Miles Davis: Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud

Moody, and celebrated by the arts establishment, it's still not clear that the trumpeter's 1957 'soundtrack' stands up without the images

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When Miles Davis was playing the Club Saint-Germain in Paris in November 1957, he was introduced to film director Louis Malle by Juliette Greco (according to Miles himself), and a few days later was invited to a private screening of Malle’s film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold). Davis then took his group to the studio, the plot was explained and they improvised around some harmonic ideas whilst watching extracts of the film projected. The result became the accompanying soundtrack.

Originally released on a 10” on Fontana, it was on one side of the album Jazz Track (Columbia CL1268) in the US, then later reissued on CD by Fontana/Polygram in 1988 with several previously unreleased alternative tracks.

It has had a mixed response over the years, and although appealingly atmospheric and intriguing in its drift towards abstraction and lack of resolution in the tracks, the comments of previous reviewers has a certain validity, in the music making sense only when combined with the images.

The film is certainly worth seeing, and knowledge of it is useful in understanding the context of the music as the tracks do directly relate to the narrative. However, it’s not essential and the music is evocative, at times sombre, but compelling; it’s worth noting that Miles described it as a “great learning experience” (Miles – The Autobiography, 1989).

The slower passages follow Jeanne Moreau’s nocturnal wandering through the streets of Paris, and are musical fragments that disappear but briefly return. Much of it is underpinned by Pierre Michelot’s walking bass, especially on Vasion De Julien and Visite Du Vigile. There are faster sections, on Sur L’Autoroute and Dîner Au Motel, and the medium tempo Au Bar Du Petit Bac has the melody set by saxophonist Barney Wilen. The glimpses of Wilen’s playing help understand why he was Miles’ chosen horn player when in Paris.

But it is Miles that is worth focusing on, whether open or tightly muted, and the exploration and improvisation that takes place, bringing out feelings of loneliness, isolation, tragedy and dark, ominous inevitability.

The extra material from the recording session is not included here, but there are additional tracks, which need some untangling. Three are from Jazz Track (2) and the others have no obvious rationale for their inclusion, all previously issued: (3) are from Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia CL1656); (4) are from Columbia CL949 Round Midnight; (5) and (6) were included on Plays For Lovers (Prestige 7352) and on Steamin’ (PR7200) or Miles (PR7014). They’re marketed as bonus tracks – but maybe aren’t if you have them already.

Discography
(1) Generique; L’Assassinat De Carala; Sur L’Autoroute; Julien Dans L’Ascenseur; Florence Sur Les Champs-Elysees; Dîner Au Motel; Vasion De Julien; Visite Du Vigile; Au Bar Du Petit Bac; Chez Le Photographe Du Motel; (2) On Green Dolphin Street; Fran-Dance; Stella By Starlight; (3) Old Folks; I Thought About You; (4) ’Round Midnight; (5) Something I Dreamed Last Night; (6) There Is No Greater Love (74.09)
Davis (t) with (1) Barney Wilen (ts); René Urtreger (p); Pierre Michelot (b); Kenny Clarke (d). Paris, 4-5 December 1957.
(2) John Coltrane (ts); Cannonball Adderley (as); Bill Evans (p); Paul Chambers (b); Jimmy Cobb (d). NY, 26 May 1958.
(3) Hank Mobley (ts); Wynton Kelly (p); Chambers (b); Cobb (d). NY, 20-21 March 1961.
(4) Coltrane (ts); Red Garland (p); Chambers (b); Philly Joe Jones (d). NY, 10 Sept 1956.
(5) omit Coltrane, Hackensack, New Jersey, 11 May 1956.
(6) same, 16 Nov 1955.
20th Century Masterworks 170047