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The Miles Davis Quintet of 1955-’57 was a phenomenon that left many jaws dropping. Their magic and in-the-fast-lane fluidity was best caught onstage, in a live context. One who witnessed the ascent of the group was the normally staid music journalist Ralph Gleason, who later wrote:
I heard this band many nights at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, for which I am grateful…they wailed. And they didn’t need to warm up…the sheer intensity of it was thrilling. Fast or slow, they made every bar sound like it had been born in an atom-splitting burst of energy.
The quintet was a phenomenon. At their exuberant, full-throttle best, the group simply had so much to offer: Coltrane’s raw, edgy – at times endless – tenor improvisations. Garland’s fiery, left-hand chording. Philly Joe’s exciting cymbal work and propulsive rim shots. Miles’ subdued, muted trumpet. Chambers’ adept and soulful bowed solos. Years after the quintet’s debut, jazz writers were exhilarated by their interactivity. “The intricacy of the linkage between the minds of these musicians has never been equaled in any group, in my opinion,” wrote Gleason. Prestige president Bob Weinstock lauded them “the Louis Armstrong Hot Five of the modern era.”
In 1956, when Columbia Records wanted to sign Miles away from Prestige, he still had significant time on his 3-year contract. As Columbia’s George Avakian remembered, Miles brainstormed a win-win situation that made both labels happy:
Miles got a crazy idea and it worked. He said “Tell Bob Weinstock you’d like to record me, and you won’t put the masters out until the end of my [Prestige] contract, which would be about two years hence. Meanwhile they can stockpile albums, and when Columbia comes out with my first album, you’re going to advertise it and promote it, right?” I said, “Sure we will.” “So Prestige will get the benefit of that . . .”
Stockpile is exactly what Prestige did: in 1956, over two marathon sessions, Miles and his Quintet performed four album’s worth of tunes, most of them from their well-rehearsed live set-list of jazz standards, with no retakes. To this day, the gerund-themed quartet of Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’— define a high-water mark for small group jazz improvisation.
The tunes are also telling of the group’s distinctive strengths: their cohesive swing — and Coltrane’s growing confidence – on burners like “Salt Peanuts,” “I Could Write A Book,” Rollins’ “Oleo,” and Miles’ “Tune Up.” Their penchant for brisk, mid-tempo numbers that closely followed Ahmad Jamal’s interpretations of “If I Were A Bell” and “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” Their ability to re-imagine certain structures, like Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” making them their own. The pretty songs: Miles alone with the rhythm section, Coltrane laying out as he often did on the trumpeter’s ballad features. Miles’ performances of “My Funny Valentine” and “It Never Entered My Mind” proved career-launching and revealed the inner sensitivity he spent a lifetime masking with a street-tough exterior.