Friday, August 21, 2009

CD Review: Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins

Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins - The Classic Prestige Sessions, 1951-1956 (Prestige/Concord)

It's hard to think of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins as just another couple of guys (cats, as it were) working on finding their own unique voices in a still developing genre of music. But in 1951, that's not too far removed from how they were on the earliest of these recordings.

Continuing to mark the 60th anniversary of Prestige Records, Concord Music - who now owns the label that Bob Weinstock started - has compiled the 25 tracks that these giants-in-the-making recorded together over a period of five years. Granted Davis and Rollins were at the head of their classes on tenor and trumpet, but much of the first disc has a tentative feeling to it.

That's not to say this isn't good listening. John Lewis's "Morpheus" opens things at a clipped tempo with some fast lines not normally heard from Davis. A version of "Conception," with Jackie McLean joining the frontline, updates the sound that originated with the fabled Birth of the Cool sessions. The rest of that session, released on the album Dig, has some fine blowing but not a whole lot of band chemistry. This was McLean's first session and he sounds like an able soloist, but the rhythm section doesn't seem to drive the band. Part of this could be the sound quality itself, which is especially echoey on "Dig," like fake stereo is being used. Beyond that, one of the more remarkable things is the appearance on "Bluing" of Davis' voice, pre-rasp, heard when Art Blakey keeps playing after everyone else has stopped: "Play the endin', man. You know the arrangement." (Dig is probably the only Miles album I bought and later sold when money was tight.)

Disc two is a different story. These sessions later appeared on the albums Collector's Items and Bags' Groove capture Miles and Sonny really digging into the music. The first session includes Charlie Parker (credited as Charlie Chan originally, due to contractual obligations) on second tenor sax, giving Rollins a run for his money. The next includes Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, as well as the debuts of several tunes that have gone on to become stalwarts of jam sessions - and recording sessions - everywhere: "Airegin," "Oleo" and "Doxy," all written by Rollins. Supposedly Sonny just whipped these out for the session, and whether or not that's true, the players respond with the enthusiasm of a group digging into a tune for the first time knowing they're onto something big. The final session includes a Brubeck tune Miles would redo soon after with Coltrane, oddly enough at the same session where the tune caled "Vierd Blues" would be rechristened "Coltrane's Blues."

Ira Gitler provides liner notes that recount the history of these players' affiliation, along with some personal recollections from the sessions. (Gitler wrote liner notes and occasionally acted as something of a producer for Prestige.) The best story comes from the Parker session where Bird was the first to show up for the recording (a rarity, if not a first) and chugged the bottle of gin and Miles nearly walked out after Gitler came down to hard on him.

If you don't already have the two albums on disc two, you ought to go out and by the whole thing.

No comments: