Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
[Rudy Van Gelder Remasters]
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by John Metzger
Mon September 10, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Miles Davis had a knack not only for identifying young talent but also for bringing out the best in them. There’s no question that the musicians that he tapped to form his first classic quintet — John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones — were extraordinary performers, but left to their own devices, the recordings that they made within the same time frame largely were, for the most part, considerably lesser affairs. Davis’ leadership and vision made all the difference in the world, and his guidance made it possible for him to harness and focus his accompanists’ volatile chemistry.
Before Davis and producer Teo Macero began cutting, splicing, and reshaping music via a series of complicated tape edits, the true test of a jazz band’s merits was how well it could perform in a concert setting. In May and October 1956, when he took his quintet into the studio for a pair of lengthy recording sessions, Davis knew he had something special that he needed to capture before his crew grew restless. His plan was simple: he merely wanted to recreate the spontaneity of his group’s gigs.
Running through its established repertoire, Davis’ quintet laid down enough material to fill four albums — Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’ — each of which has been heralded ever since as a classic. Although the latter outing served as the fourth and final chapter in the series, all of its music — save for a cover of Thelonious Monk’s Well, You Needn’t — was recorded during the first session that Davis held. Its flow is, perhaps, its only flaw in that it feels less like a standalone set than the other three installments. Nevertheless, its individual tracks are all stellar, and any quibbles with its contents are relatively minor in comparison with the problems that plagued many other outings from the era.
Steamin’ is marked, at least initially, by the Miles Davis Quintet’s playful approach. Davis famously was a demanding and difficult boss, but any notion that his ensemble wasn’t having a lot of fun performing together is dispelled quite rapidly by the jaunty rendition of Surrey with the Fringe on Top that opens the set. The band’s interpretation of this well-known Rodgers & Hammerstein composition is remarkable. The rhythm section ably supports the soloists by settling comfortably into a lilting cadence, and as the lead is passed from Davis to Coltrane to Garland, countless ideas not only are planted, but they also flourish with each subsequent reiteration of the melody. With its gently loping gait, Diane follows a similar trajectory, evoking a happy-go-lucky ambience that is irresistibly joyous. Similarly, Well, You Needn’t buzzes with energy, while Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts is taken at such an alacritous pace that it can only conclude with a wildly explosive volley of drums.
At the other end of the spectrum, at least from the perspective of establishing a mood, are the ballads. Rather than brimming with optimism and hope over what the future might hold, both Something I Dreamed Last Night and When I Fall in Love are filled with the sorrowful yearning of eternal loneliness. As the ensemble paints a gray, rain-soaked backdrop, Davis’ muted trumpet seems to weep as it sings these heartbreaking laments. Making such well-traveled terrain sound fresh and vibrant certainly isn’t an easy task. Yet, by taking his collective into the studio under the pretense of fulfilling his contractual obligation to Prestige, Davis succeeded not only capturing the spirited magic and dusky beauty of his formidable quintet’s stage show, but also in setting the bar for jazz a whole lot higher.
Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
Other Rudy Van Gelder Remasters Releases
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box