By the time Prestige Records released Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, in July 1961, the Miles Davis Quintet that had recorded it no longer existed. By then, the East St Louis-born jazz pioneer had moved on musically. He was also six years into a lucrative contract with the affluent major label Columbia Records which had up to that point yielded seven albums, including a trio of undisputed masterpieces: Miles Ahead, Kind Of Blue, and Sketches Of Spain.
Jazz in its purest form
Despite being released in the early 60s, Steamin’ belonged to another decade – and another, younger, Miles Davis. It was recorded five years earlier, in 1956, when Miles was 30 and leading one of the most exciting and trailblazing new groups in jazz: a quintet comprising tenor saxophonist John Coltrane – then a relatively unfamiliar name, even to well-informed jazz fans – pianist William “Red” Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The group had been setting the New York jazz scene alight with their performances at the Café Bohemia – so much so that Columbia Records wanted to sign the trumpeter. But before that could happen, Miles had to meet his contractual obligations to Prestige, which resulted in two final sessions for the label, held on May 11 and October 26, 1956. They would yield four classic albums for Bob Weinstock’s indie imprint, released over five years: Cookin’, Relaxin’ , Workin’, and Steamin’.
Fresh from their Café Bohemia engagements, the band was on fire and playing at an optimum performance level. Perhaps that is why Miles approached the two recording sessions almost casually, as if he was playing live on the bandstand: calling out the song titles, counting in the band, and doing single takes of each tune. It was, in essence, the very apotheosis of spontaneity: jazz in its rawest, purest, most unadulterated form.
Steamin’ begins with a ten-minute take on “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” written by the redoubtable songwriting duo Rodgers & Hammerstein for their 1943 musical, Oklahoma! A Hollywood movie version came out in 1955, but it was pianist Ahmad Jamal who popularized the song in a jazz setting when he recorded it in 1951. Miles was a fan of Jamal’s, which is why the song ended up in the trumpeter’s repertoire. His version begins with Red Garland’s piano before Miles enters playing the main melody with a muted trumpet, underpinned by a subtle swing groove driven by Chambers and Jones. Coltrane takes the second solo – fluid phrases tumble out of his horn – followed by Red Garland, who, for an ex-boxer, has an astonishingly delicate touch. The tune ends with Miles reprising the main theme. In contrast with Coltrane’s more ornate and intricate solo, Miles uses notes sparingly, staying faithful to the song’s original melodic line.
After the album’s light-hearted opener, “Salt Peanuts” is much more vigorous. The song is indelibly associated with its co-writer, the bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who was a mentor to the young Miles Davis. It hurtles along at breakneck speed, driven by Philly Joe Jones’ kinetic drums. After a short solo by Miles, Coltrane wades in with a rapid piece of molten improvisation before Philly Joe Jones shows off his prowess behind the drum kit with an extensive solo.
Following the musical fireworks of “Salt Peanuts,” Steamin’’s mood takes a soft, downward turn with the slow ballad “Something I Dreamed Last Night,” on which Miles plays his trumpet with a mute. His forlorn, wistful sound is hauntingly beautiful. Coltrane takes a breather on this number, allowing Red Garland to share the spotlight with Miles. The rhythmic accompaniment by Chambers and Jones is subtle, sympathetic, and sublime, demonstrating their sensitivity as musicians.
“Diane” originated from a 1927 silent movie called Seventh Heaven and was a US hit for bandleader Nat Shilkret a year later. It’s not known how Miles Davis discovered the tune, but he makes it his own with an excellent midtempo version on which he plays a muted trumpet over a gently simmering swing groove. He approaches the song with great delicacy, contrasting with Coltrane’s more robust approach. Red Garland, like Miles, shows a sense of refinement with his gently tinkling piano lines.
“Well, You Needn’t” is the Miles Davis Quintet’s high-octane interpretation of a classic Thelonious Monk tune dating from 1947 (interestingly, after leaving Miles in 1957, Coltrane joined Monk’s group). With its characteristically knotty, angular melodic motifs – a Monk trademark – the song offers bassist Paul Chambers an opportunity to show that his talent extended beyond playing walking bass lines, courtesy of a fine bowed solo. It’s the only tune on Steamin’ that dates from Miles’ October 26, 1956 Prestige session.
A sequence of piano chords introduce the changes to the memorable Victor Young-penned song “When I Fall In Love,” which is most associated with singer Nat King Cole (though, as Cole’s version wasn’t released until 1957, Miles likely knew the song from versions by either Jeri Southern or Doris Day, both of whom recorded it in 1952). As with “Something I Dreamed Last Night,” Coltrane lays out on this nocturnal ballad, which allows Miles, using a mute, to demonstrate his gorgeously burnished lyricism.
Recorded when Miles Davis’ career was on the rise, Steamin’’s release came at a time when the trumpeter had become a bonafide superstar. Thanks to the widespread success of albums like Kind Of Blue, on which Miles used a sextet, his popularity had expanded beyond the jazz world. While the 60s would eventually see Miles lead another groundbreaking quintet (with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock) that would push the jazz envelope even further, the five-piece band that he led between September 1955 and April 1957 remains a very special one. Steamin’, the last of the quintet’s five albums for Prestige, is a record that attests to their enduring greatness.