Hall of Records

Miles Davis: Milestones

by Michael Tatum

Released: April 1958 (Columbia)

The turning point was July 17, 1955 at the Newport Jazz festival. After a promising apprenticeship as a sideman for Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, followed by a set of dates for Capitol with Gil Evans (collected in The Birth of the Cool), Miles Davis slid into a harrowing four year struggle with heroin addiction, a time period in which he supplemented his erratic music-related income with hustling. He had been written off by the jazz critics as a wasted talent, while a Cab Calloway piece in Downbeat made his drug problem public knowledge. An apocryphal story -- which Davis denies in his excellent autobiography -- describes him stumbling into Baker's Keyboard Lounge, his trumpet in a plain brown paper bag. Miles had been living in Detroit rather than New York, the conventional wisdom being in that town that narcotics would be harder to come by. According to witnesses, Davis stumbled onto stage while Max Roach and Clifford Brown -- both friends -- were in the middle of playing "Sweet Georgia Brown," interrupting them by launching into "My Funny Valentine." Davis, who later claimed that the real impetus for kicking heroin wasn't this incident but rather the inspiration of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, swore the anecdote was fictional -- "I wouldn't have let Max see me [like that]. I got too much pride for that," he declared -- but at the very least it illustrates both the reputation that he had been saddled with, and what was at stake for him that night in Newport.

Although he had recorded Walkin' for Bob Weinstock at Prestige earlier in the year (under the credit "Miles Davis All Stars"), he didn't have a working group, so promoter George Wein sloughed him into a jam session that included Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay -- Davis was such a late addition his name wasn't even included in the program. The defining moment that electrified the audience that night was Miles' solo on Monk's classic ballad "Round Midnight," a composition that held special significance for Davis. Playing in Coleman Hawkins' band at New York jazz club Minton's in the fall of 1945, Davis routinely would ask Monk -- also in the band -- if he [Davis] had finally mastered playing that song. "That ain't the way you play it," Davis reported Monk as complaining ("sometimes with an evil, exasperated look on his face"). Ten years later, Davis proved he had not only mastered the song, but had made it his own, radically altering the feel of the song by taking full advantage of of the Harmon mute (which, by covering the amount of air that leaves the trumpet bell, results in a buzzier, more compressed sound). Monk's original conception of the song, recorded for Blue Note in 1947 with a mostly motley assortment of obscure session players (George Taitt on trumpet?), is taken at a slow tempo, but it's also angular and dissonant, a drunk ambling irregularly, with saxophone and trumpet and piano not harmonizing so much as blearily squinting in a futile attempt to make everything come into focus, and Monk's quirky glissandos the aural equivalent of graceful little stumbles forward. Davis sees and hears midnight differently: despite Monk valiantly trying and failing to keep him reined in, the version at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival resembles in spirit the take that wound up leading off 1957's Round About Midnight, Davis' first album for jazz powerhouse Columbia: long, round lines, redolent of loneliness and introspection. By all accounts, the crotchety Monk was not amused. But Miles was no longer playing it the "right" way -- he was playing it his way, and in doing so, in the ears of many, had robbed the song from its creator.

That performance gave George Avakian the confidence to sign Miles to Columbia, but there was one problem -- the latter was still signed to Prestige. So, to free himself from his contract with Weinstock, Miles knocked out, with the sturdy help of his first classic quintet, several albums worth of material while simultaneously recording for Columbia. That being the case, one of the things that keeps the otherwise excellent Round About Midnight from classic status is its piecemeal feel -- while most of the albums from this period are very strong, none of the albums has much conceptual thrust, nor do any represent any great leaps forward. But that isn't the only factor that makes Davis' next small-group record, 1957's Milestones, the master's first crowning achievement, beginning a run that would take him and his cohorts through 1959's landmark Kind of Blue and 1961's underrated Someday My Prince Will Come. For one thing, the band had been together longer and had a more ingrained sense of what to expect musically from the others, so Miles' practice of dispensing with any sort of written sheet music other than bare bones ideas no longer seemed as daunting. Also, between recording the first two quintet albums, once-obscure tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, judging from the increased ferocity and creativity of his prodigious playing, had seen the face of God on the mountaintop -- nowhere on Round About Midnight does he even approach his blazing invention on Milestones. It also helps that the quintet had also become a sextet, with alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley functioning as the perfect foil for Coltrane -- the jubilant joker to Coltrane's intense spiritual seeker.

But the real key to understanding the radical change between these two records can be found in composer George Russell's 1953 book Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a crusty title far less interesting than the impact it made on music, particularly jazz, and particularly the jazz of Davis and Coltrane. Davis had always disliked bebop's rapid-fire, fancy-shmancy chord changes, and under Russell's influence he pared down the harmonic complexity to create a vast playing field for melodic invention. "Modal" is of course one of those words music critics like to throw around to sound smart, but even though most of us couldn't rattle the mechanics of the theory off the top of our heads, by the same token critics and fans alike can certainly hear what it sounds like when it hits our ears -- if bebop is the hustle and bustle of a Harlem traffic jam, modal jazz is stars shining in the night sky, diamonds against a black velvet backing. By taking away rapid-fire chord progressions, musicians no longer had to scramble to outline chord voicings, but instead had the leisure to take their personal style in their own melodic direction. An art form predicated on great songs began now to shift to great soloists, a change that meant less dependence on Tin Pan Alley standards ("Bye Bye Blackbird" and "All of You" on Round about Midnight) and more riffing on original compositions, as well as those by fellow travelers -- in the case of Milestones, Jackie McLean, Dizzy Gillespie, and of course, Monk. Despite this moody pair often being at odds -- there was a great deal of well-documented tension between the two on a 1954 Prestige session that Davis, characteristically, downplays -- they shared the same fascination with musical space. But they inhabited it differently, and the distinctions between their two approaches (dissonance vs. melody, piano as lead instrument vs. piano as impressionistic background) laid the path for two different schools of thinking that would only diverge further in the '60s, with the advent of the free jazz to which Davis was ambivalent for the majority of the decade.

Perhaps because this was Davis' last hurrah with hard bop, he takes the uptempo numbers to breakneck extremes, beginning with the exhilarating Jackie McLean number "Dr. Jekyll" (or "Jackle," depending on which side of the album cover you trust), which busts out of the starting gate like a flurry of agitated racehorses and doesn't let up -- a far more thrilling version than the original, which appeared on Davis' Prestige collaboration with Milt Jackson (plus, no vibes is always a virtue -- sorry Milt). Note the way Coltrane and Adderley blur their sax trade-offs, or when bassist Paul Chambers picks up a bow to saw and slurp a brief solo, or how pianist Red Garland giddily echoes Davis' lines at roughly 4:40 -- this is the definition of intuitive, almost telepathic ensemble playing. Note also the jaunty four-note quote from "When the Saints Go Marching In" that Davis slips in at the :43 mark, then reprises later at the 2:53 mark of the epic take of "Straight, No Chaser," which he then elaborates and proceeds to take further out -- again, zinging Monk. But it's the modal title track that serves as the harbinger of Kind of Blue, built on a tart scalar riff constructed similarly to "So What," but taken at an ebullient rather than languid pace. Interestingly, it's Davis' solo -- fuller, wider, and more expansive -- that you notice rather than either Coltrane or Adderley's more conventional ones, fine as they are. One year from the breathtaking solo breakthrough Giant Steps -- recorded the week after Kind of Blue -- Coltrane in particular would master this new vernacular soon enough.

Though this lineup needed to fracture slightly to let in Bill Evans -- arguably, the uproarious Red Garland showcase "Billy Boy" is a sop to the departing pianist, whose traditional block chords didn't quite fit the new approach -- it's a shame Miles was able to record only one album with this stellar set of players. But unlike Kind of Blue or In a Silent Way -- two trendsetting watersheds that damn near single-handedly invented their own genres -- Milestones is unique in Davis' fascinating discography: a portrait of an artist on the verge of a titanic paradigm shift, yet simultaneously, cockily asserting everything he had assimilated up to that point. The Prince of Darkness' legend was forged elsewhere. But Milestones is the first album where the music makes good -- and then some -- on his promise.

May 9, 2014, Odyshape