Throughout his long career legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, never content to keep to the old script, has always been ready to explore new ideas. Critics and fans have not always been happy to go along with him, but that has never stopped him from going his own way. So when you talk about the best of Miles Davis, the first thing you have to consider is which Miles Davis do you mean: bebopper, cool, hard bopper, electric, fusion. There are as many bests as there are Davises.
The nice thing about Riverside's new release of The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet is that it makes crystal clear just exactly which Miles Davis we are going to hear. This is the Miles of the middle 50s, the period of what is always referred to as the first great quintet. And who would argue with that? Joining Miles, there's John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drum—as fine an ensemble as was around at the time, maybe any time.
The album collects ten pieces from six albums—some as legendary as the performers—recorded with one exception in 1956 for the Prestige label. The opening track, Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" was recorded in '55 for Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet. The other nine were recorded over two days to meet the trumpeter's contractual obligation to Prestige before he moved over to the major leagues—Columbia Records. Prestige went on to release tracks from the sessions though the next few years under the titles Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin', Steamin' and Cookin', all of course with the Miles Davis Quintet. These are among the most heralded jazz albums of the day.
Davis and the rest of the ensemble came ready to play. Whether they're in a lyrical soulful mood in ballads like "You're My Everything" and "My Funny Valentine," or stampeding through Sonny Rollins' "Airegin,"(Nigeria spelled backwards) the album showcases the Quintet at its best. These are classic performances. As Ashley Kahn explains in his excellent liner notes: "In many cases, these tracks stand as definitive performances of the tunes." There is an exquisite version of Monk's "'Round Midnight" with a haunting opening as evocative as it is elegant. There is an absolutely jumping take on Davis's own composition, "Four." Completing this album filled with highlights are "Tune Up," another Davis tune, Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," and Monk's "Well, You Needn't."
The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet is not hyperbole. The music deserves the title. You won't want to download single tracks from this album; you'll want the whole thing. The only thing that jazz fans who have probably worn out their coveted vinyl recordings might have to regret about this new album is that there are only ten tracks. There may well be more music that belongs, but that takes nothing away from what is here. Still, it's always possible that there's a Very Best volume two down the road a piece.