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The making of a legend

The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions
The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions
By The Miles Davis Quintet

Prestige / Concord Records: 2006

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This review first appeared in Turbula in July 2006.

Miles Davis is one of those legendary figures in jazz whose celebrity can make it difficult to simply appreciate the music that led to his fame in the first place. A new four-disc box set from Concord of his groundbreaking 1955 studio work with his then-new quintet serves as a nice reminder of how and why Miles became a one-name jazz deity.

Miles was already an established star before these 1955 and '56 quintet sessions were laid down; he also recorded an album for Columbia with the same lineup during the same period (a not-uncommon occurence in jazz, where artists often had multiple recording contracts at any one time). The quintet can now be seen to be the first of Miles' combos to go on and become all-stars in their own right, with a just-emerging John Coltrane on tenor sax, a then-unknown Red Garland on piano, and a rhythm section of Philly Joe Jones (drums) and Paul Chambers (bass).

Still, nostalgia or a "look what they became" attitude isn't enough to explain the exalted status this band, these recordings have among jazzsters.

It's the music.

The songs on this set, presented in chronological order from the three sessions that produced them (and the six original LPs that came out of them), are the genesis of modern straight-ahead jazz. Not the hard bop with which Miles first earned his rep backing Charlie Parker, nor the cool that made him an established star.

This was the music that would replace big band swing as the flagship of jazz; it is the sound of modern jazz. It's a fat, sophisticated sound – classy and elegant, as uptown as a symphony, yet with a panache classical music can't touch.

And what this collection illustrates is that the reason that blueprint remains in force today, that the music on these discs still sound so fresh, so modern 50 years later is that Miles had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish musically and selected musicians who could help him realize it.

The collection is beautifully illustrated, amply annotated, and the recording quality is such as to make the sessions sound as if they were laid down in 2005, not a half-century ago.