Too much of a good thing

Kind of Blue is the best jazz album ever. So Miles Davis and John Coltrane's out-takes must be pretty good, too... Right? Wrong.

Incredible though it may seem now, in 1953 Miles Davis was all washed up - at the age of 27. Addicted to heroin, he had developed a reputation for unreliability that was beginning to jeopardise his career in the New York clubs. To make matters worse, that year's poll for best trumpeter in Down Beat magazine was won by a younger rival, Chet Baker, who had been playing in California with Davis's former partner, Charlie Parker.

Perhaps encouraged by Baker's ascendancy over him, Davis went back to his parents' farm in Millstadt, Illinois, and kicked his habit through cold turkey and physical exercises copied from his hero, the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. After choosing the half-way house of Detroit as a safe place to get his chops back, Davis returned to New York in early 1954. At the Greenwich Village club Birdland, he repeated an oft-expressed request to the Columbia record company executive George Avakian to sign him up, although he was already contracted to the independent label Prestige.

At that year's Newport Jazz Festival, Davis announced his new-found health by playing a brilliant muted trumpet solo on Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" at a closing-night jam session. Two days later, Avakian met him for lunch and set the wheels of the deal in motion: Columbia would sign Davis before his previous contract was up, with the full agreement of Prestige's boss, Bob Weinstock. As Avakian insisted that Davis must have a regular band, the trumpeter pointed to the stable personnel of his current quintet: Sonny Rollins, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

Sonny Rollins immediately left for Chicago in the hope of losing his own heroin habit, so Davis replaced him with the new hot shot in town, the alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. As Adderley was still working as a schoolteacher in Florida, and had to return there at the end of the holidays, Davis substituted John Gilmore, who later became famous for his work with Sun Ra. Unhappy at Gilmore's contribution, Davis replaced him after a week with the relatively unknown John Coltrane, who had played with Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges.

Coltrane, who was also a heroin addict at the time, was clearly not first, second or even third choice. Davis remembered him being outclassed by Rollins at a jam session at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom some years earlier, but he needed a tenor player badly. A year after Coltrane joined the band, Davis fired him because of his drug habit and replaced him with Rollins again. After another year, during which he quit his habit, Coltrane rejoined the group, with Adderley added to make it into a sextet. Over the next year, they recorded Milestones and Kind of Blue. The latter remains by common consent the best jazz album ever made. When Davis received his first royalty statements from Columbia, he bought a gull-wing Mercedes sports car, and later a Ferrari.

The voluminous notes to Sony's beautifully appointed six-CD box-set are full of wonderful stuff, and one trusts that at least some of it is true. The music, however, while never less than good, and often outstanding, cannot help but come second to the packaging. Most of the trumpeted 18 previously unreleased tracks are fairly low-security items from the band's earliest Columbia sessions, when - despite the smugness of the views expressed in the liner notes - Davis and Coltrane were actually knocking off better stuff for Prestige, and in a fraction of the time.

Alternate takes of old standbys such as "Two Bass Hit", "A-Leu-Cha", "Bye Bye Blackbird", "Sweet Sue" and "All of You" hardly set the pulse racing. And while it is nice to have them, one cannot help thinking that if anyone had considered them much good, we would have had them years ago. Indeed, one of the problems with the whole set is that the material has, in record-release terms, been round the block more than a few times already.

Disc three's alternate take of "Milestones", taken marginally slower than the album track, is more like it, and the unused version of Jackie McLean's "Little Melonae" from the same album's sessions is great. Better still is an unreleased take of "Fran-Dance", recorded at Bill Evans's first session with the group in 1958, almost a year before Kind of Blue.

There is also an alternate take of "Flamenco Sketches" that is so perfect you cannot believe that they bothered with another one, but that has evidently been released before. All that is new from Kind of Blue is a 40-second snatch of conversation in which Davis complains about the squeaky floor, which may be why they did another take.

There is really nothing in the rest of the box to compare with the genius of Kind of Blue, which is reaffirmed as a quantum leap forward. Whether it was due to the influence of Gil Evans, with whom Davis had recently been working, of Bill Evans or of Coltrane, who recorded his own masterpiece Giant Steps a few weeks later; or whether it was due to the newly confident and considerably richer Miles Davis himself, it is impossible to tell. What is certain is that Kind of Blue just keeps sounding better every time you hear it. But as everyone who might buy this collection will have that album already, it is tempting to go back to the good old liner notes. In a brief but touching reminiscence of the Kind of Blue sessions, the drummer Jimmy Cobb says: "At the date, while I was setting up the drums, I was thinking, 'I wonder what we are going to play today?' "

Miles Davis & John Coltrane: the Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961 (Sony Jazz, six-CD box-set). Released on 3 April by Sony Jazz

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