Friday, November 29, 2013

Miles in Mono: The Original Mono Recordings by Miles Davis

In 2009 when EMI/Apple released the complete mono recordings of The Beatles in a beautiful box set of miniatures, suddenly the dreaded sound mixes that were shelved for the better part of 40 years, were in demand as the old generation sought out a new way of hearing their favourite band. As a financial opportunity, record companies couldn’t resist the notion of re-selling the same music by the same artists to the same people. Since then, mono was the way to go and so far, at least for the music fan, it has been a godsend. At Columbia records, home of the great jazz and pop recordings of the last century, mono box sets have been remastered, usually with new scholarship and placed in miniature album jacket replicas, to great success. The mono version of Bob Dylan’s first six albums, for instance, was a triumph for fans new and old as I outlined in my critique three years ago.

For jazz fans, we now have the ultimate mono collection from Columbia Records: The Original Mono Recordings of Miles Davis. Nine CDs grace this efficiently packaged set; all re-mastered from tapes stored in the Columbia vaults where they were first recorded nearly 60 years ago. The prospects of hearing this music once again, in a format that was the audio standard of mid-1950s, stirred my soul and I’m pleased to report that the results are an audio file’s dream-come-true. In 1955 when jazz was the popular music of the day, Miles Davis was the most exciting talent to grace the genre. His striking good looks, style of dress and his sound were a mainstay of the jazz scene in those days. He signed with Columbia records that same year having led his own band for several years on the smaller, exclusively jazz label known as Prestige. (Those collected works were released as a box set in 1987.) For Davis, it was the beginning of a 30-year career with the label, which fully supported the artist’s lust for experimentation in music that was especially challenging in the late 60s. As digital technology advanced and record companies carefully marketed older music, Columbia wasn’t afraid to marry that technology and re-package its back catalogue from the Miles Davis archive. To date, Columbia, or more accurately Sony Music, had re-issued all of Davis’s stereo recordings in a variety of packages. The only thing left for them to issue were the mono versions of albums produced before the advent of stereo in 1959. Eventually everything Columbia recorded was in stereo as the technology became more popular and less of niche market as it was in 1955.

Which brings us to the nine CD set that makes up The Original Mono Recordings of Miles Davis. For anyone who’s a fan, it’s an absolute must for your collection. The pristine re-mastering work, with explanatory notes by engineer, Mark Wilder with producer Steve Berkowitz, open our eyes and our ears to the magic of recorded sound and basically, how they did it. I really appreciated the research and technical explanations of what Wilder and Berkowitz did with the master reels and how they took the time to compare the sound of the mono lps with B-rolls and safety tapes. (Columbia left little to chance by making back-ups to all of their most important recordings.) Overall, the nine albums Davis recorded between 1955 and 1961 for Columbia represents the artist’s transition from bebop to modal forms of jazz. While the first album, ‘Round About Midnight points to the past, Someday My Prince Will Come (1961) is definitely a statement of where jazz was going and who was going to lead it. The torch laid out by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington metaphorically passed to Miles Davis and Gil Evans when you listen to this set. In fact, three of the nine discs feature the latter pair collaborating to great success. Miles Ahead (1957) is a series of musical vignettes beautifully arranged by Evans for 19 musicians and Miles Davis. The mono version brings the strength of the band forward, a la Ellington, while Miles shapes the notes to fit each track with precision. A year later, Porgy And Bess appears with a slightly more conventional orchestra backing the trumpeter as he re-invents George Gershwin’s music. By the time we get to Sketches of Spain (1960) where Davis and Evans interpret the “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Rodrigo, we are suddenly fully aware of Miles’ skills as a trumpeter, capable of playing serious works with conviction and little embellishment. To my ear, this mono version brings out Davis’s most elegant playing while maintaining his distinct “sound.”

For me and I suspect most collectors, the most exciting news about this box set was the important inclusion of a mono version of Kind of Blue (1959), one of the single, most important jazz recordings of all time. To find one on lp was difficult and it took too many years, in my opinion, for Sony to release this knowing it was the best selling album in Miles Davis’s career. Nevertheless, considering the remastering efforts of Marc Wilder, it was worth the wait. It's remarkable how the mono mix of Kind of Blue unifies the ensemble playing. It's as if the rhythm section becomes one, powerful backing group. The listening experience now becomes more solitary as Miles's solo speaks only to the individual: music as a quiet whisper in the ear of the beholder. Even though I know this album extremely well, I was struck by its singularity as if I was hearing it for the first time. Perhaps the mono version is less mysterious as an album. The stereo release has a veil of intrigue about it that makes it sound too ethereal at times. Not so in mono. I'm particularly impressed by Wynton Kelly's piano solo on "Freddie Freeloader" because it's much more up front in the mix revealing a heartier sound. But in some cases, such as "All Blues," I prefer the spaciousness of the stereo mix because the horns sound fuller and, dare I say it, cooler. Nevertheless, the mono version of "Flamenco Sketches" holds its own and Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans have a more intimate musical conversation. The mono version really draws this out as each soloist plays in response to the other with Miles getting the final, gentile word. Exquisite.

Hearing these recordings as a set proves interesting because they weren't originally issued as a collection. Consequently, the overwhelming verdict is that these recordings, particularly in mono, will remain historically important and musically vibrant for years to come.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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