May 3-9, 2006

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Miles Davis

Icon: Miles Davis' catalogue continues to be mined.

Miles to Go

Jazz legend still casts a potent spell

By Greg Cahill

It's been 60 years since Down Beat magazine hailed Miles Davis as the jazz world's New Star on Trumpet, his first major accolade. But Davis, who went on to win 23 Grammys before he died in 1991, continues to cast a spell on a younger generation of players and fans alike.

Davis' hazy blue sound lingers, and interest in his myth remains strong. An upcoming box set gathers his five famous Prestige titles and offers a bonus disc of rare and unreleased radio and television performances as well as a 40-page booklet. Meanwhile, an insightful 2005 biography, Miles Davis (from the Life & Times series), by British writer Brian Morton, best known for his exhaustive Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, sheds new light on this often enigmatic figure, whose own autobiography was riddled with inaccuracies.

Morton's book uses Davis' extensive recording output as a framework, what he calls "a plain narrative of a creative life," while sketching a complex portrait of an artist as reflected in a studio career that spanned 41 years. From his 1947 debut as a leader with a band that featured saxophonist Charlie Parker to his landmark late-'60s fusion sessions and his 1991 swan song Miles & Quincy Live at Montreaux, Davis' catalogue is a rich tableau that showcases a restless artist living in a constant state of change, despite his comfortable middle-class upbringing.

In an age of shopping-mall bohemians, Davis stands as the quintessential contrarian.

"He emerges here through his public actions rather than the words of others, and emerges as a flawed, complex individual with the ability of a perverse chameleon to change his temperamental coloration so that it failed to fit the mood of a given situation," Morton writes.

Morton sings the praise of the four 24-bit remastered CDs that comprise the bulk of The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (Concord Music Group)--The New Miles Davis Quintet, Workin', Steamin', Cookin' and Relaxin'. Recorded during a pair of legendary sessions during May and October 1956, those four bop masterworks feature Davis' celebrated first quintet of youthful up-and-comers: Davis, saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

Coltrane and Garland are brilliant throughout these discs, and the rhythm section establishes their place in jazz history as one of the best.

"At their greatest, [the musicians] bespeak an extraordinary sense of spontaneity, a brilliant assemblage of players in creative flux," Morton writes in his book, "[lending] a similar impression to those experimental bebop sessions with Parker."

There's no question that these are essential recordings for any serious jazz fan.

While each of the individual titles is available on vinyl, redbook CD, 20-bit K-2 remaster and SACD formats, the box set beckons with a gem of a bonus disc that features eight previously unreleased radio and TV audio performances. Those include two tunes from The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, a hard-swinging romp through Oscar Pettiford's "Max Is Making Wax" and a lyrical version of Rodgers and Hart's ballad "It Never Entered My Mind."

The box set arrives in stores on May 23, just in time for the anniversary of Davis' 80th birthday.

Spin du Jour

Dr. John, 'Right Place, Right Time: Live at Tipitina's--Mardis Gras '89' (Hyena)
The New Orleans R&B great reigns during a hot night in the legendary Crescent City music temple while leading a crack band of New Orleans jazz and R&B musicians through a set of favorites, including the hypnotic "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" and the jailbird beat of "Junco Partner." The gris-gris man has got the hoodoo doing that thing he do. Such a night, indeed.


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