Jazz is a music of ensembles working toward a shared common goal through improvisatory avenues, but it is most special when focused on partnerships. Bird and Diz. Lady Day and Prez. Dolphy and Little. Ella and Satch. Near the top of any such pyramid belongs Miles Davis and John Coltrane, with this four-disc set bearing audio witness that there is immense artistic power in the sound of two partners splintering from each other.
Culled from radio broadcasts of five of the pair’s final shows together in the spring of 1960, this Bootleg installment chronicles an important tour for Davis. It represented his arrival as jazz royalty. He was displeased with his tenorman, Coltrane, who had had enough of the sideman gig. We should remember the timeline: Giant Steps had been cut nearly a year ago. Davis was playing an advanced form of hard bop, with a heavy modal emphasis and a sensibility that married Baroque chamber music with blues-rooted soul. Coltrane—well, Coltrane wished to do something else.
The first show in this package, from March 21 in Paris, makes his bellicosity plain. Davis is soft, underselling with trumpet playing, whereas Coltrane is tendentiousness personified, a whelp at the edge of a stage, stalking the patrons. You can hear audience members arguing passionately amongst themselves. At times, Coltrane’s tone resembles a great purging, like he is disgorging whatever humors he has picked up over the years as a Davis acolyte—a violent discharge which prompted one journalist, in an interview included in the set, to ask him if he was angry.
The cantering pace of “So What,” on the next night in Stockholm, shifts into a sustained sprint, and we’d be unwise to understate what was asked of the rhythm section of bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb. You know that Davis and Trane are done with each other, but still they are fostering growth. Davis is giving Trane his head, curious to hear what will happen, a more avant-garde version of Duke Ellington letting Paul Gonsalves go at Newport.
The Copenhagen gig on the 24th is relaxed after the Wagnerian intensity of the Paris date. On “Walkin’,” Trane channels his best Hank Mobley-via-Blue Train middle ground. It feels as if a lesson is being learned: You can go as far out as you wish, but it makes little sense to do so if listeners can’t travel with you.
Trane was finding that sweet spot, and Davis was letting him. The trumpeter, for his part, is clearly listening harder than ever, using the improvisational skills of his band to inform how he will be composing. This is the crucial groundwork for the Second Great Quintet. Davis became less a writer of determined words and more someone who composed by marking up what others had done in red pen, overhauling their drafts. Writing through shaping. Trane helped teach him to go that way. The saxophonist, meanwhile, was already gone in his various directions, as we can hear.