The Odd Couple
The collaborations between trumpeter Miles Davis -- one of the most restless (and brilliant) figures in the history of jazz -- and Gil Evans, a composer/arranger/pianist who was attracted equally to innovation and traditionalism, have spawned plenty of arguments among critics over the years. There's no question that the three albums forming the core of the Davis/Evans legend -- Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960) -- have a striking sound that's never been duplicated. But commentators differ on whether the discs represented for Davis a musical leap forward, an intriguing creative tangent, or an overrated bow to that very sort of finicky high art to which jazz once served as an alternative. And while music has no hue, the pigmentation of these two artists has colored the discussions of their work together. Many Davis disciples suggest that Evans's mission was to make Miles more "acceptable" to those sophisticated Caucasians who by the late Fifties represented a sizable percentage of the jazz audience. While he by and large succeeded, he also bleached the messiest but most intriguing elements from Davis's sound. Succinctly put, devotees feel that the music Davis made with Evans is too damn white.
The recent release of Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, a lavish six-CD boxed set issued on Legacy/Columbia, is unlikely to resolve critical disagreements. It certainly provides all sides with evidence to support their cases. The first disc presents Miles Ahead in a newly constructed, full-stereo version supplemented by rare alternative takes. Disc Two pairs the original Porgy and Bess release with different run-throughs of the same material, presented in the order that the compositions appeared in George Gershwin's opera. Disc Three features Sketches of Spain plus a couple of extra numbers. Disc Four includes Quiet Nights (the least ballyhooed of the Davis/Evans albums), some seldom-heard sextet tapes, unreleased material Davis wrote for a play by Peter Barnes, and more Miles Ahead remainders. Five and Six delve even deeper into Miles Ahead, compiling studio chatter, aborted takes, and related ephemera. The sixth disc also contains rehearsal recordings, along with more unused bits and pieces from the Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain sessions. These CDs are encased in a booklike package complete with gorgeous graphics, a sweeping discography, and essays by, among others, Quincy Jones. Simply to hold it in one's hand is to feel extravagant -- which, for an item that retails for around $100, is precisely the idea.
Listenability isn't the primary focus of the last two discs. Executive producer Michael Cuscuna (from Mosaic Productions), reissue producers Phil Schapp and Bob Belden, and their assorted minions seemingly view the project's last third as a valentine to completists -- those Davis/Evans buffs desperate to own every single note played by the artists while in each other's company. More casual enthusiasts will find much to admire among the unearthed obscurities -- for example, snippets of Davis's conversations showing that his voice was gruff and gravelly throughout his life, not just at the end. But neither casual nor more obsessive fans are apt to spend as much time with this material as they will with Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain, remastered with a care and precision that accentuates their richness and complexity.
This opportunity to more effectively unravel the enigmas of this music may well lead a great many students of jazz to decide that the recordings represent Davis's artistic peak -- an extremely dubious conclusion. In this fan's view, 1959's Kind of Blue, 1969's In a Silent Way, and 1970's Jack Johnson are Miles's greatest achievements, with a number of other long-players (Milestones, Sorcerer, and Bitches Brew) close behind. But that's not to say that the bulk of The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings is dispensable. Far from it: The music demonstrates Davis's versatility and the radiance of his timbre. Moreover, the clarity of the discs makes plain an often overlooked aspect of the Davis/Evans efforts: tension. While Davis was in some ways as analytical as Evans, he never shied away from spontaneity, a tool that the tightly structured, heavily arranged backdrops Evans constructed prevented him from using as he might have otherwise. The setting calls for Davis to be at his sharpest, and he is. But the moments when he's most obviously chafing at his restrictions are often the most interesting ones here.
For self-evident reasons, Miles Ahead is the loosest volume in the Davis/Evans canon. While a few of the tunes might be considered tony --particularly "The Maids of Cadiz," which prefigures Sketches of Spain by several years, and "My Ship," a piece by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill -- the majority were originally written for jazz or pop fanciers: Bobby Troup's "The Meaning of the Blues," J.J. Johnson's "Lament," Dave Brubeck's "The Duke." What distinguishes them from other Davis performances is the size of the ensembles backing him; the groups massed by Evans are often nearly twenty members strong and include instruments such as oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, and tuba. These arsenals are Evans creations, and he deserves credit for assembling them at a time in jazz history when so-called big bands were viewed by shortsighted beboppers as hopelessly passe. Evans, through his arrangements and the tastefulness of his recording techniques, came up with a distinctive sound for these oversized combos -- one that owed a great deal to Duke Ellington but was notably creamier. Even the brass stings on "New Rhumba" seem somewhat reserved by comparison with those of, say, the average Count Basie recording.
Davis plays a flYgelhorn on much of Miles Ahead, which makes sense given the particulars of Evans's construct: It's not as brassy or as blaring as the trumpet, and it gives a smoother sound when a player as adept as Davis slides from one note to another. To prevent the other musicians from upstaging Davis when he's using this instrument, Evans mikes them in a manner that seems to mute the entire orchestra. The result is subtle and distinguished; it's as if Davis and Evans are holding themselves beyond and above their audience. This strategy tends to modulate musical highs and lows, but Evans gains an air that goes beyond the cool, West Coast feel then identified with players such as Gerry Mulligan. Instead, it hints at a jazz-classical fusion upon which Porgy and Bess would soon expand.
There's both irony and appropriateness in the decision of Evans and Davis to tackle Porgy. Gershwin wrote it in part to earn the respect he felt he wasn't receiving for his Broadway scores and hits of the day. Hence, it's entertainment that has a certain amount of affectation built right in, making it perfect fodder for Evans. And the songs themselves, although jazzed up by Evans's arrangements, are at base a compromise between operatic and popular elements. This forces Davis to spend more time than usual sticking close to the melodic lines of numbers such as "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." It takes great discipline for born improvisers to rein themselves in for the good of a piece, but Davis does it consistently, transforming the energy he'd normally expend moving in surprising directions into melancholy and passion. When a note splatters and breaks, as one does in the introductory passage of "Gone, Gone, Gone," it seems to do so because it's too gorgeous to remain whole.
This observation also applies to Sketches of Spain, arguably the best album to come out of the Davis/Evans partnership. As with Porgy, the concept itself is nothing if not highfalutin; although there are indigenous Spanish melodies aplenty in this blend of light classical and folk tunes, it's hardly bullfighting music. As Davis made clear in numerous interviews, the melodies he was given were probably the most challenging and difficult of his career. But rather than playing everything in the impeccably round tones that a classically trained instrumentalist would likely favor, he uses technical imperfections to infuse tracks such as "Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)" with heartbreaking emotionality.
Of course, Sketches is a constricted masterpiece. One listens hoping that Davis will be allowed to bust out -- to cut through all the caution like the creative bomb thrower he was. That he never does so bespeaks the limitations placed on him throughout the work gathered on The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings. But all these years later, the fruits of his creative frustration are still beautiful.
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