Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Listening Session: Miles Davis And The Modern Jazz Giants

Prestige Records PRLP 7150, released in 1958.

Side A: 1. The Man I Love (Take 2); 2. Swing Spring

Side B: 1. 'Round Midnight*; 2. Bemsha Swing; The Man I Love (Take 1)

Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; Milt Jackson, vibes; Thelonious Monk, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Recorded 12/54.

*Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drum. Recorded 10/56.

Each week, I’ve decided to select an album or two to play multiple times—to really get to know an album, shall we say. This week I’ve been spinning Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. What happens when you get “modern jazz giants” together for a blowing session? A fight breaks out, according to some. In this instance, there were stories of an altercation between Miles and Monk. Ira Gitler, in the liner notes to the album, dispels this story, quoting Monk himself, “Miles’d got killed if he hit me.”

This album is the only studio recording of Miles playing with Monk. Even though a fight may not have broken out, it seems to be common knowledge that tensions existed between the two jazz giants. The AllMusic Guide to Jazz states that Mile would not let Monk play behind him while he soloed. This is true on only one of the songs. On the other songs, Monk is heard playing with the rest of the rhythm section during Miles’ solos. My guess is the stories of how Miles and Monk couldn’t stand each other have been exaggerated over the years.

What is clearly evident is the different playing styles of the jazz giants. For example, the opening track of the album, Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” starts with a lyrical intro by Milt Jackson, quickly followed by Miles’ statement of the melody. His playing is easy and laid back at a slow tempo. When Jackson enters for his solo, the pace and energy pick up. Jackson is all bravado compared to Miles. Monk is next and he’s unusually reticent. He plays a few chords straight, embellished with some arpeggios followed by rests, almost in a classical style. He does this a few times until the final rest lasts an unusually long time. This is an amazing moment on the album when the soloist includes silence in his solo. Considering Monk’s sly sense of humor, I think his solo may be a parody of Miles’ playing style which has a lot space between the notes. After a few measures where Monk stops playing, Miles finally blows a few notes in the background as if saying, “I get it, now get on with the solo.” Monk responds with a short burst before Miles re-enters for the final statement. 

Although there are three very different styles displayed by the soloists on this and the other songs on the album, the music never seems disjointed. Part of the credit goes to Heath and Clarke who provide a steady rhythmic foundation throughout. This is jazz that tests the stylistic elasticity of a song. The fact that it all hangs together is a testament to the talents of the individual musicians.

It's interesting to compare the second take of "The Man I Love" with the first take, which is included as the final track on the album. The first take is a much more straight-forward reading of the song and lacks the creative improvisations found on the second take. The first take actually starts off with some studio chatter, with Monk questioning when he should start playing. There's a good-natured exchange with a few laughs, evidence that the session wasn't all sturm and drang in the studio. The final words are from Miles in his hoarse voice, "Rudy, put this on the record. All of it!" Which Rudy did.

"'Round Midnight" is the only song on the album from the 1956 session with Miles' first classic quintet. The ensemble-playing is more cohesive and in sync than on the 1954 recording. The major similarity with the 1954 session is the hard contrast between the soloists. Miles still plays in his cool, laid back style. The tenor of the song (pardon the pun) changes when Coltrane starts into his solo in his restless, energetic style. The effect is like the moment Milt Jackson starts his solo on "The Man I Love" but without the dramatic tempo change. This contrast in style is a crucial ingredient in Miles' best bands. One could generalize that such stylistic tensions benefit most bands, whether it's Miles and 'Trane or Lennon and McCartney or Mould and Hart. 

No comments:

Post a Comment