Miles: back to mono
Like 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).