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Miles Davis - The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

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Artist: Miles Davis

Album: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

Label: Prestige

Review date: May. 25, 2006

As bandleaders go, Miles Davis was near the top in terms of overall aptitude. More so than his chops on trumpet, it was his talent for choosing and shaping talent to his own ingenious, and often not immediately fathomable, designs that earned him a place at the height of jazz royalty. The first “Classic Quintet" is perhaps the most superlative case of his preternatural ability to divine a dazzling sculpture out of what others deemed a problematically proportioned block of stone. Joe Goldberg’s famously shortsighted encapsulation of the ensemble still makes me laugh and wince in equal measure. That of the middle register-shackled trumpet player leading a motley crew of a pitch-challenged tenor saxophonist (one John Coltrane), a supper club pianist (Red Garland), a cherub-faced teenage bassist (Paul Chambers) and a bombast prone drummer (Philly Joe Jones). Goldberg had it right on the surface and added to the slights was the specter of heroin addiction that hung over the band like a pall. But even with the subjective hindrances, Davis blended these disparate elements and brought out the best in each one, turning ostensible incongruity and vulnerability into a genre-defining gestalt across five epochal albums for Prestige.

A library’s worth of books, articles, theses and treatises are available on the history and music of the quintet, so much so that it hardly seems germane to hash over these aspects of the ensemble yet again in the context of Concord-Fantasy’s new Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions box. Bob Blumenthal adds even more to the commentary in the essays and annotation that make up the set’s accompanying 40-page booklet. Even under the inundation of analysis, the music continues to speak eloquently for itself as some of the finest small combo jazz in existence. The perspective and information that seems more apposite is whether consumers should shell out coin for the package given the various incarnations this material has occupied in the past.

My point of reference for the music is the antiquated Chronicle box covering Davis’ entire Prestige run as a leader. The remastering on that set, completed circa 1987, sounds extremely enfeebled by comparison and the clarity on display in this new edition makes it no contest. Subsequent reissues, including a 24-bit Japanese series, are probably on par with what’s here, but then there’s the advantage of having the entire three-day monument in a single parcel. The rhythm section benefits most from the freshly scrubbed fidelity. Garland’s keys, already compromised to a degree by Rudy Van Gelder’s idiosyncratic approach to recording, receive a boost alongside Chamber’s stoutly resonant bass strings. Chambers’ arco work also benefits, accruing more depth and sounding less brittle than on past editions. Jones doesn’t need much help in the volume department, but his cymbals in particular gain an added crispness and limpidity. The 32 tracks, sequenced in recording rather than album order, also contain snippets of studio banter and it’s a trip to hear the band conversing matter-of-factly in the context of creating one of the cornerstones of modern jazz.

Evidence of Coltrane’s mortality is present all over the place and it’s beautiful to bear witness to. Whether he’s tentatively negotiating choruses on the Benny Golson-penned “Stablemates” (Disc One) or nailing his parts on the Rogers and Hart show tune “I Could Write a Book” with confidence (Disc Three) the humanity and occasional fallibility in his phrasing and tone carry through. Kernels of his more mature and exploratory years when he attained deity status are present, but it’s mostly the sound of man concerned with perfecting his craft within a prescribed idiom while coming to terms with his influences, Dexter Gordon in particular. Davis exercises a consummate degree of charisma and cool, particularly when speaking through the Harmon mute affixed to the bell of his horn – just cue up the sublime reading of “It Never Entered My Mind” (Disco Two) for an exemplary taste. The pair’s frontline blend, described early on by some critics as oil and water, evinces emphatically the importance of contrastive characters to the creative process. They also demonstrate, as on the ear-boxingly fast take of the bop shibboleth “Salt Peanuts” (Disc Two) where Jones bulldozes his kit with a barrage of press rolls, that a confluence of style and thinking wasn’t out of the question.

The package itself strives for consideration on artistic terms too, with a sturdy long box shell containing a cardboard sleeve for the booklet and decorative recessed housings for the discs. An original painting by Davis adorns the front cover and a complete accounting of contents is perusable on the back. The digipack for a fourth “bonus” disc sits in its own cardboard sleeve, a collection of previously unissued ’50s air shots from The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, The Blue Note and The Café Bohemia (where Bill Evans replaces Garland). The Tonight Show cuts are most interesting for extra-musical reasons as Allen traffics in typical talk-show host tropes by misidentifying band members and cracking wise to Miles when confronted by the trumpeter’s raspy voice: “Got a cold?”

An enhanced segment of the disc also contains five transcriptions of Davis solos. This new content is probably a chief reasoning behind Concord’s decision to a charge stiff Columbia-comparable price for the package. Stacked against the seminal studio fare, the music is archivally important, but hardly an essential acquisition. So, bottom-line: should newcomers and seasoned listeners alike invest in this set over other options? My vote is by all means, assuming you don’t already own the space-age Japanese singles. The music, freshly refurbished and presented, makes the potential sting of cash outlay more than worth it.

By Derek Taylor

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