Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool

Landmark 1949-50 sessions that introduced a palette of shimmering new colours to jazz are reissued on rather less ambiguous red vinyl


Hardly noticed when they were issued in 1949/1950, these 12 recordings by a nine-piece band led by a young Miles Davis and featuring kindred spirits, were to achieve jazz immortality in the decades that followed. The band gave public performances for only two weeks, after which its members – including rising stars Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Miles himself – went their separate ways.

In 1956, the recordings were reissued under the title Birth Of The Cool, and have rarely been out of print. The music itself warranted that description. The scores abandoned swing-era clichés and anticipated the emergence of West Coast jazz. They had the harmonic complexity of bop, but without frantic tempos and the fireworks of Dizzy and Bird. Miles later said: “Bird and Diz play this hip, real fast thing, and if you weren’t a fast listener, you couldn’t catch the humour or the feeling of their music.” In contrast, these are textured, gentle and innovative excursions.

Apart from the instrumentalists, these seminal studio sessions owed much to the arrangers involved – Gil Evans (Boplicity and Moonbeams), John Lewis (Move and Budo), Johnny Carisi (Israel), Miles Davis (Deception) and Gerry Mulligan (Jeru, Godchild, Venus de Milo, Rocker, and Darn That Dream). The outstanding soloists are the nominal leader, Mulligan, Konitz and Roach. Every composition (including originals by Davis, Mulligan, Lewis and Carisi) receives flawless interpretation.

Gil Evans recalled that the concept framing the nonet “was to sound as full as possible, and still not be too large. It could still cover all the harmonic needs that the music could have and the range and tone colours.” Gerry Mulligan, in a liner note included on the original LP and reproduced here, praised some of the participants: Miles himself (“he took the initiative and put the theories to work”), Max Roach (“his melodic approach to my charts was a revelation to me”), and Lee Konitz (“genius”). But Mulligan also expressed his disappointment at not being recognised as the co-author of these sessions, although he quickly added: “I consider myself fortunate to be there. There’s a kind of perfection about those recordings.” There still is. Fortunately, Gerry was to achieve near “perfection” with his tribute album Re-Birth Of The Cool (1992).

My only niggling criticisms of this brightly coloured piece of vinyl (with excellent sound) are that Kenny Hagood, the stilted vocalist on Darn That Dream, is not included in the listing of personnel, while John Lewis was the arranger of S’il Vous Plait and Why Do I Love You? (although these titles appear only on the “live” dates included on the CD The Complete Birth Of The Cool). That said, be “cool” and just listen.

(1) Jeru; Move; Godchild; Budo; (2) Venus De Milo; Rouge; Boplicity; Israel; (3) Deception; Rocker; Moonbeams; Darn That Dream (33.11)
Davis (t); Lee Konitz (as); Gerry Mulligan (bar); Bill Barber (tu) on all tracks, accompanied by:
(1) Kai Winding (tb); Junior Collins (frh); Al Haig (p); Joe Shulman (b); Max Roach (d). New York, 21 January 1949.
(2) J.J. Johnson (tb); Sandy Siegelstein (frh); John Lewis (p); Nelson Boyd (b); Kenny Clarke (d). NY, 22 April 1949.
(3) Johnson (tb); Gunther Schuller (frh); Lewis (p); Al McKibbon (b); Max Roach (d); Kenny Hagood (v) on Darn That Dream only. NY, 9 March 1950.
Waxtime In Color 950627