You may get your money’s worth from the first two tracks, which I’ll nominate as the best jazz ever recorded on Christmas Eve. Sure, it’s the same song performed twice back-to-back. But the song is Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” featuring Miles Davis backed by most of the fabled Modern Jazz Quartet — rhythm section Percy Heath (b) and Kenny Clarke (dr), and of course, Jackson himself on vibes — plus pianist Thelonious Monk.
The talent is huge, and the song is aptly named for more than one reason (“Bags” was Jackson’s nickname) — the medium-tempo groove is unhurried but finger-snapping, a fastball down the middle for soloists of this caliber. The only possible improvement I could have suggested would’ve been a seamless, natural segue into the theme from “The Pink Panther” and back again. However, I guess that was unlikely since “Pink Panther” composer Henry Mancini wouldn’t write it for another nine years.
Monk In A Funk? Rollins Rolls
I’d gently suggest that, genius as he is, only Monk comes across as less than exceptional here. I’d say curiously so, except history reports that Miles — never a man to mince words in pursuit of his art or, well, anything — had actually asked Monk to sit out Miles’ solos. So it’s possible that contributed to a less-than-inspired Monk. That said, he does perk up a little more on the second take.
Jackson, meanwhile, casually lays down a small stack of melodic and harmonic ideas that nobody in this quite tough room can top. That makes it all the sadder that like Monk, Jackson only appears on these two tracks. On the upside, the remaining five tracks (put to tape almost exactly six months earlier, in June ’54) feature saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who brings just as much creativity and dexterity to the equation, and Horace Silver on piano.
As Ira Gitler points out in the liner notes (reproduced from the original LP), the key to the title of “Airegin” is reading it backwards. The solos, however, move ahead in an assured, breezy fashion. After Miles takes a couple of strolls around the block, Rollins (who wrote the song) enters for his own turn before they play out the end in unison. This is a lot of free-flowing blowing packed into five minutes.
Birth Of The Mute
“Oleo” is one of those songs I never seem to get into live. I don’t know if it’s because of how far afield the soloists usually get or a quicker tempo, but this studio recording of another Rollins tune seems more manageable in terms of coherence and length. Rollins and Davis pick up where they left off at the end of “Airegin”, rolling out the theme together. After their solos, the arrangement allows Silver a few bars with Heath keeping the bottom pinned down before things circle back and conclude.
(Wiki says “Oleo” marks the first studio recording where Davis employs the Harmon mute — something I wish he’d left out of his toolbox, but that’s just me.)
In “But Not For Me (take 2)”, Rollins’ earns his four choruses, floating, darting, and spinning without seeming overbusy. As someone who listened to a lot of rock before much jazz at all, it’s not hard now to hear how the sax on certain albums (e.g., Billy Joel’s 52nd Street) tried to echo that suave style in spots.
I guess a tempo break was due after the mid- and uptempo work before it, but the more ambling lope of “Doxy” comes off a little, well, pedestrian compared to the company its keeping. Not bad but the closest the disc gets to filler (and in the classic penultimate filler spot), its riff just isn’t as engaging or original as the rest of Rollins’ work here.
With the first take of “But Not For Me”, the proceedings close with another swing at this just-fast-enough swing, this take running a minute longer than the other. Davis shines more here, with effortless triplets, grace notes, and clever elision in his phrasing that provide rich if subtle pleasures. Rollins takes a single chorus and yields the floor to Silver, whose soloing sounds more composed here (and I mean that in a good way) and more on par with his accompaniment skills than anywhere else on the disc.
I don’t recall why these recordings weren’t released until 1957, although Prestige did parcel out the fruit of productive sessions over multiple releases. And barely mentioning Mssrs. Heath and Clark is a gross injustice that I’ll lamely mask by suggesting it just shows how solid they are throughout. Bottom line, Bags’ Groove features songs that would go on to become standards, led by young guns who would go on to become legends.