Why does it always seem that the best jazz recordings are impossible to find? And is that necessarily a bad thing—since tracking down the CDs or LPs you want most and landing them at a reasonable price brings enormous joy and satisfaction?
I had one of those moments a few weeks ago after hunting for about a year and a half for two rare Miles Davis CDs. More on them in a minute.
Spring of 1960 was a major turning point for the Miles Davis Quintet. Seven months after the release of Kind of Blue in August 1959 and just days after Miles recorded Sketches of Spain on March 10 and 11, 1960, the quintet departed for a breakneck tour of Europe.
Tensions ran high even before the quintet left, and major changes would take place upon the group's return, including the departure of John Coltrane.
The group's first European stop was the Paris Olympia, for a concert on March 21. The event was recorded as a bootleg and issued on two CDs in 1999 by Trema Records, a French Sony subsidiary.
In my opinion, these two CDs are the single best recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet. I even like them better than Kind of Blue, which, of course, included Cannonball Adderley.
The personnel playing in Paris on March 21 featured Davis on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The playlist consisted of All of You, So What, On Green Dolphin Street, Walkin', Bye Bye Blackbird, Round About Midnight, Oleo and The Theme.
What makes these recordings so special is that you can hear Coltrane starting to break away musically, taking extended "sheets of sound" solos on Miles Davis Quintet standards. Whistles of admiration and encouragement go up from the audience during Coltrane's solos, and you get the sense from Miles' playing that he was being topped and wasn't quite sure how to respond musically.
A little background from Miles: The Autobiography, with Quincy Troupe (1989):
"Trane didn't want to make the European trip and was ready to move out before we left. One night I got a telephone call from the new tenor on the scene named Wayne Shorter, telling me that Trane told him that I needed a tenor saxophonist and that Trane was recommending him. I was shocked. I started to just hang up and then I said something like, 'If I need a saxophone player I'll get one!' And then I hung up. BLAM!
So when I saw Trane I told him, 'Don't be telling nobody to call me like that, and if you want to quit, then just quit, but why don't you do it after we get back from Europe?'
If he had quit right then he would have really hung me up because nobody else knew the songs, and this tour was real important. He decided to go with us, but he grumped and complained and sat by himself all the time we were over there. He gave me notice that he would be leaving the group when we got home.
But before he quit, I gave him that soprano saxophone I talked about earlier and he started playing it. I could already hear the effect it would have on his tenor playing, how it would revolutionize it.
I always joked with him that if he had stayed home and not come with us on this trip, he wouldn't have gotten than soprano saxophone, so he was in debt to me for as long as he lived. Man, he used to laugh until he cried about that, and then I would say, 'Trane, I'm serious.' And he'd hug me real hard and just keep saying, 'Miles, you're right about that...' Right after we got back to the States in May, Trane quit the band."
Few recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet touring that spring were made. Recordings of the Stockholm and Copenhagen concerts are still available on CD, but they aren't nearly as rich with energy or experimentation.
When the two CDs of the Paris Olympia date appeared in 1999, I stupidly neglected to pick them up. Then I heard So What from the Paris concert on the radio in 2001 and rushed out to Tower Records to buy them.
You slow, you blow. The discs were gone and would not appear in stores again. In subsequent years, each time I searched online for the CDs, they'd pop up—for about $70 apiece. Yikes—even I have limits.
Then about a year ago, I went onto eBay, typed in the French titles—Miles Davis, Olympia, 20 Mars 1960, Part 1 and Part 2, and instructed the site to email me whenever they came up for auction. [While the albums peg the concert to March 20, the group's itinerary says it was March 21.]
Four weeks ago I received an eBay email. The CDs—both of them—were up for auction, and the starting bid for each was a stunning $9.99. So I typed in $20 max for each and hoped for the best. Long story short, I was the only bidder and won them both for a total of $20. Such good fortune happens, but not often.
After to listening to the treasured CDs over the past two weeks, I can say without hesitation that these albums are absolutely superb.
Coltrane is between styles—with one musical leg firmly in the Kind of Blue school and the other exploring an experimental sound. Coltrane would, of course, exploit that sound more fully just three months later in June 1960 with trumpeter Don Cherry during the recording of The Avant-Garde for Atlantic Records.
Coltrane's solos on each track of the Paris concert pushes the group into new territory and keeps the other musicians off guard just enough to make their solos that much more interesting. After hearing the group's live recordings from other concerts during that spring tour, I don't think that any of them has the same magic or heat generated in Paris on March 21.
For those blog readers who love details, here's the Miles Davis Quintet's grueling itinerary during the spring 1960 tour of Europe:
March 21: Paris, Olympia Theatre
March 22: Stockholm Konserthuset (two concerts)
March 24: Tivoli Konsertsal, Copenhagen
March 25: Niedersachsenhalle, Hannover
March 26: Weser-Ems-Halle, Oldenburg
March 27: Sportpalast, Berlin
March 28: Unknown venue, Bremen
March 29: Musikhalle, Hamburg
March 30: Kongresshalle, Frankfurt
March 31: Teatro dell'Arte, Milan
April 1: Rheinhalle, Dusseldorf (Davis out)
April 2: Messehalle, Köln
April 3: Deutsches Museum, Munich (two concerts)
April 4: Stadthalle, Karlsruhe
April 5: Donauhalle, Ulm
April 6: Stadthalle, Vienna
April 7: Messehalle, Nürnberg
April 8: Kongresshaus, Zürich
April 9 (8:15 pm): Kurhaus, Scheveningen
April 9 (midnight): Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
April 10: Liederhalle, Stuttgart (two concerts)
JazzWax tracks: If you want the Paris CDs, I recommend going onto eBay and doing what I did—having the site tell you when they are put up for auction.
With any luck, a seller who doesn't know better will put them up for a low opening bid, and you'll have a shot at running away with what I believe are the paramount recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet.
JazzWax videoclips: For a sense of how great the Miles Davis Quintet was in its twilight days, go here. It's a clip of John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb playing On Green Dolphin Street—without Miles—on April 1, 1960 in Dusseldorf. Miles may have been ill that night—or just fed up.
The clip is out of sync with the music, but it almost doesn't matter. To get a sense of what the March 21 Paris date sounds like, add Miles and imagine the playing and ideas are even better, if that's possible.