Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins recorded upward of 25 tracks together for Prestige between 1951 and 1956. These are stunning summits for variety of reasons: The recordings reflect what was happening in jazz at the highest level between the bop and hard bop periods. They provide us with a sense of what might have been had Sonny agreed to join Miles' first quintet instead of John Coltrane (who was Miles' alternate choice). The recordings begin at the dawn of the 10-inch LP, which gave these artists more room to solo. And they included a range of important musicians in interesting settings—from Charlie Parker and Art Blakey to Horace Silver and Roy Haynes.
These recordings have been around for years in one form or another. Now Concord Records' producer Nick Phillips has finally united them all on a two-CD remastered set called Miles Davis/Sonny Rollins: The Classic Prestige Sessions, 1951-1956. To hear Miles and Sonny join forces on 25 tracks reminds you yet again how strong these two sounded together and how remarkable they were as soloists so early in their lengthy careers.
And if we're being completely fair, a third person's name could easily
have been added to the CD's title: Ira Gitler. Ira produced the early
Prestige sessions, came up with the names of a number of track
titles (Morpheus, Down, I Know and Denial) and played a
strong role in the direction many of these recordings. So it's
especially gratifying that the liner notes were written by Ira. Who
better to write about these critical dates? [Photo of Ira by Michael
I ordinarily wouldn't make such a fuss over liner notes, but
these are positively breathtaking. The notes not only are analytical but
they're also up close and personal. Ira was there, not as an editor or
writer chasing after jazz musicians but as the producer of many early Prestige sessions. He was
responsible for providing Miles, Sonny and Charlie Parker with
direction on these dates and playing traffic cop when musicians weren't focusing.
Ira's recollections and eye for detail not only fill in many blanks about these dates but
also take you behind the scenes and provide eyewitness explanations for what
you hear on the recordings. You learn about the elbow nudges, who was
late, who didn't show up and the way in which Charlie Parker taunted Miles Davis. Hint: Lily Pons plays a role.
Ira turns up at every corner, like Woody Allen's Zelig. For example;
Here's Ira on Charlie Parker at the January 1953 "Collectors' Items" session with Miles and Sonny:
"I ordered a fifth of Gordon's Gin and 12 bottles of beer to be
shared among the six musicians and myself. I could not have predicted
that Parker, even given his reputation as a prodigious consumer of various potions and
substances, who most of the time, was capable of performing at a high
(no pun intended) level, would do what he did. Bird appropriated the
Gordon's and in two chug-a-lugs left the bottle virtually empty. No
chaser." [Photo of Charlie Parker by Esther Bubley]
Here's Ira on Miles:
"Miles was cracking notes and there were more stoppages [in the studio]. This was long before I would become a hockey coach, but I left the control room with an intuitive attempt to motivate Miles. I announced, 'Man, you ain't playing shit.'
"Almost immediately he began to pack up his trumpet in making preparations to leave... Miles is quoted to the effect that Bird talked him out of leaving but it was really yours truly, afraid that my job would leave with him. In retrospect, I think he was bluffing."
This is only a sampling of the dramatic anecdotes Ira delivers across 11 pages of notes. You'll learn what Sonny did in the studio in October 1951 when his horn was giving him trouble. Or what happened when Ira walked Parker from Prestige's studios on 10th Avenue to the Colony Record Shop on 8th Avenue to cash an advance check.
In fact, 'Round Midnight from the Miles-Parker-Sonny date was Ira's idea when the group struggled with Thelonious Monk's Well You Needn't. With Miles' chops wearing thin and the clock nearing closing time, Ira made the substitution to fill out the date and come in under the wire before the engineer shut down the studio for the night. The impromptu version remains one of the most astonishing versions of Monk's ballad.
Even if you already own these tracks on different CDs, it's worth buying the CD just for Ira's notes. One beef, however. The CD's package designer jumped track here, as many designers do when not carefully tasked or restrained. The black type is sitting on a dark kidney-bean background, making them very difficult to read. I actually had to take the notes out into the sunlight to read them.
Memo to jazz record companies: You're in the publishing business now. One of the only reasons to buy music in the CD format today is for the liner notes. Hence, notes must, must, must be legible. As someone who has managed designers for years, I always spend quality time outlining what I want and what my designers can and can't do in terms of the finished product. When needs are specified, a good designer will almost always come back with a great look that enhances rather than buries the written word.
JazzWax tracks: Miles Davis/Sonny Rollins: The Classic Prestige Sessions, 1951-1956 can be found here. Listen to Sonny, Bird and Miles on Compulsion in January 1953. Or Miles and Sonny on Oleo from June 1954. Absolutely amazing. You'll find the new two-CD set here.