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Miles Davis/John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings

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With his quintet and sextets in the last half of the 1950s, Miles Davis charted the course of modern jazz. Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane-stunningly original minds-set agendas that jazz musicians have followed ever since. Modal and scalar improvisation had led a scattered existence in jazz. With “Milestones” and later the Kind of Blue session, it entered the mainstream. The sextet’s application of modal changes, with Evans as Davis’ theorist partner, served as fundamental inspiration for Coltrane’s use of fewer harmonic guideposts following the ultimate chord packing of his “Giant Steps” period. Virtually all players and writers who emerged after 1960 developed under the omnipresent influence of Davis, Coltrane and Evans. The thinking in Davis’ bands germinated approaches that have not changed significantly in four decades. Miles Davis With John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings documents the development of those approaches.

Even without its 14 previously unissued alternate takes, this six-CD package would be invaluable as a tool for musicians, teachers, historians and critics tracing the development of Davis’ music. Aside from its documentary worth, however, the package provides enormously satisfying, entertaining and instructive listening. From the first Columbia recordings of the quintet in 1955 through the final sextet sessions of 1961, the power and expressiveness of Davis, Coltrane, Evans, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb mesmerize the listener.

To a degree that no other music can approach, the glory of jazz is its supreme expression of individuality. In that regard, the Davis bands heard here are matches for Louis Armstrong’s small groups of the late 1920s, the 1936-1940 Count Basie band and the Charlie Parker group with Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. Davis, Coltrane and the other players are unmistakable; they could never be confused with someone else. Davis’ uncanny instincts about who he needed around him to move his music forward led to a dynamic that created bands with equally identifiable collective traits.

Davis’ playing was essentially formed by 1955. Through the half-dozen years represented here he adapted his style to new situations and concepts. Coltrane, on the other hand, developed astonishingly during the period: from an interesting journeyman tenor saxophonist into a soloist of unprecedented complexity and density. We hear him opening up, soaring, as his technique and confidence expand. From 1958’s “Two Bass Hit” on, we hear Adderley absorbing Coltrane’s harmonic language, mixing it into his folksy expansiveness and becoming a soloist who is not only engaging but also increasingly deep.

This is the first time that “Two Bass Hit,” “Straight No Chaser” and the other pieces from the Milestones session have been issued in stereo. The added clarity and depth emphasize the contributions of the remarkable rhythm section, particularly the crisp, inflammatory drumming of Philly Joe Jones behind the soloists. It is difficult to argue with the choice of original issues, but the previously unissued takes of “Milestones,” “Two Bass Hit” and “Straight No Chaser” demonstrate the consistency of the sextet’s soloists. A new quintet version of “Little Melonae” gives evidence of Coltrane’s startling growth in the two-and-a-half years since they recorded it for the ‘Round About Midnight album.

The collection includes one previously unissued performance from the sextet after Evans and Cobb replaced Garland and Jones, an alternate take of “Fran Dance.” With the arrival of Evans, Davis went deeper into his exploration of modal and scalar improvising. Building from ideas going back at least as far as his 1952 Blue Note recording of “Dear Old Stockholm,” he opened greater freedom of choice to the soloists. The result, after the lovely tune-based playing of Jazz Track, the Newport Festival and Jazz at the Plaza, was Kind of Blue. Although Wynton Kelly was his pianist by then, Davis called Evans back to play on all of the pieces but the heavily bluesy “Freddie Freeloader.” Davis later expressed some dissatisfaction with the album but, as Bob Blumenthal writes in his session notes, “Everyone else considers it one of the masterpieces of all recorded music.”

By the time of Kind of Blue in 1959, Coltrane had already recorded “Giant Steps.” He toured Europe with Davis in 1960, then went on to form his quartet with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, and do his bounds-breaking work of the 1960s. Evans became the most influential jazz pianist since Bud Powell. After experimenting with various combinations, Davis established his brilliant quintet with Wayne Shorter. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams were the rhythm section, replaced in 1968 by Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. It can be argued that with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew in 1969, Davis invented the jazz-fusion that permeated the music scene through the Seventies and Eighties. Whatever the value of that phenomenon, Davis built a monumental contribution to jazz with the music in this indispensable set.