Graded on a Curve:
Miles Davis,
The Complete Birth
of the Cool

We’re not quite halfway through 2019, but Blue Note / UMe’s 2LP gatefold edition of Miles Davis’ The Complete Birth of the Cool is one of the sweeter reissues of the year, in part because it’s the first time the live recordings from 1948 and the renowned dozen studio tracks from ’49-’50 have been released together on vinyl. For some, this may seem a fact difficult to reconcile with the music’s masterpiece status, but rest assured it is true. The details unfold below. The record is in stores June 7.

To begin, the music on this truly gorgeous edition’s first LP, material recorded in January and April of 1949 and in March of the following year, was initially released under the group designation Miles Davis and His Orchestra as a series of four 78rpm discs across the same time period, issuing eight tracks and leaving four in the can. It’s more accurately a nonet, which is how the band has been often subsequently described; on this release’s second LP of live performances at the Royal Roost, radio announcer Symphony Sid calls the assemblage Miles Davis’ Organization.

There was no album title for these studio tracks, they were just sides, and as said they didn’t sell well enough to see the entirety grooved into shellac. Still, a whole lot of people paid attention; as Ashley Khan points out in his excellent notes for this set (presented in a booklet secured inside the gatefold with striking full-page photographs), other than guest appearances and all-star affairs, every Davis studio session from this point forward was made as a leader.

Those 78s featured “Budo” and “Move,” “Jeru” and “Godchild,” “Boplicity” and “Israel,” and “Venus de Milo” and “Darn That Dream.” In 1952 and ’53, “Budo,” “Move,” and “Boplicity” were included on compilations, and in ’54, Capitol issued a vinyl 10-inch under Davis’ name in their Classics in Jazz series that included the unreleased tracks “Moon Dreams,” “Deception,” “Rocker,” and “Rouge” alongside “Jeru”, “Godchild,” “Israel,” and “Venus de Milo.”

Three years later, Capitol collected the 11 instrumental tracks as Birth of the Cool. “Darn That Dream,” which spotlighted the vocals of Kenny Hagood, was left off, likely because it was the only studio track from this band which sounded dated or old hat circa 1957 (it and Hagood’s vocal on the live “Why Do I Love You?” underscore the nonet’s big-band genesis and allegiance). As Birth made plain, this music was being presented as innovative and more specifically as the beginning of something, which brings us to one of the interpretations of Cool.

Sometimes the use of the word here gets wrapped up in the belief that these sessions gave rise to West Coast Cool Jazz, but I tend to agree with writer Pete Welding as cited in Khan’s notes that this is off-target. To my ear, the proof is in the listening; while Birth of the Cool documents Davis’ budding brilliance as a leader in conjunction with the composing-arranging skills of Gil Evans, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and pianist John Lewis (with a seed of conception from the big band of Claude Thornhill, with whom Evans worked), the music is still tangibly under the sway of Charlie Parker.

Indeed, before Davis took charge (it’s debatable if these sessions would exist without his organizational drive) Parker was considered as leader, as was Sonny Stitt and clarinetist Danny Polo; one of the joys of Khan’s notes derives from how they detail the evolution of the music from inside an apartment without heat located behind a Chinese laundry in late-’40s NYC (and just as swell is a related story of Parker’s brief visit there).

A truly bohemian jazz existence, and yes, very New York. The Cool comes in as a progression away from bebop’s initial intensity in execution. I normally abjure Symphony Sid, but the name of the late-night radio show he was involved in hosting in connection to these Royal Roost performances utilized an illustrative tagline: “All Night All Frenetic.”

’40s bebop was regularly wound-up, angular, complex and conceived in deliberate contrast to jazz’s established norms of the period (i.e. its rise in commerciality). Bop mastery required considerable ability and was furthermore very much a soloist’s style. While improvisation is a major attribute of Birth of the Cool, more important is a shared desire to communicate the essence of the tunes, a goal achieved through a list of personnel that’s simply massive.

Along with Davis, Lewis, Mulligan, and Hagood, the nonets for the three sessions included alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding (later to co-lead their own noteworthy ’50s group), pianist Al Haig, French horn players Junior Collins, Sandy Siegelstein, and Gunther Schuller, tubist Bill Barber, bassists Joe Shulman, Nelson Boyd, and Al McKibbon, and drummers Max Roach and Kenny “Klook” Clarke. The live performances feature trombonist Mike Zwerin.

The cumulative effect of Capitol’s 11-track LP vindicates the music’s then new title in that the sounds definitely point toward the future. But more to the point, it synched-up incredibly well with the trumpeter’s then present, as the record was issued the same year as Columbia’s Miles Ahead, which was Davis’ first session with Evans since cutting the Birth of the Cool recordings.

Regarding the future, Miles was no longer with Prestige, where he had thrived (after conquering drug addiction) but within the label’s no-rehearsal time stricture (capped off sweetly with the Quintet albums Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’, the release dates of the series crawlin’ into 1961). Birth of the Cool illuminated that the man had already presided over an underappreciated (if imperfect) masterpiece. In two years, he would have his name on another.

For some, Kind of Blue is THE jazz masterpiece. Unsurprisingly, that ’59 set has minimized Birth of the Cool’s stature a bit, but the grand extensiveness of The Complete, bringing to vinyl for the first time the expanded CD of 1998, does a fine job of reemphasizing the music’s essentiality. Listening is pure pleasure, yes even the live stuff, as it was those sets that landed the group its Capitol contract (they also include a few exclusive tunes). Suffice it to say, for anyone who loves hearing jazz greatness on vinyl, The Complete Birth of the Cool is an absolute must.


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