MILES DAVIS & JOHN COLTRANE: THE FINAL TOUR / PORTER: All of You. DAVIS: So What (4 tks). The Theme (Bye Bye) (4 tks). Fran-Dance. All Blues (2 tks). KAPER-WASHINGTON: On Green Dolphin Street (3 tks). CARPENTER: Walkin’ (2 tks). HENDERSON-DIXON: Bye Bye Blackbird. MONK: ’Round Midnight. ROLLINS: Oleo / Miles Davis, tpt; John Coltrane, t-sax; Wynton Kelly, pn; Paul Chambers, bs; Jimmy Cobb, dm / Sony-Columbia Legacy 88985448392
For whatever reason, the jazz world has shrunk in the last 27 years. Clubs that once thrived have lost audiences; some of the bigger name clubs are hanging on, but many of the smaller ones have closed their doors. Even in Europe, which always took jazz more seriously as an art form than we do here in America, performers struggle for gigs. Many of the smaller labels that specialized in jazz have either disappeared or taken to selling downloads only and the big labels, now owned by Sony Entertainment (RCA Victor and Columbia) or some other faceless corporations (Riverside, Verve, etc.), are a mere shadow of their former selves. They subsist mostly on reissues of older jazz records.
All of which tells you that jazz consumers in the USA and elsewhere are, for the most part, aging, while the younger jazz fans—though enthusiastic—don’t go to clubs as often, preferring to download jazz to their iPhones, iPads, Androids or whatever. The current release, however, is a little different in that it is the first authorized release of the French and Swedish concerts given by the Miles Davis Quintet with John Coltrane, two of the most potent names in jazz.
This was actually the first of two European tours by the Miles in 1960, the second made between September 27 and October 13 with Sonny Stitt. But of course this one has had all the fuss made over it because it was the last time he played with Coltrane. This tour was also one of the last sponsored by the legendary Norman Granz under his umbrella title “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” and he can be heard on two occasions introducing the group. Granz was not, however, present at their first stop at the Olympia in Paris, thus when you hear him say that the March 22 concert in Stockholm is their “first appearance,” it was actually their second.
Much had happened to the Davis band since they recorded Kind of Blue the year before. Gone were pianist Bill Evans and alto saxist Cannonball Adderly, and Coltrane himself was expanding his musical vocabulary into what was, for some of the European audience, strange and unlikable harmonic territory. He had already adopted the rapid chromatic triplet exercises by Nicholas Slonimsky into his playing, was using more overblown notes, and moving into what would be called his “sheets of sound” approach. In some ways this was an experimental period for him; by his own admission, in the rare interview with Carl-Erik Lindgren included in this album, he admits that he used these rapid turnaround phrases as a way of killing time until he could come up with a different idea, and was already trying to play “all the notes at once,” a tendency that led to his last and (for many, including myself) musically confused style in his last year and a half. Miles Davis himself was also expanding his style, moving a bit away from the cool, sparse playing one heard on Kind of Blue into busier realms. The tempos he chose for such well-known chestnuts as All of You, So What, All Blues and Walkin’ are considerably faster than before.
But the real revelation for those familiar with the sympathetic relationship these two giants of jazz had since they first started playing together in 1955. Whereas previously Coltrane seemed to be listening to what Davis was playing and reacted musically when it was his turn, by 1960 he ignored what everyone else was playing and went off into his own world. This didn’t sit too well with the volatile Davis. When Coltrane told him that he was trying to play all the notes at once, Davis responded, “You can’t do that. You got to stay with one idea at a time before you go on to the next one.” Even funnier was Davis’ reaction when Trane told him he didn’t know how to end his choruses. “Take the damn horn out of your mouth!”
This is not to say that I discount Coltrane’s playing entirely from this period, but as you move from piece to piece you will hear an inconsistency of approach from the saxist. In some tracks he is intermittently brilliant, in some consistently excellent, but in many others it sounds as if he is relying too much on the Slonimsky exercises in addition to chording and overblown notes, and these don’t always make musical sense. But Trane was a humble and deeply religious man, he viewed music-making as almost a holy experience, and he was trying his best to work things out. Nonetheless, I think you will agree, upon hearing this complete set, that although Coltrane is generally interesting and trying to create a new jazz style not quite worked out, Davis and pianist Wynton Kelly—too often overlooked in this band—are the most consistent solo constructionists. Their work keeps the performances grounded and gave Coltrane a framework to build on.
Many of these performances were initially released on a 4-CD set by Acrobat Music in 2014, a compilation that did not include the Paris concerts (due to contractural reasons) but did have performances not on this set: from the Kongresshalle in Frankfurt, West Germany on March 30, the Deutsches Museum in Munich on April 3, 1960, and the final concert at the Zurich Kongresshaus on April 8. What’s interesting about these is that they included a second version of ‘Round Midnight as well as a tune not played in any of the other concerts, Frank Loesser’s If I Were a Bell (at the Zurich concert, their last stop). The last-named is available for free streaming on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EARL4KHkY0k.
The breakdown of the performances given here are as follows:
Olympia, Paris, March 21, 1960:
CD 1: First concert – All of You, So What, Green Dolphin Street
Second concert – Walkin’
CD 2: Bye Bye Blackbird, ‘Round Midnight, Oleo, The Theme
Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, March 24, 1960:
CD 2: Introduction by Norman Granz, So What, On Green Dolphin Street, All Blues, The Theme
Konserthuset, Stockholm, March 22, 1960 – First Concert:
CD 3: Introduction by Norman Granz, So What, Fran-Dance, Walkin’, The Theme
Konserthuset, Stockholm, March 22, 1960 – Second Concert:
CD 4: So What, On Green Dolphin Street, All Blues, The Theme; John Coltrane interview with Carl-Erik Lindgren
Despite any misgivings I may have about Coltrane’s approach in these live sessions, these are still fascinating documents…one might say diamonds in the rough. And the performances are all so intense that they force you, the listener, to pay close attention to what is going on at all moments. One of the most interesting revelations to me was Chambers’ playing, almost always bowed in the style of Slam Stewart rather than pizzicato as in the case of 99% of other jazz bassists.
I have to admit that of the tunes they played—a fairly short list, as you will notice—I have never been much of a fan of So What, not even on the Kind of Blue album, because to my mind it’s not a piece of music at all. It’s merely a two-note vamp played over and over with one short modulation upward in the middle of the chorus, which consists of 16 bars in D, eight in E and eight more in D again. Jazz critics are pleased to call this “modal jazz,” but that’s a cop-out. Many a great piece of music, from Gesualdo’s motets on forward to the present day, were built around the old Greek modes that were far more complex than this. Listen to some of George Russell’s modal pieces to see what I mean. Nonetheless, since this is a solo-oriented band and not one for which arrangements as such meant a whole lot, there is much to hear in their four performances of it on this tour.
The one drawback is that, regardless of the country or venue, poor Wynton Kelly seemed to get stuck with a piano that sounded like a barroom upright rather than a concert grand. The French and Swedes would never have thought to give so poor an instrument to Martial Solal, Earl Hines, Lennie Tristano, Jaki Byard or Bill Evans when they played Europe, but apparently they didn’t think Kelly important enough to provide a quality instrument. Which is a shame, because to my ears these are some of his consistently finest solos. He wasn’t the kind of pianist who played a lot of notes, but that works in his favor, because what he does play is always interesting and well-constructed. He is, in short, the glue that holds this band together, and this set is as much a showcase for him as it is for the two horns.
Jimmy Cobb was one of those understated drummers whose work is all too often taken for granted, but like the equally subtle Roy Haynes (still alive and performing at age 93!) everything he plays helps the ensemble and adds tastefully to the whole. Yes, he plays a few of what were once called “bebop bombs,” i.e. accented snare or bass drum beats between the beats, but by consistently working on a different rhythmic plane than Kelly or Chambers he keeps the music moving while adding some interest—particularly in the various takes of the normally dull So What.
And was Davis ever in fine form! He took many more risks here than on his Columbia recording sessions, sometimes shooting for high notes to ramp up the drama of his solos (which he occasionally flubs) and playing in a somewhat “busier” style. Not too surprisingly, Coltrane really thrives in this generally monochromatic tune, producing a flurry of notes but managing to play well-constructed and interesting solos. In the Paris version of Walkin’, he even adds some lip buzzes and wonderfully “squashed” notes while playing open horn most of the time, recalling his earlier bebop style.
Coltrane also sounds especially relaxed and inventive on the Paris version of On Green Dolphin Street, here incorporating his rapid turnarounds and overblown tenor buzzes into the evolving improvisation to produce a real composition. This is one of the few times, too, where he seemed to be listening a bit to what Davis was playing before he came in. And just listen to Kelly here, sparkling, joyful and inventive, playing with the right hand in the upper range of his instrument to give the music a brighter sound. This track also includes the first of Chambers’ many bowed solos, and he picks up on Kelly’s cheeriness to a T. In Walkin’, Trane takes off like a supercharged rocket and never looks back, though he does throw in a few of his Slonimsky exercises along the way. Kelly’s solo in this one fairly bounces off the Olympia’s walls. On the other hand, I was generally unimpressed with Coltrane’s tricked-up solo in Bye Bye Blackbird (though the crowd seemed to eat it up).
The one and only performance of Sonny Rollins’ Oleo is an uptempo bebop romp, but Miles sticks to muted horn here despite some brilliant rapid phrases. Chambers propels him like a juggernaut. Coltrane comes out of the gate like a thoroughbred horse at Belmont chomping at the bit, playing one of his finest solos. He’s also exceptionally good in the opening So What of the first Stockholm concert. The relaxed pace of Fran-Dance brings out the best in Davis and Coltrane, but Kelly is just OK on this one. Chambers plays a rare plucked solo that’s sparse but packed with good ideas. The Swedish version of Walkin’ is a swinging affair, taken at a more relaxed tempo than the first. Again, Miles plays a lot of open horn. Oddly, though, Trane just runs changes with not much to say here; fortunately, Kelly picks him up with a solo that begins with a few simple licks but develops from there like the opening of a flower.
In the second Swedish concert, Trane does his best but sounds a bit ill at ease finding his footing in So What, yet is surprisingly lyrical, relaxed and inventive in his first chorus on Green Dolphin Street, and even when he runs his changes in the second chorus they make sense, including the melody line amid his flurry of notes. Kelly and Chambers remained consistently excellent.
The interview with Coltrane sounds about as I expected; he was always shy about talking, especially about himself, and didn’t seem particularly pleased by the interviewer throwing negative comments about his playing from other critics at him. It was also no surprise that Sonny Rollins was his favorite tenor player among his peers, or that he considered Blue Trane and Giant Steps his favorites among his recent recordings.
All Blues, first played by the band in their second March 22 Stockholm set, is a welcome relief from the constant 4/4 of the other tracks, being a jazz waltz by Davis. The leader opens it on muted horn but then takes the mute out and blasts away in fine form. Here, for once, I found Cobb’s bomb-dropping a bit too much for the music, intruding on the mood. Coltrane is simply wonderful on this one, altering both his mood and his musical approach from chorus to chorus, though at one point he seems to get lost in a series of bluesy squalls on a D. In Kelly’s solo, he and Cobb almost give this 3/4 tune a 4/4 feel.
In the last concert presented here, given at the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, the band sounds particularly upbeat and chipper. Having a day off really seemed to help their mood. In this version of So What, there’s a nice passage where Davis plays repeated notes on trumpet while Coltrane works around him before moving on to his own solo, and a good one it is, swinging as well as inventive. He does use some of his Slonimsky runs, but doesn’t stay on them forever, moving on to bluesier territory which suits the quick tempo and driving pulse of the rhythm section. Kelly picks up on Trane’s last ideas to open his own solo, which he then expands.
No offense to Bronislaw Kaper, who I’m sure was a good tunesmith, but by the time I heard the third version of On Green Dolphin Street I was sick of it. What exactly was it about this song that made jazz musicians think it was so hip? Yeah, it had nice changes in the middle section, but big deal. There were so many other, better songs out there to use, with rising chromatics in the chords, that would have been much more interesting. That being said, Davis is in fine fettle here and the opening of Trane’s solo is surprisingly uncluttered and swinging. Kelly is his usual good self, and Chambers delivers another jolly bowed bass solo. This second take of All Blues doesn’t quite match the joie-de-vivre of the first overall, but the solos are also pretty good, and the band seems to hit a nice groove behind Coltrane’s solo, a very good one.
The recordings are in mono, but beautifully recorded mono. You hear everything, including the crisp sound of Cobb’s cymbal work, as if you were sitting in the audience. I still don’t know why Sony chose to omit the German and Swiss performances, particularly since the last two of the four CDs run pretty short (the whole set could easily have been fit onto three CDs instead of four), but what you do get is of a very high quality and indispensable to your Davis or Coltrane collections. Since I was forced to review this release via streaming audio and MP3 downloads (what else is new?), I had no access to the booklet, which I am told is very good.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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