Miles Davis got his first record deal in 1950, soon after he and Art Blakey got picked up at LAX airport for heroin possession charges. While Davis was regularly gigging with Billie Holiday at Chicago’s Hi-Note club and anxiously awaiting the trial, Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records approached the trumpeter and offered him a contract.
By 1956, he was deep into his career and champing at the bit to leave Prestige, writing in his 1989 autobiography Miles that they had “signed me for peanuts when I was a junkie.” Columbia Records came knocking that year, but he owed Prestige four more albums.
So on May 11 and October 26, 1956, he and his quintet—including tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones—knocked out blues, ballads, and showtunes at Van Gelder Studios in Hackensack, New Jersey. Prestige wrung four proper albums out of the sessions: 1957’s Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, 1958’s Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, 1960’s Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and 1961’s Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. Today, all four albums are seen as classics. The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions, a six-LP set, contains each song from the sessions in chronological order. (Disc 1 contains material from 1956’s overlooked Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet, also released on Prestige.)
If you haven’t heard Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ or Steamin’ in a while—or ever—they contain crucial hard bop. Davis was one or two creative phases from his first masterpiece, 1959’s Kind of Blue, but his otherworldly phrasing and leaderly precision were fully formed.
There’s also little of the drama of later experimental classics like 1970’s Bitches Brew or 1971’s Jack Johnson. Really, Garland’s “Westminster chimes” doorbell theme at the top of “If I Were a Bell” sums up the welcoming vibe. Whether tackling Davis originals (“Blues by Five,” “Half Nelson”), originals by bop colleagues (Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”), or romantic standards (“It Could Happen to You,” “You’re My Everything”), this quintet is always luminous, an exemplar of where hard bop was at in 1956.
By the time of these albums, Davis’ life had improved. Although he had recently (and permanently) disfigured his voice by shouting while under post-surgical no-talking orders, he was more cash-flush, living in a suit and like a playboy on 10th Avenue. “I relaxed for the first time in a long time,” he wrote in Miles—and this sophisticated music sounds like it.
To be clear, The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions has been hanging out in the marketplace on CD since 2006—this is just that boxed set pressed to vinyl in honor of Prestige’s 70th anniversary. That means there’s no previously unreleased material here; if that’s a dealbreaker for a Davis fan, fair enough. But what material this already is.
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