Bags Groove //Miles Davis (Prestige 7109)

Look out world.  After having written a post about an original Blue Note album, here comes my first post about an original Prestige album.  Mama I made it.

The Music

The Tune:  “Airegin”

Recorded:  29 June, 1954 in Hackensack, NJ

Personnel:

  • Miles Davis-  Trumpet
  • Sonny Rollins-  Tenor Sax
  • Horace Silver-  Piano
  • Percy Heath-  Bass
  • Kenny Clarke-  Drums

The Tune:  “Oleo”

Recorded:  Same as above

Personnel:  Same as above

Numerous people have extolled the greatness of this album, the legendary drama that took place during one of the recording sessions, the phenomenal lineup of musicians, etc etc etc.  And now, I add my name to the list of numerous people.

This album is an example of what many jazz record labels did after they phased out the 10-inch record:  Combine two 10″ albums together onto one 12″ LP, throw some alternate takes or unreleased material from the same sessions, and release it as a new album.  Prestige was particularly fond of this practice, which in a way was pretty revolutionary and forward-looking.  Decades later, music labels did the same thing with CDs, throwing numerous alternate takes and previously unissued tracks and false starts and studio chatter and…

The music on side one features Miles Davis, 75% of the Modern Jazz Quartet (Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums), and Thelonious Monk on piano.  Recorded on Christmas Eve 1954, this was the session where Miles asked (told) Thelonious to lay out behind his solos and not accompany him.  The music from that session was released on the 10″ LP ‘Miles Davis All Stars, Volume 1′ PRLP 196.  For this “new” release as a 12″ LP, Prestige coupled the originally released take of “Bags Groove” with a previously unissued second take of the same tune.  The music swings, but one gets the idea that Prestige founder and session supervisor Bob Weinstock was in the control room motioning for the guys to keep soloing.  Miles’ solos on these sides are cool and perfunctory.  Without a piano to fill in the cracks, Miles sounds detached and removed from the music.  This detachment is amplified when he finishes his solo and Milt Jackson begins his ebullient solo and Thelonious assumes his role as accompaniment.  It’s a study in contrast.

Side two is the main reason why I bought the album.  Enter Sonny Rollins, with Horace Silver on piano.  Right from the jump, the music has a fresh vitality and feel.  Almost all the tunes on this side were written by Sonny Rollins, and all of them went on to become jazz standards- an impressive feat for anybody.  The opener, “Airegin”, is a classic.  That song and I go way back.  Over ten years ago when I was starting the 7th grade, I got a Miles Davis compilation CD and this song was one of my favorites.  I played it on repeat and thought I was the coolest thing ever, which of course it is.  My only gripe at the time was that “the piano player” (youthful ignorance) didn’t get to solo.  In the ensuing decade and some change, I’ve grown to appreciate Horace Silver’s tasty and stimulating comping behind Miles and Sonny, as well as his LACK of piano during the intro and melody statements.  Silver was a master of piano accompaniment, and in many ways his comping and chord choices are just as interesting as a full-blown solo.  Miles sounds stimulated by the music and his compatriots, weaving a minimalist, casually-cool solo that contrasts with Sonny’s solo.  Sonny’s full, sometimes breathy sax serves as the perfect foil to Miles’ trumpet.

“Oleo”, another classic, is a tune with a unique format over the familiar “I Got Rhythm” changes.  While the bass walks and the drums drum throughout the entire tune, the piano only comes in on the bridge and the soloist is free to play over the entire tune.  It doesn’t seem that wild on paper, but in practice it makes for an interesting listening experience.  Miles has his Harmon Mute firmly in place here, which combined with Kenny’s lack of a hi-hat on beats two and four, gives the tune a dainty, polite swing.  Sonny Rollins maintains the dainty air in his opening statements, using space to let the music breathe.  When he begins his second solo with more umph, Kenny finally throws in some hi-hat and the swing becomes more firmly entrenched.  Silver gets to solo this time (!!!).  It’s a fun performance, with Miles even throwing in a snippet from Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail” in the bridge during his second chorus.

The rest of the album is in much of the same vein, with “Doxy” being another Rollins original that quickly became a jazz anthem.  The music helped launch the hard-bop sound, history has been very kind to this album.  Over at Allmusic, Lindsay Planer gave the album a 10/10, admonishing that “Bags’ Groove belongs as a cornerstone of all jazz collections.”  It’s certainly great music on its grooves, and has what I consider to be the definitive versions of “Airegin” and “Doxy”.  The combined talents of so many major jazz figures with Miles Davis making jazz?  Yeah, I guess this album does belong in just about every jazz collection!

The Cover

img_4329Raggy Waltz Rating:  A+

The adjective ‘classic’ gets thrown around a lot, but I have to say, this is one of those classic jazz album covers from the 1950’s.  It’s original, artistic, aesthetically pleasing.  From the calming and playful usage of green to the fonts and typeset, the cover art succeeds.  The cover art is also unique in that it’s un-art cover art.  That is, it’s literally just words and no conventional art.  The art director over at Prestige managed to make something as mundane as an album title and information not just interesting, but a work of art itself.  It’s ironic.  The hipster in me is going nuts.  The artist responsible for this un-art art?  Reid Miles, who was also the star artist over at Prestige’s competition, Blue Note.  Phenomenal job, Miles!  Reid, I mean, although Miles Davis deserves an accolade or two, too.

The Back

img_4326Obviously, its seen better days since its release in 1957.  In the six decades since, the pristine white has aged and a C. Witherspoon (never Witherfork or Withispoon) stamped their name on it to prevent it being permanently borrowed.

The liner notes are rather lazy, which I wouldn’t expect coming from someone like Ira Gitler, famed jazz critic and writer.  He readily admits that he hasn’t actually listened to this new album as a unit, specifically the new tracks, and thus only comments on what he heard before.  Whether this is due to his not having the tapes available to listen to or willful negligence I don’t know, but it’s comical to read things like “[t]he take that I describe is the latter as the other will be as new to me as it is to you when I hear LP 7109.”

That aside, the notes are alright.  He ends with a then-topical reference to 1954 being a good year for Giants.  While 1954 was a good year for other reasons (my parents were legally allowed to go to whatever school they wanted!), it was good for the San Francisco Giants, the baseball team.  Speaking of Blue Note…

The Vinyl

The cross-fertilization between Prestige and Blue Note continues with Rudy Van Gelder lending his talents to Prestige.  The results are satisfying acoustics in glorious mono.  Having been recorded in 1954, just before high fidelity really took off, the sound isn’t QUITE that Van Gelder sound, and the reverb is a bit much, but it’s not bad.  It gives the instruments a sense of space and breatheability (did I just coin a new word?  Me thinks me did).  Percy Heath’s bass comes through loud and clear without coming across as boomy or muddy.  The vinyl itself is a bit noisy here and there, with delicious snap, crackle, and pop throughout.  Sure I’d like a cleaner record, but then again that’s why I collect vinyl and not CDs.

And speaking of collecting, is it or isn’t it a first pressing?  Let me say that I don’t really care that much about coveted first pressings or stuff like that.  I do prefer to get original runs of an album, but not necessarily first pressings.  Having said that, let’s get into the nitty-gritty, because who doesn’t like to know if they have a coveted first pressing?!

The short answer:  Probably not, but maybe.

Not a very satisfying answer, is it?

The evidence provided by the album doesn’t really give a definitive answer, and after pouring over London Jazz Collector’s excellent site for clues, I’m still not sure.  Based on the vinyl and its labels, it’s a first pressing.  The labels have the New York City address, which were used up until 1958 or so.  This album was released in 1957, so that checks out.  The labels also have “HI FI” as opposed to “HIGH FIDELITY”, another pre-1958 marker.  The vinyl is deep groove, and as mentioned before has “RVG” stamped in the deadwax (also “AB”, for Abby Manufacturing).  So far, it’s a first pressing.  Yahoo.

The album jacket is where things get tricky.  Allegedly, there was a second album cover that was made when this album was released again, differing only slightly in color.  My copy looks different depending on the lighting, so I’m not sure how reliable that is.  The back of my album has advertisements for other Miles Davis albums; this is allegedly a post-1957 feature.  So, what’s the truth?  It’s safe to say that this is an early pressing.  Best to leave it right there.  Yahoo.

The Place of Acquisition

I’ve sung the praises of my local record store so much, I think I deserve to get a check from them each month.  They’re like the best.  I actually got this record a year or so ago, after walking into the store not expecting to see much.  This being northern Alabama, most of the records on the illustrious wall displays are non-jazz.  The rare jazz records to make it up there are usually Blue Notes (reissues at that) or things like ‘Kind of Blue’ (also invariably reissues).  That day, however, there were two jazz records up on display:  ‘The Musings of Miles’ and this album.  The former album was a little more expensive than this one and since I already had bought the former on iTunes, I grabbed this one instead.  I thought the price of $25 was fair, and I planned to come back the following week to grab the other Miles album (it was gone, of course).  Vertical House Records deserves an award or something, both for the unbelievable amount of quality jazz they manage to stock their shelves with and for the unbelievable amount of money they have taken from me over the past three years.  Both are remarkable feats, let me tell you.

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