By James Hale
Miles Davis & Gil Evans
The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings
Columbia Legacy 67397Copyright © 1997, James Hale
The music at the core of the six-CD Davis/Evans compilation - gorgeously remastered issues of Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain - stands as an exemplar of all that is good about jazz. It is a model of cultural cross-pollination, innovation and communication, capturing two of music's most distinctive artists at the peak of their powers. That the rest of the box, which spans almost 11 years, pales by comparison is no crime. It's like saying that Picasso's sketch books don't measure up to Guernica. There are signs of genius, but the scale of the work and the artists' commitment to it are radically different.
Much has been made of the unlikely pairing of Davis - the aristocratic, black, intense, Midwest American - and Evans - the working-class, white, laconic, Canadian. Their friendship itself is not unusual; after all, Davis befriended numerous people who did not share his background. It is their working relationship, which is evident throughout the seven-plus hours of music and studio discussions presented here, that is unique.
Time and time again, one is struck by the trust Davis placed in Evans. Layering his horn over Evans' complex arrangements, the trumpeter conjurs the image of someone falling backwards into the arms of a friend, confident in the knowledge that he will be caught and cradled. In his friend's presence, Davis could relax like he could in few other settings. Without the responsibility of holding the reins of wild horses like John Coltrane or Philly Joe Jones, Davis could let his gentler side come to the surface. And surface it does. Years later, when Quincy Jones contacted Davis about revisiting Evans' arrangements, Davis called this "expensive" music. It's clear that he wasn't talking about monetary value or the time it would take to perfect it. In his coded speech, he was acknowledging how much of himself he poured into a performance like Summertime - where he betrays a range of emotions, allowing the listener to look down the bell of his trumpet and see into his soul.
What, at a time when he was perfecting his taciturn act, was worth this emotional price for Davis? Obviously, he knew how good he sounded against the web of Evans' arrangements. Listening to the playback of Dave Brubeck's The Duke - hearing his trumpet loping through the melody line against the counterpoint of Bill Barber's tuba and Paul Chambers' sauntering bass - he must have realized he had found heaven.
For Evans, the rewards were even sweeter. In many instances here - especially in the rehearsal tracks on discs five and six - his thorough confidence in his opinions show how much this music, and the opportunity to record it with such crack musicians, meant to him. In retrospect, it's easy to forget how underworked Evans was in the years between the commercially unsuccessful Birth of the Cool project in 1948 and the first sessions for Miles Ahead in May, 1957. One can only imagine how much producer George Avakian's acceptance of Evans' terms for the first Davis/Evans project meant to the arranger. Having Davis to write for, and the financial clout to make the project happen, inspired Evans to do his best work, and to ensure that he got the best from the musicians he had picked for his orchestra. He worked hard in preparation, and he worked his musicians hard, until, as he put it, "the band had the idiom under its fingers."
Columbia's support (even after the departure of Avakian) and the success of Miles Ahead encouraged both Evans and Davis to stretch the limits. Both men had the vision to see beyond the accepted horizons of jazz to use Davis' trumpet as a singing voice on Porgy and Bess, and to adapt Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez as a vehicle for Davis.
As fine as the first two collaborations are, it is Sketches of Spain that illuminates the genius of Davis and Evans and the frisson produced by their relationship. What did they see in Rodrigo's 30-year-old composition that no one else had? Their transformation of the piece is outrageous - the orchestration so texturally rich that it would sound bloated and bombastic in the hands of lesser musicians; in the hands of musicians who had not scaled the heights reached in Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess.
The working tapes supplied here demonstrate how much concentrated effort was required to make Sketches of Spain sound as majestic and powerful as it does. And there are surprises, too, such as the beautiful coda that was inexplicably edited out of the master version of Saeta.
Unfortunately, there are few other unearthed gems to rival that lost coda. Most of the unissued and alternate takes from the three masterpieces offer insights probably too arcane for the average listener, although there are interesting oddities, such as Davis' unaccompanied overdub solo for Miles Ahead. In general, though, disc six offers little beyond a view into the tedium of the recording process. As Davis' longtime producer Teo Macero disdainfully puts it: "This is music for archivists."
As for the sessions that became the aborted album, Quiet Nights, the music for the play The Time of the Barracudas, and the various takes of Falling Water, while there are flashes of brilliance, it's evident that Davis and Evans did not apply the same level of concentration to the recordings. Of these, Falling Water holds the most promise. It suggests what Evans brought - behind the scenes for the most part - to Davis' electric music of the late '60s. But, it stands as little more than a sketch of a complete suite, with Davis' playing faltering just as the 16 backing musicians begin to grasp the complexities of the arrangement. In many ways, Falling Water is a working out of ideas each would follow separately - Davis learning how to shape his sound to a more abstract setting than he had used in his own group; Evans discovering how to work electric instruments into his orchestrations.
But, by 1968, Davis was moving away from the hard work inherent in Evans' method of creating a sound, and towards Macero's technical fixes. Rather than rehearsing hard - getting the idiom under his fingers - Davis was increasingly content to leave it to Macero to find suitable takes by splicing together rambling studio jams. By adopting the recording methods pioneered by rock bands, Macero made it possible for Davis to create bits of studio wizardry like Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and On The Corner - performances that were all but impossible to re-create live.
There is no little irony in the fact that the same technology that allowed Davis to slip Evans' grasp without crashing to the floor is responsible for the crowning achievement of this box set: Phil Schaap's painstaking resurrection of Miles Ahead from several sources. The landmark recordings of Davis and Evans have never sounded so good.
James Hale has written and lectured about jazz in his native Ottawa, Canada, since 1977. A former radio host and head of an international jazz festival, he is now a regular contributor to Down Beat, Coda and The Jazz Report. His work has also appeared in Pulse! and Rhythm Music. He is also jazz critic for The Ottawa Citizen.