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Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
(aka Lift to the Scaffold, Elevator to the Gallows, Frantic)

Miles Davis took a break from a busy recording schedule in the fall of 1956 to travel to Europe as part of Norman Granz's Birdland All-Stars in Europe group. He played with the René Urtreger Trio, and dallied with Urtreger's younger sister Jeannette. The tour lasted almost a month, and Davis had a great time. The romance with Jeannette continued on and off when she came to the states.

Almost exactly a year after the 1956 tour, Davis disbanded his working quintet -- Sonny Rollins wanted out, and Red Garland's heroin addiction had made him a liability -- and he returned to France when he was invited by French impresario Marcel Romano to participate in a three-week European tour. Davis was excited to return to Paris and to Jeannette Urtreger. Romano had enlisted Barney Wilen to join the Urtreger Trio as Davis's bandmates. The tour was a bust -- the group played only a handful of gigs -- but when Davis arrived in Paris, he was told that a young director, Louis Malle, had a film for which he wanted Davis to provide a score. Not a typical score, but something improvised, cued to the action on the screen. After seeing the film at a private screening on December 2, Davis enthusiastically agreed to participate, and he began working on the music. He signed a contract with Fontana Records the following day, and the quintet assembled in the Le Poste Parisien Studio at 9:00 pm on December 4.

Davis's "score" apparently consisted of a number of cues and suggestions -- "play two chords, d minor and C7, four bars of each, ad lib," or "Wait a minute, right here! Stop, right here... We play this, and this right here..." According to François Leterrier, Malle's second assistant director, "The screen in the auditorium was showing the scenes for which Miles had devised some harmonies, and they were edited into a loop. And that's what makes this music unique: it was entirely improvised in conditions that went back to the days of silent films... [for example] tracking shots of Jeanne Moreau walking down the Champs-Élysées at night, passing in front of lit window displays while looking for her lover/murderer alias Maurice Ronet..." (Davis found these scenes particularly difficult because of Jeanne Moreau's uneven pace: "The bitch didn't know how to walk in rhythm," he complained when looking back at the session after returning to New York.)

The session went smoothly. "Everyone was getting more and more excited," Urtreger said in a 2017 interview. "I think that as the hours passed, all of us present started to realize that what was happening was quite extraordinary." One of Malle's assistants, Alain Cavalier, has said that "what I remember about that night is that everything was intimate, cozy, and relaxed -- exactly the opposite of the film, which is just tension, dread, bad luck, and trouble."

In an review of the two-CD 60th anniversary edition of the soundtrack, Louis-Julien Nicolau remarks that "in this story of dry fatalism, which ends with the the general mess announced by the title, music plays a role similar to that of the chorus in a Greek tragedy. It does not illustrate but... suggests what the characters cannot express. Miles permeates the images so well that he makes them inseparable from the music..."

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud won the Prix Louis-Delluc in 1957 for the best film of the year. The soundtrack was issued the following year by Fontana on a 10" LP (660.213 MR), and the record was awarded the Grand Prize by the Académie Charles Cros. In the states the music was released by Columbia on side A of a 12" LP, Jazz Track (CL 1268); on side B were three tunes from a May 1958 session with Davis's working sextet.

The December 2007 issue of Jazz Magazine (number 587) commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Ascenseur pour l'échafaud session, with several essays about Davis in Paris in 1957, the circumstances of the recording session, and the influence of the film and its music. Authors include Jeanne[tte Urtreger] de Mirbeck, René Urtreger, and Marcel Romano, all central players in the original events.

Here's what jazz critic and bon vivant Boris Vian wrote about this session, and the film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud [warning - spoiler ahead!]:

This recording was made at night in the studios of the Paris broadcasting station, in a most informal atmosphere.

Among those present was Miss Jeanne Moreau, the principal star of the film. She proved a very charming hostess, serving refreshments to musicians and technicians in an improvised bar. There were those responsible for the production and the technical staff, but also Louis Malle (with his braces dangling loosely!). He tried to get Miles to do his utmost in the way of the musical accompaniment of the film. The orchestra members who enjoyed this informal atmosphere very much, looked at the images of the principal scenes of the film, and being thus in the right mood for their work, improvised various musical paraphrases as the reel was projected. In the melody Dinner at the Motel you will notice a curious sonority of Miles' trumpet. The explanation for this is a strange one: while he was playing, a tiny piece of skin from his lip got loose and stuck in the mouthpiece of his instrument. Miles gladly accepted this strange new element, in the literary sense of the word an 'unheard heard-of' musical effect, in quite the same way as those painters who often owe the plastic quality of their coat of paint to mere chance or coincidence. There is hardly any doubt that music lovers will be thankful to the great negro musician, who is admirable assisted by his colleagues, for the spellbinding, tragic atmosphere he has created, even though they might miss the magic of the film itself.

The story commences with a love scene between Florence -- Simon Carala's wife -- and her lover Julien Tavernier. They feel imminent danger over their heads which they are anxious to shake off (Générique).

In the office building of the Société Carala we witness how Julien Tavernier commits a perfect crime (L'assassinat de Carala). Following a well-devised plan Julien succeeds in making his murder look like a suicide, then he goes back to his car. So everything works like clockwork.

As it happens, however, he must go back to his office, but while doing so, he has to hide from the porter who, unfortunately, switches off the current: it's Saturday night. Thus is Julien kept a prisoner in the elevator, at a height of fifty feet from the ground floor, a prisoner of his perfect murder, until Monday morning.

Meanwhile Florence, who has been waiting for him on a café terrace, sees his car pass by. It is an old Chevrolet convertible, and she observes a young girl whom she thinks she recognizes, sitting next to the driver: it is Véronique, assistant of the florist whose big shop faces the Carala building.

She is only partially wrong. Véronique, though still a young girl, is head over heels in love. The name of her lover is Louis, a bookseller's assistant. The young man, annoyed by the admiration Véronique is showing for Captain Tavernier, and attracted by the Chevrolet car which gives him an impression of wealth, decides to steal it just for the night. This was an easy thing to do, for the engine was still running while Julien had entered the building once again on his way to the office. Young Louis thinks the use of the car will be a unique source of pleasure for his girl, as indeed it proves to be (Sur l'autoroute).

Out of town a really beautiful car, a big white Mercedes, tries to pass Louis. A race ensues and Louis has a hairbreadth escape just saving him from a serious accident. Incidentally, the place where this happens, near a motel in Paris, turns out to be the spot the Mercedes was heading for. Thanks to this incident, the passengers of the Mercedes are soon on friendly terms with Louis and Véronique.

During the night the plot develops in three different places: Julien still remains a prisoner in his elevator (Julien dans l'ascenseur). Florence is looking for him all over Paris, and finally Louis and Véronique are becoming entangled in a confusing adventure. Julien tries to get out of his prison (Évasion de Julien). After unscrewing a trap door, he lets himself down by the elevator cable, but his descent becomes a breathtaking fall because a night watchman has switched on the current (Visite du vigile). Julien has a narrow escape and struggles back to his cage, utterly exhausted. Florence walks back to the Champs-Élysées (Florence sur les Champs-Élysées), a prey to the feelings that keep turning in her head. Alternately, her mood is murderous, loving, sympathetic, and hurt; every time she meets one of Julien's friends she asks about his whereabouts. And all the time she keeps asking herself where he may be, whether he has committed the crime and whether he loves her. With a haggard look on her face she walks endlessly until finally she comes to a bar in the rue du Bac (Au bar du Petit Bac). As for Louis, he has taken a violent dislike to the owner of the Mercedes, a German, altogether too rich and too cynical for him, who has talked him and his girl into having dinner with him (Dîner au motel). The night ends in a flash. At daybreak Louis leaves the motel and, for spite, steals the Mercedes. He is soon caught red-handed by Horst himself and because he thinks the German threatens him, shoots him with Tavernier's gun. Véronique persuades him to return to Paris. They hide in her room and in the firm belief that they are lost, the two young people swallow an overdose of sleeping tablets.

Early next morning Julien is freed from his hiding place and arrested soon afterwards. He cannot offer any defense as his first crime has been perfect, but he has no watertight alibi for the second crime: his car has been identified, his gun has been found, etc.... Florence now plays her last card: she rushes over to Louis and succeeds in convincing Louis that Tavernier is the only one who is suspected. To remove all guilt from himself he needs only to destroy the photographs that show him side by side with the Germans. Heavy with sleep he hastens to the motel with Florence following him. There, the two of them meet Monsieur Chérier, Police Commissioner (Chez le photographe du motel). By means of a double "coup de théatre" he shows them where they are wrong: the photographer has already developed the whole film. Several snaps show Louis together with the car. Chérier understands that Florence has had her husband killed by her lover. Louis soon finds himself handcuffed: Florence looks dreamily at the snapshots taken from her lover. This is the first time we see them together. Florence's game is up...

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