This review article by Jack Chambers was published in Coda 272 (March/April 1997), pages 29-31.

Sketches of Miles Davis and Gil Evans

It is May 1957 and the tape is running in Columbia's 30th Street Studio. Gil Evans is rehearsing "Blues for Pablo" [soundbite.aiff 2.3Mb] with the 19-piece orchestra that will play his score behind Miles Davis on the Miles Ahead LP. Something sounds wrong. If you are familiar with the released version, this rendition sounds frivolous. Evans stops them. He calls to the trombonists. "Delay it a little more than you're doing," he says. "Like you're in misery." And when he starts them up again it is suddenly there--the etched blues, the civilized misery that will set off Davis's flugelhorn solo like a gemstone.

That exchange occupies only a few moments of Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia CXK 67397), but it is a moment to savour. And there are many more. The six CDs--bound with 198 pages of text by George Avakian, Bill Kirchner, Bob Belden and Phil Schaap in a hardcover booklet with a brass spine and a slipcase--run seven hours and 20 minutes.

Two of those hours have held a secure place among the treasures of recorded jazz for more than 35 years. The original masters of Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1960) are here in all their glory, their rich textures perhaps never heard better than in these digital remasterings. The most noticeable sound difference from the first vinyl pressings is the dynamic range. Here the double-reeds hum more subtly and the brass ensembles shout more assertively than in the originals.

The first digital remasterings of this music--the original CD versions issued by Columbia in 1987-89--were sometimes shrill in the high registers. The shrillness has been eliminated in the new masterings by Phil Schaap [NOTE: THIS CORRECTS THE ORIGINAL]. The first CD version of Miles Ahead accidentally issued several alternate takes instead of the original LP master. Those alternative takes are here too following the original master takes, and so are the best alternate takes from Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain, available here for the first time. The alternates are intelligently coupled with the original masters on the first three CDs. They thus provide a kind of double-take of the classic LPs. You hear the original music first in its entirety and then the best alternative versions, offering the same music from a different and usually more candid angle. Recording specs are not provided, but to my ears the sound seems as good as it is on super-bit-mapped gold disks. In spite of a warning in the preface about "the original tapes...starting to show their age," the sound is sumptuous.

Obviously, music as good as this flatters the technology. With tubas and oboes, tympani and castanets, quartets of flute-clarinet-french horn-bass trombone in the background or trios of bassoon-bass trombone-string bass playing counter-melodies to the harmon-muted trumpet in the foreground, this music is suffused with range, shadings and contrasts rare in jazz or any other music. The digital technology happens to be adequate to capture what was there from the beginning.

The converse also holds. When the music is bad, the technology doesn't matter. And there is bad music here too. After all these years, it is still hard to believe that Quiet Nights (1962) belongs to the Miles Davis-Gil Evans canon. This is insipid, unfeeling, clichéd music. It was intended to catch the bossa nova wave that Stan Getz was riding. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Davis was back on drugs and Evans was starting his slide into a performing coma that would eventually last almost a decade. The prospect of making a big selling record must have tempted them as much as it did their Columbia bosses. But their hearts were obviously not in it. To Davis and Evans's credit, they abandoned the project. To Columbia's shame, they released it anyway. Davis refused to talk to producer Teo Macero for four years. "He fucked it up," Davis said. Evans just shrugged and said, "It was just half an album." Its brevity is a blessing (about 21 minutes on CD 4, tracks 1-6). Remastered sound cannot raise it from the dead.

We know now, with hindsight, that we were lucky the malaise evident in Quiet Nights did not set in earlier and ruin Sketches of Spain. The first recording sessions for Sketches took place in November 1959, starting with Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)" and almost ending with it. Evans's orchestration proved exceptionally difficult and some of the musicians were grumbling. The producer, Teo Macero, sided with the musicians and nearly fomented a mutiny. For the beleaguered Evans, Davis was no help. He failed to show up for the first session, and he played very little at the second one.

Surprisingly, the only comment about this turmoil in the notes accompanying the music is Phil Schaap's ingenuous observation that "Miles Davis did not approach the recordings of November, 1959 with the same directness and work ethic as on Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess. I do not know the reasons." But the reasons are no secret. Davis had been assaulted by two policemen in front of Birdland in late August. He took ten stitches in his scalp, spent the night in jail, lost his cabaret card, and faced criminal charges. He counter-sued, and in October saw the charges against him dismissed in return for dropping his suit. But the assault became a lifelong obsession. At first, like a trauma victim, he talked incessantly about being persecuted by the police and cheated by the courts. And then he stopped talking. For a time, he also stopped working. The Sketches of Spain sessions were his only studio work for 23 months.

Evans worked on the "Concierto" score that fall pretty much alone. Unlike the two earlier collaborations, Sketches of Spain exists because Gil Evans took charge. He was used to standing his ground when musicians were struggling to master his charts. (Bill Crow said that in the waning days of the Claude Thornhill orchestra, Thornhill used to bring out Evans's arrangements only "when he wanted to punish the orchestra.") So Evans stood his ground now, and the battleground was the longest and probably the most complex score he ever wrote. In the end, the results more than justified his faith in the score, but it was four more months before he returned to the studio to record the rest of the music for Sketches of Spain.

The four versions of the "Concierto" in this boxed set document the studio drama surrounding it neatly, if inadvertently. The earliest take (6, 28), with Davis absent (contra Schaap's note, p. 163), shows the orchestral beauties emerging fitfully from the long, ragged (but spliced) rehearsal run-through. The next version, five days later (3, 9), shows Davis figuring out his solo spots in a complete version (also spliced) with a surprisingly gritty sound in the brass ensembles. Big-band fans might even prefer this version to the glossy, dramatic delicacy of the master take (3, 1) or the alternates (3-10 and 6-29, which together make a complete, but unspliced, take) recorded five days later. Only the master take has ever been heard before.

Evans emerges as the hero not only of the "Concierto" sessions but of all the out-takes, rehearsals, breakdowns and discussions sprinkled through CDs 4, 5 and 6. He is heard cajoling the players, persuading them to alter their intonation, correcting their parts, gently but persistently impressing his vision on them. He is completely in charge, uncowed by the first-call studio musicians around him. His assertiveness will surprise anyone who remembers him best as the benign anarchist at the heart of the Monday Night Orchestra from 1975 until his death in 1988, the only really public phase of his career.

Davis's heroism is quieter, contrary to the myth. When he speaks, it is mainly to the producer and it is unfailingly friendly, especially to Cal Lampley at the Porgy and Bess sessions. In an inspired moment, Davis interrupts his open-horn solo on "I Loves You, Porgy" (6, 24) and announces, "Calvin, I'm gonna play this in a mute....Can I raise this microphone?" Here and elsewhere, we get to see him working his uncharted way through these beautiful settings, seeking the perfect sound, the measured silence, the exact phrase, the truest note. CD 6 includes 11 overdub tracks, sometimes with the prerecorded orchestra on the left channel and Davis alone on the right. The effect is disconcerting on first hearing--after all, it is far removed the way music is meant to be heard--but in the end it seems a brilliant deconstruction of the music. After hearing the overdubs, the old master takes gleam again, much as they did when we first heard them.

The brand-new music is anticlimactic. The long-awaited "Time of the Barracudas" (4, 10), released here for the first time, is music Davis and Evans worked on as incidental music for a play of the same name for several weeks in 1963. They were living at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood during an otherwise unproductive spell for both of them. It was long known that this music was the source for "Barracuda" (aka "General Assembly") and "Hotel Me" (later "Jelly Rolls"), both recorded by Evans a year later on his Individualism LP(Verve ). Here they show up as snippets, and the track turns out to be a minor curiosity--a 12-minute medley of fragments, a mini-soundtrack with no solos.

More interesting is the previously unreleased "Falling Water" (4, 11-14), recorded in New York with a 16-piece orchestra in February 1968. By this time, Davis and Evans had become intrigued by electric instruments and exotic percussion. The four takes of this one tune are surprisingly varied. Clearly, they were experimenting with integrating electronic effects into the underscore. In the years that followed, of course, those effects would become the score rather than the underscore for much of their music.

"Falling Water" was the first session, apparently, of what was long rumoured to be rehearsals for a full-scale new collaboration. Some of that new music was played at a legendary concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, in April, and that concert was rumoured to have been recorded by Columbia. It comes as a bitter disappointment to learn from Bob Belden's notes that neither the Berkeley concert nor any other rehearsal tapes exist in the vaults. Apparently they never did.

So we will have to content ourselves with the music we already knew. In that, there should be no reason for disappointment. The extra hours of music in this box, imperfect though it always is, illuminate the classic recordings beyond our expectations. No matter how familiar the master takes are, we hear things we never heard before. Some of those things are trivial, as when the acute remastering picks up the sound of Davis turning a manuscript page on "The Pan Piper" (3, 3,at 1:42), or catches (as Schaap notes) the sound of him dropping a mute on the floor in the coda of "Springsville" (1, 11). But there is much more.

The breadth of the offerings should shake up our fixed ideas. Here for the first time is the full version of "Saeta" (3, 7) alongside the edited master version (3,4); editing turned the track into Davis's private prayer to the grieving Virgin but Evans's original made the grief communal. Here too is a veritable symposium on Evans's "Gone" from Porgy and Bess; the master (2, 3) stands by any measure as a masterpiece--one of the great jazz recordings of all time--and here it is augmented not only by two alternate takes (2, 14 and 20), less than perfect but still brilliant, but also, as a kind of appendix, by a rehearsal sequence [soundbite.aiff 2.9Mb] (6, 18) and the discussion (6, 20) that preceded the master recording.

Nearly three hours of this music is previously unreleased, and much of it is startling for one reason or another, from Davis's clams (especially embarrassing on the alternative take of the "Concierto" (3, 9, around 4:40) and the opening melody of "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York" (2, 18)) to the sheer drudgery that underlies the inspiration and the shambling that precedes the sudden leaps of genius.

As grateful as we are for what is included, it is impossible to overlook what is missing. The only small-band collaboration in the package is an obscure 1962 session with Bob Dorough (4, 7-9), whose hip singing captured Davis's fancy for a while. But Davis and Evans collaborated on many more small-band sessions and many better ones, notably the brilliant "Round Midnight" in 1956 (an omission noted by Bill Kirchner in his notes), the entire Filles de Kilimanjaro session in 1968, and Star People in 1982. These will eventually be made available as part of Columbia's master plan for six more boxed sets of Davis's music in the next two years, but Evans's role will undoubtedly be underplayed, perhaps even ignored, as it was when these were originally issued.

The packaging is opulent but awkward to use. The cardboard inserts for the CDs are bound into the fancy booklet. They bend reluctantly so that reading the text requires you to press the pages apart as you read to keep them from snapping shut. (The virgin vinyl package from Mosaic Records will presumably avoid this problem in a large-format 12 x 12 booklet; Mosaic Records can be ordered from 31 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut, U.S.A. 06902.)

Quibbling about the packaging and the omissions seems like an act of ingratitude in the light of what this package makes available. All thanks to Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records for alerting the corporate monolith to the legacy it was hoarding in its vaults with the earlier Plugged Nickel box. Now that they are awakened, Columbia have done themselves proud with a high-class production. This boxed set feels good in your hand, looks good on your shelf, sounds brilliant in your ear, and adds lustre to some of the finest recordings ever made.