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Miles Davis on Prestige (1953/1954)

“The Miles Davis records with Kenny Clarke were the first things I heard where the rhythm section sounds as if it's airborne, and yet nobody's doing anything. Kenny puts his left hand in his pocket; the bass and piano also are into a sparse thing. And they're off the ground.” - Jake Hanna (drummer with Woody Herman)

Ian Carr, in his biography of Miles Davis, writes of this set of recordings: "Although it was only a small, independent label, Prestige [in 1954] had some of the most important contemporary musicians under contract. As well as Miles, Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet (John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke) were also signed to Prestige. One of the reasons why Heath and Clarke functioned so well together was because they were a regular unit in a working band. Miles's use of them as his studio rhythm section for most of that year suited everybody: musically they were perfect for him at the time, and as they were signed to Prestige the extra exposure was good for them and for Bob Weinstock [owner/producer]. The growing success of the label enabled Weinstock, in April 1954, to turn over all recording to Rudy van Gelder, one of the finest sound engineers. The excellent recorded sound of Miles's sessions from April onwards, was due to the genius of Van Gelder. At last, the rhythm section was properly recorded, which gave added point to the horn solos, increasing the impact of the whole performance. The mid-fifties mono sound of Prestige (and Blue Note and Savoy, which Van Gelder also engineered) was so good that even twenty years later it did not seem dated."

MILES DAVIS AND HORNS (1953, Released 1956)

February 19, 1953: Miles Davis, trumpet; Sonny Truitt, trombone; Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, tenor sax; John Lewis, piano; Leonard Gaskin, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Beltone Recording Studios, NYC.  Tracks: Tasty Pudding. Willie the Wailer, Floppy, For Adults Only "Davis made his second session of 1953 in the company of two tenor men deeply touched by the work of Lester Young and Charlie Parker: Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, two of Woody Herman's famous Four Brothers. The 1953 date [paired with another 1951 date on this record] is a delightful blowing session, with Kenny Clarke providing plenty of percussive salsa, and Al Cohn providing masterful charts. Cohn, Sims, and Davis team up to provide distinctive, rich harmonies on themes such as the slow, soulful "Tasty Pudding" and "For Adults Only," with their introspective features. "Willie the Wailer" borrows its intro from Benny Goodman's "Soft Winds" and provides Davis and Cohn with plenty of swing drive. The call and response of "Floppy" leads to powerful Davis-Clarke interplay, a taut John Lewis solo, and an anthemic Cohn-Sims exchange."

WALKIN' (1954, Released 1957)

April 3, 1954: Miles Davis, trumpet; Davey Schildkraut, alto sax; Horace Silver, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ. Tracks: Solar, You Don't Know What Love Is, Love Me or Leave Me, I'll Remember April

April 29, 1954: Miles Davis, trumpet; J.J. Johnson, trombone; Lucky Thompson, tenor sax; Horace Silver, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ. Tracks: Blue 'n' Boogie, Walkin'

Critic Gary Giddins, writing in the "Village Voice" in October 1991, recalls that: "Perhaps because "Walkin'" is such a heart-stopper, the second Davis album I bought was the 1954 Prestige classic of that name. I listened to the title track late on the evening I brought it home, then drove over to one of the few people I knew who was also finding his way into jazz. We listened to it a couple of times and were giddy with excitement, for three reasons. One, the theme is performed with a rare sense of drama and deliberation; not unlike Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder," the 1954 "Walkin'" has the strutting grandeur of a blues march. Second, the rhythm section is a thing of rare, glowing, erotic beauty; in the period between the years when Joe Jones tattooed the hi-hat with Basie and Tony Williams's ride cymbal shivered like autumn leaves with Miles in Antibes, nobody ever made metal resound with more colorful, emphatic hues than did Kenny Clarke on this record – in meticulous accord with the stout bass of Percy Heath and the hungrily inspired piano of Horace Silver. Third, and most of all, it was a revelation to us, at 16, to be held spellbound by a long improvisation that unwound without recourse to pyrotechnics, but worked its magic with the smart, dark, penetrating logic of an impeccable fable impeccably told. Later, from books, I learned that the 1954 Walkin' helped trigger and codify the new counterreformation in jazz known as hard bop."

BAG'S GROOVE (1954, Released 1957) 

June 29, 1954: Miles Davis, trumpet; Sonny Rollins, tenor sax; Horace Silver, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ. Tracks: Airegin, Oleo, But Not For Me, Doxy.

December 24, 1954: Miles Davis, trumpet; Milt Jackson, vibes; Thelonious Monk, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ. Tracks: Bag's Groove.

Sonny Rollins recalled of this session: "When I was working with Miles in the 1950s, I was completely flabbergasted by Kenny's playing - the way his time just rolled and glided along - yet there was a lot happening. His rhythm - the sound and smoothness of it - was all I could think of. It really knocked me out!" Drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath also observed of the same recordings: "It was Kenny Clarke’s cymbal beat, and how sparingly he played: he could always find the cracks in the music. When he did something, it was always a lift. Some drummers get carried away and stop listening, maybe because we are doing four or five things at the same time. You want to see if things will work or not, but you’re not really paying enough attention. We think we need to make everything happen, but it’s not true; everything is already happening, all you need to do is find your place. Kenny Clarke was a master of that. He had that ride cymbal beat… I haven’t figured it out yet. When I hear it today I still say, “Damn, man! Is it a triplet feel or a sixteenth note feel?” It is so distinct. When you listen back it is so different than other drummers. Max and Art Blakey had completely different cymbal beats. That was the identity during that time. The influence of Tony Williams and Elvin Jones has shifted the emphasis away from the ride cymbal to the orchestration of the drum kit. It’s a bigger sound instead of the light swing with a few accents. Guys now can do some pretty amazing stuff. Drummers are off the page! We all need to keep listening, though."


December 24, 1954: Miles Davis, trumpet; Milt Jackson, vibes; Thelonious Monk, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ.

Tracks: Bemsha Swing, Swing Spring, The Man I Love.

In her 1997 biography of Thelonious Monk, Leslie Gourse recounts that "Out of Monk's recording session with Miles Davis on December 24, 1954, came a rumor that Monk and Miles had a fight. But people who had been in the studio knew better. From the first moment he had met Monk, Rudy van Gelder had been impressed with Monk's height, stature and quiet dignity. With his intense expression, Monk always seemed to be in control of himself. Miles Davis, leading his group in a rehearsal of "Bag's Groove," told Monk, "during my solo, lay out." He didn't want to hear Monk's "funny" chords, as Davis described them in his autobiography; they might divert attention from the solo. Miles, a very small man, was sitting down, pointing the bell of his trumpet at the floor, as he always did when he played. When it came time for Miles to play his solo, Monk got up from the piano bench and stood there, towering over Miles. After his solo, Miles said to Monk, "Why did you do that?" Monk said with mild irritation, "I don't have to sit down to lay out." Years later, the memory still made Rudy laugh."


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