Some of you may have the CD box set of Miles Davis’ first legendary quintet that was released 13 years ago. But many more of you just cannot get enough of Miles and Coltrane, especially since the 180-gram vinyl sounds so damn good. Craft Recordings is releasing this 6-LP vinyl set of The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions celebrating the 70th anniversary of Prestige Records. These sessions were recorded between 1955-56, resulting in the classic albums Cookin’ (1957), Relaxin’ (1958), Workin’ (1959), and Steamin’(1961). There is also a bonus LP with audio from radio and TV appearances by the group and the first installment Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet (1956). Of course, there are in-depth liner notes and photographs.
One thing that you’ll immediately notice from the track listing (below) is the number of ballads, covers and standards, not unlike Craft Recordings release of Coltrane ’58. That’s because in the mid-‘50s Prestige, unlike Blue Note, offered no paid rehearsal time to the musicians. They just came into the studio and played, so familiarity with tunes was a requisite of sorts. Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet was assembled in 1955—a pivotal year for the trumpeter and bandleader. Following a triumphant set at the Newport Jazz Festival, Davis was peaking, enjoying newfound recognition by industry leaders, critics, and fans alike. With a lineup that featured pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones and a relatively unknown tenor saxophonist named John Coltrane (replacing Sonny Rollins), the unit became the dominant small jazz group of the late ’50s and helped define the hard-bop genre. In his liner notes, Bob Blumenthal writes “The Miles Davis Quintet heard here was Davis’ means of seizing the moment when his physical health and his musical concepts were on an upswing…This is the band Davis organized when he wanted his recordings to stand for more than snapshots of his momentary interests.” Keep in mind although this is straight ahead hard bop as referenced above, it did in some ways lay the groundwork for the next stage of the Miles/Coltrane exploration into modal music and the landmark Kind of Blue, with the addition of altoist Cannonball Adderley and a different rhythm section with the exception of bassist Jones.
This voluminous material was produced in the space of a year in three exceptionally productive sessions with famed engineer Rudy Van Gelder, simulating nightclub sets at Van Gelder’s original Hackensack, New Jersey studio (his parents’ home). Highlights include a rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” which Davis would adopt as a signature tune, a scorching drum solo from Jones on “Salt Peanuts,” Davis’ signature use of the Harmon mute on the intimate ballads “My Funny Valentine” and “It Never Entered My Mind,” Garland’s inspiring solo on “If I Were a Bell,” and a standout performance from the rhythm section on “Blues by Five.”
Blumenthal writes that during this era, “Davis understood the potential of the new, longer 12-inch album format, and used it to create definitive performances in a variety of moods.” Adding, “The key was contrast, which began with the juxtaposition of Davis’ concision, Coltrane’s complexity, and Garland’s sparkle; extended to the textural variety the rhythm section provided each soloist; and was capped by the distinctive range of the band’s repertoire.”
When the CD box set was released, Jazz Times wrote that “To sit down with the 32 [tracks], from “Stablemates” to “My Funny Valentine,” is to fall in love all over again with irreplaceable music whose magic is utterly manifest yet elusive of description.” Upon its release, it peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. As we’ve said before on these pages, the best music is timeless. To think some of this music is 63 years old, is rather daunting. But, because so much of it is comprised of pop tunes and standards, it lives on gloriously.