Miles Davis ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’

‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ captures a compelling snapshot in time in the perpetual motion machine that was the artistry of Miles Davis. By early 1963, several of Miles’ frequent musical collaborators had moved on, and he was in search of a new team to bring his next set of innovations to life. First, Miles headed west, with two days of sessions in Hollywood leading a quartet backed by Victor Feldman-piano, Ron Carter-bass, and Frank Butler-drums. These ballads (1,3, and 5 on the LP) feature heart-wrenching solos by Miles, and Ron Carter’s bass playing on the album opener “Basin Street Blues” should be enshrined in a bass Hall of Fame somewhere. Miles returned to New York the following month, and those tracks—2, 4, and 6 on the LP, recorded on this day 14 May 1963—are more uptempo. The NYC band is a nascent Second Great Quintet: George Coleman-tenor sax, Ron Carter-bass, Herbie Hancock-piano, and Tony Williams-drums. Williams—only 17 at the time—had just been poached from Jackie McLean’s group, where he’d made quite the impression on McLean’s inside/outside ‘One Step Beyond.’ Williams’ playing was charged, pushing everyone to go the extra mile. Clearly, the chemical reaction between Williams, Carter, and Hancock was what Miles was looking for, and so began a year or so of live dates where this quintet would take the standards in the classic Miles live book to tempos and variations that pushed the boundaries further and further, culminating in Coleman’s departure and Wayne Shorter’s arrival in 1964. While it’s tempting to slot SSTH as a “middle child” between the great quintets, it stands proudly on its own merits. Three superb ballads, a killer title track, and the Victor Feldman original “Joshua” (which Davis would keep in his live book for almost a decade, though interestingly Feldman does not play on the track here) are more than enough to make this a classic

Charles Mingus ‘Mingus Ah Um’

Smart. Sensitive. Funny. Poignant. Complex. Charming. Engaging. The range of ‘Mingus Ah Um’ is staggering. Stylistically, it covers a lot of ground, with gospel, blues, hard-bop, and nods to Mingus’s classical roots woven throughout. And whether you’re most taken with the moving balladry of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” or the perpetual motion machine of “Bitter Git It In Your Soul,” the compositions, arrangements, and playing are all top-shelf. I’m endlessly fascinated by this record. Mingus deployed an approach that took each musicians’ style into account, creating a situation where collective improvisation and spontaneous composition played to everyone’s strengths. The result is everything sounds both carefully planned and spur-of-the-moment at the same time. It’s genius, and a joy to hear. Charles Mingus-bass; Booker Ervin-tenor sax; John Handy-alto/tenor sax, clarinet; Shafi Hadi, alto/tenor sax; Jimmy Knepper & Willie Dennis-trombones; Horace Parlan-piano; and Dannie Richmond-drums. Recording ‘Mingus Ah Um’ took place beginning 7 May 1959 and wrapped on this date, 12 May

Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet

The Miles Davis Quintet recorded four albums of material over two dates in 1956, one of which was today, 11 May. All four are essential snapshots of one of the most important small combo jazz groups of their era who helped define the hard-bop sound. Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’, & Steamin’ With all feature John Coltrane-tenor sax, Red Garland-piano, Paul Chambers-Bass and Philly Joe Jones-drums. Personally, I tend to get obsessed with the @milesdavis Second Great Quintet, but when I go back to these records I’m always reminded of how freakin’ amazing they are. For example, take a good listen to the opening ballad from this LP “It Never Entered My Mind”, a Rogers & Hart tune that Miles had previously done a couple of years earlier with Horace Silver. The performance here is transcendent—if it doesn’t give you all the feels, check yourself for a pulse. Seriously. This track is all about Miles, Red Garland and Paul Chambers. John Coltrane plays only two notes, and both of them are PERFECT. “It Never Entered My Mind” could be my answer to questions like “Why jazz?” Or “Why Miles?” Or “What do you mean by ‘feel’ in music?” and still it’s just the tip of the iceberg. All four of these Miles Prestige albums belong in your library, whether as individual LP titles or through the excellent @craftrecordings collection which presents them in a single boxed collection, chronologically. The 26 tracks recorded over these two dates were all first takes, and represent Miles leaving Prestige on a high note, prepped to join Columbia Records to level up and take things even further

Kenny Burrell ‘Freedom’

Kenny Burrell’s ‘Freedom’ is an under-discussed title in his discography. It combines two different sessions, one from March 1963 with Hank Jones-piano/organ, Seldon Powell-baritone sax/flute, Milt Hinton-bass, & Osie Johnson-drums; and one from Oct 1964 with Stanley Turrentine-tenor sax, Herbie Hancock-piano, Ben Tucker-bass, Bill English-drums, & Ray Barreto-congas. Allegedly, both sessions were difficult, with multiple takes required before achieving satisfactory results, and neither session producing enough material for a full album. So both sessions were shelved, and Burrell—who only did a couple of sessions as a sideman for Blue Note in between those recording dates, including the excellent ‘Hustlin’ LP with Turrentine—wouldn’t record for the label as a leader again until his return to Blue Note in the mid-80s for a couple of live records. ‘Freedom’ made its first appearance in Japan on LP in 1979, and in the US via Music Matters in 2011 (this pressing, 2 X LP @ 45RPM). So far as I know, there is no digital or CD version. Given the differences in session dates and players, the material covers quite a bit of ground, from funky soul-jazz to evening, hard-bop grooves that sound like they could have been outtakes from ‘Midnight Blue.’ A different take on “K Twist” does appear on ‘Midnight Blue,’ but I’ll leave it up to you as to which version you’d like to call the “outtake.” All of the material is strong, and both sessions were very well recorded by the Notorious RVG—I can see why Music Matters chose such relatively obscure sessions for release. The tracks may be individually scattered across compilations, box sets and playlists, though a quick scan of the digital services doesn’t look promising. Too bad…this is great stuff

Elvin Jones / McCoy Tyner ‘Illumination’

There was a series of old television advertisements for Reese’s Peanut Butter cups where the meeting of a chocolate bearing individual and a peanut butter toting individual resulted in an initial moment of outrage:
Chocolate person: “You got peanut butter on my chocolate!”
Peanut Butter Person: “Well, *you* got chocolate in my peanut butter!”
All was well moments later as the calming narrator’s voice assured us that “two great tastes that taste great together” was the outcome. That’s also what you’ve got with ‘Illumination!’ On this 1963 date for Impulse! John Coltrane’s famous rhythm section of Elvin Jones-drums, Jimmy Garrison-bass, and McCoy Tuner-piano, met up in the studio with the edgy frontline of Prince Lasha-clarinet/flute, Sonny Simmons-alto sax/English horn, & Charles Davis-baritone sax. While the frontline wasn’t nearly as well-known as Trane’s gang and came from a freer stylistic place, they are wonderfully simpatico with the rhythm section. They also brought their “A” game, playing adventurously but with tremendous swing. There aren’t blasts of atonality, deliberate attempts to drive melody from the room, or abrasive avant-garde games of “where’s the 1?”. Instead, the six tracks which play out over 30 minutes are chock full of killer solos that take flight over deep bluesy grooves. There are also drum/alto conversations that make any talk you had today seem comparatively boring, and some inside/outside playing that makes you want to explore the music of every player on this record even more deeply. Davis takes a more straightforward approach than Lasha/Simmons, but his playing is exemplary—I need to hear more of his work. Lasha/Simmons had already recorded the excellently edgy ’The Cry’ for Contemporary in ’62. While that record is pretty great, the MUST-HEAR record they made is the difficult-to-find-but-worth-searching-for ‘Firebirds,’ also recorded for Contemporary in ’67. Great stuff

John Coltrane ‘Giant Steps’

Day 2 of recording wrapped up on this day, 5 May, 1959. Other than the track “Naima”, Trane’s work on ‘Giant Steps’ was done. The title track is a marvel. 26 chord changes across the 16-bar theme have wreaked havoc in band practice rooms for decades, but for those of us who don’t have to solo over the changes, the swing, intensity, surprise, delight, hook, groove, and velocity are INFECTIOUS. It’s a standard for good reason. As is “Naima”, the only time NOT recorded over those two days in May, but in Dec of that year with Miles’ rhythm section. “Naima” was Trane’s favorite composition, and one that ran a gamut of emotions in his live book for years.
This record is a lot. I don’t know that I’d recommend it as an intro/starter John Coltrane record, but you’ll want it eventually, and no jazz collection is complete without it. Others have written in more depth about this record about which more should be said–an Instagram review doesn’t do it proper justice. A milestone in jazz.

Ron Carter ‘All Blues’

I don’t know Mr. Carter personally, but from what I know *OF* him, he’d probably cringe if I used the expression “living legend,” so I’m not going to do that, even though he deserves it. I will wish him a happy 83rd birthday and many happy returns of the day. I could have shown any number of his records in celebration– after all, he’s the most recorded bassist in jazz history, having played on over 2,200 sessions. He’s also a multiple Grammy winner, a multi-decade professor with a strong dedication to music education at various universities, an actor, composer, and author. I spun this LP earlier and enjoyed the title track in particular. Carter’s approach is so confident, and you can’t help but feel that he knows EXACTLY what he’s doing and that even if the situation changes, he’ll roll with Plan B, turning on a dime in an equally confident, relaxed, steady manner. This “Tao of Ron Carter” actually seems like a pretty good approach to life in general!
It’s hard to pick a favorite Ron Carter moment amongst so much great music, though I often turn to this ‘All Blues’ record (CTI 1973), his work on Andrew Hill’s ‘Passing Ships,’ the track “Basin Street Blues” from ‘Seven Steps to Heaven,’ and of course his famous bass line on “Footprints” from ‘Miles Smiles’. “Footprints” in particular gets me every time, as he and drummer Tony Williams toss 12/8 and 4/4 time back and forth with both muscle and magic. I never tire of listening to it, and though I’m not a bass player, I understand why bassists have been studying it—and arguing over exactly what he’s actually playing/doing—for over five decades. It’s amazing.
More power to you, Ron

Thelonious Monk ‘Criss-Cross’

Much has been written about Monk’s 40s/50s Blue Note/Prestige/Riverside recordings vs his 60s Columbia recordings. Generally, opinions look more favorably upon his earlier work. This is understandable, as Monk’s groundbreaking compositions of that era made him one of the most-recorded jazz composers, ever. But many of those 50s records could also be enigmatic if not downright baffling to get one’s head around, particularly if new to the music of Monk. So while Monk’s LPs for Columbia don’t have as quite much to offer in terms of new compositions, you can’t beat them for the excellence of the performances, and the togetherness of his band (both ‘Criss-Cross’ and ‘Monk’s Dream’ feature one of Monk’s most stable, long-term quartets that include Charlie Rouse-tenor sax, John Ore-bass, and Frankie Dunlop-drums). If anything, the tight playing of this particular small combo underscores the brilliance of the compositions. The quirkiness of Monk’s approach to songwriting, and his often idiosyncratic delivery don’t make for good background music regardless of label or era, but *IF* there is such a thing as a “feel good” Monk record, this is probably it. I’m still not sure I’d call it happy music, but ‘Criss-Cross’ is overall rather upbeat in tone, largely due to how confident both Monk and the rest of the quartet sound throughout. The program is split between several classic Monk tunes, and a couple of standards. A fine record—a recommended “starter” Monk record for newbies, but there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here even if you’re a self-proclaimed Monk Blue Note/Prestige/Riverside snob! Personally, I love this record and consider ‘Criss-Cross’ an essential @theloniousmonk album

Kohsuke Mine Quintet ‘Daguri’

A high-energy, modal/spiritual, face-melter of a jazz record that packs a mighty wallop. Fans of McCoy Tyner’s early 70s Milestone records will go bonkers over this. Kohsuke Mine handles both tenor and soprano sax and is the composer of all five mid-to-long tracks on ‘Daguri’. He’s joined by Hideo Miyata (tenor sax), Fumio Itabashi (piano), Hideaki Mochizuki (bass) and Hiroshi Murakami (drums). The opening track is molten intensity, as the saxes and piano intertwine and build the tension, somehow digging the groove deeper while soaring higher. They dare one another to keep up and the challenge is accepted as each peak is reached and transcended. The drum and piano work throughout moves from intricate to manic to hyperactive—the first track alone will leave you breathless and reaching for another coffee. But the instrumental verbosity never steps on the tunefulness…groove, swing, and virtuosity co-exist in ideal proportions on every track. There’s only one tune, “Self Contradiction” that’s on the downtempo side. Otherwise, you should set the gearshift for the high gear of your soul! The title track appeared on the compilation J-Jazz Vol 2 which came out last year, but the full LP is very much worth seeking out. A bit of a tough pull on vinyl, but it is available across the digital spectrum and also received a CD reissue recently so it’s around. Lethal, but who ever said great jazz was safe?

Charles Tolliver/Music Inc. ‘Live at Slugs’

Today marks the 50th anniversary of this remarkable live set of exploratory modal/post-bop that Mr. Charles Tolliver himself has called out as a personal favorite. The audience at Slugs that night must have been pinned to their seats by the intensity of this Music Inc. quartet which also includes Stanley Cowell (piano), Cecil McBee (bass) and Jimmy Hopps (drums). All give stellar performances. Fans of Woody Shaw’s work or ‘Live at the Lighthouse’-era Lee Morgan will *LOVE* this album, which never quite drifts into avant territory though it does peek through the fence to take a glance once in a while. Tracking down Strata East vinyl isn’t easy—original pressings are scarce, bootlegs sound pretty crummy, and unfortunately both volumes have yet to see a modern vinyl reissue, but hopefully an enterprising boutique label might step in? (Looking at you @purepleasurerecords !) However you *CAN* pick them up in (to be honest) much better sound quality as part of the Charles Tolliver ‘Mosaic Select 20’ triple CD, which combines both volumes of the Slugs LPs, the equally terrific (and difficult to find) ‘Live in Tokyo 73’ LP, and a third CD which combines additional tracks from BOTH Slugs and Tokyo which were left off the original LPs due to time constraints. Sound quality on that third CD is a bit thinner than the originally released material but not so much so to impair any listening enjoyment, and the unreleased material is KILLER. Hat tip to Tolliver’s vision in forming Strata East which took a lot of guts—Strata East aspired to establish a greater degree of artist independence in an industry rife with exploitation, institutionalized racism, and the prioritization of commercial potential over artistry. As stated on the back of Vol 1 “MUSIC INC was created out of the desire to assemble men able to see the necessity for the survival of a heritage and an Art in the hopes that the sacrifices and high level of communication between them will eventually reach every soul