Although credited to Miles Davis, without Gerry Mulligan’s playing and superb compositions “Jeru”, the beautiful “Venus de Milo” and “Rocker”, Birth of the Cool might have turned out very differently. Kind of Blue might be widely considered as one of the greatest jazz records ever made, however this collection is, one could argue, far more significant. Although to claim that this was the real birth of the cool would be a fraudulent one indeed, as most jazz in those days was pretty cool anyway. However what is true is that the music recorded by Miles’ now legendary nonet, compiled on the one LP for the first time in 1957, unquestionably marked the birth of something momentous all the same.
The tracks which make up this album were recorded over three sessions – the first two in early 1949, and the other in March 1950. Few of these compositions last for more than three minutes, which makes them the jazz equivalent to the modern day pop song. It’s true, the LP sounds ancient, even when played through a sophisticated stereo, and nothing like what Miles would go on to do in the proceeding decades. However if one has the patience, and tendency to listen closely, there’s a lot going on. For the first time in jazz, French horn, tuba and trombone all combine and duel for their existence. Throw in some baritone saxophone, trumpet, and a little alto sax, and you end up with something rich and varied.
In the late 1940’s and early ‘50s Bebop music was the latest thing, and a new innovation when it came to jazz expression. What is known as “paired instrumentation” is used to good effect throughout, to the extent that one can almost hear the early rumblings of jazz-fusion. A long call I know, but an important one to make, as Miles himself became such an instrumental figure in its development, that much of what he did and learnt during the Bebop and even post-bop era, he would have no doubt retained and adapted throughout his later period.
Mulligan’s “Rocker”, “Venus de Milo”, John Lewis’ “Rouge” and Johnny Carisi’s “Israel” are all excellent compositions, as is Miles’ own “Deception”. Each song has its own unique personality, and yet works as a whole even when heard as a collection. Which is surprising, considering that most of these recording were likely made with the intention of being released as 10” singles.
It’s difficult to appreciate the importance of this album after some sixty years since its original release. I shan’t pretend to understand its significance much less the part it played in the development of jazz in the 1950s. I guess one truly had to be there to truly get how different these recordings were when compared to most other jazz records of the time. Although upon its release, Miles had already moved on, so whether the record sold or not, I’m sure Davis himself probably didn’t really care. Still, the iconic cover itself is enough to make any jazz lover bar-up over, and wish that they had a TARDUS of their own to see Miles’ band in full swing. Now wouldn’t that be something. Because one gets the feeling that this is music to be heard live, rather than on record.
The 2 CD Complete Birth of the Cool is obviously the one to get, and completes the picture of this short-lived group, whose music is as exciting as it was innovative.