CD Review: Miles Davis Quintet - Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series Volume 31

Miles Davis Quintet- Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series Volume 31
(TCB 02312. CD Review by Chris Parker)


Olivier Senn, in his liner notes for this live recording (Zurich, 8 April 1960), goes straight to the heart of the matter: ‘There were strong centrifugal forces at work within the Miles Davis Quintet when it toured Europe in spring 1960’, pointing out that the great trumpeter’s response to modal jazz (the liberation of soloists from ‘the constraints of dense bebop harmony’) was profoundly different from that of his star soloist, John Coltrane, and that the resultant contrast ‘fills the performance with an intensity that, for many contemporary listeners, was difficult to bear’.

Such tensions are apparent in the quintet’s first number, ‘If I Were a Bell’, which, while it leads Davis to ‘pursue a more minimal style’, sees Coltrane (after a concentration on a repeated phrase that is almost painful for the intensity of its questing self-absorption) immersing himself in the tumultuous ‘sheets of sound’ approach that he was to pioneer so memorably in his subsequent career as a leader.

It is the late Richard Cook, however, who most succinctly describes the effect on listeners of this group tension: ‘The playing of the two lead voices would be close to exhausting … if it weren’t for [pianist] Wynton Kelly, [bassist] Paul Chambers and [drummer] Jimmy Cobb. Kelly’s ability to come up with a long drink of water after the wood alcohol of Coltrane is miraculous on number after number, and he does it without greatly depressurising the music or taking any turns towards the trivial.’ As Cook also points out, the rhythm section concentrates throughout on making the music swing in the conventional manner, whether they’re playing the aforementioned standard, with its relatively tricky changes, or the overtly modal Kind of Blue material that follows: ‘So What’ and
‘All Blues’.

Coltrane’s solo on the former in Zurich (Cook is talking about the Stockholm leg of this JATP tour) is possibly the highlight of the whole hour’s music – slow-building, intense, at times positively incandescent – providing an intriguing (if often unsettling) contrast with Davis’s spearing, spare approach which, at times, as with Coltrane, sees him paint himself into a corner, repeating a single, harsh note in an almost anguished crying tone.

This recording (appearing officially for the first time) therefore provides an intriguing snapshot of a band ‘on the edge’, not only embodying all the musical contradictions of the contemporary bop/modal transition, but also playing out the more personal, emotional differences between two of post-war jazz’s most influential figures.

Not easy listening by any means, but irresistibly compelling throughout.

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