Round About Midnight

Miles Davis

Columbia Records, 1955

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Jazz is sometimes a foreign language to me. I'm not necessarily referring to the music; rather, the way that many other writers can break down a song or arrangement into such minute details that it almost feels like I'm reading Scientific American rather than a music review. Nevertheless, I find myself in awe of these writers, for they seem to hear more than I can. They break down the nuances; all I can do is go with my gut instinct.

When it comes to Round About Midnight, the debut release on Columbia for jazz legend Miles Davis, that gut instinct tells me that I'm listening to something that's magical, yet still somewhat in development. (Note: Since I first got my copy of this disc, it has been re-issued with bonus tracks originally included on The Complete Miles Davis/John Coltrane Sessions, a set in my "someday I'll get to it" pile.)

If anything, this disc is less of a showcase for Davis (who knows when to take the forefront in the music and when to let his sidemen take the spotlight) than it is for saxophonist John Coltrane, who gets what turns out to be his big break on this disc. Without upstaging his boss, Coltrane delivers some powerful saxophone work that quickly cements his place as a legend in the world of jazz. Where Davis seemed to play things low-key in his solos for the most part, Coltrane wasn't afraid to turn the burners up and let things start cooking.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Take the title track, "'Round Midnight," for starters. A slow build on Davis's muted trumpet leads to a transitional chorus and the more powerful showcase of Coltrane's solo. That statement seems to bolster the performances of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, as the energy level is raised by more than a few degrees. Yet this isn't all due simply to Coltrane's performance; rather, it is the wisdom of Davis to control how the energy built in the performance that is just as important.

In a similar way, performances like those on "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Dear Old Stockholm" and "Tadd's Delight" demonstrate that while Davis was undoubtedly a master on the trumpet, he knew the right moment to let his bandmates step forward and push the music to new levels.

Still, there are times when it feels like the chemistry is still in the experimental stage, and it takes a long time for the listener to grasp even a partial understanding of what Davis and crew were trying to accomplish. "All of You" is one of these moments; a beautiful performance in and of itself, it requires a lot of concentration on the listener's part to fully appreciate what is going on. For that matter, the whole album is cerebral in many facets, and is not really suited for just putting on as background music while you clean the house. Like the members of his band, Davis demands that you think.

The highlight of the set is "Ah-Leu-Cha," a Charlie Parker piece that captures the frantic energy of jazz that I happen to love. While I do wish that Chambers had been pushed up a little in the mix, what the listener is presented with here is an almost six-minute slab of raw power, sounding as fresh today as it did nearly 50 years ago. It's almost a good thing that this track didn't open the album, as that much energy so soon could have had a negative impact on the rest of the disc.

Round About Midnight turned out to be just one transition in Davis's career; by the time the album was released, the band had been broken up. (It would come back together a year later, adding Cannonball Adderley to the mix.) While I don't pretend to be an expert in all things related to Davis, this disc does seem like a very comfortable place for my fellow neophytes to start from. This album gives the listener a good foundation in what Davis was about without overwhelming them right from the get-go.

Rating: B+

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