Miles Dewey Davis: 54 years old, the Man with the Golden Horn. A true jazz master who has made a different, significant mark in each of the last three decades. A man who is now working on his first album in five years with a group of young, unknown musicians from Chicago.
Davis has set a pure tone throughout a career marked by single-mindedness and disregard for fashion or financial success. A new perspective on that career can be found in a 12-record set, aptly titled "Chronicle" (Prestige P-012). It contains everything Davis recorded for Prestige between January of 1951 and October of 1956. This was not the most secure or critically successful period in Davis' 36-year career. But the 17 sessions yielded 93 selections with 35 musicians who read like a Jazz Hall of Fame: Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, John Lewis, Max Roach; Sonny Rollins, age 21; Jackie McLean, age 19; Paul Chambers, age 19. Davis was only 24 when he cut his first Prestige session.
The $125 list price for "Chronicle" is justified by the elaborate packaging, which includes the use of early '50s labels, a 10,000-word essay by Dan Morgenstern and complete discographical information (including commentaries on each session). All but a few selections are available on Prestige's two-fer reissue series for considerably less money. With a limited edition of 10,000 copies, there will be no problem selling "Chronicle," but one suspects that the project (conceived by Ralph Kaffel and produced by Orrin Keepnews) is a labor of admiration and appreciation by one of the most influential small labels in jazz history.
Even in the brief five-year span of the recordings, one hears Davis honing his skills (particularly tonal control and the refined sense of phrasing most apparent in his use of a mute on ballads) and new levels of musical maturity (his ability to marshall the inner tensions of melodic simplicity versus the harmonic complexity of the volatile ensembles). Above all, one hears Davis' increasing assurance as a leader and ground-breaker in the vintage jazz idioms that he and his fellow players constantly extended, even though many of the performances are imperfect and inconsistent.
The 93 selections include a number of alternate takes: "The Theme," "Serpent's Tooth," the classic "Bags' Groove," "The Man I Love," "But Not For Me." It's interesting to hear the spirit of different takes. On "Serpent's Tooth," for instance, the first is in a swinging medium-tempo groove, with the next take at a much faster tempo, and even if some of the improvisations remain of a piece, the differences make one realize how transitory jazz's recorded history is. The early recordings were also among the first to utilize the extended space afforded by the "new" long-playing records, so the idea of stretching out on a tune, already familiar in performance, was still fresh in the studio.
Listening to the music, one senses how deeply the players listened to each other, even the oft-rebellious Thelonius Monk, who was not averse to making musical jokes on the piano while comping behind another player's solo. There are odd voicings: Charlie Parker on tenor instead of alto on both "Compulsion" and "Serpent's Tooth"; Sonny Rollins dropping out after one chorus of "Denial" because of an out-of-tune saxophone, avoiding a couple of confrontations with Parker; John Coltrane, still in the developmental stage of his controversial "sheet of sound" multinoted flights. Many of the players who would make up the vanguard of the late '50s and '60s were still playing under the influence of masters from a previous generation.
There are many moments of brilliance, particularly from Davis on ballads like "The Man I Love," "My Funny Valentine" and "Something I Dreamed Last Night." Classic tunes crop up, like the visceral 1953 recording of Monk's classic "Round About Midnight," Sonny Rollins' "Oleo", Davis' fast and funky "Walkin'," Milt Jackson's "Bags' Groove" (Jackson's work on these sessions is unbelievable).
And then there is Davis' first classic working group: Coltrane on tenor, Paul Chambers on bass, Red Garland contributing a hard, percussive touch on piano and Philly Joe Jones on drums. With the exception of Davis, they were all relatively unknown at the time, but they would set the standard for combos for many years to come and provide the link between '40s bop and late-'50s hard bop. Their cooperative efforts occupy almost one-third of "Chronicle" and one senses the comfort of familiarity as their work continues.
What of Davis' work? Concentrating for much of the time on the middle register of the trumpet, Davis is eloquent, introspective, lyrical, given to a startling array of sonorities, shadings, smears and languid lines, and to a continuing flow of ideas. He is equally comfortable with blues, bop and ballads; at home with the standards that provided a symmetric base for improvisations and with the originals from his gifted cohorts. "Chronicle" offers a solid segment of tthe career of one of the true innovators in contemporary music and an incubator of talent for 30 years.