The performances snap and sparkle, the quality of the recording is bright and warm, and the tunes—still leaning on ballads and a few bop standards—sound reinvigorated. Miles’ road-honed band—John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones— is on point, blowing and bouncing off each other: check out the subdued drama and gentle bounce in “Bye Bye Blackbird.” The dark, moody opening of “Dear Old Stockholm” that finally lets the light in at the end of the theme. Or the collective shoulder-rubbing on “Ah-Leu-Cha,” its melodic line played deliciously out-of-sync by Miles and Coltrane.
The saxophonist, for one, earns his first stripes on this album: his growing, bristling poise up front and center. (“Coltrane’s what you hear on that record,” stated Cecil Taylor of his first listening of ‘Round About Midnight.)
This was the hard-hitting, hard bop recording that introduced Miles Davis to a mainstream audience, and introduced Miles to CBS’s cutting-edge, high-ceilinged 30th Street Studio in midtown Manhattan. Whereas his albums for Prestige—especially the last four (Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’) had been primarily first-take, no-rehearsal affairs, Miles’ debut on Columbia resulted from three long sessions, with multiple recordings of carefully selected material. The final release of each tune spliced the better parts of two or more takes.
The standout tune is the title track—the definitive rendition of Thelonious Monk’s composition, featuring the famous interlude (ba-ba-baah, ba-baaahhhh) that led to a charged tenor sax solo and which became the way to play the Monk classic. Miles kept it in play for at least fifteen years, using the opening melodic statement to highlight the hushed sensitivity of his muted trumpet.
One note about the album title, which differs from the tune itself. According to album producer George Avakian:
The word “about” does not appear in the lyric which Bernie Hanighen set to Thelonious Monk’s melody. He wrote the words after the song had already been copyrighted as ‘’Round About Midnight’ (including the apostrophe), and the publisher insisted that I print the album title to conform with the copyright. Many musicians and fans still think it’s an error or an affectation.
Miles officially and publicly became a Columbia artist on March 18, 1957 with the release of ‘Round About Midnight. One could call it the album that helped launch Miles’ sound and his image. The cover photo of Miles chosen by the Columbia staff—hiding behind sunglasses, awash in the reddish, interior light of a late-night club, hands and trumpet up close to his face with fingers over his ears—captured the restraint and introversion that were central to his sonic identity. Stoic yet vulnerable. Tough yet emotional. And always, imperturbably, cool.