To say that Miles Davis’s collected recordings from 1957-64 constitutes some of the finest music ever produced by an American artist is no marketing hype. The voluminous catalog of this inscrutable artist has lost none of its glow. But, as Miles’s music has been repackaged, remixed and remastered ad infinitum, one could argue that Columbia is close to killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Or are they? What is often said of the Beatles’ early albums is perhaps even truer for Miles Davis’s work: The mono recordings are what the artist approved and intended people to hear. Up until the mid ’60s, mono was king; stereo was basically a bastard stepchild until Sgt. Peppers brought two-channel stereo into the mainstream. For Miles Davis, the mono versions of his masterpieces are truly the closest thing to hearing the master’s voice. Transferred directly from the original analog reel-to-reel tapes, it’s surprisingly easy to hear, and enjoy the differences.
Six of the nine discs in this beautifully packaged box set trace the arc of Miles’s illustrious 1950s quintet (John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers) with the albums Round About Midnight, Miles Ahead, Milestones, Jazz Track, Kind of Blue, Someday My Prince Will Come, and Miles & Monk at Newport. Add to that bounty the three mono CD editions of Miles’s work with Gil Evans: Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Miles Ahead. The mono Miles Ahead sounds even more intimate and dynamic, Miles’s flugelhorn burnished, the ensemble more fleshed out, immediate and, at times, delicate. Instead of the spiffy distraction of early stereo processing, the mono production is pure and focused as if you’re listening live in the studio.
This holds true for Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain. The ever-sparkling Milestones loses some of its stereo-splashy excitement in mono, but makes up for it in pure, menacing energy. Cannonball and Coltrane’s fire-breathing exchanges in “Mr. Jekyll” are pure dynamo, Philly Joe barely holding on for the ride. The tempos on Milestones sound somehow faster in mono. Kind of Blue: an album of stark modal themes and celestial solos is at its quintessence in the mono format. Jazz Track is the wild card in the set, here restored to its original desolate sonics. The soundtrack for the Louis Malle film Elevator to the Gallows (“Side 1″) coupled with a handful of additional tracks (“Side 2″), Jazz Track is Miles at his most forlorn, piercing, sad-eyed and beautifully lost.
If you own no Miles Davis recordings, these are the ones to buy first. If you are a completist/collector, these are essential, restoring Miles’s 1950s music to his original and intended vision.