This album is the cousin to Bags’ Groove. Like that set, it takes tracks from a couple of different dates from a few years earlier, including a session in common with Thelonious Monk joining Miles and the MJQ’s Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Percy Heath (b), and Kenny Clarke (dr). The releases each also have very little filler and feature predictably brilliant musicianship. For me, the quality and the occasional presence of Jackson and Sonny Rollins makes Bags’ Groove and this the highlights of Miles Davis’ pre-Kind Of Blue era.
Takes of “The Man I Love” bookend the set. Take 1 features a false start (and some audible bickering between Davis and Van Gelder, which Davis orders the obliging engineer to keep in). The restart requires Jackson to redo his intro, and the way he tosses off a different line the second time is a lesson in the ensemble’s almost casually rendered, ridiculous skill.
That said, I like the other (opening) take, with Monk’s solo playing against the tempo and stretching out the notes of the melody before dropping out altogether. Davis takes over for just one riff before Monk re-enters with a series of flurries. Miles eventually hops on that moving train and even inserts the mute mid-solo, like a low-fi version of ’90s Garcia with his midi pedals. It’s as if Monk had to bow out unexpectedly for a few seconds and they covered, but the performance’s odd arrangement gives the song a pleasantly unusual shape to go with the usual musicality.
On the other hand, “Swing Spring”, is just too long for a blues of this sort. The riff is jaunty, Monk does his best, and Miles even flips a quote from “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” into the mix, but still, it comes off a little shabby in such company.
Davis’ evaluation of Monk’s comping style didn’t get in the way of recognizing great material. After the group establishes “Bemsha Swing” (one of my favorites in Monk’s book), Davis develops his solo in a comfortable way, sketching lines like an outdoor portrait artist who is entertaining himself by drawing something in his head between paying subjects.
The restart requires Jackson to redo his intro, and the way he tosses off a different line the second time is a lesson in the ensemble’s almost casually rendered, ridiculous skill.
Milt follows with typical flair, but more interesting is the way Monk pushes and pulls the tempo along behind him with a long, broad series of syncopated full chords. Monk then solos with a few classically askew runs before handing it back to Davis and Jackson. Listening to this, it’s not hard to imagine Davis turning toward the vibes to indicate when he wants to trade fours with Milt instead of having it all to himself. Monk puts a playful stamp on the very end, and that’s that.
The remaining Monk song — recorded later, in October ’56 — features Davis’ first great quintet: Philly Joe Jones (dr), Paul Chambers (b), Red Garland (p), and John Coltrane (sax). The group’s treatment of “‘Round Midnight” features a fragile opening led by Davis, then more of a swagger as they lead the tune around the dance floor.
These days, you could pick and choose to make a lean, no-fat hour of music from these albums, and it’d be no less logical than the label’s mix-and-match approach. But there’s some fun in taking them as originally served at first, if for no other reason than to determine which take of what is your favorite, and to put yourself back in the mid-’50s just a little more authentically.