In may 1957, paul chambers went into columbia records’ 30th Street Studio to lay down new tracks with his employer at the time, trumpeter Miles Davis. The session was a departure for Chambers, who was used to blowing through standards and head charts with the freewheeling Miles Davis Quintet. The album Chambers recorded in a series of four sessions was issued as Miles Ahead. The music featured arrangements for a 19-piece band and straddled the boundaries between classical sounds and jazz styles. Miles Ahead became known as one of the most important recordings in the chamber-jazz style known as Third Stream.
The Miles Ahead sessions belong to the story of jazz. Fortunately for us, video exists of a television show of the material. Producer Robert Herridge, who introduced several tunes from the Miles Ahead session on his TV show “The Sound of Miles Davis,” said, “There are many ways of telling a story. What you are listening to now, the music of Miles Davis, is one of the ways. My name is Robert Herridge, and this is Studio 61 in New York City—a theater for a story.”
The musical story told by Davis was actually orchestrated by a magician of modern jazz arranging, Gil Evans. The arrangements featured Chambers in a prominent role. Bandleader Ryan Truesdell, an expert on Evans’ music, says, “Gil often wrote out his bass lines top to bottom. A lot of that has to do with his harmony. He usually doesn’t put the root in the band; you play a triad in the horns and put any bass note underneath it. The harmony is completely changed.”
In the original bass parts from the Miles Ahead sessions, Evans often gave Chambers specific notated lines, sometimes in unison with tuba and bass clarinet. In the “Sound of Miles Davis” video, we see the 19-piece band set up in a semi-circle, with Chambers holding things together in the middle. The band did not include piano or guitar (except for a few spliced edits that were used from rehearsal tapes), and the result is an open sound, dominated by the bass instruments, which underpin Davis’ haunting flugelhorn.
Example 1 opens the track “The Maids of Cadiz,” and shows Gil Evans’ idea of a bass solo. The horns lay down a brooding, G minor sound, while Chambers jumps up through a Gmmaj7 arpeggio, trilling at the top of his range on a high F# and A. The Evans line was written out, but on the recording Chambers makes it sound improvised.
Example 2 shows a transition from a slow walking-blues tempo into a double-time bass figure on “Blues for Pablo.” The down-and-dirty groove in bars 1 and 2 morphs into eighthnote triplets in bar 3. In bar 4, the bass—in unison with tuba and bass clarinet—plays a bluesy double-time figure before landing on the last eighth note of the bar. In bar 5 the tempo changes back to the original, slow walking bass.
The “Blues for Pablo” master track was spliced together from many rehearsal takes. Truesdell says, “They did the whole record in four three-hour sessions, and they didn’t have any rehearsals beforehand. The record label wouldn’t pay for rehearsals, so the musicians came in, read it down, and recorded. George Avakian started hitting record during the rehearsals, and that’s why most of the record is spliced together from rehearsal takes.” In the ’50s, there was no digital editing and very little overdubbing. The common way for engineers to repair a mistake was to cut tape with a razor blade, removing the section of tape with a mistake, and splicing the correctly played section onto a master tape. In the liner notes to the Miles Ahead reissue, historian Phil Schaap says, “The master of ‘Blues for Pablo’ is edited from seven separate segments, including the first 19 seconds of this ‘unissued’ take 1. Here you hear the concept as a whole.”
Chambers gets to stretch out on “New Rhumba” (Ex. 3). The band begins with blaring background figures that almost overwhelm the sound of the bass. Chambers rises above the shouts of the horns, offering a clever twist on a G minor sound every two bars of the 16-bar intro. When playing bass fills in gaping holes between horn hits, the trick is to keep a constant pulse and think of the entire phrase—horn backgrounds and bass solo—as one line.
In recent years, Truesdell (with Jay Anderson on bass) has recorded and performed many of the original Evans arrangements. Is there a place for playing “repertory” jazz in today’s music world? Evans’ music, like Bach or Beethoven, was written down specifically. The difference between classical and jazz repertory is that we have definitive, original recordings of most jazz compositions. The original performance can be revisited and studied. New performances need not sound dated, because they are performed in real time in a modern setting, and no two performances of a piece can be exactly the same.
“With 50 years since it was first recorded, we have the luxury of really analyzing Miles Ahead,” says Truesdell. “I sometimes do workshops in schools, and I think it’s important that young players play repertory music. We don’t have to keep writing and playing exactly like this, but it’s a place to learn.” By listening to and emulating masters like Paul Chambers playing the music of Gil Evans, we can broaden our range of bass playing in the 21st century. “It’s like world history. You have to know what’s come before to create something new.”
John Goldsby recently recorded and performed the original music from Miles Ahead with Ryan Truesdell. Introduce yourself at johngoldsby.com.
Miles Davis, Miles Ahead; Paul Chambers on bass [1957, Columbia]
Gil Evans, The Individualism of Gil Evans; Gary Peacock, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Milt Hinton, and Ben Tucker on bass [1964, Verve]
Ryan Truesdell, Centennial – Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans; Jay Anderson on bass [2012, Artist Share]