Listening to this anthology is a lot like tuning in an NPR jazz show. If you're lucky enough to live in an area where the music is programmed on your local affiliate, this may sound familiar. There's a nice mix of instrumental colors - horns, piano, guitar, B3 - with the only thing missing from the format being a vocalist or two; there's nothing too far to the right or to the left, too old or too new (at least stylistically) to break the mood; and the quality is at a high level from start to finish. There's one significant left turn from the middle of the road more endemic to community or college radio, but we'll get to that later.
"Vierd Blues" opens the anthology with Oscar Peterson at his most economical. Joe Pass on guitar lays down a rich bed of organ chords for Peterson's opening solo, then takes a thoughtful turn in the spotlight very much under the spell of Charlie Christian. There's another brief Peterson solo before a series of trades takes it out. It's a nice way to begin the collection, showcasing a somewhat lesser-known Miles tune. Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Martin Drew on drums are the solid rhythm team.
An alternate take of "Milestones" from Dexter Gordon's Generation session is particularly notable for fine solo work by the leader and pianist Cedar Walton. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard has a nice spot too, although it's not at the consistent peak much of his playing reached during this time period. Hubbard's rather rough entrances on the series of trades with Gordon following the piano solo probably account for the fact this take was never originally issued. It's not essential Dex, but is a pleasant listen nonetheless. Drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Buster Williams complete the band.
Bill Evans steers his trio through a slightly manic version of "So What" that is as different from the tune's original recording on Kind of Blue (with Evans on piano) as Kerouac is from Patchen. After a "free" rubato intro, the piece takes off with an adrenal glide sure to surprise those who still - after all these years - mistakenly pigeonhole Evans as a dreamy impressionist. Eddie Gomez adds a few frills and furbelows to the famous bass line, and takes a busy, guitaristic solo. Marty Morrell is the drummer in this August, 1974 edition of the trio. Originally issued on Blue in Green, this track was superbly recorded by CBC Radio.
"Tune-Up" gets the B3 treatment next courtesy of Sonny Stitt and company. With Stitt on alto, Grant Green on guitar, Don Patterson on organ, and Billy James on drums, this is a brisk, workmanlike romp that never really breaks a sweat. Green gets the first brief solo and steals the show.
Chet Baker is spurred on by the potent rhythm section of drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Paul Chambers, and pianist Al Haig on a fine version of "Solar." Baker sounds okay here, but Haig's probing solo and the crackling excitement of Philly and Mr. PC make it a keeper.
One of the most compelling performances on this compilation is presented by pianist Hampton Hawes, with Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. "Blue in Green" is the second tune originally recorded on Kind of Blue included here, and this emotionally charged interpretation attains the understated eloquence so endemic to that classic session. Brown's perfectly intoned arco in the intro builds a solid foundation for Hawes' subsequent rhapsodic recasting of the lovely melody. He has a disarming way of being earthy and ethereal at the same time, and this is a brilliant solo, with Brown's potent pizzicato and Manne's ultra low-key brushstrokes in empathetic support. Brown returns to the bow for the theme statement that closes this beautifully paced story in song. This is without question one of Hawes' best latter-day solos, comparable to the sublime duo LP with Charlie Haden.
It's back to Hammond-land next, with Mel Rhyne on the bench as part of Wes Montgomery's trio; George Brown is the drummer on this October 10, 1963 version of "Freddie Freeloader" from Portrait of Wes. Wes is in inspired form here, working his octave magic in a deep-toned, bluesy solo groove that sounds eminently relaxed, even though the tempo is way up there. Rhyne is fleet of foot indeed, and you'd swear there's a good bass player present. Nice!
Time to click that directional signal lever downward, and get ready for the promised left turn ahead. "Nardis" was originally issued on Ezz-Thetics by the George Russell Sextet, recorded May 8,1961. Why producer Eric Miller has decided to credit leadership to Don Ellis on this disc is something of a puzzle. Is it because Ellis was a trumpeter and so was Miles? Or because Russell is perceived as less well-known than Ellis? Hey, I hate to break it to him, but Russell is still very much alive and active, and this was definitely his date. It's a wonderfully angular performance, full of interweaving instrumental colors, with the composition and arrangement the real "stars." The solos are relatively brief, with a muted Ellis up first, sounding cool and crisp yet edgy. Dave Baker takes a reflective turn on trombone, showing that he was already a noteworthy musician long before he became widely respected as an educator. Next up is Eric Dolphy, in a passionate solo that is aptly described in the liner notes as being "short but riveting." Dolphy's electric energy lights a real fire under bassist Stephen (as he's credited here) Swallow, who sounds like he's practically levitating under Dolphy's lead. This isn't quite in the rarefied levels of the stratosphere Dolphy inhabited on "'Round Midnight" with the same group, but it's certainly memorable. Russell on piano and drummer Joe Hunt complete the group.
The interpretation of "Nardis" is a hard act to follow. It's a wise choice to include something by Miles himself. We're back to the roots of bebop with "Compulsion," recorded in 1953 by an all-star group that featured Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophones, Walter Bishop at the piano, bassist Percy Heath, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and issued on Collector Items. Bird is just as mercurial and imaginative on the larger horn as he was on his customary alto, and the contrasts with Newk are fascinating. Miles himself sounds pretty conservative here, reaching back to the standard bop vocabulary.
One of Memphis, Tennessee's favorite sons hits next with "Four." Phineas Newborn, Jr. is unfortunately little discussed these days, but among pianists his name still looms large. Joined by drummer Louis Hayes and bassist Sam Jones, Newborn stakes out his virtuosic territory with a vengeance, spinning out ambidextrous hand-to-hand conversations at blinding speed. Newborn has tons of soul to boot, so his technical prowess never comes across as cold or empty, but when it comes to content and development, this performance pales by comparison to Evans, Hawes, or any one of dozens of their contemporaries.
Another selection from Miles' Collector Items session is next. "The Serpent's Tooth" (take 1) is much more successful than the rather desultory "Compulsion." Both Bird and Newk dig in on their solos, Bishop comes up with a real gem, and Miles sounds more connected to what's going on around him.
K.o.B. rears its ubiquitous head once more with the inclusion of "All Blues," herein performed by pianist Ray Bryant, with Sam Jones and Grady Tate, bass and drums. The sunny, bouncy, rootsy approach Bryant takes to this tune is refreshing. So many musicians who've covered this over the years make a dirge out of it. Bryant seems to remember the added lyrics: "...all shades, all hues..."
Guitarist Ron Affif concludes the set with a breezy run through the Davis/Victor Feldman collaboration "Seven Steps to Heaven." It's a bit glib perhaps, but pleasant enough. The liners point out that Affif wasn't even born when these tunes were written, and note the symbolic significance of concluding with a "younger musician" keeping "the musical legacy of Miles Davis...alive and well and prospering in today's latest generation of jazz musicians." Point well taken, but Miles certainly didn't stop developing his music in 1965, and thirty-something players like the talented Affif are far from the "latest" generation. The group here consists of Brian O'Rourke, piano; Andy Simpkins, bass; and Colin Bailey, drums.
Milestones is one of the better anthologies I've heard, and is strongly recommended, particularly to fans of the Dark Prince's early 1950s through early-to-mid 1960s period. And if you've never heard Dolphy's solo on "Nardis," it's worth the price all by itself.