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

Back up a year. 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. There he played with the René Urtreger Trio, and had an affair 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 later, 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 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' 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 Le Poste Parisien Studio at 9:00 pm on December 4.

Davis' "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 a 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 issued by Columbia on the A side of a 12" LP, Jazz Track (CL 1268); on the B side were three tunes from a May 1958 session with Davis' 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.

Jazz critic and bon vivant Boris Vian wrote about this session and the film. (Warning - spoilers ahead!)
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