CD Review: Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings (Box Set)

Even vinyl-loving audiophiles will have to admit Miles Davis' music has never sounded better than it does on this set!
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Yes, they do sound better - remarkably better as a matter of fact. Since the first question on everybody's mind in regards to the new Miles Davis box set The Original Mono Recordings will be whether the sound quality is actually improved or not, I thought I would answer it immediately. These nine CDs  sound so superior to the previous releases that it is almost shocking.

The reasons behind this are two-fold. One is that the original recordings were made with the dominant mode of play in mind, which was mono. The other has to do with the source material. As is explained in the booklet, there were two decks running in the studio at the time. One for the master take, and the second as back-up. For The Original Mono Recordings, the pristine back-up tapes have finally been taken out of their cartons and utilized. I am not exaggerating when I say that these recordings have never sounded better, even on my less than top of the line stereo.

In his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young spends a great deal of time railing against the damage that digital technology has wrecked on recorded music. He makes some valid points, especially about the early days of compact discs. But even he would have to make an exception for this set. The remastered CDs in this box sound even "warmer" than my old vinyl, which is the biggest argument of analog versus digital. It really sounds as if we are in the room with the greatest quintet in jazz history.

For Davis' first Columbia album 'Round About Midnight, the quintet featured John Coltrane (saxophone), Wynton Kelley (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and "Philly" Jo Jones (drums), along with the trumpet of Miles. This quintet would fluctuate a bit over the next eight years, and would also feature such greats as Bill Evans (piano), Cannonball Adderley (sax), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Red Garland (piano), Hank Mobley (tenor sax). Those are just a few, there were many others, including the "19" mentioned on the credits for Miles Ahead. The arrangements and orchestrations of Gil Evans are indispensable as well.

The nine albums represent the music Miles recorded for Columbia Records from 1955 to 1963. They are: Round About Midnight; Miles Ahead; Milestones; Jazz Track; Porgy and Bess; Kind of Blue; Sketches of Spain; Someday My Prince Will Come; and Miles and Monk at Newport. These are basically Davis' first albums for Columbia Records, although the situations behind Jazz Track and Miles and Monk at Newport make them a little different from the rest.

Jazz Track contains rare material from two sources. The first ten tracks are from the first soundtrack music Miles ever recorded. The film was Ascenseur pour l'echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1958), directed by Louis Malle. The young director was a fan, and invited Davis to lead a quintet in France to score his film. The musicians gathered in a studio, and improvised the soundtrack while screening the movie. This may have happened in other films, but it is the only one I have ever heard of. They were all working without a net, yet the material is excellent.

For Miles fans who have never heard this obscure soundtrack, it alone is reason enough to get the set. Don't just take my word for it though. Legendary critic Lester Bangs cited Ascenseur pour l'echafaud as his favorite Miles Davis music of all time. Jazz Track is rounded out with three tracks recorded in 1958, "On Green Dolphin Street," "Fran Dance," and "Stella by Starlight."

Miles and Monk at Newport is another unusual release. The album was not released until 1964, and featured one side of Miles and one side of Thelonious Monk playing at the famous festival. The thing is, the Miles side was recorded in 1958, while the Monk set was in 1963. The four Davis songs are "Ah-Leu-Cha," "Straight, No Chaser," "Fran-Dance," and "Two Bass Hit." The Miles Davis Sextet is the quintet plus Cannonball Adderley, with Bill Evans replacing Wynton Kelly on piano. The Monk tunes are "Nutty," and "Blue Monk."

In the Miles Davis canon, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain are deservedly credited as two of his undisputed masterpieces. They are recordings that I have listened to countless times, and were the ones I first played, to see if there really was a difference in sound. I chose them because I knew them so well. One of the great things (at least for me) about this box was the opportunity to listen to some albums that are not quite as celebrated though.

A couple of years ago Prestige reissued some of their Miles Davis material, including Cookin' and Walkin'. These albums have their own intriguing stories, as the artist they are credited to was often just a matter of convenience. The tapes would roll at all night blowing sessions, then the results would be divvied up and released under the names of various artists. Different tracks from same session could appear on albums credited to Miles Davis, Red Garland, or whoever. It was definitely an unusual way of doing things, but worked out well for the label at least.

When Miles recorded 'Round About Midnight, it was his quintet, no ifs ands or buts. The six tracks definitely retain that hard-bop feel of the Prestige sessions. Milestones is similar in flavor as well. Although Miles Ahead was recorded between these two, this first partnership with Gil Evans is really something special. The participation of Evans on Porgy and Bess, and Someday My Prince Will Come is just as strong. I have mistakenly overlooked these three albums for far too long, and am very pleased to now have them.

Listening to the music of Miles Davis is an endlessly rewarding proposition. His music was constantly changing, right up until the day he died. While I am not dismissing his career prior to his arrival at Columbia, there is no denying that things really took off for him there.

Not only do the albums comprising The Original Mono Recordings sound better than any of the previous compact disc versions, he was taking a quantum leap forward artistically as well. His music has been repackaged in many ways over the past decade, including the eye-opening "Complete" series, such as The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions or The Complete On the Corner Sessions.

In its own way, The Original Mono Recordings is as eye-opening as anything else. And if I have not said it enough, this music has never sounded better. So far, Columbia Legacy have done a marvelous job with Davis' catalog. Their commendable treatment of his work continues to be the case with The Original Mono Recordings, and I look forward to seeing what is next.