parker just days before his death. The tone of both Parker and Davis is way off, however.
There are high points in these early sessions though. I enjoy both takes of “The Serpent’s Tooth” for example, and the lengthy “Blueing” is a real treat. There are also four songs included which feature Davis’ only appearance as a sideman on a Prestige recording; the sessions were led by Konitz. All in all, these were not the greatest years for Davis. It is instructive to listen to this earlier material however, to fully appreciate what followed.
The fourth through eighth discs show a rejuvenated Miles, and these sessions were the basis for such records as Steamin‘, Workin‘, Relaxin’, and Cookin’. When people go back to hear hard bop Davis, and what he was doing prior to signing with Columbia, those are generally the preferred albums.
The group on discs six, seven, and eight are often described as his first great quintet, and one look at the cast confirms this impression. Joining Davis are Coltrane (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). These three CDs are reason enough to own Chronicles, for they are filled with fantastic Prestige-era Miles. Actually, discs four and five are pretty great as well. The only reservations I have are with the first three, and as mentioned, there are some real gems in them also.
With the holiday rush done, and all of those gift cards piling up, why not take a chance on a big set of lesser-known Miles Davis music? The annotation in this box set is spectacular, and the playing is pretty fantastic as well, for the most part.
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