Miles Davis recorded three sessions for Blue Note Records in 1952, 1953 and 1954; the label released three ten-inch vinyls from those sessions at the time: Young Man With A Horn, Miles Davis Vol. 2 and Miles Davis Vol. 3. The recordings – plus a handful of alternate takes – have been reissued in several forms in the years since.
As part of Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, the legendary label has released a series of commemorative reissues, including Take Off: The Complete Blue Note Albums from trumpeter Davis. It’s an attractively packaged set, with iconic Francis Wolff photographs, a nice booklet featuring notes from Kirk Silsbee, and complete discographical information. The novelty of the set is that for the first time since the original releases, it sequences the cuts in the order of the old ten-inch records (with alternate takes tacked on at the end of the second compact disc). A minor quibble: this is not really the “complete” Miles Blue Notes: the label also released a recording of a 1951 Birdland live performance, not included here, featuring J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. That set would have complemented these studio recordings nicely and made for a more definitive collection.
We will be listening to Take Off during August as our Miles Davis record for the month. It’s a great pretext to focus on this era in Miles’s career. The early fifties were a time of personal troubles and uneven artistry for Miles, largely fueled by drug addiction. Framed at either end by the artistic heights of the Birth of the Cool Nonet (1949-50) and bebop mastery of the Miles Davis-Tadd Dameron group, on the one hand, and the formation of the First Great Quintet in the mid-50s, featuring John Coltrane, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the other, early-50s Miles requires a more selective ear. The relatively sparse Blue Note material is perhaps better than contemporaneous recordings Miles made for Prestige and in other musicians’ groups, perhaps because the label paid for rehearsal time, unlike its competitors. Miles’s Blue Note recordings reflect the musical concerns that were on his mind: the crazed harmonic architecture of bebop, and whether it should be embraced or rejected; the crystallization of the post-harmonic, post-song modal jazz, already hinted at in the Nonet recordings, that would flower in Kind of Blue (1959); and the blues, in which Miles saw a way forward away from bop and toward the modal sound.
The three sessions represented on this disc occurred in three Spring dates, each about a year after the previous one. The 1952 date highlights ballad playing (“Yesterdays”); the 1953 grapples with fast-paced bebop numbers (“Tempus Fugit”); and the 1954 date, the first with pianist Horace Silver, debuts the blues-inflected hard-bop sound that would prove so influential on many a Blue Note artist in the mid-50s. 1954, in fact, proved to be one of the greatest in Miles’s career, with fantastic sessions that have mostly been released on Prestige; the year marked his definitive return to form.