Miles Davis Sextet:
Miles Davis – trumpet
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley – alto saxophone
John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
William “Red” Garland – piano
Paul Chambers – bass
“Philly” Joe Jones – drums
Not nearly as famous as Kind of Blue, but featuring the same horn section as the tour de force album recorded in February and March of 1959, Milestones is an excellent precursor to Kind of Blue. Certainly the latter album is universally known as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, jazz album ever recorded, but listening to Milestones shows the transition period that Miles and his group were in. From traditional jazz arrangements using the European harmonic system, which depends on the chords at any particular moment to the Lydian Chromatic Concept proposed by George Russell, modern jazz theorist and close friend to Miles Davis, which for lack of better words means “freedom from chords” – a way of playing in one or more scales or modes – all the songs on this album blend exceptionally well with each other. The earliest and probably most famous type of “horizontal playing” would be the blues. One of the most representative characteristics of playing in a modal sense is that , according to Miles Davis, “You don’t have to worry about the [chord] changes… The challenge is to see how inventive you can become melodically”. In other words, the soloist must have fertile, imaginative melodic statements to drive the listener in addition to the rest of the band.
Milestones is a great compromise in that the traditional methods of jazz that Miles had played in the past and the modal jazz that he would become most famous for fit together on the album and show an explicit sense of the direction that he was leading as a composer, performer, and a bandleader. This album is often overshadowed by Kind of Blue because of its lack of depth, on a superficial level anyway, but this album is certainly the first of many ground-breaking albums from the small groups led by Miles Davis at the zenith of his career.
Unlike Kind of Blue, Milestones consists of all medium to up-tempo bebop tunes that have a certain aggressive edge to them in every sense of the word aggressive. This album is a milestone in itself in that it is the only album that was ever recorded with this sextet and the title track was the first modal tune written by Miles Davis. It should also be noted that despite the celebrity of this album for including Davis’ first modal tune, the album is predominantly blues-based. “Sid’s Ahead” and the cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” are sublime examples of this style of playing.
The rhythm section in particular on this album is superb. “Philly” Joe Jones plays with conviction, audacity, and virtuosity that few other jazz drummers attempt at any point in their careers; Jones would employ multiple rhythms on his set as a rule more than an exception to one. If any jazz bassist would be labeled as a virtuoso, the title would befit the then twenty-two year-old Paul Chambers who is most famous for the bass line to “So What” from Davis’ Kind of Blue.
The horn section on this album is outstanding as well. One of the most shocking elements is the trumpet playing on the opening track, “Dr. Jackle”. Any intelligible musician who is well-versed in this area of jazz without having prior knowledge of the group or album would immediately identify the trumpeter as being Clifford Brown, famous for expeditiously playing the full range of his horn at fiery tempos. In fact, it is none other than Miles Davis. His early days of playing with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was the best preparation for playing this fast bop tune. Despite the blues clichés that plagued most of his career, “Cannonball” Adderley’s playing is superlative on this album. Adderley himself received a degree in music education at Florida State University and shortly after took a job as a music teacher at a high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As a result, it is plausible to assume that his educational background in music helped him initially become more comfortable to play modally than Coltrane, although ironically Coltrane would be the most famous saxophonist to write modal tunes, his albums Giant Steps and A Love Supreme (see my review for the latter album) being prime examples of this writing style.
Without any further delay, here is my track-by-track review:
1) “Dr. Jackle” – As I stated in the preceding paragraph, the opening of this album would infer that Clifford Brown is the trumpeter on this track. It is uncanny that Miles Davis is in fact the trumpeter because of his famed economy of notes and the genius of the simplicity in the way that he executes his solos. The bluesy tracks on Kind of Blue would be examples of the quintessential Miles Davis. Listening to the first twenty seconds of this song is comparable to the “Big Bang” in that it is a huge explosion of notes that on first impression leaves the listener in awe of what has just occurred. Miles’ trumpet solo on this track has a very raw, human tone to it – the antithesis of his signature refined, vibrato-free tone. After Miles’ solo, Adderley and Coltrane “duel” with each other trading eight-bar solos playing furiously and competitively as to out due each other. Miles would often whisper into the ears of one of them while the other was soloing and complement the soloist to drive the other saxophonist to play better. Despite the addition of two saxophonists in this group, the opening is reminiscent of the days of bop greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing together in the bebop style. After the solo section, the trumpet and piano play a short call-and-response section leading into a spectacular “Philly” Joe Jones drum solo and returning to the song’s main theme. 5/5
2) “Sid’s Ahead” – The next track is almost the antithesis of the opener in contrast with a medium swing tempo, but staying with the blues theme. The song is Miles’ tribute to New York City disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torin. This song features a laid back tenor sax solo by Coltrane. The main theme played by the whole group is played with a dynamic, sforzando marking, meaning that the strongly accented notes make a gradual increase similar to a zooming effect. Miles’ trumpet solo is also very relaxed and shows the classic, economic soloing style that he is famous for. Adderley’s solo shows that his musical voice is maturing melodically while staying true to his blues roots. Chambers’ bass solo exhibits that he is comparable on the bass to the other musicians and their respective instruments. 5/5
3) “Two Bass Hit” – Written by John Lewis, former pianist of Dizzy Gillespie and leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, this track is another driving, dynamic piece. The trumpet in the main theme distinctly accented and the saxophones add a nice conformity as well. Coltrane’s tenor solo is expectedly the highlight of the piece. 5/5
4) “Milestones” – Now onto the title track – the most ambitious, electrifying, and progressive of the album. The main theme starts off with a medium-tempo drum beat and an accented, syncopated horn line. The muted trumpet is hypnotizing and harmonizes beautifully with the off-beat responses from the saxophones. Directly following the main theme is “Cannonball” Adderley’s most spectacular alto solo on the album and, in my opinion, the best of his career. Unlike most of his other works, Adderley seems very assured, relaxed, and directional. The notes in his solo are not just placed at random – there is a purpose and a logical pattern behind it that gives him his ebullient, joy-inducing sound that he is known and respected for. By music standards, Coltrane’s solo is great, but a closer listen will uncover that he is hesitant and figuratively feeling his way like a blind man searches for a path with his cane. 5/5
5) “Billy Boy”- The most commercial song on the album is also the least impressive. That is not to diminish the brilliant piano work by Red Garland, but this track is lacking the horn section that raises this sextet above the competition. Paul Chambers’ arco solo (with a bow) is brilliant and Philly Joe keeps the track swinging throughout. There is almost always one song that impedes an album from being the greatest by an artist or group and “Billy Boy” does that to this album by not being up to par to the rest of the songs. 3.5/5
6) “Straight, No Chaser” – The last track from the original album is a bluesy cover of a Thelonious Monk standard. Coltrane seems most comfortable soloing on this track because of the year-and-a-half that he had played with the Thelonious Monk Quartet. Miles’ solo on this track is stellar and has a vocal, sing-able quality to it comparable to the “Freddie Freeloader” solo on Kind of Blue. Red Garland marks this track with another dynamic solo using more aggression and force than his usual light touch to the keys. Chambers chimes in as well as he keeps the spirit and the swing of the song going. The group repeats the main theme and suddenly fades out to end the album. 5/5
In addition, the remastered cd includes alternate takes of “Two Bass Hit”, “Milestones” and “Straight, No Chaser” originally released in the box set Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961
7) “Two Bass Hit” – The track opens as dynamically as the master take, but the only major difference is Coltrane’s solo. Coltrane starts out more relaxed than the original. Both are first-rate solos and determining which is “better” is strictly based on personal opinion. 5/5
8) “Milestones” – At the commencement of this alternate take, it is apparent that this was not chosen as the master take because of a hesitance in the first few seconds from the drums and the horns starting the song instead. Shortly after the beginning the track comes into place paramount to the master take. Adderley’s solo starts out more conservative and perhaps not as ambitious, but he is still at the pinnacle of his melodic creativity. Miles breaks into another dramatic and simplistic solo as well. Furthermore, Coltrane seems much more relaxed on this take than the master. 5/5
9) “Straight, No Chaser” – The alternate take of this song starts out marginally slower than the master take, but Coltrane’s two solos are just as fierce as the original. Miles’ solo seems to be more playful and relaxed than the original take and equally as exciting. Red Garland’s piano solo is much more cheery than the original and parallels Wynton Kelly’s solo from Kind of Blue’s “Freddie Freeloader”. Chambers solo on this version seems jumpier and more vivacious than the original. The whole group returns to end the song similar to the master take. This song is a great end to a marvelous album.
Shortly after the recording of this album, Miles fired Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones for their unreliability and unpredictability due to heroin. He would add Bill Evans on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums to complete the classic lineup for Kind of Blue. I strongly recommend listening to Kind of Blue after this album to see how Miles and the group develops, although Kind of Blue is commonly the album that compels music lovers to listen to Miles Davis and even goes as far as opening up the entire genre of jazz. Regardless, I give Milestones a big 4.5 stars.