Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 157: Miles Davis

I woke up this morning thinking "The one thing that this blog/book series is going to be judged on is whether I got Miles Davis right."

Well, you think a lot of strange things when you're waking up, but there's no overestimating how important Miles was in the history of American music.

We're at a crucial juncture in the Miles Davis/Prestige Records story: that is, the end of the story. Miles jumps to Columbia, has to finish his obligation to Prestige, does it in two marathon sessions that maybe should have sounded rushed and perfunctory but instead produced some of Miles's best-loved albums.

I had somehow thought that this was done all at once--two days, two marathon sessions, in and out, so long Bob. But actually, it was a little more spread out than that. One session in the summer of 1956, one in the fall. And this one, near the end of 1955.

 Why am I suddenly so self-conscious about writing about the Prince of Darkness? It's not as though I haven't covered him before. And it's not as though Miles is the central figure in this fragmented narrative. I'm just  as interested, if not more so, in learning about Lawrence Wheatley, who made a passionate commitment to live jazz, and chose never to record again. Or Freeman Lee, who left the road to become a beloved junior high school science teacher. I'm just as interested in trying to find out if the Junior Parker who recorded with Stan Getz is the same one who made "Mystery Train." Or finding out that Teddy Charles' professor at Juilliard later taught Steve Reich, and wondering if the inventive jazz musician influenced the celebrated modern composer.

I suppose it's because so much has been written about Miles, and so may people have read it. And I mostly haven't. There are biographies. There's an autobiography, There are even specialized books, like the one on the making of Birth of the Cool. I actually have read that one. I have so much better chance of being found wrong, in writing about Miles.

So I woke up this morning thinking maybe I ought to read a biography of Miles before going on. And I probably will, before I finish up with him in 1956. But not just yet. Now I want to stay in my head, and float a few hypotheses, wrong though they may be.

Miles's transition to Columbia was far from overnight. By the fall of 1955, he had signed with Columbia, and he had even made his first Columbia recording, though it wouldn't be released right away. That was the deal--he could record for Columbia, but the records could not be released until after he had completed his obligation to Prestige.

And altogether, the Prestige obligation was completed in three sessions: the two marathons in 1956 and this one mini-marathon from November, 1955.  

So the Columbia date in October was actually the first recording session for what came to be known as the First Quintet: Miles, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones. They did four songs, and the rhythm section did a fifth.

The Prestige session of November was long but not quite as grueling as the later ones. The group recorded six songs, which were released as Miles in April of 1956.

The first Columbia album, Round About Midnight, came out in 1957, and was not all that well reviewed. Critics found it wanting in comparison to the Prestige albums, though this judgment was to change over time, and Round About Midnight would become a classic and beloved jewel in the Davis crown. But the first response to it was tepid, and this strikes me as interesting.

First off, had I been George Avakian, and had I had the benefit of my own hindsight, I would have told Miles not to record his long Prestige swan song with the quintet. "Come on, Miles, do what you've always done with Bob. Put together a pickup group with whoever' around. You can use that piano player, Lawrence Yardley. He just played on an Ammons session and I bet he'd love to get more recording work. Maybe get Ammons, too, or how about James Moody?  Throw in a vocal -- Prestige has that guy King Pleasure, and they're not using him much. Save the quintet for the big Columbia unveiling."

But what really interests me here is the possibility that the passing of time may have led to a changing of tastes. Today, there's a lot more awareness of the evils of conglomerates and mega-corporations than there was in the 50s, and an indie label, or no label at all, might get a more sympathetic ear from critics, especially indie critics. But back then, I don't think this would have been an important issue. 

The 50s were marked by the advent of Rudy Van Gelder and a new era in jazz music recording. But
recording equipment continued to evolve, and big studios were able to constantly upgrade to the newest state of the art. Tape made editing simpler. So did multitracking and, eventually, digital recording. Today we have AutoTune, and you can virtually make the Singing Dogs sound like Pavarotti. 

Even in 1956 at Columbia, they were starting to push the possibilities of studio recording. "Two Bass Hit" took six takes, and the finished version splices the beginning of take two to the end of take five. Artists (including Miles) would come to take it for granted that if they missed a high note, they could come back into the studio and hit just that one note, and have it spliced in.

Today some critics, perhaps many of them born and raised in the in the era of studio perfection, are a little snarky in assessing the Prestige catalog. Ragged, they say. Bob Weinstock preferred quantity to quality, rushed his sessions, didn't allow his musicians to rehearse, never did more than a couple of takes. But maybe back then, that ragged edge was more appealing, more authentic. Maybe the critics of 1957 were put off a little by the studio-perfected sound.

Miles was the LP from this session, and it came out in April of 1956. "Sposin'" and "Just Squeeze Me" were released on 45.,

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