“Mono” has become a bit of a buzz word in recent years. Perhaps the successful release of The Beatles’ original mono mixes in 2009 helped spur the whole mono chic movement. Record labels seem to be pillaging their vaults looking for mono mixes of classic recordings to reissue. Some regard the practice as blatant cash grabbing. Of course, no one is being forced to buy it—if you own all the material in stereo and are perfectly fine with those mixes, so be it. Producer George Avakian, the man behind the board for several of these albums, is quoted in the booklet, “Mono featured less audio trickery and fewer audio distractions, so you can actually hear the musical conversation between Miles and the other musicians as it occurred in the studio.”
Also in the booklet are album-by-album notes about the mastering process, contributed by mastering engineer Mark Wilder. Though brief (about a paragraph per album), these notes help convey the great care invested in this project. The goal was to reproduce the sound of the original mono vinyl as faithfully as possible. Pristine vinyl copies were used as “audio benchmarks.” The greater the audiophile one happens to be, the more revelatory these remasters are likely to sound. But it would be a serious broadside to write this set off as a cash grab. An artist on the level of Miles Davis deserves to have his music preserved in such a manner, as closely as possible to his original intentions.
The earliest record in the set, ’Round About Midnight, came out in 1957 but was a selection of tunes recorded in 1955 and ’56. It was Davis’ Columbia debut, recorded near the end of his long tenure with Prestige. Backed by his “first great quintet” (John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums), Davis is in killer form on this hard bop classic. We hear from this same lineup, expanded to include alto sax legend Cannonball Adderley, several more times in the set.
The album cover says “Miles Davis + 19,” and that’s an accurate way to bill Miles Ahead. This late-1957 exercise in jazz-classical fusion, or Third Stream, is a full-blown collaboration with arranger and conductor Gil Evans. It’s the first of three included here. Davis sticks to flugelhorn throughout, lending a dulcet tone to his solos. Obviously a significant departure from his small combo records, this is challenging listening.
Back to the combo that played on Midnight for 1958’s Milestones, this time augmented by the welcome sound of Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax. The centerpieces of this early move toward modal jazz are lengthy takes on Davis’ own “Sid’s Ahead” and Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.” Coltrane and Adderley together resulted in nothing short of magic, with their solos providing one highlight after another.
Jazz Track is a bit of a rarity, a collection of ten short tunes (ranging from under a minute to just over four) that Davis recorded as the soundtrack to a French film, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud. Credited to Davis (who sketched out basic progressions), these were improvised by the assembled quintet while watching looped sections of the movie. The second half of the album is comprised of three tracks recorded by the Milestones sextet, taken from sessions that would surface in more complete form years later on 1958 Miles. Jazz Track is an odd, stopgap of an album, but it’s interesting to hear Davis on these noirish tidbits. His musicians for the soundtrack session included Barney Wilen (tenor sax), René Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums).
More arrangements by Gil Evans are found on the 1959 masterwork Porgy and Bess. This celebrated adaptation of George Gershwin’s opera finds Davis returning to a large ensemble format. Unlike Miles Ahead, Davis has members of his then-current group providing support. Adderley’s sax work, in particular, is superb. The following year saw the release of the third Gil Evans collaboration collected here, Sketches of Spain.
In 1959, Davis dropped a modal bomb that has gone on to become one of, if not the, highest-selling jazz albums of all time. Kind of Blue has been studied, analyzed, and enjoyed so thoroughly over the decades, there’s hardly anything to add. All five tunes are iconic, with “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” and “All Blues” being among the most-recognized jazz melodies ever committed to tape. The horns of Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley are joined by the rhythm section of Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, with Bill Evans on piano (for all but “Freeloader,” which features Wynton Kelly). As noted in the booklet, this is the only album in the set that had an unsuitable mono master (worn from many pressings). The team worked from the three-track master tapes.
Someday My Prince Will Come was the last of these nine albums to be recorded (in 1961). Along with Jazz Track, the original Miles and Monk at Newport is the only semi-obscurity (the material is all available on other releases) and it was released in 1964. It’s only half a Miles Davis album, with the first four tunes coming from a 1958 live performance. The last two tracks are lengthy live cuts from a 1963 performance by the Thelonious Monk Quartet. So while Newport was the last of these nine albums to be released, Someday is the Mono box’s logical ending point. Adderley is gone and Coltrane only plays on two tunes, including the mind-boggling solo he delivers on the title track. Hank Mobley handles tenor on the other four cuts. Though Someday is a transitional album for Davis in terms of his artistic evolution, the playing is phenomenal and imminently accessible.
Here’s my one caveat with The Original Mono Recordings box set. The CDs are stuck pretty tightly in their cardboard sleeves. The better way to handle this would’ve been to put each disc in a plastic sleeve. After all, back in the day the vinyl records were in dust sleeves. I think I speak for a lot of consumers still buying hard copies (especially of collector’s sets) when I say it’s a major annoyance to get fingerprints (and potentially scratches) on CDs when trying to remove them. Other than that, Miles Davis fans can proceed directly to this terrific set.