Miles Davis and John Coltrane were 29 years old when the first of these tracks were recorded. Davis had been a notable jazz figure since his first recording with Charlie Parker nearly a decade earlier, and an influence at least since the formation of his short-lived Birth of the Cool nonet in 1948. John Coltrane's odyssey in the same period had been little noted, despite impressive names on his resumé such as Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges. If Davis was already a man to watch, Coltrane was "John who?". Yet together they created some of the most important music in jazz history.
The pair began clicking almost immediately when Coltrane called to join the then-new Miles Davis Quintet in 1955. They would continue to do so on record for more than five years. Most of their documented collaborations are contained in the six-disc Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961. This collection represents an overview of these essential encounters.
"Two Bass Hit" (26 October 1955) was the first track recorded on the original quintet's first visit to a recording studio, and also features pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The Dizzy Gillespie/John Lewis bebop classic gave Coltrane his first real opportunity to stretch out on tape. He begins with a quote from Gillespie's solo on the classic 1947 recording, then quickly shows his commitment to more personal and explaratory ideas. Jones' drums are also in the spotlight, igniting the entire performance.
"Dear Old Stockholm" (5 June 1956) and the next two tracks were part of Davis' first Columbia album, 'Round About Midnight. Originally a Swedish folk song called "Ack, Varmeland du Skona", Stockholm had been recorded by Stan Getz during a Scandinavian tour in 1951, then covered by Davis a year later in an arrangement that included the dramatic harmonic suspensions heard here. The rhythm section explodes at Coltrane's entrance, then downshifts for Davis' moodier inventions. The air of drama that characterizes so much of the quintet's music is present from beginning to end.
"Bye Bye Blackbird" (5 June 1956) was the kind of old pop tune that Davis loved to recast. He makes use of the expanded playing time available on the then-new 12" LP by stretching out while still retaining an overall focus. The track also features a major early solo from Coltrane and Garland's affirmative groove.
"'Round Midnight" (10 September 1956) is now as closely identified with Davis as with its composer, Thelonious Monk. It had brought new attention to the trumpeter when he played the ballad in an all-star jamsession at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, though even that reading pales next to this classic studio take. Every member of the quintet makes a critical contribution to the arrangement, which has been credited to Gil Evans, and Davis' muted sound is at its most penetrating. Coltrane's brilliant solo drew many listeners to the saxophonist, in the same way that the earlier Newport performance had inspired a reconsideration of Davis.
"Straight, No Chaser" (4 February 1958) and the next two track come from one of the two sessions that produced the album Milestones. Davis had broken up and reformed his band in the intervening months, making it a sextet with the addition of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. This version of Monk's blues is an alternate take that made its first appearance in the boxed set. It features a beautifully relaxed statement by the leader, while Garland's choruses include snippets of the solo a 19-year old Davis played on Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" -a solo that Garland quotes in its entirety on the master take.
"Milestones" was cited by Davis in his autobiography as, "Where I really started to write in the modal form". This reduction of harmonic motion by employing a scale rather than more frequently shifting chords liberates the soloists, and leads them each on highly personal paths. Note the contrast between the complex lines of the saxophonists and the distilled lyricism of the leader.
The next two tracks (recorded 2 March 1959) are taken from Kind of Blue, an album beloved as any in jazz history. It was planned around the participation of pianist Bill Evans, who had worked with Davis though much of 1958 and would soon launch his own influential trio (Jimmy Cobb had also replaced Jones on drums). Each of the album's five performances was based on brief sketches that the musicians saw in the recording studio for the first time. "So What" is simply two modes organized in the form of a typical popular song, a sequence that became the "I Got Rhythm" of modal jazz. The piano/bass introduction is another contribution of arranger Gil Evans, and each soloist confronts the challenge of blowing over the skeletal form brilliantly.
Adderley is not heard on "Blue In Green". Bill Evans claimed to have written the piece after Davis gave him some manuscript paper that contained only two chord symbols, G-minor and A-augmented. What resulted was a unique structure that the pianist described as "a ten-measure circular form". The eloquence of Evans, Coltrane and especially Davis yields one of the most beautiful performances in all music.
Coltrane formed his own quartet in 1960, but returned as a guest in the following year to record "Some Day My Prince Will Come" (20 March 1961) with a Davis unit that now included Hank Mobley on tenor sax and Wynton Kelly on piano. The performance finds the trumpeter sustaining the yearning quality at the heart of the tune, even as Kelly's solos and support impart an elfin twinkle. Coltrane, who takes the second tenor solo, had not played the piece before, and improvised while reading the chord changes off to a sheet of paper. His opening phrase provided Chick Corea with the thematic seed for the release of "La Fiesta".
Other tracks arguably might have been included in the set, such as "All of You", the master take of "Straight, No Chaser", "On Green Dolphin Set", "Stella By Starlight", All Blues", and "Teo". Such differences of opinion are, as the saying goes, what make horse racing. What Miles Davis and John Coltrane made together was immortal music, and nine of the absolutely best examples are right here.