Friday, January 29, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 166: Miles Davis

This was part of the Contractual Miles period, but not one of the marathon sessions, and not one of the new quintet sessions, which is interesting, because Miles was pretty well committed to the new quintet at that point. They played on the late 1955 session and the marathon sessions of later this year.

Also interesting was the brevity of this session. Only three songs, but it turned out that was all they needed to make up one of the albums that Miles owed Bob Weinstock. They had an unreleased session from 1953,  and they put it together with this session to make the album called Collector's Items.

This sent me back to the 1953 session. Miles, in his autobiography*, paints that session as something of a disaster. Miles himself was heading into the depths of his heroin addiction. Bird was drunk. He polished off a quart of vodka at the rehearsal, according to this account, but since Bob Weinstock didn't do rehearsals, this was probably at the session itself. At some point he fell asleep, and Davis recalls being so mad he played poorly, or at least that was his opinion, and session producer Ira Gitler's, and this is probably why the session wasn't released at the time. In the liner notes to Collector's Items, Gitler says that the session was shelved because it was too short, and that may be part of it. But Prestige was releasing 45 RPM EPs at the time, and it could have been brought out that way.

Probably a good part of the reason the session was so short was that given the condition of the participants. Sonny Rollins was also addicted at this time, as were Walter Bishop and Philly Joe Jones.

So was the session good enough to be released in Contractual Year 1956?

It was good enough to be released any time.

Don't forget there's another joker in the contractual deck. Miles has already cut his first album for Columbia, due to be released after the Contractual Completion. That album, when it comes out in early 1957, will be called Round About Midnight, and will feature the quintet's version of the Monk classic. Did Weinstock know this, and was he trying to steal a march on George Avakian and the Columbia marketing division?

And this circles back around to a question I pondered in my last Miles blog entry:

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.
...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.  
...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.

Maybe. And the 1953 "Charlie Chan" session provides an even greater contrast: a finely honed, rehearsed session vs. a total mess. And out of that whole chaotic fiasco, "Round Midnight" was probably the most chaotic. As Gitler describes it euphemistically, "for various reasons the date had not jelled to expectations," and by six o'clock, when the engineer (not Van Gelder) was scheduled to go off duty, and had announced that there'd be no overtime, they only had three tunes in the sack. Actually, only two, but for Collector's Items they use two different versions of "The Serpent's Tooth." They were planning to finish off the day with Monk's "Well, You Needn't," but they couldn't get it together. With 15 of studio time left, they somehow managed to pull it off.

Which is better, the once-maligned, now treasured Columbia version, or the once-shelved, now mostly overlooked collector's item?

Dumb question, of course. They're both magnificent, and no one should be expected to choose one. But, God help me, I like the earlier one. Gitler, in his liner notes, says that Bird's opening solo "is full of the pain and disappointment he knew too well. That borders on the pathetic fallacy, assigning such specific emotions to an abstraction like a piece of music.

But Gitler is right. The pain is nearly palpable. One can't help but be moved.

So, on to the new session, with only Paul Chambers from the
quintet, with Miles in full possession of his Harmon-muted voice, And with another unexpected collaboration-of-sorts, between the two jazz mega-stars of their era: Miles and Dave Brubeck. The session starts with a beautiful Brubeck composition, "In Your Own Sweet Way." There are some--not many-- who have reservations about Brubeck as a pianist, but I don't think anyone can question his brilliance as a composer. Miles would record "In Your Own Sweet Way" again with the quartet, and it has become a kind of touchstone for trumpeters, with versions by Chet Baker, Woody Shaw and Art Farmer.

"Vierd Blues" is a Miles composition that has become a standard, often for pianists (Bill Evans, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson), but also for unlikely artists such as German avant-gardist Albert Mangelsdorff. It has a striking piano solo here by Tommy Flanagan, who had just arrived in New York from Detroit (where he had been house pianist at the Blue Bird Inn) with a reputation that preceded him: in one week in March, he broke into the recorded jazz canon with sessions with Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Jones again, and this session with Miles.

This is a session without much or a history. It was released in 1956, and then again in a 1971 compilation-of-this-and-that reissue. But like everything else Miles did in his Contractual Farewell Tour, it has immediacy and urgency.

* Taken from Wikipedia

Listening to Prestige, Vol 1, 1949-53, available in book or Kindle format here.


Fitz said...

Ira tells the story to Bret Primack here:

Tad Richards said...


Tad Richards said...

I have such admiration for Ira.