Sharps & Flats

Three kings -- Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly -- rip through six CDs of the most ravishing jazz ever played.


Michael Ullman
May 3, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

In 1955, when Miles Davis signed with Columbia Records and started to make the records collected on "Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1956-61," he was 29 years old and in the midst of a comeback. His recording career had started a decade earlier with Charlie Parker. He then left Parker in 1948 and recorded the influential "Birth of the Cool" sessions with arranger Gil Evans, after which he withdrew from the jazz scene.

By 1954, he had kicked a heroin problem, moved back to New York and decided exactly what he wanted to do musically. The brooding passages of blues and ballads he recorded for Prestige Records showed off the warmth and directness of his open tone; the intimate whine of his tightly muted passages were as expressive as most trumpeters' straightforward effusions. And he was developing signature devices: choked, half-valve notes; a habit of hitting a dissonant note and holding it dramatically before resolving it upward; ample pauses. He was riveting. So was his band. For six years, with slightly varying personnel, Miles Davis recorded a series of masterpieces for Columbia, including "Round About Midnight," "Milestones" and the definitive post-bop recording, "Kind of Blue." All of these and the rest of the Davis-Coltrane collaborations, including 15 alternate takes, are heard on the six-CD set "The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1956-61."

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Davis looked for contrast in assembling his band. His horn sound was deep and intense, so he hired Red Garland, a pianist with a crisp touch and icy sound, to accompany him with lightly chomping chords played slightly in front of the beat. Bassist Paul Chambers provided a solid rhythm, while drummer Philly Joe Jones played with a shimmering briskness and alert, enlivening accents. By 1958, Davis had two saxophonists, alto Cannonball Adderley and tenor John Coltrane. On "Love for Sale," Adderley's chattery exuberance plays contrast to Coltrane's more purposeful investigations. Adderley ends his solo in a flurry; Coltrane enters with well-defined phrases, pausing intently between them. Adderley is finger painting and Coltrane etching. Both sound wonderful.

The lyrical, soft-touch pianist Bill Evans joined up later, recording "Kind of Blue" and other sides. His appearance was a sign that the music was about to go in a different direction. As explained in the notes by drummer Jimmy Cobb, who replaced Philly Joe Jones, at one point Davis halted the first take of "Freddie Freeloader," telling pianist Wynton Kelley not to play "no chord going into Ab." Davis wanted the sparest possible sound, the harmonies only implied. As usual with this set, the originally chosen takes are preferable, but the alternates are intriguing and sometimes brilliant. The "Freddie Freeloader" on "Kind of Blue" is a bit brighter, and Kelly's solo is firmer, bluesier and more clearly accented. He seems to have found himself between takes. Soon he would be leading his own trio.

It was the ballads, "Round Midnight," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "On Green Dolphin Street" and that unlikely vehicle, "Someday Your Prince Will Come," that most impressed the first listeners to this music. Davis had seemingly found a newer, hipper, more intimate and revealing way of playing jazz music. He looked cool and played hot. The music sounds just as ravishing today.


Michael Ullman

Michael Ullman is a jazz writer and lecturer in the music department of Tufts University.

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