My posts last week on Helen Merrill got me thinking about Miles Davis. Like all great jazz musicians, Miles was a fascinating adapter of other artists' playing styles, moods and techniques. His choice of songs, his phrasing and his attack were a synthesis of his own genius and what he enjoyed and thought he could improve upon. The same can be said of the great arranger Gil Evans. [Pictured: Gil Evans and Miles Davis]
The first in a series of large orchestral collaborations between Miles and Gil for Columbia Records was Miles Ahead (Miles Davis +19). It was recorded in 1957—on May 6th, 10th, 23d, 27th and August 22d. For an entire semester in college in the late 1970s, I listened to the LP every afternoon and heard something new each time. Ultimately what I heard were two artists working together and competing for dominance. Gil Evans' arrangements frame Miles beautifully but they also joust with his trumpet. Miles cooperates with Gil's charts, but his horn often lunges at the orchestration, as though on a horse dealing with crowd control.
I used to view Miles Ahead solely as a concept album—a jazz symphony of sorts, with one song or theme handing off to the next. This, of course, remains the case. But Miles Ahead also must be seen as a soundtrack, a scoring, if you will, of Miles' and Gil's favorite jazz compositions and treatments by other artists. This tribute doesn't diminish the album in the least. In fact, in most cases, the Miles Ahead versions elevate the originals to a more textured and dynamic level.
To illustrate my point, here are the inspirational tracks for Miles Ahead and why Miles and Gil were so taken with them:
Springsville. Written by trumpeter Johnny Carisi, this song was first recorded in August 1956 by trombonist Urbie Green on All About Urbie Green and His Orchestra. Urbie's sound here is warm and declarative, with Hal McKusick's clarinet popping through at different points. The clarinet gives Urbie's trombone a bit of a trumpet sound in places. Interestingly, Gil's arrangement is very similar to Carisi's, though Gil took the tune at a slightly faster clip, improving on it considerably. Carisi, of course, was a friend of Gil's and a frequent visitor to the informal music lab Gil held at his apartment in the late 1940s. You'll find this track on a fabulous double-CD set called Urbie Green Big Band: Complete 1956-59 Recordings here.
Maids of Cadiz. Leo Delibes composed this song in the 1880s as a classical piece. During the classical-adaptation period of the big band era (no royalty fees required), Woody Herman fashioned the song for his orchestra in 1939, with Mary Martin on the vocal. But it's Benny Goodman's sextet version of 1947 that left a deeper, more modern impression on Gil and Miles. Vibes on clarinet created a metallic upper-register tone that Miles favored. For Miles Ahead, Gil brilliantly slowed the pace down for dramatic purposes, giving Miles plenty of space. The Goodman version is at iTunes on Benny Goodman 3-4-5-6-7.
The Duke. Pianist Dave Brubeck played the definitive version of his tribute to Duke Ellington on Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool in late 1954. All Gil had to do was flesh out Brubeck's live version at virtually the same tempo. In Miles' concepts we hear shades of Paul Desmond's upper-register playing and the percussive feel of Brubeck's piano. The Brubeck album is available as a download here at Amazon.
My Ship. Jazz historian Bill Kirchner told me in an e-mail over the weekend that John Szwed, in So What, his Miles Davis biography, writes that singer Jeri Southern was an influence on the trumpeter. So it's no surprise that Southern's version of the Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill song in 1956 for Decca is most likely the inspiration for Gil and Miles. The Southern version on When Your Heart's on Fire was arranged by Tutti Camarata for woodwinds and strings, You'll find it here on a two-fer CD or as a download at iTunes on a Southern compilation called The Very Thought of You.
Miles Ahead. This is the only original Gil/Miles composition and one of album's best tracks and orchestrations.
Blues for Pablo. This song was written by Gil Evans and was first recorded in 1956 by a group led by Hal McKusick for his Jazz Workshop album. What's ineresting here is how Miles adapts both Hal's alto and trumpeter Art Farmer's lines to produce a more urgent sound. The two arrangements are almost identical, which should come as little surprise since the arranger on Hal's Jazz Workshop date was none other than Gil Evans. This track isn't available as a download, but it can still be purchased as a CD here.
New Rhumba. Miles loved pianist Ahmad Jamal's chord
choices and airy touch. Miles was particularly taken by Jamal's New Rhumba, which appeared on Chamber Music of the New Jazz album recorded in 1955. Gil simply took Jamal's chord choices and melody line and orchestrated them. As you listen to Jamal's original, you can hear the blueprint for Gil's arrangement. Jamal's album was remastered several years ago and is available at iTunes.
The Meaning of the Blues. Here, Gil and Miles likely turned to Kitty White's February 1956 rendition of the Bobby Troup song off her album Cold Fire, which was arranged by Hal Mooney. Listen as Miles recaptures White's low-register reading. Julie London's famous version on About the Blues was recorded around the same time as Miles Ahead in May 1957 and wouldn't likely have been available to Gil and Miles, unless they heard her perform it at a club. White's version is the more likely model, and it's available at iTunes on a blues compilation called Meaning of the Blues.
Lament. J.J. Johnson's original ballad was first recorded in 1954 on an album by Johnson and Kai Winding for Savoy called Jay & Kai. It's fascinating to hear how the sound of the two trombones tightly scored influenced Gil's arrangement and Miles' mournful execution. Jay & Kai is available at iTunes.
I Don't Wanna be Kissed. This standard by Jack Elliott and Harold Spina also was given an airy jazz piano treatment by Jamal on Chamber Music of the New Jazz. And again, the Miles and Gil's interpretation is a tight rendering of Jamal's original.
JazzWax tracks: If you love Miles Ahead as much as I do, try this: I assembled all of the clips above in one iTunes folder labeled "Miles Ahead: Originals." It makes for fun listening. What did I do for the Miles Ahead track, which has no distant relative? I added Phil Woods' Little Big Band version, off his Evolution album. It came later, of course, but sounds darn good.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip of Gil Evans and Miles Davis playing Dave Brubeck's The Duke. It was recorded for a CBS television special in 1959. Note the names of the musicians on the chalkboard at the start and that Miles is on flugelhorn, which he played on the original recording...