Miles Davis and John Coltrane are, without doubt, among the most famous pairings in jazz. Their influence and popularity are such that even casual fans resort to shorthand -- Miles and Trane -- when referring to them.
No wonder. Together, in 15 studio sessions stretched over six years, the two made some of the most memorable jazz recordings of the modern age, including what many would claim is the greatest jazz album ever, Kind of Blue. And if that weren't enough, each then went on to define sixties jazz in his own way, with Coltrane's torrential, impassioned saxophone solos becoming the focal point for a ferociously uncompromising avant-garde while Davis' terse, cerebral trumpet statements and increasing fascination with rhythm and texture built to a completely different form of musical rebellion.
But in 1955, when the two began playing and recording together, they were hardly seen as giants. Although Davis had made quite a name for himself in the forties as the brilliantly idiosyncratic young trumpeter in the Charlie Parker Quintet, by 1954 he had largely squandered that reputation and was derided as a gig-skipping, note-flubbing junkie. Coltrane, on the other hand, had no reputation to squander; outside his hometown of Philadelphia, the 29-year-old saxophonist was largely unknown.
Everything changed for both men with the release of five albums on the Prestige label half a century ago. Those albums -- and the band that made them -- were hugely popular with both fans and critics, and in short order both Davis and Coltrane were established as giants.
That music has just been re-issued in a four-CD set called The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions. It's actually the second set devoted to the pair -- the six-CD Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings was released in 2000. And while it adds relatively little to the Davis catalogue (eight live recordings that had previously been available only as lo-fi bootlegs), it attests to the enduring interest in the two jazzmen.
The stylistic innovations made by Davis and Coltrane have been so completely absorbed into the jazz vocabulary that it's no longer possible to hear just how radical these recordings sounded 50 years ago. Take, for instance, Davis' use of the Harmon mute. Originally known as a "wah wah" mute, the Harmon is made of aluminum and consists of two pieces: a short, cylindrical body that fit in the bell of the trumpet, and a hollow, plunger-shaped "stem" that sat in the mute's centre. Prior to Davis, most jazz trumpeters treated the Harmon mute as a sort of special effect, cupping their left hand over the stem to create a crying sound with the horn.
Davis played with the stem out, and the sound he got was quietly intense, like listening to the wind rattle a windowpane. On high notes, it lent an acidic bite to the tone, while low notes took on a mellow buzz. But as tracks such as 'Round Midnight and In Your Own Sweet Way demonstrate, what made the sound particularly expressive in Davis' hands was the way it underscored both the rhythmic intensity and melodic economy of Davis' solos. Like lemon juice on fish, the tartness of the Harmon mute's sound set the underlying flavours in bold relief.
Davis recorded versions of 'Round Midnight for both Prestige and Columbia; the Prestige version is the later of the two, even though it was released first. How Davis managed that is a story in itself.
After beating his heroin addiction in 1953, Davis was eager to rebuild his reputation and career, and got the break he needed when promoter George Wein slipped him into a jam session toward the end of the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. Davis soloed on three tunes, and his muted performance of 'Round Midnight was a sensation.
Among those in the crowd at Newport was Columbia Records chief George Avakian. Davis had been lobbying for years for a contract with Columbia, and when the set was finished, Avakian was waiting backstage. But cutting a deal wasn't so simple; Davis still owed four albums to Prestige, and it didn't seem likely that Prestige chief Bob Weinstock would simply let Davis go -- particularly now that his star was rising.
Davis had a solution. He would record for both labels, and Columbia would withhold release of its sessions until all the Prestige albums were out. The publicity Columbia would then generate would benefit both companies.
First, Davis had to put a band together. He started with drummer "Philly Joe" Jones, a powerhouse who had honed his skills on the R&B circuit, and added pianist Red Garland, a Texan who Davis said "had that light touch that I wanted on piano." Bass virtuoso Paul Chambers -- barely 20 at the time -- rounded out the rhythm section.
On saxophone, in the original plan, was Sonny Rollins. But Rollins had a heroin problem, and had gone into seclusion to deal with it. Jones suggested Coltrane, who he knew from Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the saxophonist got off to a bad start with Davis, constantly asking questions in rehearsals. As Coltrane later told French jazz journalist François Postif, Davis "doesn't talk much and he rarely discusses music." After several tense rehearsals, Coltrane went home to Philadelphia to work with organist Jimmy Smith.
"The group almost didn't happen," Davis said in his autobiography. In the end, though, Coltrane recognized that the music Davis wanted to play suited him far better than anything Smith had to offer, and so he rejoined.
Davis and his group recorded all their material for Prestige in just three sessions at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Hackensack, New Jersey, one on November 16, 1955, one on May 11, 1956, and one six months later, on October 26. Everything was cut in a single take, partly to keep costs down and partly because the band had already worked much of the material out on the road.
"He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get results," Van Gelder says of Davis via e-mail. "The group was arranged so that everyone had eye contact with each other."
The advantage of this setup was that it was easy for Davis to direct the group. "He gave them cues and anything else they needed to know during the performance," says Van Gelder. "He maintained control over all aspects of the music."
Davis tried to maintain similar discipline over the players themselves, but that proved far more difficult. All four of his sidemen had problems with drugs, drink or both, and as the quintet's success grew, so did their consumption. Coltrane's heroin habit got so bad that he sometimes seemed conscious only when it came time to play. The saxophonist was fired twice before finally cleaning up and being reinstated on a more equal basis in 1957. Garland and Jones were fired a year later, and replaced by pianist Bill Evans and drummer Jimmy Cobb, both of whom appear (along with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley) on Kind of Blue.
Davis would have turned 80 yesterday, Coltrane on Sept. 23. Both, of course, are deceased, as are Garland, Chambers, Jones and Evans. But the recordings they made not only endure; they've taken on the timeless quality of classics. Listening to them in concentrated form -- just three days' work for The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions -- makes the group's achievement all the more amazing.