Friday, February 7, 2014

Jazz & the Blues - The First Miles Davis Quintet

"At one time, the blues was a major part of jazz….anyone who’s listened to Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, or Coleman Hawkins would know this. Somewhere along the way, jazz began to branch out and expand to the point that the blues was either minimized or eliminated altogether. There are still jazz musicians who get what a big part blues plays in jazz, but they seem to be outnumbered at times and the music, to me, has suffered and declined. Jazz without blues is jazz without soul. Your mileage may vary, but this is the reason why I review blues CDs instead of jazz CDs." - from my review of Amos Garrett's recent CD, Jazzblues, from Blues Bytes, June, 2013.

I've been thinking about doing a few posts on blues and jazz and how closely they fall together on the musical family tree.  Now, I don't pretend to know everything there is to know about the blues, and I definitely don't know everything there is to know about jazz.  However, I do know enough to know that the two are closely related, or at least they were once closely related.  You wouldn't have one without the back to the early years of recording, they are completely intertwined. 

I actually began to listen to jazz before I started listening to the blues, mostly jazz guitar of the George Benson/Wes Montgomery variety.  To be honest, even though I listened to it, I didn't GET it.....I didn't understand it.  To me, it was nice, mellow, relaxing music that helped me unwind after a tough day of engineering classes.  I occasionally tried other jazz artists, like Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington, Jr., Weather Report, the Crusaders, even Miles Davis, and they were all good, but to be honest, it rarely got past my ears.  Miles Davis was the toughest.  The first recordings I got from him were his late 60's recordings and I just couldn't get him at all because he didn't even sound good to me.....kind of like a kid tooting a horn.  I continued to try to listen, buying some of his later recordings, but eventually, I gravitated to the blues and pretty much put Davis, and jazz, on the back burner for a long time. 

For years, I went on about my way with the blues, almost exclusively.  Then, in the mid 90's, I got something unusual in the mail.  I know many of you remember those Columbia House deals that used to appear in magazines and occasionally show up in your mailbox.  This was similar, only it came from a company in New Jersey called Musical Heritage Society.  MHS offered a classical society and a jazz society.  I got an offer in the mail from their Jazz Heritage Society.

From what I remember, I could choose five jazz cassettes from a list of maybe ten or fifteen choices.  The cassettes were free, but I had to pay shipping, which was like $3 or so, and buy two more albums within the next two years at regular prices.  Not a bad deal, eh?  Didn't seem like it to me, so I bought in and picked up five jazz cassettes.  The choices were all older albums from artists like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis.  I picked Coltrane, Holiday, the Duke and the Count, and one from Miles Davis called Cookin' With The Miles Davis Quintet.

The first one I plugged in was the Miles Davis Quintet.  I didn't know anything about this recording, other than it was recorded in the mid 50's and John Coltrane was in the band.  I had heard of him, but had not actually heard him before.  The quintet was completed by Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  What I didn't know at the time was that this was the first of four recordings that this quintet did for Prestige Records during one marathon session in October of 1956, recorded with the intent of capturing the energy and atmosphere of their live performances at the time.  The four recordings were titled Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin' With The Miles Davis Quintet.

Charlie Parker and Miles Davis

Davis' pre-quintet work with Prestige was equally loaded with blues performances.  The song, "Walkin'," is one of his most recognized blues tracks, and "Bag's Groove," a track he cut with Milt Jackson on vibes, is an incredible piece of music, too.  However, the blues influences are heard pretty much throughout the quintet's work.  During the time that these musicians were developing their musical chops, the blues and jazz was pretty much interchangeable, or at least the line between the two was blurred.  Davis grew up as a musician in the bands of Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker and they pretty much played everything then, so it's only natural that the blues would make up part of the mix.

Coltrane and Davis

Whether you like jazz or not, music lovers can find much to appreciate about the first Miles Davis Quintet.  With Davis on trumpet and Coltrane on tenor sax, you could not have two more opposite musical personalities.  Davis was a model of economy, preferring to say a lot with a little, a procedure that he practiced throughout his career.  Coltrane took longer solos, full, nearly running over with notes, all aggressive and angular.  Amazingly, the two styles complemented each other perfectly.  Red Garland had a very direct, but lyrical style on the keys, and the young Chambers and the veteran drummer Jones were a bedrock rhythm section.  Check out "Ahmad's Blues" below, where the rhythm section gets a few minutes to shine on their own

When I first heard Cookin', I forgot all my preconceived notions about Miles Davis.  This music was just fantastic to me.  The pieces all fell together...every note was where it should be and there was plenty of space for the music to develop and grow.  Through it all, I could hear the blues.  Behind every note played and the ones not played, too, you could hear the blues, especially with Davis and Garland.

Look, I'm not nearly smart enough to put how I knew this into words......maybe somebody who plays could explain this better than I can.  This was just one of those things that you got by feel.  When you hear this music, like other great jazz musicians then and now, you can just hear the blues in every note.  Every time Davis plays, whether he's using a mute (to me, he was the absolute finest at this) or not, I hear the blues.  One of my favorites is "It Never Entered My Mind," the Lorenz Hart/Richard Rodgers classic.  Davis just transforms that pop song into pure blues.

The Quintet later signed with Columbia Records and released 'Round About Midnight, which was actually the group's best recording.  Unfortunately, it was also their last as a quintet.  Davis had broken up the group before the album was even released.  They were actually together for less than two years, but man, what a great body of work they left behind.  They did resurface briefly in 1958, adding alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to form a sextet and recording the Davis masterpiece, Milestones.

Davis and Coltrane worked together until 1959, shortly after Davis released Kind of Blue, which is the jazz record that should be in every blues fan's collection as a textbook example of the blues in jazz.  We will talk about Kind of Blue in a future Jazz & the Blues post.

Miles Davis later formed a second, equally great quintet in the mid 60's that helped pave the way for his move to fusion with Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way in the late 60's.  I enjoy the second quintet's music, too, but to me the first quintet is still the best.  Actually, the second quintet has a multi-disc set recording their live dates at the Plugged Nickel that finds them sounding similar to the first quintet in their approach.  What I've heard of it, I've liked quite a bit.  Most of their studio work from 1965 through 1968 moved in a different direction though.

For blues fans interested in checking out some jazz recordings, but not sure where to get started, I would recommend any of the first Miles Davis Quintet's recordings.  They are listed below.  From there, you have lots of directions you can take....we'll look at some other artists in the future.

Relaxin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

Cookin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

Steamin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

Workin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

The Complete Prestige Quintet Recordings - All of their Prestige tracks on a four-disc set, plus assorted live tracks from the Tonight Show and a couple of radio tracks.  Great stuff and a great way to get all of their Prestige material in one fell swoop!

'Round About Midnight (Columbia/Legacy)

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