The tremendous new Columbia box set Miles Davis with John Coltrane -- The Complete Columbia Recordings, quite simply is the compilation of one of the most influential and unique partnerships in jazz history: the stay of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane in Miles Davis's band from 1955 to 1961. But the set is remarkable for more than just the fact that two (and actually more, since alto Cannonball Adderley and pianist Bill Evans also are featured prominently) of jazz's all-time giants are together in one place. The six-disc box is a document of the evolution of Miles's first great quintet (later a sextet with the addition of Adderley in 1958), a group that virtually redefined small-group jazz during its remarkable run. Amazingly the basic form perfected by the group -- a cooler brand of hard bop with an irresistibly swinging pulse -- still is the norm in jazz clubs the world over today, a full 40 years after these recordings were made.
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The Complete Columbia Recordings captures the phenomenal growth of the quintet, from the steaming hard-bop unit that roars through several takes each of "Two Bass Hit," as well as Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha" and "Bye-Bye Blackbird," on into the almost transcendent and telepathic sextet that recorded Kind of Blue in 1959 and the Zenlike simplicity of the two tracks here from 1961, "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Teo." While the growth was partly owing to a change in personnel (beside the addition of Adderley, pianist Red Garland was replaced with Bill Evans and then Wynton Kelly; drummer Philly Joe Jones was replaced by Jimmy Cobb), the evolution of Miles's vision and the change in Coltrane's personal sound had as much to do with it. Comparing the earlier recordings of Coltrane here to the later ones is astonishing. While the group took a yearlong hiatus in 1957, he left for a short stint with Thelonious Monk; when he returned to the Davis quintet in 1958, he had evolved from an impressive postbop tenor player into something else entirely. Compare, for example, the restrained elegance of Coltrane's solos on the versions of "Dear Old Stockholm" and "All of You" from 1956 to the searing torrent of notes he unleashes on the version of "If I Were a Bell" from 1958. In a relatively short period of time, Coltrane had morphed into a focused and searching musician whose individuality was striking even around heavyweights such as Davis, Adderley, and Evans.
The set isn't flawless. Columbia's insistence on chronologically ordering the tracks on each disc will delight the handful of jazz buffs who want to compare all four takes of "Sweet Sue, Just You," one after the other, but is likely to annoy the rest of us, who may not want to listen to the same song four times in a row. The set would have benefited from placing the alternate takes at the end of each disc (as Columbia did with the excellent Duke Ellington reissues it released last year). But with the brilliance and mastery exhibited throughout The Complete Columbia Recordings, that's a pretty trivial quibble. To many the music contained on this set is as far as small-group jazz has ever reached. Pretty far, indeed