Miles Davis’ Classic Sessions Breathe Anew

miles davis

By the mid-1950s, cool jazz was burning up, as Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, et al began to reach their peak of popularity and the public embraced the idea that blistering bop solos weren’t necessarily the be-all and end-all of jazz. But Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool, a 1957 release that has come to be regarded as a cool jazz milestone (no pun intended) was assembled in sessions that began in early 1949, initially doled out over the course of a series of 78s and an eight-song 1954 10″ record. And 70 years after Miles convened with Mulligan, alto sax man Lee Konitz, drummer Max Roach, and others for those first fateful sessions in New York City, the double-LP vinyl release of The Complete Birth of the Cool presents cool jazz’s origin story in full with peerless fidelity and a package as lush-but-streamlined as the music itself.

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The vital piece of the puzzle that’s included here is the 1948 live radio broadcasts from New York club The Royal Roost. These occupy the second LP, where Miles’ nonet — with somewhat different personnel but already including Mulligan, Konitz, Roach, and pianist John Lewis — took some of the Birth of the Cool material to the stage months ahead of the recording dates. Hearing Miles and company’s revolutionary ideas come together in their more formative phase, some vital context is added to the groundbreaking sessions.

Earlier in the ’40s, the outside-the-box thinking of bandleader Claude Thornhill, at a time when a number of future Birth of the Cool participants were in his band, created a key inspiration on what Miles and his nonets would eventually accomplish. When Evans, Konitz, Mulligan, tubist Bill Barber, and French horn player Sandy Siegelstein worked with Thornhill, they helped to establish a sound that picked up where the swing bands left off while leapfrogging over bebop’s inventions, arriving at a style full of sophistication, subtlety, concision, and visceral punch in equal measure.

That sound wouldn’t come to be called “cool jazz” until the ’50s, but it was already a concept fully formed when Miles, Evans, and company played at then-new NYC jazz spot The Royal Roost in September of 1948, airing the tunes that would eventually comprise the Birth of the Cool sessions, like the surging (and appropriately titled) “Move,” the hard-swinging “Godchild,” and the serpentine “Budo.” Even then it was obvious how much ground was being broken — introducing the 9/4/48 set, legendary radio DJ Symphony Sid described what the audience was about to hear as “something new in modern music,” and he was in no danger of understating the case.

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That set and another from the same venue two weeks later are heard on The Complete Birth of the Cool alongside the album tracks. And while the classic 1957 release has never had any trouble standing alone as a daring achievement as remarkable for its invention as for its accessibility, it’s fascinating to pull back and experience the whole historical milieu, a luxury allowed by this package not only through the aforementioned recordings but also via prose and pictures. The elaborate packaging of the double LP is a thing of beauty unto itself, with a hefty booklet containing big, beautiful photos and in-depth liner notes from author Ashley Kahn plus an essay by eminent jazz historian Phil Schaap and even a 1971 remembrance from Mulligan himself.

While the combination of the album tracks plus the Royal Roost recordings has been available on CD since 1998, this marks the first time The Complete Birth of the Cool has ever been remastered for vinyl. And the fullness of the sound when the needle hits its target is as much a physical thrill as an aesthetic one. There’s a new CD version out too, but if you’re a turntable owner you owe it to yourself to take the LP route to re-encountering this golden moment in jazz.

-Jim Allen

Photo: Miles Davis sits with his instrument during a studio recording session, October 1959. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Jim Allen's night job is fronting country band The Ramblin' Kind, rock band Lazy Lions, and working as a solo singer/songwriter. His day job is writing about other people's music. He has contributed to NPR, Billboard, RollingStone.com, and many more, and written liner notes for reissues of everyone from OMD to Bob Seger, but his proudest achievement is crafting a completely acceptable egg cream armed only with milk, Bosco, and a SodaStream seltzer maker.

1 comment on “Miles Davis’ Classic Sessions Breathe Anew

  1. Thanks for writing this–great read.

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