Miles Davis


Sunday, January 11, 2015
Miles Davis  – “It’s Only a Paper Moon” from Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings (1951-1956) (1992 Prestige) & originally appearing on The New Sounds (1951 Prestige)

Sonny And Miles

I have a confession to make: you could write a book based on how little I understand about the process of turning a recording into a recorded product one can bring to market. That said, I’m a little dubious of the 1951 release date of this album, mostly because the recording session was October 5, 1951. Were they turning them around that fast back then? Maybe. Everything I can find online suggests that this 10″ vinyl record came out in 1951.

Miles had appeared on other albums at this point, but this was, I believe*, his first proper album under his own name, leading his own band. He was 25. That’s really something to pause and consider: this music is a fine example of modern jazz, played by one of its icons, and it is sixty-five years old. It’s a fun game I like to play that sometimes makes my brain bleed, especially at art museums: you can walk around reading tags and see examples of profound modernity from a century ago that are every bit as mind-blowing today as they must have been now, and it really makes one wonder if there’s anywhere yet to go.

For me, today, I’m content to go backwards and sit, rapt, listening to Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins take turns soloing over one of my favorite jazz standards. This is early Rollins, for that matter – his first record wouldn’t come out for another two years. There’s a purity in that: these guys aren’t yet the giants they would become, just a couple of guys playing the music they love because they love it, playing with tone and melody and very obviously having fun.

Pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. went to high school with Rollins. He would also enjoy a long career supporting such ferocious talent as Hank Mobley, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt and others (not to mention recording sixteen of his own albums), but at this point had only appeared on a Milt Jackson record. Speaking of Art Blakey, the jazz messenger had been prolific for a handful of years, a trend that would continue for some time. His drumming here really moves the tune, and really was indicative, to my ear, of a more modern approach to the music. It is the perfect accompaniment to Bishop’s deft plunking out of the chords. Tommy Potter is perhaps the least known member of the group, but had played in the late 1940’s in Charlier Parker‘s classic quintet with none other than Miles Davis.

That said, I’ve always found it difficult to discern what bassists were doing on classic jazz recordings, the blame for which I think should rightly be divided between my own ignorance and the technology of the day.

“Paper Moon” is a lighthearted romantic tune that is handled well by these five players. As I’ve hinted, I think this is an important turning point in jazz. If Charlier Parker had unlocked the door, in 1951 I think Miles and others were on the threshold of the realization that they might soon kick it open.

*Some of these details are a bit unclear to me. I found some conflicting discographies and made my best guess. I’d be happy to make changes on the recommendation of those who are better informed.

UPDATE: This from an email from a friend: “I’m reading the autobiography of Miles Davis right now. His first recording as a bandleader was in 1947 and under the name The Miles Davis All Stars on the Savoy label.” Kind if changes the tone of my post, but I maintain that this was an important time in modern jazz. Thanks to Jason for the correction.