Review Summary: A lift to the scaffold..
It makes perfect sense that Miles Davis’ dysphoric brand of New York City bop conflated so well with the mannered noir sensibilities that the emerging French New Wave cinema was mining in the late 50’s. Grim and spare introspection was the rule of way, and dapper contemplation, however theatrical and put-upon, shaped the skeleton of every stock character that Nouvelle Vague would soon be overrun with; doe-eyed innocents, eloquent anti-heroes, hard-boiled roughnecks and femme fatales as far as the eye could see.
Tense, cabalistic and stylishly kitschy, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
made stars out of both director Louis Malle and his leading lady Jeanne Moreau. Today the film itself exists somewhere at a midway spot between an early entry point into the work of a soon-to-be formidable director, and a cult film of the inherently ‘bad’ pulp detective genre. The transcendent nature of Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
has little to do with its banal plot and everything with how it depicted its heroes. Malle’s uncompromisingly unflattering physical portrait of the movie’s heroine sent French New Wave onto a path of determined realism, showing its characters to be as blemished on the outside as they were internally. The film’s intermissions from its main plot consisted of long, slow close-ups of Moreau’s face, lit up in all its human flaws by streetlights and café lanterns, every crease and asymmetrical twist on full display. It forged a new standard of pragmatism and all its underpinned philosophies, a standard that New Wave’s iconoclasts Godard and Truffaut would soon turn into a thriving scene. And behind every suspended still of existential humanity in Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
was Davis’ moody trumpet.
Listening to Davis’ score outside the context of the film’s gloomy cityscapes lends the listener just as transporting an experience, and speaks to just how adroit and insular his compositions were already becoming at that point. He was still a year or so away from reuniting with Coltrane and Adderley to cut Milestones
, a record that would send him on his first streak of masterpieces, one that would be capped off with the tender and patient Sketches of Spain
. But his early conflagrations with his Quintet had already made a star and visionary of him, enough to be invited to shape the score of Ascenseur
. Despite being recorded in Paris with a French session band, without Ascenseur
as a pivotal point, the pieces themselves sound like most everything Davis was putting on record during that period. It’s a love letter to New York City at the turn of the decade; cracked pavement, Judy Garland cinema marquees and cigarette advertisements.
“Générique” starts off Ascenseur
. Short and achingly elegant, it still stands as one of Davis’ finest early moments. From there, Ascenseur
shifts in equal measure between dour slow burns (Au Bar du Petit Bac) and frantic hard bop bursts (Sur L’autoroute). It’s all as effortless and prodigious as Davis’ best. Very early forms of what would come to be known as ‘sheets of sound’ can be heard here. The playing mode, developed by Coltrane and Davis, first on Milestones
, and the further fleshed-out on Soultrane
, consisted of compressed improvisational displays of bent notes, shifting pitches and violent gliss. ‘Sheets of sound’ is rightfully attributed to Coltrane, as his late 50’s output would define the technique. But Davis’ hand in the process is difficult to disregard. His audible need to broaden sound and expand jazz discipline into singular, Pollock-like, un-replicable performances sits all over Ascenseur
, and would soon be a driving force behind all of his work ethic.
circulates in several editions, some boasting all the variations Davis was trying for the score. And while the ad nauseam amount of takes can lend audiophiles and musicians an immersive look into Davis’ process, the record in its original 10-piece form is a taut marvel. Note for note, it effortlessly rubs shoulders with some of his most esteemed and enduring work. Along with the film it took its cues from, Ascenseur
is a vital footnote in the history of one of the most fertile and invaluable periods of artistic innovation.