The making of modern jazz

Music review

April 11, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When the Miles Davis box set "Quintet 1965-1968" was released in 1998, critics referred to that group -- Davis on trumpet, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams -- as the second great Davis Quintet.

The first, as the scribes pointed out, was the band Davis formed in late 1955, featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. That was the group that defined the sound of late '50s hard bop, thanks to such classic recordings as "Milestones," "On Green Dolphin Street" and the immortal "Round Midnight."

That early group is at the heart of the latest Davis retrospective: "Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961" (Legacy/Columbia 65833, arriving in stores today). A lavishly packaged six-CD set, its 58 tracks offer almost 6 1/2 hours of groundbreaking, history-making jazz.

As a short course in music history, it would be hard to imagine a better way of explaining how jazz got from the fervid intellectualism of '40s bebop to the impassioned experimentation of the '60s. These recordings are where Davis -- who made his name as a teen-ager playing with Charlie Parker, and whose first sessions as a bandleader moved jazz away from the "hot" sound of the '30s and into the "cool" of the '50s -- opened new vistas in the music's harmonic and melodic language, forever changing the way jazz is played.

Coltrane was, in many ways, the catalyst for these changes. As stylists, the two made an unlikely pair. Davis, with his languid phrasing and economical sense of line, came across as cool and considered, parsing his solos with such care that it seemed he never wanted to play three notes when one would do.

Coltrane, on the other hand, seemed incapable of such sparse solos. Instead, his solos (particularly as his sound evolved) were packed with notes, shuffling the melodic and harmonic possibilities the way a computer crunches numbers. At the time, some listeners carped that Coltrane played too much, but the polyrhythmic, polytonal complexities of his solos with Davis turned out to be the building blocks for the turbulent, questing sound of the '60s.

Of course, hearing these recordings now, it's almost impossible to feel how edgy and revolutionary they were. These days, the album "Kind of Blue" (recorded in 1959 by Davis and Coltrane, with Chambers, alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderly, pianist Bill Evans, and drummer Jimmy Cobb) is an acknowledged classic, as safe and respectable a part of the repertoire as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or the Bach "Brandenburg Concertos."

At the time, however, it was an act of radical creativity. Up until that point, most jazz musicians improvised chordally, basing their solos on the possibilities offered by a tune's harmonic structure. If you imagine the chords in a song as being like words in a story, what the soloists did was to try to tell a whole new tale using anagrams drawn from the original text.

For "Kind of Blue," Davis did away with chordal improvisation entirely and had his musicians improvise using modes -- a set of notes forming a sort of scale. Although interest in modal improvisation was hardly new at that point -- the burgeoning interest in Indian music had already made the idea of scale-based improvisation fashionable -- Davis pushed the idea to its extreme, using the modes to create an odd, angular sense of tonality. In a sense, what he did with modes on "Kind of Blue" was like what Picasso did with perspective in his cubist paintings -- it shattered the old sense of line, and offered a new and exciting vision in its place.

It would be nice to say that "Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings" laid out the development of these two musicians as a straight and simple path, but it doesn't.

Some of that is a problem of catalog. These "Complete Columbia Recordings" are hardly the total output of the Davis/Coltrane group. When producer George Avakian signed Davis to Columbia in 1955, the trumpeter still had a year to go in his contract with Prestige Records. Although Prestige allowed Davis to record for Avakian and Columbia, it insisted that he cut sessions for Prestige as well. So in addition to these tracks, the Davis/Coltrane group cut some 32 sides for Prestige (all of which can be found on the 1987 set, "Miles Davis Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings, 1951-1956").

Moreover, the lineage of this early Davis group is nowhere near as simple as with the Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams unit. The group with Coltrane, Garland, Chambers and Jones was Davis' first full-time recording and touring band, and came together in the fall of '55.

Almost immediately, it began to mutate. First, Adderley joined, turning the quintet into a sextet. Then Garland left, and was replaced by Evans. Next, Jones split, with Cobb filling his seat. Eventually Evans bailed, and Wynton Kelly was brought in.

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