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Review: Miles Davis, “The Original Mono Recordings”

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Miles Davis - Original Mono Recordings“Mono featured less audio trickery and fewer audio distractions, so you can actually hear the musical conversation between Miles and the other musicians as it occurred in the studio.”  That’s producer George Avakian as quoted in the liner notes for Columbia and Legacy’s new nine-album box set Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings.  And that purity of sound – further described by the producer of Davis’ first two Columbia albums as “truer to the studio sound and the original intent” – is raison d’etre enough for this compact but substantial box set honoring a fertile, popular and accessible period in Miles Davis’ long and remarkable career.

Its nine albums, recorded between 1956 and 1961 (and released between 1957 and 1964), encompass a number of cornerstones of any jazz library plus two original albums not previously included in Legacy’s comprehensive Davis reissue program, Jazz Track (1959) and Miles and Monk at Newport (1964).  Taken together, these nine albums are the foundation on which the legend of Miles Davis was built.  Though the trumpeter had served as a leader since 1947, it wasn’t until his long tenure at Columbia that he fully blossomed as an ever-evolving artist, composer and interpreter.  In his early Columbia period, Davis frequently alternated small group sessions with orchestra dates arranged and conducted by Gil Evans; this box contains three of those acclaimed Davis/Evans collaborations.  The Original Mono Recordings also succeeds as a primer on Davis’ transition from hard bop to modal jazz, not to mention his fusion of pure jazz and orchestral sophistication with Gil Evans.  (John Coltrane fans take note, too: the saxophone icon appears on six of the nine albums here.)

After the jump, we’ll take an album-by-album look at these nine discs!

1956’s ‘Round About Midnight, Davis’ Columbia debut, showcases the artist at the epoch of his hard bop period. His Quintet was an all-star one: John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums and Paul Chambers on bass. Davis’ muted horn makes magic on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” which remained in his book even into his electric period, and breathes new life into the 1926 standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Miles Ahead (1957), credited to Miles Davis + 19, was the first Columbia long-player to team Davis with Gil Evans, who had provided arrangements for Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” nonet in 1949-1950.  Playing the flugelhorn, Davis and the inventive, classically-inspired Evans tackled an eclectic line-up of material from 19th century classical composers (Léo Delibes), modern masters (Kurt Weill), and jazz contemporaries (Dave Brubeck, Bobby Troup, Ahmad Jamal) as well as compositions by Evans and Davis themselves. A jazz-classical fusion in the “Third Stream” style arranged by Evans as one continuous suite, Miles Ahead synthesized disparate styles – Evans’ and Davis’, and that of all the various composers – into a cohesive, remarkable whole.  Mono tends to bring out the best in bold and brassy tracks like the hard-swinging “Springsville,” but the sound is equally impressive on the moodier pieces such as “The Maids of Cadiz.”  (Collectors take note that the mini-LP sleeve replica of Miles Ahead features the original cover artwork.)

For 1958’s Milestones, Davis returned to his Quintet members and foreshadowed the modal jazz breakthrough of the following year’s Kind of Blue with his title track as well as Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.” The sextet recording adds another all-time great, Cannonball Adderley, to the lineup on alto saxophone. Milestones also marked the final time Jones, Garland and Chambers would all play together on a Davis album.  Its title track, too, was one that Davis kept performing into his electric period, finding new depth with each reinvention.  Jazz Track, one of the two rare LPs arriving on domestic CD for the first time in this box set, was even split between quintet performances on Side One and sextet tracks on Side Two.  The first side was occupied by excerpts from Davis’ score to the Louis Malle film Ascenseur por l’echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), recorded in Paris in 1957 with Barney Wilen (tenor sax), Rene Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums).  Davis’ atmospheric and suitably smoky score has moments of suspense and tension (“L’assassinat de Carala,” “Visite du Vigile”), foreboding (“Julien dans l’ascenseur”) and supreme cool (“Florence sur Champs-Elysees,” “Au bar du Petit-Bac”).   Side Two’s three songs – including a nearly ten-minute trek “On Green Dolphin Street” and a lovely “Stella by Starlight” – featured the Milestones-era Sextet.   (Though Jazz Track has been long unavailable, the Ascenseur tracks have been released in full on CD, and the sextet performances have appeared on compilations such as 1958 Miles.)

Davis and Gil Evans then reteamed for Porgy and Bess, in which Davis’ expressive, melodic trumpet and flugelhorn brought to life the many characters given musical life by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. The swinging, soaring, musical comedy-meets-opera world of Catfish Row proved ideally suited to Evans’ and Davis’ orchestral jazz treatment. Adderley, Chambers, Jones and Cobb all contributed to this radical transformation of the folk opera.  Porgy and Bess is dramatic, deftly juxtaposing the high and the low, as Gershwin did in his original composition.  Davis alternates between a playful sound and a dark one on these diverse, multi-layered songs, and Evans’ orchestrations both stand on their own and support him at every twist and turn.

Kind of Blue was released later in 1959, and it may well remain the quintessential jazz record of all time. It’s accessible to even the most casual listener, yet is also the groundbreaking apotheosis of modal jazz, i.e. the solos build from the key, not (as is traditional) from chord changes only. Davis was joined by Bill Evans (piano), Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Paul Chambers (double bass), and Wynton Kelly (piano on “Freddie Freeloader”). So attuned was this group that no rehearsals were held for the LP; Davis simply laid out the themes, and once recording began, the group intuitively improvised to each other’s strengths.  Whether in mono or stereo, Kind of Blue is a jazz record that demands attention, and deepens with each listen.  But the mono mix here is, in every respect, sublime.

The Original Mono Recordings follows with 1960’s Sketches of Spain, the third Gil Evans collaboration. Inspired by the Spanish folk tradition, it featured Davis on trumpet and flugelhorn, leading the orchestra in compositions written by the likes of Joaquín Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla. A Grammy winner for Best Original Jazz Composition, Sketches of Spain remains a hauntingly beautiful hybrid. 1961’s Someday My Prince Will Come returned Davis to the small-group format with Davis originals (tributes to producer Teo Macero, Columbia President Goddard Lieberson and wife Frances) and standards including the reworked title tune from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Though credited to the Miles Davis Sextet, only “Someday” featured all six players – Davis, Chambers, Hank Mobley and John Coltrane on tenor sax, Wynton Kelly on piano, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Coltrane made a cameo on tenor on “Teo” (dedicated to producer Teo Macero) with Mobley playing the instrument on the album’s other songs.

The final album in the box is its other rarity, Miles and Monk at Newport (1964).  A 1994 reissue expanded both sets, but the original album sequence is preserved here.  Side One was dedicated to a 1958 Newport Jazz appearance by the Davis Sextet (“Featuring John Coltrane and ‘Cannonball’ Adderley,” as the cover art boasts, plus Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb), with Side Two an all-Thelonious Monk program from the same festival in 1963.  Davis’ set is a dazzling, uptempo bop showcase, with compositions by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Davis himself and…Thelonious Monk!  Monk’s familiar, swaggering “Straight No Chaser” is rendered with flair and invention by the group, and the mono sound throughout is near-pristine for a live recording.

The Original Mono Recordings is housed in a small slipcase of comparable size to Legacy’s standard Complete Albums boxes.  It’s not oversized in the style of Bob Dylan’s Original Mono Recordings box.  The faithfully-reproduced mini-LP sleeves are joined by a 36-page booklet/guide to the recordings.  Marc Myers’ exemplary introductory essay stresses the historical significance of these mono albums, noting that even once stereo versions began to be produced of Davis’ LPs, mono remained the priority as stereo equipment wasn’t yet commonplace.    

Myers compellingly tells the story of George Avakian signing Davis to Columbia, but even more fascinating is the next essay in the booklet.  “The Remastering Story” should appeal to the audiophile crowd, as Davis reissue veteran Mark Wilder explains the mastering choices for each album in the box set.  “To duplicate the sound of the original mono albums on the nine CDs in this set, all of the A- and B-reels were pulled from Sony’s vaults.  Then the best-sounding reels were selected and a series of digital remastering techniques and technologies were applied – using pristine copies of the original LPs as audio benchmarks.”  Wilder goes into detail about all of those techniques in his album-by-album notes.  The Kind of Blue in this set, for instance, was mixed from the original three-track master tapes because “the album’s mono master had been used repeatedly for pressings over the years.”  Wilder and the box set’s producer, Steve Berkowitz, “worked bar-to-bar to figure out all the volume and equalization changes and we corrected the speed of the album’s original A-side, which had been slightly fast.”  Luckily, their work hasn’t been for naught.  All nine discs have impeccably crisp, precise and detailed sonics, making it easy to savor the individual characteristics of each musician.

All that’s missing from this set are the remainder of Davis’ mono Columbia albums.  A number of live albums were originally released in mono, as were the balance of the artist’s studio albums through 1968: Quiet Nights, Seven Steps to Heaven, E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti and Miles in the Sky.  Although the controversial Gil Evans-arranged Quiet Nights would have stylistically fit in this box set, Seven Steps began a new era for Davis.  That album’s Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock would all play a crucial role in the next step of his development.  Hopefully The Original Mono Recordings Volume Two will arrive to tell that story.

In the meantime, The Original Mono Recordings offers classy, sophisticated, urbane and exuberant jazz from an artist at the peak of his powers.  On these nine albums, Miles Davis demonstrated that he knew the rules…then broke them…and then wrote a new set.  As essential listening, this set is miles ahead.

Miles Davis’ The Original Mono Recordings can be ordered at Amazon U.S. or Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

November 12, 2013 at 10:14

Posted in Box Sets, Miles Davis, News, Reissues, Reviews

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One Response

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  1. Good review, thank you!

    I wish that more people recognized the value of Mono. In nearly all cases the mono mix puts more emphasis on the soloist, whether a singer or instrumentalist. It does not set up a competition for the listener’s attention bewteen the soloist or singer and the orchestra or band. Most music fans are absorbed in the soloists and singers, so mono should be the mix of choice.

    Many Impulse label recordings would benefit from mono issues. Coltrane’s in particular. You do NOT get a mono mix simply by pressing the mono selector on your amplifier. Usually, you just get a muddier version of the stereo.

    Best prices now on this are from European dealers on the Amazon USA marketplace section


    November 12, 2013 at 16:29

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