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23 February 2000

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Portrait of a jazz master in his heydey

This is the best in the recent This is Jazz series. It maintains a consistent high standard

This is Jazz
Miles David Acoustic
Sony Music

Of all the recent cassettes in the This Is Jazz series, this is certainly the best, and has a uniformly high standard. The tracks here don't quite cover Miles's entire career in acoustic jazz (as against the electric phase, i.e., the jazz-rock fusion period). The pre-cool period, when Miles was into be-bop and for much of which he supported Charlie Parker, is unrepresented. Most of the music is from his days in cool and modal jazz.

Two numbers from the cool period have lush big bands with elaborately written arrangements, a format Miles favoured in those days. These were very different big bands from the swing bands of Ellington, Basie, Goodman or such like. The orchestration sounded close to classical music in that most of the band played written parts, and hardly one or two instruments, usually Miles himself on trumpet, took solos. Springsville is from the celebrated album Miles Ahead, while Summertime is from Miles's landmark interpretation of George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess. It's one of the most celebrated versions of one of the all-time favourites of jazz musicians. Both feature Miles on trumpet leading the ensemble in playing the theme, with his simple, clear tones soaring above a much deeper-sounding chorus containing saxes and trombones besides French horns and even a tuba.

The other numbers are all small group sessions, Miles and one or two saxes plus piano, bass and drums. Many of them are from his modal music period, including So what?, the most famous number from the landmark album A Kind of Blue. This one has a quiet intro by piano and bass, followed by a series of solos from trumpet, tenor sax and alto sax. While Miles was by this time well into his technique of brief, well-timed pauses between notes, John Coltrane on tenor was just pioneering the opposite idea, called "sheets of sound" - a continuous cascade of notes with no breaks between them. A similar cascade follows from the alto sax of Cannonball Adderley.

Other numbers too follow a similar structure of two to four solos (including sometimes from piano, and in one case two contrasting tenor saxes, John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" following Hank Mobley on Some day my prince will come). Seven steps to heaven and Walkin' are fast-paced pieces tending to fall into the hard bop category, but most of the others on this album show Miles in his best, and for a long time his trademark, setting, with a relaxed tempo.


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