Saturday Night Tunes: Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet

To be completely honest, I had a much more comprehensive post on Duke Ellington in mind for this week, but it’s almost time for this post to go up and I’m only just sitting down to write it, so you’re getting more Miles instead. Continuing on from last time, Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet is the second of four albums released by Prestige Records between 1957 and 1961 featuring Davis with his classic First Great Quintet: John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. As I noted when we talking about Cookin’, these albums are very closely related, in that the material for all four was recorded in two sessions in 1956, in fulfillment of Davis’s last contractual obligations for Prestige before he left for a better recording contract with Columbia Records. After Cookin’ (released in 1957) proved such a big hit, Prestige apparently decided to make the “-in'” thing a recurring feature, and they named this one Relaxin’, I assume, because half of its six tracks are medium tempo or slower standards.

The album starts off with one of those medium tempo standards, “If I Were a Bell” by Frank Loesser. I gave this track listing a little side-eye when I bought the album many years ago, because I have bad memories of some game-but-not-quite-up-to-it high school senior belting this song out during a production of Guys and Dolls when I was a lowly freshman who’d never played in a pit orchestra before. Frankly, in my opinion even the movie version is pretty grating (I’m still not sure what Marlon Brando was thinking there). But Miles is a master at taking tunes like that and making them sound pretty damn cool, and he pulls it off here for sure:

“You’re My Everything,” written by Harry Warren, is the album’s ballad, and features mostly an understated Miles with a short Coltrane interlude:

Rodgers and Hart’s “I Could Write a Book” keeps us in the realm of standards but picks the tempo up considerably. Coltrane in particular seems to appreciate this:

“Oleo,” written by Sonny Rollins back when he was Davis’s sideman, finally takes us away from early 20th century standards and into something contemporary. The solos are Davis, Coltrane, Garland, and then Davis again. One of the things I really love about this track is that each solo starts with an extended break where it’s just the soloist and Chambers, with no piano (except for Garland’s solo, obviously) to define the chord or drums:

Funny story (not “ha ha” funny): Sonny Rollins should have been this group’s tenor saxophonist; he played with Davis for most of 1954 and into 1955, just as the rest of the quintet was starting to come together. But heroin is a hell of a drug, and when Rollins had to (by which I mean “a judge made him”) go get himself cleaned up, Davis brought Coltrane, a more interesting (not that Rollins isn’t plenty interesting) if less polished (at that point) player, in to replace him. Rollins went on to play with in the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet instead, though he briefly rejoined Davis in 1957 after Coltrane left to do what turned out to be about a year-long stint in Thelonious Monk’s band. Rollins soon left to lead his own group, and Coltrane came back in time to record Kind of Blue.

The Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke standard “It Could Happen to You” is next, and it takes us back down to a more, ah, “relaxin'” tempo. Damn that was clunky, sorry:

Finally we have a Dizzy Gillespie number, “Woody ‘n’ You,” which Dizzy wrote in 1943 as a tribute to famous big band leader Woody Herman. This is probably my favorite track on the album, although “Oleo” is pretty great as well:

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