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Miles: back to mono

Miles in MonoLike a fool, I gave myself a Christmas present. After all, I could hardly justify asking anyone else to buy Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings for me. It’s just too much of a record-company scam. But I’m enough of an idiot to fall for it. Which is exactly what they’re counting on.

The trouble is that Miles Davis isn’t around any more. I spent around 30 years buying his records when he was alive, and more than 20 years later it’s still hard to get out of the habit. So every time they repackage something artfully enough, I open my wallet. It’s the nearest thing to having him back again.

And I can’t say I regret holding in my hand the black and white box containing The Original Mono Recordings, even though the nine albums in the package contain not a single note of music that I don’t already own (and in the case of several of the albums, several times over in marginally different forms). The albums included are Round About Midnight, Miles Ahead, Milestones, Jazz Track (including the Lift to the Scaffold soundtrack), Porgy and Bess, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come and Miles and Monk at Newport, recorded between 1957 and 1961, and all presented in card sleeves with miniaturised versions of their original US artwork. At the very least, it’s an excuse to listen again to the products of this phenomenally fertile and career-defining period.

The remastering engineer, Mark Wilder, talks in the accompanying booklet of how he “added a little more bass and mid-range” to Miles Ahead, “as well as a little high-treble equalisation to create air around the instruments,” and used a tube compressor to “tone down the treble a little” on Someday My Prince Will Come. Of course they sounded fine to most of us in their original monaural vinyl incarnations, thanks to the particular properties of Columbia’s 30th Street studio and the sensitive ears of the engineers, such as Fred Plaut and Harold Chapman, who worked there but go uncredited in this repackage.

You can listen to these “restored” versions with enormous pleasure, but direct comparisons reveal evidence not always supporting the implication behind the claim of George Avakian, Miles’s first producer at Columbia, that “mono has always been truer to the studio sound and the original intent”. When I flip back and forth between the mono and stereo versions of “Summertime”, a particular favourite from Porgy and Bess, it’s impossible not to notice how the stereophonic picture clarifies the individual voices in Evans’s horn arrangement behind Miles, while in mono they coalesce into a more recessed and undifferentiated blur of subdued colour. Maybe the latter effect is what the arranger had in mind, but somehow I doubt it. On the other hand, I much prefer the sound of Davis’s flugelhorn in the new mono versions of “Springsville” and “Blues for Pablo” from Miles Ahead: it’s more rounded, not so brightly burnished by the studio EQ, and somehow truer to itself.

These matters are less of a consideration when it comes to the combo albums, where mix and balance are more straightforward, although I’ve never been sure whether I prefer to hear “Milestones” — probably my favourite piece of music ever, when all is said and done — with all the instruments separated and laid out in a panorama, every detail highlighted, or with the tighter aural focus of the version in which I learnt to love it, and which still seems perfectly suited to its sense of forward movement.

Just in terms of the music, the album that interests me most at the moment is Someday My Prince Will Come, always seen as a transitional affair in terms of Davis’s career. Perhaps feeling that his basic 1961 working quintet with Hank Mobley on tenor was not stimulating enough, Miles invited John Coltrane back to play on two of the album’s six pieces, both in 3/4, a metre in which Coltrane was deeply involved with his own quartet: the title track (where he solos after Miles, Mobley and Wynton Kelly, providing the piece with its climax), and the modal, Spanish-tinged “Teo”, on which his long solo is an absolute beauty. Davis’s own playing is luminous and inventive thoroughout, particularly on “Teo” and the ballads: “Old Folks”, “Drad-Dog” and “I Thought About You”.

It’s wonderful to listen closely to this music again. And I certainly don’t want to do Mr Wilder — or the reissue producer, Steve Berkowitz — a disservice. Maybe their diligence has made it a little easier, for instance, to appreciate the genius of Paul Chambers on these marvellous recordings, to which the great bassist, with his lovely tone, impeccable note selection and peerless swing, contributed so much. And if that’s so, perhaps we can say the whole project was worthwhile.

* The photograph of Miles Davis (playing flugelhorn) was taken by Don Hunstein during the Miles Ahead sessions and appears in the booklet accompanying The Original Mono Recordings (Columbia/Legacy).

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. crocodilechuck #

    Uh, a 36 pg booklet and Fred Plaut didn’t even get namechecked? (!)

    January 1, 2014
    • Yes — I find it so hard to believe that I keep checking to confirm that it’s true. Just checked again. Nothing there that I can see.

      January 1, 2014
  2. Maurizio #

    Richard, this is one of the most beautiful review I have ever read. Thanks for writing it and for sharing it with us. Like John Cage used to say, Happy New Ears to you and to all the friends here in bloglandia.

    January 1, 2014
  3. Jeff Gifford #

    Thanks Richard your review helps me weigh the advantages of having this set. O won’t wait as long as I did for the Plugged Nickel box. Where now, it is near impossible for me to consider a purchase of that one.

    January 1, 2014
  4. Mike gibbs #

    Loved reading that – brings back fab memories.
    I was a student at Lenox summer jazz school 1960 – JJ Johnson and group came thru, played a concert, and stayed – so I was lucky enough to get a few lessons w/JJ –
    Right after that time, JJ joined that Miles group w/Hank Mobley – ( for about 18 months if memory serves)
    I went down to Village Vanguard on two occasions (from Boston) to hear them,
    And on one of them, Miles didn’t show.
    JJ and Hank played their own stuff.
    JJ was always my trombone hero but I think by this time actually they (JJ and Miles) weren’t really as matched or as inspiring for each other as before then. This group (around 1961) never recorded to my knowledge. I did see Miles in 1962 with Hank, but without JJ – in boston – and remember they played ‘Round Midnite –
    I took a photo!
    Gotta go ‘n listen again now…….
    Thanks so much.

    January 1, 2014
  5. Great review & happy New Year! I think I’m going to save my shekels for the next Bootleg entries – the first two were really fantastic. I reviewed the more recent one here:

    January 2, 2014
  6. Alan Codd #

    I’m a Nutcase too Richard, and appreciate this. I thought I was a Mono Freak until I heard ‘Sketches of Spain’ in Stereo for the first time, and reluctantly had the impression that previously I had been missing something. My sympathies are with you at this time of year. (Still mostly back Mono for Jazz.)

    January 2, 2014
  7. John Delaney #

    Surely the stereo and mono versions of some of these Miles Davis recordings are different takes?
    John Delaney

    January 2, 2014
    • I remember buying a cassette version of Miles Ahead that turned out to be an almost completely different set of takes from the original issue (and inferior); they were eventually gathered together on the Miles + Gil Evans box set. Otherwise, in general, I don’t think you’re right. But I stand to be corrected.

      January 2, 2014
    • Frank Crisp #

      Same takes different mixes. thats how most stereo and mono versions were done. listen to Sgt Pepper in mono and stereo. same takes different mixes.

      January 2, 2014
      • Alan Codd #

        The only occasion I know of a complete LP being recorded twice, once for Mono and once for Stereo, was June Christy’s ‘Something Cool’, where all the stereo takes were recorded at different sessions on different days.

        January 5, 2014
  8. Anthony #

    There is a lot of history to re-issues of Miles Ahead, you can google it, but the Phil Schaap remastered version from the late 90s really messed it up to my ears by removing any oomph from Miles’ contributions, that is, one of the main points of the music. Might not have the alternative takes etc, (to excite Phil Schaap and others) but the mono vinyl & earlier cd versions got Miles’ sound right. Also didn’t Phil Schaap put the brass shout on springsville on the wrong beat!

    January 2, 2014
  9. Alam Codd #

    According to an early edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz there was an infamous instance of Columbia Records reissuing ‘Miles Ahead’ in an edition that consisted of ALL alternate takes, without acknowledging the difference. I think this has been subsequently corrected. In terms that is of regular standard versions of ‘Miles Ahead’, perhaps. Richard is talking about this probably. Which was reviewed in ‘Penguin’ as a scandal.

    January 3, 2014
    • That’s the one. And it was indeed a prime example of record-company carelessness.

      January 3, 2014
    • The reissue of ‘Miles Ahead’, with the alternate takes: As I recall, this was why Teo was fired by Columbia.

      January 4, 2014
  10. Alan Codd #

    Pleased to have been able to have cleared this up, there is only one Alan Codd incidentally, and Alam Codd, though he made a relevant point, is an impostor. (Case of ATD, Richard, Happy New Year.)

    January 3, 2014
    • Alan Codd #

      P.S. I would just like to thank you Richard for this Review which says so exactly, and so clearly what my feelings and own thoughts are about this very topic. Your description of the comparison between the mono and stereo versions of ‘Summertime’ not only takes me straight back to the music, and a chance to make this same comparison, it is also the expression of a sort of standard that can be applied in innumerable instances. And these instances are not unimportant. For instance The Beatles. I have found just what you are talking about (you are on the subject of ‘Milestones’) in relation to the ‘Dead Centre’ Mono sound on ‘Rubber Soul’ myself, just to use one example of how the combination of two voices hits home in mono in a way that does not come across the same in stereo, and this is just your point too (in reverse) about the Gil Evans arrangement (of ‘Summertime’), heard in a different corner of the studio. A point which I only replicated in saying, I like ‘Sketches of Spain’ in Stereo. And why is it now that we are getting Stereo or Mono Choices, over The Complete Works of The Beatles, and Bob Dylan? And as you have recently brought to our attention, Miles Davis. I will read this Review of yours several times again. Not only because I collected Miles Davis for 30 years, but for its scientific and aesthetic content. What you say is more often than not exactly what other people hear.

      January 3, 2014
  11. Alan Codd #

    May I be allowed just a last bit of space to say something about this?

    The closest I have got to this 9 Cd Set in Mono is all the albums on vinyl, which I might use to remind me of what they are like. Interestingly, in connection with these different ‘forms’ (of the music), a Kind of Blue (USA) Stereo Vinyl album I have is a very interesting listen. Cannonball and Coltrane are in the Right Channel on one side, and when you turn the album over, and play the other side, the balance is the same, but they are in the Left Channel. The first time I did this I had the feeling that the Teams had changed sides in a Football Game, at Half Time, and were now facing in the different direction. I don’t know whether this feature is to be found in other versions of this music. It seemed to draw attention to itself as a difference, but also felt at the same time ‘balanced’. Could be a mistake.

    January 3, 2014
  12. John Delaney #

    Perhaps the most extraordinary example of differing stereo and mono albums was the Stan Getz/J.J.Johnson Opera House recordings.(sorry – wandering off topic a bit).
    The mono version recorded in Chicago 19 October 1957 and the stereo many miles away at the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, 25 October the same year. It is believed a failure of the stereo equipment on the earlier date was the reason.

    John Delaney

    January 5, 2014

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