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Pinnacles Of Jazz

November 2023
1min read

Miles Davis: The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, 1965

Smithsonian Institution Press/BMG RD 104 (two CDs) .

Rhino R2 71984 (seven CDs) .

Columbia/Legacy CXK 66955 (seven CDs) .

Three new releases present high points of jazz history in attractive, definitive packages. The Duke Ellington set contains selections from the Duke’s best Victor, Bluebird, and RCA recordings —which is to say many of his best recordings ever—beginning in the late 1920s, when his band and its sound seemed to appear from nowhere fully formed, through pathbreaking records like “Mood Indigo,” “Creole Rhapsody,” and “Concerto for Cootie,” and right up to works from the 1960s. The emphasis is on the earliest period, as it should be, the twenties and thirties, when the Duke and his band were defining sophistication and elegance and swing. If you want one set that conveys the brilliance and range of Duke Ellington’s music, get this one.

John Coltrane and Miles Davis, two of the last real giants of jazz, are caught at their peaks on their two new collections. The Coltrane box comprises all his recordings for the Atlantic label; made between 1959 and 1961, they include all the material that was first released on Giant Steps and My Favorite Things , two of the last serious jazz albums to attract a broad general audience. Coltrane was pushing the frontiers of music at the time, producing “sheets of sound,” experimenting with modal harmonies, struggling to wring every expressive possibility from his music. As the jazz historian Lewis Porter writes in his liner notes, “These recordings … have the freshness of discovery. They’re full of lightness and grace—buoyant, yet at the same time fiery, passionate, and deep.”

Coltrane had played with Miles Davis off and on in the 195Os, and they pursued similar paths in the early 1960s before the latter broke off into near atonality and jazz fusion. In 1965 Davis played an engagement at a Chicago nightclub called the Plugged Nickel with one of his great groups: Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The five drove one another to dizzying heights as they took improvisation on standard tunes as far as it seemed it could go. When they play “Stella by Starlight” they seem first to be dissecting the tune and then wandering around inside it, feeling it from within and watching as snatches of other tunes float by. In “My Funny Valentine” Miles seems to move right past the music to the feeling behind it, as glasses and cash registers clink in the background. This utterly absorbing, very challenging collection is marred only by overindulgent graphic design that makes the liner notes unreadable.

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