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Holy Grails of jazz reissued

October 4, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Weekender co-editor , The Herald-Star

This week I focus on nine "Holy Grails" of jazz being reissued by Columbia/Legacy:

Miles Davis - "Milestones," "Jazz Track," "Miles Ahead," "Miles and Monk at Newport," "'Round About Midnight," "Sketches of Spain," "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Porgy and Bess" and "Kind of Blue."

It's not often I get to review nine albums at the same time, and space permits me from going into great detail about these nine classic Miles Davis' albums, recorded between 1956 and 1961 and featuring some of the most seminal recordings in the last 60 years. In fact, it would be fair to say these nine albums, being released by Columbia/Legacy in a mono box set Nov. 12, still set the bar for small group jazz, boasting legendary players such as Miles, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Wynton Kelly and more. Each of these jazz performers, once "touched" by the magic hand of Miles, went on to become giants themselves, playing on thousands of other jazz records with the mojo magic given to them by Miles.

What makes these recordings - already having been reissused, with many of them never out of print since their initial pressings - is these are all in mono, the only way to listen to '50s jazz for lovers of the music. These albums all were originally released in both mono and stereo, with many jazz lovers preferring the mono mixes because of their punchiness and pureness, untouched by the novelty of stereo, which it was viewed as when stereo records first appeared in the 1950s.

Being raised in the age of stereo, I prefer stereo to mono, but for many mono is they way these recordings were initially recorded in the studio by the players, and there is merit in that argument. Surely the players were hearing themselves in monophonic.

The simple fact is, stereo or mono, these recordings by Columbia are regarded as the Rosetta Stones for jazz, and Columbia has remastered them all from the original analog tapes. The first one, "'Round About Midnight," came about as Miles wowed the crowds and Columbia executives with a superb performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955. Miles was signed by Columbia while still under contact with Prestige Records - an unusual situation. Miles was allowed to finish out his contract with Prestige by recording four albums over a weekend with his working band, which included John Coltrane on sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Miles on trumpet and "Philly" Joe Jones on drums.

At the same time, Miles already had recorded most of '"Round Midnight," with the title track - pianist and jazz composer Thelonious Monk's most famous tune - considered the definitive recording of that song. It was rumored Gill Evans, a progressive, big band arranger and close personal friend of Miles, had arranged the song, a rumor with some merit considering Evans and Miles worked on three "symphonic jazz" masterpieces, including "Porgy and Bess," "Miles Ahead" and the astonishing and deeply moving "Sketches of Spain."

These groundbreaking albums were a serious attempt to merge more "serious" musical forms, such as classical, but in a way that still sounded like jazz. Evans' unusual arrangements were breathtaking in their innovation and beauty, and Miles strong but supple tone and emotional intensity were on full display. There's never again been anything quite like these three albums, although many jazz musicians tried to fuse classical and jazz, a form then known as "Third Stream." But none of them approached the fusion, cohesiveness and sheer beauty of these three collaborations between Miles and Evans.

The band had again changed by 1959, as Miles added Cannonball Adderley on sax, replaced Red Garland with modal pianist Bill Evans, and Philly Joe Jones was booted due to a notorious heroin habit and replaced with Jimmy Cobb. The music changed dramatically as well, as Miles adopted Evans' modal approach to playing tunes based on scales rather than melodies and standards. The result gave these players a freedom beyond the average and cliche chord changes, allowing them to stretch out on songs that were as minimal as possible. The result was yet again another jazz masterpiece - possibly one of the most important in the history of jazz. "Kind of Blue" was so far ahead of its time other players didn't pick up on it until later in the 1960s.

The album also was the rarest of the rare, with the music high art, critically acclaimed and also a best seller for Columbia and Miles. "Kind of Blue" made Miles a household name and a bonafide jazz star.

"Jazz Track" is an interesting anomaly recorded during a visit by Miles to Europe in 1958. The music was recorded with mostly French musicians, with Miles playing moody licks to the French film noir classic "Elevator to the Gallows," a great movie in its own right. Miles basically improvised while watching the film - a one-shot deal, and pure Miles. The music fits the movie perfectly.

"Milestones" was another great album recorded with the same lineup as "'Round Midnight" with the addition of Adderley. The title track went on to become a jazz standard performed by hundreds of jazz cats attracted to its modal manner.

"Miles and Monk at Newport" was a split album recorded by Miles and Monk's bands live at the famous jazz festival, while "Someday My Prince Will Come" was a transitional album for Miles that also marked the last time John Coltrane recorded in the studio with the Dark Prince.

To say these recordings have stood the test of time is proved all over the world every day, as hundreds of jazz artists still are inspired by these recordings and the excellence they aspired to. For jazz fans, these is a must-have set. For Miles' fans, it doesn't get much better than this.

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