Miles Davis | Birth of the Cool (1957)
Cool Jazz 35:29
The first two albums I ever owned would never have made the cut in this list. Not because they weren’t any good – on the contrary, there were some outstanding tracks on both (as well as a few less-than-classic cuts) – but because the numbers weren’t placed as the artists originally intended them to be heard. Rather than producing a coherent whole, with one song complementing the numbers either side, these were created by record executives hoping to make money from their biggest hitters. Individually they may have had great moments but they were never intended to be heard alongside the other tracks on that particular album. Welcome to the world of the compilation.
My initial records, which both fell into this category, weren’t even by a single artist. While I would later purchase any number of Greatest Hits packages (from the Red and Blue albums of The Beatles through to The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks and the first two Queen Greatest Hits albums), these first two were simply a collection of recent hits by various artists. I can still remember that Christmas morning, unwrapping a Walkman closely followed by that well-remembered LP (or, in this case, cassette) The Greatest Hits of 1985. Within a few months, I’d doubled my music collection by heading out and purchasing my first Now That’s What I Call Music compilation (volume six, if you were wondering). As a 10-year-old, who had only first tuned into Top of the Pops a few months earlier, a whole new world had opened up to me. I was being introduced to a mass variety of songs that I may never have had a chance to listen to until this point. Pressing play on Now 6, I was treated to my first ever Queen track – One Vision. It was a revelation. But while many of those once chart-topping tracks may have succumbed to a more discerning taste over the years, even the classics were suddenly placed in a context never intended for them by their original recording artist. Did Freddie Mercury and Brian May, while writing the words to one of their greatest songs, think to themselves: ‘This is brilliant but let’s not sully it with any other of our own pieces; what it really needs to follow it is Nik Kershaw’s When A Heart Beats’?
Don’t get me wrong. Firstly, personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with Nik Kershaw – he may not be a credible artiste any longer, but at least he was better than much of the dross that was churned out in the mid-80s. But I digress. More importantly, while I can have the snob in me stare in distaste at compilation albums, generally I don’t have any problem with them. Because, as I found out to my benefit almost 30 years ago, they are a wonderful way of introducing you to an artist and even a whole genre. Which makes Birth of the Cool something of an achievement, allowing me to finally hear one of the all-time greats in the guise of jazz legend Miles Davis.
As the name unsurprisingly suggests, Birth of the Cool reveals the origins of one of jazz music’s most enduring styles. Aged just 24, Davis had been playing with Charlie Parker for three years but was becoming bored of the bebop sound; so, with growing tensions in Parker’s quintet, he decided to head out on his own and lead his own band. Hooking up with acclaimed arranger Gil Evans, Davis was able to put together nine musicians who were open to exploring new ways of playing. The result saw the music being slowed down and muted; and Cool Jazz was created. The nonet recorded 12 tracks over 1949 and 1950, some of which were released as singles. But it wasn’t until 1957 that Capitol decided to release them together as an album, initially as a way of presenting Davis playing classic numbers in jazz. And while, in many ways, this is simply a greatest hits album, the result is regarded as one of the most important recordings of the 20th century.
I admit to still not entirely understanding jazz music. But while Brilliant Corners left me with a head that ached as I tried to make sense of it, Birth of the Cool draws you in. True, it is still not arranged in a way that, as someone brought up on a diet of rock and pop, can easily deconstruct. But there is a sense to the music, along with a coolness that relaxes you into the music. Take opening number Move; the trumpet of Davis works its way up and down the scales without ever forcing you to feel that you can’t follow him. Add to that sublime drumming – check out the short drum solo – and this is a wonderful opening. There is a laidback air to all of the numbers on the album, which can just float over you, no matter what you are doing, allowing any tensions to simply flow out of your body.
Miles Keylock described the album as a series of tonal poems by Davis, and it is easy to see why he used this description. While Monk may have confounded me in my efforts to understand and enjoy jazz, Davis has eased me gently in; before, the thought of a ‘pure’ jazz record (and I use the word ‘pure’ lightly, as I am sure there are many arguments among musicians as to what that would actually sound like) filled with a sense of having to force myself through an unlistenable mess, Miles has me looking forward to seeing his work again (there are another three of his albums still to come on the list). Mixing a gentle swing with an easy-going toot of the trumpet or alto-sax, this is fun music to bring a smile to the face on a dull day. With only the final number – a later addition to the album in 1971 – putting a foot wrong (why bother having Kenny Hagood sing Darn that Dream? Birth of the Cool had worked beautifully as an instrumental number until this point), this is an album which is worth digging out by anyone wanting an introduction to jazz.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Birth of the Cool here:
Next time: Kenya by Machito