Classis Miles Davis Soundtrack to a Classic Film Noir
European concert promoter invited Miles Davis on a three week European tour at the end of 1957. Miles wasn't yet the household name we think of, so they couldn't get as many bookings as planned. Fortunately for us, Miles spent his free-time with a piano in his hotel room, mulling over ideas for a very atypical record date. He and his newfound band-mates were invited to supply an original soundtrack for a French film.
The film is "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud", roughly translated as "Lift to the Scaffold" or "Elevator to the Gallows", foreshadowing someone led to his/her execution. This was not only Miles' first film score, but also director Louis Malle's first film as well. It was shot by Henri Decaë and stars the beautiful Jeanne Moreau. Their collective efforts were richly rewarded with the Prix Delluc, France’s most prestigious film award. Even more importantly, "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud", is credited with starting the French New Wave. Miles' landmark jazz soundtrack was the perfect sonic equivalent to Malle's dark, psychological thriller.
Any fan of Miles Davis can easily imagine his music set to suspense film: dark chords and muted solos evoking powerful soundscapes, simultaneously relaxed and murderous moods, trained within tradition but fearlessly innovative. Miles entrusted his small jazz combo with minimal instructions, but provided no written arrangements. Bassist Michelot recalls Miles didn't set a form or even say how long each song should be, a technique which was very new at that time. The musicians had a few drinks with the cast and crew, then played along to the film projection.
Everything was recorded in one late December night, at a seminal point in Miles’ creative career. That night was just seven months before his legendary Live at Newport 1958 appearance and Porgy and Bess recordings, and only fifteen months before Kind of Blue. Those three masterpieces are often thought of as distinct stages of Miles' music, but Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud predicted aspects of each. The songs for Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud were full of white heat, rich harmonies, lyrical longing, and cool blue modality. Why the session isn’t considered among his best-known works remains as mysterious as the film.
Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud is organized with all 16 raw takes in the original session order, followed by the final ten song film soundtrack. This format allows several interesting comparisons. You'll hear the acoustic versions before editing and reverberation. You also get a peek into the film-scoring process. Tracks 1-16 list the temporary song titles which were scrawled on the reel-to-reel tape box, whereas 17-26 present the official release. Some songs stayed pretty much where Miles intended them, but others were renamed and applied to entirely different scenes.
Even casual listeners will immediately recognize Miles' muted trumpet tone throughout. Pierre Michelot got several extended bass solos, befitting the stark and mysterious mood. Michelot's round, sustained tone is especially effective on "Visite Du Vigile." "Au Bar Du Petit Bac" adds Barney Wilen on tenor sax for that timeless film noir sound.
Track 8, which became 22 "Dîner Au Motel," is serious hot jazzer with an unusual trumpet sound. In the original liner notes, Boris Vian revealed it was part of Miles' lip peeling off into the mouthpiece. It didn’t sound bad though, and they decided to leave it for effect. Tracks 15 and 16, which became 19 "Sur L'Autoroute," provide even more up-tempo ecstasy. This composition was based on the chords of "Sweet Georgia Brown," but the rest are completely original. Tracks 9-11 would eventually become 26 "Chez Le Photographe Du Motel" and they are all great. Even the slow songs simmer in that inimitable post-bop way.
Just last year, Rialto Pictures re-released a fully restored 35mm print of the film Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud, which is still appearing in select cities. The project was supervised by the Malle family and features new subtitles by Lenny Borger. Let's hope they also see it through to DVD!
Miles is often called the "Picasso of music," for good reason. He didn't invent the jazz soundtrack, but he characteristically redefined the form in a way that is copied to this day. Most of the time, Scott Yanow from AMG Allmusic.com is an insightful commentator. But I have to differ with his appraisal, " this music does not really stand on its own without the film, so it's of mostly historical interest." I would rather side with Jean-Louis Comoli of Jazz Magazine:
"Without the music of Miles Davis, Lift to the Scaffold would have remained a relatively minor film. By participating in the success of Malle’s film, Miles hoisted himself onto another level, and became aware of the tragic dimension in his music which, until then, had only existed as an outline. In that sense Lift to the Scaffold was a major turning-point in the work of Miles Davis".
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-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.