The Great Prestige Recordings

February 2012

Analogue Productions' The Great Prestige Recordings includes the five LPs recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet for Prestige: Miles - The New Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige PRLP 7014), Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (PRLP 7094), Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (PRLP 7129), Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (PRLP 7166), and Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (PRLP 7200). These were Davis's last records on the Prestige label -- in fact, by the time they were recorded, he'd already begun recording for Columbia. When George Avakian signed Davis to his Columbia contract in early autumn 1955, the deal he struck with Prestige's Bob Weinstock allowed him to begin recording Davis immediately, but stipulated that none of the Columbia material could be released until Davis had fully discharged his obligations to Prestige. To do so, the Davis Quintet recorded one LP worth of music for Prestige in November 1955, and four more at long sessions in May and October 1956.

Only one of these records was released while the Quintet still existed. Miles appeared in April 1956 as part of Prestige's new series of 12" LPs; but by the time the next Prestige record, Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, appeared in August 1957, the Davis Quintet had disbanded. Ira Gitler's liner notes begin elegiacally:

It is said that all good things come to an end. One did in the spring of 1957 when the Miles Davis Quintet was dissolved. I say the Miles Davis Quintet because in their nearly two years together, Miles, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones achieved a particular kind of unity. They were not just the Miles Davis Quintet; to me, and many others, they were the group -- the best small combo in modern jazz.

By this time the Quintet's Columbia recordings had begun to appear as well. Leonard Bernstein's What is Jazz? (Columbia CL 919), released in mid-October 1956, used a quintet performance of "Sweet Sue, Just You" recorded a month earlier to illustrate small-group improvisation. To make this possible, Avakian and Weinstock negotiated a release -- the credits say that "Miles Davis appears in this album by special arrangement with Prestige Records." Once Davis fulfilled his obligations to Weinstock with the marathon session of October 26, 1956, Columbia was in the clear, and 'Round About Midnight (CL 949), drawn from sessions recorded in October 1955 and June and September 1956, appeared on March 4, 1957. And the compilation Jazz Omnibus, released in early September 1957, included another Davis Quintet title from the October 1955 session, "Budo," along with pieces by Louis Armstrong, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, and others.

The three remaining Prestige LPs were parceled out over several years -- Relaxin' appeared in February 1958, Workin' in February 1960, and Steamin' not until August 1961. One additional title from the Quintet's last Prestige session, "'Round Midnight," was included on Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (PRLP 7150), released in September 1959. Meanwhile, of course, over at Columbia, Davis was busy recording some of the most popular records of his early career: Milestones and Porgy and Bess (1958), Kind of Blue (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960), and Someday My Prince Will Come (1961).

Because the Prestige records were recorded in haste, the tunes were drawn primarily from the Quintet's live book. For more than half the tunes on these LPs there are extant live recordings from the mid-1950s. Weinstock also included several false starts and brief episodes of studio chatter on the LPs, making them, in Ira Gitler's words, "a bit more personal and you are thereish" (notes to Relaxin'). The need to get through as much material as possible is another reason that the Quintet's Prestige recordings have a more spontaneous and informal sound than the Columbia sessions from the same period. Gitler again: "Miles called tunes just as he would for any number of typical sets at a club like the Bohemia. There were no second takes" (liner notes to Cookin').

By the time the last Prestige LP, Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, appeared in August 1961, the Miles Davis Quintet was the stuff of legend:

One of the highest points of modern jazz is the quintet that Miles Davis led from late 1955 until spring of 1957. Its earliest manifestation appeared on a record called The Musings of Miles (Prestige 7007), on which Davis was backed by a rhythm section consisting of Red Garland, piano; Philly Joe Jones, drums; and Oscar Pettiford, bass. By the time Davis' next record had been released (Miles, Prestige 7014), he had a regular working group, in which Pettiford had been replaced by Paul Chambers and the tenor saxophone of John Coltrane had been added.

Except for the work he has done with Gil Evans, all of Davis' recording since that time has been an extension and further exploration of the musical ideas set down in those two records. Since the disbanding of that quintet, it has been called by many the most important and influential jazz group of its time. It is obviously the most influential, because the music it played and the style it employed has filtered into most jazz organizations, and the group restored to currency some of the best and most neglected popular songs of the last several years. In ultimate importance, probably only the Modern Jazz Quartet is of comparable stature. (Unfortunately, the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Coltrane, Jones, and Wilbur Ware was unrecorded, and of too brief a duration to make the impact it might have; it is notable, though, that half its personnel were Davis alumni.) The pervasive impact of the Miles Davis Quintet (and its inspiration) is most closely analogous to the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives of thirty years before. (Joe Goldberg's liner notes to Steamin')

It may be hard to believe that a group that existed for less than twenty months could cast such a long shadow. It is easier to believe if you've heard these records.

The Sound

Analogue Productions has reissued these perennially popular and influential records twice in sets and several times as single LPs. In 1996 they released a set of five 180-gram LPs (APJ 035). The box includes five LPs in facsimilies of the original sleeves, plus a 16-page full-size booklet with an essay by Bob Blumenthal and short accounts of or by people involved in the production of the set: Stan Ricker, mastering engineer; Neil Muncy, audio systems consultant; Rick Hashimoto, LP pressing manager; and Gary Salstrom, record plating manager. The 1996 set was limited to 2500 hand-numbered copies and sold out very quickly. In late 2008 Analogue Productions re-did the set, this time on ten 180-gram 45-rpm LPs (APJ 035-45). The box and booklet are similar to the 1996 set, although the booklet omits the two pages discussing production details. Once again the LPs come in facsimilies of the original sleeves. I'm not sure how many copies of the 2008 box were made, but only the first 250 are numbered.

The 1/4" tape reels from these sessions were more than 40 years old when the 1996 set was prepared, and were more than 50 years old when the set was prepared in 2008. The tapes are brittle (especially where they've been spliced), and saturated in places. Numerous dropouts are audible. Splices have stretched, and the adhesive from splices has pulled oxide from the tape. And it isn't only the physical condition of the tape that's problematic. Rudy Van Gelder's close miking causes occasional difficulties. And the sound of a Harmon-muted trumpet is notoriously hard to record, because of the complexity of the high frequencies. Cutting engineer Stan Ricker explains in the notes to the 1996 set:

All mutes in or on a musical instrument alter the balance between the fundamental being played and its harmonics. The mute removes most of the fundamental and a large portion of the mids. Now, the player can hardly hear himself in the group, so of course he blows harder. In horn theory, whether it be a loudspeaker or a trumpet, the harder one drives the horn, the more second- and third-harmonic distortion is generated. With speakers, we usually recognize the sound as distortion; with brass (trumpets, bones, etc.), we say the player's got 'a hot sound'.

Miles Davis's mute is made of thin-gauge spun aluminum and has a small hole in the center, out of which protrudes a tube with a cup attached to the end of it. The harmonics radiate through the thin walls of the mute's body, as well as through the tube with the cup on the end.

Now when he blows hard, the sound doesn't cut very well on disk. Due to the great amount of high-frequency energy developed within the trumpet and mute, combined with the close-miking technique that Rudy Van Gelder used for these recordings, the cutter head is being told to do too many high-frequency motions at too high a cutting level due to the RIAA disk-cutting equalization (pre-emphasis), which is up, or plus, 13.75 dB at 10,000 cycles and keeps rising at a rate of about 6 dB per octave...

How to deal with this problem? Ricker notes that "the way the original mastering engineer handled this problem was by rolling off the highs with filters and limiting the overall level of the program material." This is why some versions of these recordings sound dull and lifeless. Ricker chose a different approach. Half-speed mastering -- which involves slowing the tape playback and cutting lathe to allow the cutting head to move more slowly and transfer more detailed information to the lacquer -- was not an option because of the equipment available, so Ricker devised a compromise. By modifying the playback speed of the Studer tape machine and the platter speed of the Neumann lathe, he was able to cut the master lacquers at 22-1/2 rpm -- about 2/3 the normal speed. As Ricker puts it, "the cutter head was given more time to cut what were (at the reduced speed) lower frequencies than we hear on playback, thus allowing it to do its job much more effectively."

The results are striking. The sound is detailed and transparent; the dynamic range is wide and the transients are clear. Davis's muted trumpet has a richly burnished tone, and his open trumpet ranges from bell-like clarity to effervescent brashness. Coltrane's saxophone can be keening and plaintive or urgent and aggressive, depending on the tune. Garland's light touch on the piano comes through, but so does the punch of his supple block chords. The bass is sometimes a bit too prominent on these recordings, but it's never muddy or booming. And Philly Joe Jones' mastery of the drum kit is always on display: the cymbals and high-hat are crisp and the snare sharp. Even ambient studio sounds are captured with clarity: there are several places in these records where you'll hear the floor creak as a musician shifts his weight.

The faithfulness to the original tapes does sometimes remind us of their limitations, however. There is the occasional dropout. You hear splices in places. Microphones are frequently overdriven. And Ricker's solution to the cutting dilemma is not perfect. There are two places in the 1996 set where the distortion is most problematic, both on Workin' -- and neither involves a muted trumpet. The more egregious case is "Four," recorded at the May 1956 session. At times during Coltrane's solo (e.g. at 4:17) the levels are clearly too high; but it is when Davis re-enters at 5:50 after Garland's solo chorus that things really come apart. There is even a point at which the cutting head can't track the signal, and at 5:54 there is a skip and approximately 1.5 seconds is missing. The entire chorus of trumpet/drums exchanges is marred by distortion caused by overly high levels. The other case is "Half Nelson," from the October session. Here again the problem occurs during the closing trumpet/drums exchanges: the levels are too high for Davis's four measures at 3:37-3:42 and his eight at 3:52-4:00. The combination of overdriven microphones and too-high input to the cutting heads makes for a rough ride. No wonder the original engineers "roll[ed] off the highs with filters and limit[ed] the overall level of the program material."

Unfortunately, the booklet included with the 2008 set does not include any information about the mastering process. All we know is what appears in the AP catalog: "the albums are pressed on 180-gram vinyl and mastered from the original analog tapes by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman at AcousTech Mastering." The sound is brighter than on the 1996 version: there is more of Philly Joe Jones' brushwork and cymbals, and the dynamic range seems wider and the transients even crisper. The distortion problems described in the preceding paragraph have been solved. There are still the limitations of the source material, but the sound is full and detailed and bright. The monaural image is focused and convincing. And again, the amount of detail in these grooves is remarkable.

One caveat, however. Analogue Productions' quality control leaves a lot to be desired. If you're lucky and get a good pressing that has been gently handled, the records are terrific. But too many Analogue Productions records arrive with pressing defects (small hairlike blemishes in the vinyl that should have been caught by close visual inspection). A non-negligible percentage of the pressings are noisy. And too many arrive with sleeve scuffs. Some even have fingerprints and smudges on the grooves or in the dead wax. Many come through unblemished, but it's a shame that records which are given such attention during the mastering and cutting process aren't treated better in the later stages of production. Other high-end vinyl labels -- Music Matters, Music on Vinyl, and Speakers Corner, to name just three -- do a much better job of quality control; and when people are being asked to pay $25+ for each LP, they deserve it.

But where's the chatter?

Both sets include the same thirty-one titles in the same order. There are slight differences in playing time (3:05:20 for the 1996 set, 3:04:39 for the 2008 set) because some material has been omitted from the new set. For a tune-by-tune account of these sessions, consult the session notes elsewhere on this website:

Although the cost-conscious Weinstock did not usually waste tape by recording studio chatter, Miles Davis was not the only artist whose Prestige records include false starts and chatter. Some of the studio ambience captured on his records is part of jazz history -- think of the exchange between Thelonious Monk and Davis during the Christmas Eve 1954 recording of "The Man I Love," at the end of which Davis demands, "Hey Rudy, put this on the record -- ALL of it!" Ira Gitler's notes to Relaxin' remark on the inclusion of such ephemeral material:

Although this session was recorded in a studio, the tunes were done in the immediate succession of a nightclub-type set and there were no second takes. There is a false start on You're My Everything and you will hear Miles' instructions to Red Garland before the complete performance of the tune. In other instances on this record, Miles addresses the group, exchanges communications with engineer Rudy Van Gelder, jokes with Bob Weinstock, etc. These comments make this recording a bit more personal and you are thereish.... At the end [of "Woody 'n' You"] we hear Miles say, "Okay?" and Bob Weinstock, in jest, tells him to "do that one over." Miles asks, "Why?" but Coltrane, unconcerned, looks for the beer opener.

Except there isn't a false start at the beginning of "You're My Everything" on the 2008 set. The 30-second exchange preceding the tune -- with Davis warming up and calling the tune, then lecturing the group about being quiet when the red light's on, Van Gelder checking in, Garland's false start, Davis asking for block chords and checking with Van Gelder -- is missing, and the tune begins abruptly with Garland's block chords.

And at the end of "Woody 'n' You" on the 2008 set we hear most of what Gitler recounts -- but not all of it. The chatter ends abruptly after Davis's testy "WHY??", and Coltrane never asks for the beer opener.

Why were these bits of studio ambience omitted on the 2008 set? In some respects these are trivial changes -- after all, it's not as if the music has been tampered with. Still, isn't the purpose of these carefully-conceived and expensively-produced "audiophile" records to present the original material as faithfully as possible? Isn't the studio ambience part of that material? Tinkering with it as was done here would then seem to be self-defeating -- especially if the records include the original liner notes, which only draw attention to the fact that the record does not match the notes.

Put it another way. Who are these records for? People who purchase these sets are not strangers to Miles Davis's music; in fact, they almost certainly have these records already, maybe in multiple formats. That makes these departures from the familiar even harder to understand. Someone who is new to Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet will not miss the thirty seconds that have been left off the 2008 set -- unless he or she has read the liner notes. But for someone who knows the record well, what happens during those thirty seconds matters. The tune without the prelude is incomplete.

As a discographer of Miles Davis, these minutiae matter more to me than to most people. So maybe I'm overreacting. Still, it seems to me that if you're going to go to the trouble and expense of producing these high-end sets for people who want to hear the records they love in their best possible light, then you should care about these minutiae, too.

The Upshot

These recordings have been reissued so many times and in so many formats that it's worth asking why anyone would spring for them again in these fancy sets. I can only answer for myself. These are among the Miles Davis records I know best, having listened and re-listened to them countless times over many years. No other versions of these recordings sounds remotely as good as these do. You'll need a good playback system to take advantage of these records; especially in the 1996 set, there are many places that will test the ability of your cartridge and tone arm to track highly-modulated grooves. The reward is a transparency and vitality that has to be heard. The original five-LP set is long out of print, but used copies can occasionally be found. The 45-rpm set is still available. You should know ahead of time what's entailed by having these records in that format. The original LPs were not very long, ranging from 34 minutes (Miles and Cookin') to 44 minutes (Relaxin'). Spread these records over four sides at 45 rpm and you will be getting up every 6-10 minutes to flip the records over. This will seem crazy to some people. But think about it: if you've spent even some of your time and money assembling and tweaking a high-fidelity playback system, obsessing over cartridges and speaker enclosures and whatever else, this is why you've done it. The goal is a system that can do justice to records like these.

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