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Miles Davis Quintet: ‘Round About Midnight

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006 by Martin Hester

The Miles Davis Quintet: ‘Round about Midnight
Recorded 1955/56.
Columbia Legacy Edition. Remastered and re-released 2001

In the burning warmth of the Rio de Janeiro summer, nothing better than a little coolth – and here we have it, cool jazz from the man who originated the style: Miles Davis. The title track ‘Round Midnight is a tune by Thelonious Monk, and is here played by Miles using a muted trumpet, which produces a sad haunting sound. Indeed, solitude, disappointment, withdrawal are the words one would use to describe this piece. Apart from the sound of the trumpet, the chords from the piano are dissonant, bittersweet, and the rhythm from bass and drums discreet. After the trumpet solo and a short bridge passage – which sounds like a cry of defiance – there enters the big-toned tenor sax of John Coltrane, wailing, producing another set of very creative variations around the original 16-bar chord sequence. But somehow this track stays with you, a musical expression of loneliness….. and about as distant sentimentally from Rio’s summer beaches as you could imagine!

The Musician
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in 1926 into a middle-class black family, and grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. He didn’t start to study the trumpet seriously until he was 13, but in his teens he was good enough to sit in with some of the touring jazz bands which came to St. Louis. In 1944 he went on a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but devoted most of his energies to getting to play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who at that time were re-writing the language of jazz. The new style, called bebop, was still constructed by solos above a repeating sequence of chords, but Charlie Parker on alto saxophone started playing very fast runs, with angular phrases, dissonances, and a tremendous flow of ideas. This was matched on trumpet by Dizzy Gillespie, almost unbelievably agile in the sweep and speed of his phrases. But Miles became a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet playing much fewer notes, in a more restrained style which provided a needed contrast.

In 1948 Miles started recording with his own nine-piece band, playing arrangements by Gil Evans, which eventually led to the release of an album called Birth of the Cool. However, by the early 50s Miles was seriously addicted to heroin, which was used by most of the jazz musicians at that time. But his music was uninspired, and he felt his life going to waste. In the winter of 1953-1954 he returned to East St. Louis and locked himself in a guest room in his father’s farm for seven days until the drug was fully out of his system.

The CD
This CD contains one track recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1955 – which marked Miles’s re-entry to the jazz scene and re-awakened public recognition: ‘Round Midnight played with the composer Thelonius Monk. He uses an open trumpet on this recording, but blows a sequence of dissonant variations which yet fit perfectly over the angular chords; he returns to the theme from time to time (to let us know where he is, perhaps!) before soaring away again. It reminds me of a Picasso drawing – apparently simple, recognizing reality but in a distorted way – an expression reduced to the minimum, but nevertheless creating a strong impact.

After his success at Newport, Davis was signed by the strong Columbia record label, and as well as the ‘Round Midnight mentioned at the beginning, there were another five tracks on this first release. Ah-Leu-Cha is an up-tempo number, the theme split 8 bars melody, 8 bars drums, before they get into the solos. Miles plays a series of memorable, flowing phrases, cool in mode but still full of tension. The backing is a model of what you could expect from top-class jazz musicians at that time: the drummer Philly-Joe Jones, lays down the basic rhythmic pattern with his right hand playing on the cymbals, while his left on the drums throws in off-beat accents which respond to what the soloist does, as if urging him on. The bass played by Paul Chambers (called a walking bass because of its steady four notes in the bar) pushes the rhythm forward by playing before the beat. The piano (Red Garland) plays chords and interjections behind the solos of trumpet and tenor Sax, and also acts as a solo instrument. High class stuff.

All of You is restrained, quieter, but has some very strong rhythm from the drums, (using brushes, not drumsticks). Mile’s solo is cool but tender, while John Coltrane finds long phrases of great originality and variety. During Coltrane’s solo, Joe Jones plays a strong thwack on the fourth beat of every bar, giving a very effective long-striding pulse to the music

The formula continues on Bye bye Blackbird, which yes is recognisable first time through, before they get into their improvisations!
An up-tempo number called Tad’s Delight shows Davis in an effervescent mood (almost), and a number called Dear Old Stockholm rounds out the original LP. On this last, the bass (unusually) gets an extended solo, then John Coltrane plays dark, dramatic phrases, before Davis comes in, very cool and very lyrical. He manages to space improvised phrases across the changes in harmonies in such a way that they fit perfectly, seemingly made to measure.

On this re-released CD, there are other tracks from the same quintet at the same recording sessions, but these are rather more incomprehensible than the ones mentioned above, while not adding any novelties to the style.

Miles Davis in fact set new tendencies for jazz several times in his career. On this recording his group is still improvising on top of a repeated sequence of chord changes, often taken from popular songs. Some years later, the changes were reduced to a shift in tone every eight bars or so. In this case, the pianist improvises the chords as he goes along, while the soloist improvises “on top”. When played by top musicians like Davis, Coltrane and Bill Evans (on piano) who were listening very carefully to one another, this led to some beautiful music – Kind of Blue is said to be the biggest-selling jazz record of all time. The style became known as tonal jazz. Even later on, a new group formed by Miles would improvise together without even pre-arranged tonal shifts…. initiating the style called free jazz!

So ‘Round Midnight is a more feet-on-the-ground example of the bleak, restrained, but lyrical jazz trumpet of Miles Davis. So Keep Cool and…..

Good listening!