MILES DAVIS QUINTET: ‘Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet’ (OJC/Craft Recordings)

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One of the most influential groups in jazz history, the Miles Davis Quintet created some of the most remarkable music of the mid to late 1950s. Although Davis, as the band’s leader was its focal point, of course, the group’s undoubted star was the rising tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, whose flowing, molten melodies were the perfect foil to his boss’ fragile but highly lyrical trumpet lines. 

Davis assembled the group in 1955, not long after his public profile and bankability were greatly enhanced by an outstanding live performance at that year’s Newport Jazz Festival. Urged to put a regular working group together by a Columbia Records executive called George Avakian, he brought in Red Garland on piano – a former boxer who, ironically, was noted for his delicate touch – and on bass recruited Paul Chambers who together with drummer Philly Joe Jones became the band’s formidable engine room. The quintet’s original saxophonist was Sonny Rollins but after he quit, Davis, on the recommendation of Jones, recruited a relatively unknown tenor player from Philadelphia called John Coltrane. He helped Davis change the course of jazz. 

Although George Avakian had urged Miles to put the group together in the first place, Davis was already signed to Prestige and consequently made his first records with his new band for producer Bob Weinstock’s Big Apple indie label. But Davis moved to Columbia after the label persuaded Weinstock to sell his contract, which he did with the proviso that the trumpeter met his contractual obligations by recording enough material to fill four albums. So, during two marathon recording sessions in 1956, the Miles Davis Quintet cut a swathe of tracks that were released in stages over the next few years on the Prestige albums Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet and Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. Though perhaps overshadowed by the group’s Columbia albums Round About Midnight and Milestones, the four Prestige titles were all of a similarly high standard and remain touchstones in the trumpeter’s canon.

To kick off Craft Recordings’ revamp of the iconic Original Jazz Classics reissue label, Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet returns on 180-gram audiophile vinyl with all-analogue mastering by Kevin Gray, the soundboard maestro responsible for the impeccable sound of Blue Note’s acclaimed Tone Poet series. Although the music is 67 years old, Gray has made Rudy Van Gelder’s original recording sound fresh and vital, infusing it with both warmth and clarity. The packaging, too, is eye-catching and high quality; a sturdy tip-on LP jacket featuring the original cover photo and liner notes complete with a silver Japanese-style obi-strip.    

The album begins with a ballad, ‘It Never Entered My Mind,’ the old Benny Goodman number-turned-jazz standard that Davis had first recorded for Blue Note in 1954. It’s a performance that shows two sides of Miles Davis; the forlorn beauty of his muted trumpet sound and the occasional imperfection of his playing, highlighted by a couple of glaring bum notes near the beginning of the piece. Other musicians would have been loathe to let the public hear their mistakes but Davis – whose records often had technical flaws in terms of performance – didn’t seem to mind; an approach that served to underscore his authenticity and “realness” as well as his commitment to spontaneity. 

The next track, ‘Four’ with its infectious hook, is a much-covered number that Davis first recorded in 1954 (on his Blue Haze album) and continued to perform in concert well into the 1960s; this 1956 recording is superior to the original, and features some stupendous solos by Davis, Coltrane, and Garland. 

Musically, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck were polar opposites but the trumpeter took a fancy to the ‘Take Five’ man’s ‘In Your Own Sweet Way,’ a tune that he renders sublimely using a mute, which gives his tone a fragile quality.  

A Coltrane original called ‘Trane’s Blues’ offers a swinging slice of horn-led hard bop that leads to ‘Ahmad’s Blues,’ a cover of a tune by the late pianist Ahmad Jamal, whom Davis greatly admired and was influenced by. Curiously, the trumpeter and Coltrane drop out on this number, allowing the nimble-fingered Red Garland to bask in the spotlight, ably supported by Chambers and Jones. The two horn players return on the more frenetic bebop-flavored ‘Half Nelson,’ before the album closes with ‘The Theme,’ a short, swaggering piece the quintet used to close their live sets with. 

A key album in Miles Davis’ early career, Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet is a magnificent work of art that has now been allowed to find a new and younger audience thanks to its revival on vinyl. Own a copy by ordering here:

(CW) 5/5