Permanent shuffle

By JON GARELICK  |  December 12, 2006

Flash forward to THE MILES DAVIS QUINTET: THE LEGENDARY PRESTIGE QUINTET SESSIONS (Prestige; three CDs/one DVD). The Miles vocabulary has been so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream that it might take a half-dozen hours with Waller and Stitt to hear anew the shocking modernism of these 1956 sides, which document, as liner-note writer Bob Blumenthal puts it, “three of the most productive days any band has spent in a recording studio.” Here again is the cleansing spareness of Miles’s trumpet style, the space he leaves between notes, the conversational phrasing. When he enters with muted horn on the ballad “You’re My Everything” after pianist Red Garland’s block-chord introduction, the comparison that comes to mind for sheer macho vulnerability is Sinatra. The arrangements are simple, but radical in their attention to detail. (Listen to Paul Chambers’s bass under Miles on “Just Squeeze Me.”) The bits of studio chatter that were excised from previous reissues have been restored (“Block chords, Red”), bits that Miles biographer John Szwed has argued were an essential part of the mise en scène — the album as a portrait of a band at work. (A DVD offers radio and TV performances.)

This was the first of Miles’s “classic” quintets (with the rhythm section of Garland, Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones), but what makes it especially marketable is the double threat of the leader with a young John Coltrane on the front line. JOHN COLTRANE: FEARLESS LEADER (Prestige; six CDs) offers a chance to reassess the saxophonist’s “formative years,” 1957-’58, when he was in and out of Davis’s bands. “Formative,” yes, but from the first note it’s clear that Trane, at 30, already had monstrous technique and a vivid imagination. If he gets knocked for anything, it’s his verbosity, the millions of notes played at warp speed that are at first thrilling but soon become monotonous. What Fearless Leader demonstrates once again is the shape and texture Coltrane gave to each of his solos, the bluesy shimmer of each note. Listen to his constantly renewed and shifting patterns on the Dietz-Schwartz ballad “I See Your Face Before Me,” the extended double-time passage on Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae,” the perfectly etched ornaments on the theme of Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait.” I, too, always think I’ve listened to enough Coltrane, and I’m always proved wrong.

It’s easy to critique the music that came just before one’s time, but the music you grew up with is baffling. Is The Allman Brothers Band: Live at Fillmore East great music? Don’t ask me: I know every note by heart. How then to reassess Weather Report’s three-CD/one-DVD FORECAST: TOMORROW (Columbia/Legacy)? A proud member of Stoner Nation in 1973, I played Sweetnighter night after night. And the thumping suspended tension and groove release of Joe Zawinul’s “125th Street Congress,” included here, still gets to me. Created by the partnership of Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, Weather Report began as an experimental supergroup electric-jazz offshoot from Miles Davis. But Sweetnighter marked a turn toward pop. Many is the punk-rocker who will beat up on Weather Report because of “Birdland” — the Eagles of Jazz-Rock Fusion? But the band never descended into schlock, and you never knew when they were going to break into some free-bop blowing or one of Shorter & Zawinul’s abstract, uncategorizable duets. The new set includes a DVD of a two-hour 1978 concert from Offenbach, Germany, with bassist Jaco Pastorius. The one new track is a remix of “125th St. Congress” by DJ Logic. That and the inevitable jam-band connection, along with the typical assertions by the liner-note writers that this band were a precursor to hip-hop — does that make Weather Report suddenly relevant? This is one box set that doesn’t offer easy answers.

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