PRINT January 1997


Miles Davis/Gil Evans

Even as an object, Columbia’s MILES DAVIS/GIL EVANS box is beautiful: just looking at it makes you want one. Of course, what really matters is that three of the six discs in the set—Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain—are desert-island definites. (The set also contains a disc of flawed-but-still-interesting later projects, as well as two CDs of alternate takes, studio conversation, and overdubbings.) Made between 1957 and 1960, these recordings are jazz landmarks: documents of two men at the top of their game, producing an almost-perfect evocation of the cooly melancholic spirit of the day.

In 1955, Miles Davis was just coming off his four-and-a-half-year love affair with junk. He was still a Young Turk five years after cutting The Birth of the Cool, an album that would inaugurate the stylish “cool jazz” sound, but he didn’t have a manager or agent and wasn’t working regularly. (Jazz junkies, after all, tended to be notorious backsliders.) But after he torched the house at an unscheduled 1955 Newport appearance, the upside suddenly looked a lot bigger than the down. George Avakian signed him away from Prestige for Columbia, released a quintet album (featuring John Coltrane on sax), and then waited for the right idea to come along.

The right idea would be Gil Evans, former arranger for Claude Thornhill’s innovative orchestra, collaborator on Miles’ Birth of the Cool nonet, and stringer on film and television scores. He was also a skinny, professorial looking white guy, seemingly an odd match with Miles—who was, of course, a paradigm of Cool. Still, despite—or maybe because of—that, the two men would probably never top their musical rapport. Listening today, it’s striking how visual it is: when Miles’ trumpet moans on the Sketches cut “Saeta,” you can see Manet’s portrait of a dead bullfighter. Together with an eighteen-piece band, the two men created a blend of classical and jazz idioms that almost wasn’t music at all—it was more a kind of golden haze, an infinitely sad and beautiful stillness that hangs in the air, and envelops you.