By Ed Pettersen
Some of my friends ask me why I rarely, very rarely, give an album 5 stars. I always answer, “If it ain’t ‘Kind of Blue” it doesn’t get 5 stars”. Now, that’s an exaggeration for sure because for one KOB isn’t really a free jazz album for one and secondly it’s a pretty high goal to reach for any jazz record. Not merely because it’s the highest-selling jazz record of all-time, sales should never be a measure of artistic achievement, but because it really is a high-water mark of brilliance in any music genre. The compositions, the arrangements, the players and the recording are a pinnacle in the annals of recorded music. I’m sure many of us have friends who are music snobs but not jazz fans per se but I bet they own Kind of Blue (1959).
So enter the 1960 European tour of the Miles Davis Quintet featuring John Coltrane. 20 dates, some of which is represented here on this incredible collection. The most astounding part of these four CD’s is that no-one is playing this by then well-worn material by rote. Do we really need eight different versions of “So What”? Hell yes! Because they never play it exactly the same way twice. Though the solid and dependable rhythm section of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb is here from KOB Wynton Kelly replaces the singular, delicate voice of Bill Evans on piano and more than amply fills these shoes. In fact, he truly shines and I gained new appreciation for Mr. Kelly from these performances. Much is made of Mr. Coltrane’s presence, and rightly so, but to my ears it is Mr. Kelly who is keeping the whole thing together rhythmically and harmonically and when his chance to solo comes he never ceases to amaze. Unique, bold, original and innovative at every stretch.
Back to Mr. Coltrane: his solos on this release are at times playful and harmonically complex as is his signature, stretching the boundaries of the themes and in fact the genre, and always interesting. There are clear signs of the direction he would soon take on his own as a leader. After sifting through all four CD’s I heard only one break where he seems to be sleepwalking through a blow but yet what was exciting was how he pulled his way out of it and ended up thrilling and titillating my ears, and the audience at the show, somehow (I won’t say which song it is lest I be delusional but you tell me
Miles Davis himself plays some of his finest breaks in this set and clearly is inspired by the material and the band (Note: absent for these shows from the KOB band for the record is Cannonball Adderley) and very probably the audiences which are rapt during the songs and very appreciate after. It’s clear they knew they were witness to giants in their land and showed due respect and generosity. The recordings themselves are astounding. Beautifully clear and detailed it’s hard to argue with the one song here that you can barely hear a Mr. Kelly solo. Someone obviously knew what they were doing and somehow preserved it which is a wondrous thing for us to have lo these 50+ years later.
Miles Davis first hired a then 29-year-old John Coltrane in 1955 and by 1960 his own star had rocketed and birthed what we now all call “free jazz” but these were his last performances with Mr. Davis. This is a gift we should cherish. Hell yes, 5 stars. Are you kidding? Go get it.
P.S.-The liner notes in the book by Simon are superb and well worth a read. Though KOB looms large around these concerts other material such as “’Round Midnight”, “Fran Dance”, “’” and “On Green Dolphin Street” also show up here more than once. There’s also included on CD 1 an audio recording of an interview with John Coltrane backstage in by a Swedish broadcaster that is fascinating.
Personnel: Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums)
26 performances in all (songs) across 4 CD’s.