Five fascinating sets from the protean pairing of Davis and Coltrane.
The latest in the (hopefully) endless series of releases from the Miles Davis archives of Columbia Records is a set of radio broadcasts from the last concerts by “first quintet” featuring John Coltrane. Recorded in Europe in early 1960, these tapes—which are in superb fidelity, by the way—have long been circulating as bootleg releases. But here are five fascinating sets from three cities on this last go-round from the protean pairing of Davis and Coltrane.
In later years, Davis would talk about Coltrane in a worshipful tone, but Trane’s years in Davis’s band were not easy. Early on, the saxophonist was wracked by a drug habit that made him unreliable, and Davis had no tolerance for it, having kicked heroin himself some years earlier. Coltrane was fired and spent time playing with Thelonious Monk then got clean, eventually re-joining Davis. By then, Coltrane was a different player: more focused, possessed of a newly confident, steely tone and practicing like his life depended on it, developing new ideas about harmony and articulation that would change music, eventually. This period was well-documented in recordings, particularly the iconic records on Columbia that made Davis a star: Round Midnight, Milestones and Kind of Blue, particularly.
Coltrane had already been recording as a leader, but it was time for him to form his own regular group, and he had quit Davis’s quintet again in 1959. But Davis urged him to make one last tour, this time to Europe, as the dates were booked and Trane knew the music so well.
The music on The Last Tour showcases a limited repertoire that consists of highlights from Davis’s Columbia records. From Kind of Blue, they are playing “So What” and “All Blues.” There is Monk’s “Round Midnight,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” the Sonny Rollins tune “Oleo,” Davis’s blues “Walkin’” and his version of “Frandance” as well as the standards “All of You” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” This is roughly what the band had been playing for several years and what Davis’s audience expected. When he reconstituted his quintet in the following year, eventually morphing it into a second legendary quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter, these tunes would still make up the bulk of his concerts. In other words, restless Miles Davis, who was known for reinventing himself regularly, was in the middle of a fairly conservative patch of success.
What makes these recordings so riveting, then, is that John Coltrane was in the very opposite place; he was in the midst of a period of volcanic discovery that would lead him to new places. On these performances, the tidy and sleek-swinging rhythm section of Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums) sets the table for Davis solos that always come first and then absorbs a second statement from Coltrane who takes the music to another galactically splendid place.
The context on Coltrane’s playing is instructive. He had recorded his first album of strictly original tunes less than a year before. Giant Steps was the signal that Coltrane had developed a new voice, structurally, and was moving toward a truly individual voice. The prior year he had also recorded sessions for Coltrane Jazz with Davis’s rhythm section (Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb). And in the months after this tour, Coltrane would hire his own classic rhythm section (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) and record the band’s first landmark record, My Favorite Things. It was a fertile time for John Coltrane.
So, the very first performance in this set, a loping “All of Me” recorded in Paris, begins with Davis playing the theme loosely with his Harmon mute in place. Davis plays with a spare, percussive swing as he repeats notes and leaves space in his phrasing. It is a vintage Davis: lyrical and easy to love, easy to find beautiful. It ends with a medium-long tag that finds Davis teasing the rhythm section, tickling it with whispers, little muted jabs and low notes that hum. Coltrane steps up next and seems like the Trane of the recent recordings. His tone is unique, of course, but he is playing inside the tradition . . . for about 16 bars. Then he lets fly a growling cry in his middle-high register and begins a series of daring flurries that rip scales up and down, searing runs that explore harmonies that are in tension with the chords of the rhythm section. Trane spends long stretches in structured dissonance, not playing “free” but playing a language of advanced harmonic invention that is new. The tag section goes on and on until a stretch at the end where, straining the horn to the limit of its capabilities, he repeats a phrase as an experiment in multiphonics, playing more than one note at the same time. The crowd is provoked to division, some whistling in disapproval while others give him an ovation at the end of his long solo.
This tension between Davis’s relative conservatism and Coltrane’s pressure to find a new path continues through most of these concerts. In miniature, it represents the intersection of two American decades: the conservative but fertile 1950s and the liberating, difficult 1960s. If you listen to the March 22nd version of “All Blues” from the second concert in Stockholm, you will hear it. The skipping waltz theme is a great soundtrack to the former, and Davis floats over it with a creative freedom that anyone might enjoy. That decade, in jazz and in U.S. culture generally, was rich in sophistication and maturity—it was the decade when jazz stopped being mainly entertainment, when it took over college campuses, when the art got down to business but remained endearing. When Coltrane solos, the 1960s start in earnest, connected to what Miles was doing but also eager to tear away at some of the orthodoxy, to trouble your ear a bit as well as enlighten it. Coltrane leans hard into a phrase, he cracks his notes in two, he growls and seduces and strains. He reaches for something bigger that isn’t quite there yet.
The last track on The Last Tour is a radio interview with John Coltrane and a good one. You get to hear Coltrane’s soulful South Carolina drawl and his own reflections are where he is headed and how his music is changing.
Trane assert the vanguard beautifully on his “So What” solo in Stockholm on March 22nd concert (second set). It starts with a riveting worrying of the opening motif from “Willow Weep for Me” before launching into a swirling figure that sets up most of the rest of the solo as if it were a seed: Coltrane repeats the odd somewhat atonal figure, modulates it, expands it, lets it go and then returns to it, unfurling it, extending it, finding every permutation it has to offer. He does this while staying mostly inside of “So What”’s famous modal structure (16 bars of Dorian mode on D, eight bars a half step up, then eight back home again to D). It is a remarkable journey, followed by a piano solo from Wynton Kelly—sparkling, inventive, and blues-inflected. But the contrast between Coltrane’s willful expansion of possibilities and the refined jazz classicism reflected in Kelly’s and Davis’s work is the essence of these shows.
This is not to say that the band feels like it is at cross purposes or doesn’t make sense together. In fact, as the shows continue it becomes increasingly clear that these contrasts part of the art of the quintet. During the March 24 shows in Copenhagen, we hear Davis and Coltrane blending their solos together at the seams. As Coltrane enters on “So What” following Davis, the trumpeter continues to play a repeated note beneath him, low in his horn’s register, as if he were setting down a tablecloth for the next course in a meal. Coltrane responds with a solo that begins with more restraint than in previous days and increases in intensity more slowly. We hear several of Trane’s classic licks, remnants from a style that he has already perfected, and we hear him reaching for a new place with measured ecstasy. The Wynton Kelly piano solo that follows may be his best of all these concerts: more fiery and searching, though still shot through with bluesy swagger. It is as if the contrast and coming together of Davis and Coltrane sparks the whole band to a new level of swing.
Of course, it would be another five years or so before Davis’s own improvisations would start to break free into the harmonic stratosphere that Coltrane was exploring in 1960, and the saxophonist’s death in 1967 may or may not have spurred his former boss to make some of the inventive moves that marked Davis’s astonishing work from 1968 to 1975. But these recordings cannot help but seem like a brilliant moment of creative division, as two intersecting lines split off for the stars.
In what ways are we still enacting this battle between the past and future, the ‘50s and the ‘60s, a sentimental past and an unsettling future? In jazz and in this nation, have we reached the ideal that Coltrane was looking for? Are we more comfortable leaning back into Davis’s comfortable lyricism? Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Last Tour embodies this dichotomy, and it is rich in great music. It is a provocation and a comfort.