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Discographical Details

Artist: Miles Davis.
Title: Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet.
Label and Catalogue Number: Prestige PRLP 7200.
Personnel: Miles Davis (trumpet); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Red Garland (piano); Paul Chambers (bass); “Philly” Joe Jones (drums).
Side 1: Surrey with the Fringe on Top; Salt Peanuts; Something I Dreamed Last Night.
Side 2: Diane; Well You Needn’t; When I Fall in Love.
Recording Date: 11 May 1956 and 26 October 1956 at the Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey, USA.

On The Record

Selection: When I Fall in Love.

I’ve been steering clear of posting about the legendary Prestige sessions of the First Great Miles Davis Quintet but I don’t think I can postpone taking the plunge any longer now that I have original pressings of three of the four records that these two dates produced. Notice I’ve written “original” rather than “first” pressings but more of that at a later date. For now, let’s get into this particular record…

The circumstances and history of Davis’ final two Prestige recording sessions is well-known and documented elsewhere, so I won’t dwell too long on the details here but it is worth an overview since Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet is the first of the records from those sessions that I’m covering. Suffice to say that Davis’ ambitions had led him to seek a recording contract with a major record label (i.e. Columbia) and all the financial, logistical and promotional firepower offered by such a deal. The catch was that Davis was still under contract with Prestige. The deal brokered between Prestige’s Bob Weinstock, Columbia and Davis was that Davis would record enough new material for Prestige in 1956 to meet his contractual obligations prior to leaving and starting to record for Columbia with the proviso that Columbia would not release any material until the following year.

This arrangement seemed to suit everybody: Columbia got their man, Prestige got the material it was due and Davis got the move he craved. Davis also, incidentally, found a way to distinguish between his last Prestige dates and the start of his Columbia career via the smart move of insisting that the final Prestige dates would be used to record material from the quintet’s live “book” and, given the time contraints, each tune would be done in one take. These turned out to be inspired decisions: the band knew the material inside out so the performances were well-honed; and the one take nature of the sessions lent an intimate “live in the studio” air to proceedings – right down to the between takes chatter captured on the master tapes and, in several instances, preserved on the records themselves.

The total output from two days of recording was 26 tracks – enough material for Prestige to issue four legendary LPs: Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige PRLP 7094), Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige PRLP 7129), Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige PRLP 7166) and (you get the idea) Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige PRLP 7200) in chronological order of release. Weinstock was a canny operator, so he spread the release dates of these four records over a period of years from 1957 to 1961. Via that expedient, he was able to maximize sales of each record by not saturating the market and ride on the coat tails of Columbia’s promotional machine to get what effectively amounted to free marketing.

The other critical commercial factor was the programming of each record. Weinstock didn’t put the best material on the first release and then let the quality gradually slide with subsequent releases (bear in mind were talking in relative terms here – all the material is high quality). The result being that all four LPs are very desirable and for many people, me included, it’s hard to pick a favourite.

For no other reason than it’s the one that has recently been cleaned, I’m starting with the last of the four records: Steamin’, released in 1961. But what we get here is typical of all the records in the set – the combination of perky show tunes, emotionally taut ballads and bop standards that was this group’s trademark.

Indeed, the sequencing of the LP seems purposefully done to highlight these aspects with a remarkable symmetry between the sides: both begin with the type of medium tempo swinger that was this group’s speciality, followed by a bop standard leading to a closing ballad that served as a showcase for Davis’ muted trumpet technique with Coltrane sitting out.

In the case of Side A, it’s Surrey with the Fringe on Top from the musical Oklahoma! that sets the initial pace and provides plenty of soloing space for trumpet, saxophone and piano with bass and drums holding things steady. Right from the start, it is noticeable how Jones adjusts his backing to suit each soloist and how he extracts a variety of timbres from the cymbals. Things accelerate greatly for the rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts which, aside from being the drum feature of the record, demonstrates tight dovetailing between the horns on the theme and at the handover between solos. The side closes with Something I Dreamed Last Night, one of several ballad performances from these sessions that exude a late night bar ambience.

It’s rinse and repeat for Side B: this time Diane is the limbering up performance, followed by Davis and Coltrane proficiently exchanging lines on Well You Needn’t which makes room for Chambers to show off his acro talents on the bass. The set closes with another smokey after hours turn from Davis on When I Fall in Love with poised backing from Garland’s piano work. Then that’s it… Time to metaphorically close the bar, turn out the lights and send the punters home happy to their beds.

Prestige pressings don’t hit the sonic heights of Blue Note’s Plastylite pressings but the engineering and mastering share the same Van Gelder DNA. The ones with the black and yellow fireworks labels offer the best transport back in time to these classic sessions. My copy, while exhibiting a few clicks and pops, is very clean and makes for a lovely evening with the lights down low and a single malt at my elbow.

Between The Lines

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It’s interesting to note that each of the four records derived from the two recording sessions was graced with liner notes by a different author. For this, the last of the set, the honour went to Joe Goldberg. His name may not be the most familiar but his writing graced many records starting in 1957 with Sonny Rollins’ Newk’s Time (Blue Note BLP 4001). Early in his writing career, Goldberg supported himself by also working at the original Sam Goody record store in New York but I get the feeling that by the time he was commissioned for this LP, he was well established in his chosen career.

These must have been hard liner to notes to tackle, not least because three other authors had taken the first bites of the cherry. So little original would have remained to say about the musicians or the two recording sessions. In the face of this challenge, Goldberg played with a straight bat: the reader is eased in with a couple of historical scene setting paragraphs and then it’s straight to an acknowledgement that this is the “final selection”.

Cross-reference and comparison with the earlier records is Goldberg’s device for describing the tunes selected for this record and placing them in context of their predecessors. But in the middle of this we are treated to one of the most famous and para-phrased passages ever written about the First Great Quintet: “The group consisted, we are told, of a trumpet player who could play only in the middle register and fluffed half his notes; an out-of-tune tenor player; a cocktail pianist; a drummer who played so loud that no-one else could be heard; and a teen-age bassist”. Of course, this isn’t a view to which Goldberg (or his paymasters, for that matter) subscribed and he proceeds to make this abundantly clear.

The closing paragraphs give Goldberg the chance to muse on Davis’ fame, his position in relation to other show business stars of the era and how that fame may endure. Perhaps more interesting to jazz fans, though, is the immediately preceding section which focuses on Davis’ admiration of pianist Ahmad Jamal. I wonder if these liner notes were the first time when this now widely known appreciation came to public attention. Davis’ regard for Jamal comes through loud and clear when Goldberg quotes his unequivocally positive statement that “all my inspiration today comes from Chicago pianist, Ahmad Jamal”. Goldberg, however, is waspish in response and takes a couple of sharp digs at Jamal’s importance. It’s dangerous territory for the jazz writer to aim his sights at musicians when to achieve even modest success in this genre takes extreme talent. Moreover, the New York jazz community was small and Goldberg must have run the risk of an awkward encounter with Jamal in one of the clubs!

For Collectors Only

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For Side A, we have the deep groove yellow and black fireworks label bearing the “203 South Washington Ave., Bergenfield, NJ.” address. The matrix number “PRLP 7200 A” is hand etched in Rudy Van Gelder’s all too recognisable style. The deadwax also contains an “RVG” stamp and a stylised “AB” hand etch which I believe to be the mark of the Abbey pressing plant. The Side B label is the same in all respects except, of course, that the hand etched matrix number reads “PRLP 7200 B”. A check on the ever dependable digital scales reveals a vinyl weight of 133g – perhaps slightly surprisingly light for a pressing of this vintage.

The delicious laminated front cover is in, to all intents and purposes, near mint condition. The rear cover is in similar shape save for a small brown mark near the top right corner of the rear. As a bonus, this beauty came with the original inner sleeve intact and pretty well preserved – something of a rarity for Prestige records of this vintage.

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So unless anybody has some arcane knowledge to the contrary, I’m chalking this one up as a fine first pressing.