Monday, February 23, 2009

February 23: Miles Davis, "Birth Of The Cool"

Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Birth Of The Cool
Year: 1950
Label: Blue Note

Throughout the history of music, there are a handful of records that not so much "change" the music scene, as absolutely shatter it and forever alter the landscape. Usually, these records occur well into a musicians' career and are the fruits of decades of perfecting their craft. In 1950, up and coming trumpet player Miles Davis was able to accomplish this feat on his debut record. It has been forever enshrined in what may very well be the most important jazz record ever, Birth Of The Cool.

Birth Of The Cool
is most well known as it was really the first time that an artist had taken the "bop" sound of jazz and infused the jumping, full sound of the big-band era. With nearly a dozen horns, there are times when Birth Of The Cool sounds like a swing record than any sort of jazz record as the brass section bounces in perfect synchronicity. Recorded primarily over two sessions in 1949 and 1950, the group only performed a few dozen times but were never financially successful. This is truly amazing considering how pivotal the record was, as well as the all-star lineup that played on the sessions.

Musically, there is only so much one can say about Birth Of The Cool. Many of the biggest names in jazz either played on the record or took part in the countless "jam sessions" that led up to the recording. The music itself is the very definition of "cool," as it never gets too crazy or out of hand, and the rhythm remains steady throughout each piece. While this by no means infers that there is not a great deal of exploration or feeling, the songs remain controlled and never lose sight of the primary musical theme.

One of the most impressive aspects of the group dynamic on Birth Of The Cool is that they are able to keep a very quiet (read as "intimate") feel to the tunes even though there are well over a dozen musicians in the studio. The band plays along with one another, not trying to out-do each other, and the music benefits from this group humility. These sessions, arranged by the legendary Gil Evans, featured some of the most notable jazz musicians of all time including drummer Max Roach, pianist Al Haig, and trombonist Kai Winding. Since all involved were able to keep their egos in check and not "compete" with one another, there aren't any points where they "over play" the music or play too forcefully. Therefore, the mood remains very relaxed and it rarely sounds like there are as many musicians on the songs are there truly are.

Miles Davis' name is nearly synonymous with the word "jazz." Over his fifty years of recording, he created new styles and sounds constantly. During the late sixties, he would reclaim his significance by melding jazz and rock with the exalted Bitches' Brew. While that record helped to move jazz into a new era, his debut record, Birth Of The Cool, was everything the title advertises. Without this seminal work, there may very well have been no "beat generation," no funk music, and perhaps no Coltrane. To say Birth Of The Cool is an essential record is a massive understatement. Perhaps it's better to say that if you are looking to own the most influential jazz record ever, this is the one for your collection.

Standout tracks: "Jeru," "Venus De Milo" and "Rouge."

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