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Miles Davis: Birdland 1951

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Comprised of material from three dates and featuring two contrasting groups, Birdland 1951 finds Miles Davis in particularly good form. The trumpeter was on the rebound from personal and professional setbacks, so musically he returned to basics: bebop.

Consistently prodded by Art Blakey, the only other player who appears on all 10 tracks, Davis’ playing has as much fire and finesse as any other recording from this period, which overlaps the beginning of his relationship with Prestige and Clef dates with Charlie Parker. Even though only three tracks have not been previously issued on various bootlegs, the overall impact of the CD is of a minor revelation; more than contemporaneous studio dates, this collection conveys the excitement Miles created.

A sextet including Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Drew and Tommy Potter is featured on both the new material from a February set and three previously circulated tracks from June. The fare is typical: each session yielded takes of “Move” and “Half Nelson”; the June set includes Davis’ blues “Down” and “Out of the Blue”; the February tape is rounded out by a roof-raising “Tempus Fugit.” Perhaps the best indicator of the electricity generated on the bandstand is Rollins’ breach of protocol on the June “Half Nelson.” Obviously inspired, he attempts to launch the first solo, and is promptly run over by the leader, protecting his prerogative; the budding tenor titan then gamely repeats his trampled phrase at the beginning of Davis’ second chorus in the guise of an announciatory riff. Each step along the way, the music’s charge increases by a few volts.

The groove of the September tracks is shaded toward a Jazz at the Philharmonic jam feel by veteran tenor players Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and George “Big Nick” Nicholas, particularly on their furiously traded barbs on “Move.” For the most part, the rhythm section, which includes Billy Taylor and Charles Mingus, follows suit with a streamlined swing, especially on two Tadd Dameron tunes: the mid-tempo blues “The Squirrel” and a soaring “Lady Bird.” The results are thoroughly satisfying, even though they don’t approach the edge Davis cut with Rollins and Johnson.

The trumpeter’s tenacity in these different environments is impressive; each solo proclaims Davis to be a fully matured artist at the top of his game.