Steps to heaven

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When trumpeter Miles Davis asked tenor saxophonist John Coltrane to join his quintet in 1955, did he realize that he was recruiting a player who would evolve into one of jazz’s greatest innovators? Probably not – in the mid-’50s the smart money would have been on Sonny Rollins as the next prime influence. On the earliest cuts of this six-CD compilation, which collects everything Miles and Trane recorded for Columbia (between ’55 and ’61), the saxophonist is still working in the hardbop tradition, hardbop being a more deliberately and emphatically phrased version of the bebop that Charlie Parker pioneered in the mid-’40s. In retrospect, it’s hard to hear how Trane sounded to mid-’50s ears. The occasional slurred phrase now has intimations of avant-garde glories to come, while his dogged phrasing hints at later, exhaustive explorations. But back then he struck some as a somewhat overeager, slightly awkward player.

But not Miles, who himself was already reaching his first peak, perfecting the less-is-more style that would serve him well into the ’60s. On a cut as early as "Bye Bye Blackbird" (1956), he displays complete mastery of his singular approach, an authoritative lassitude with a cool facade that doesn’t hide the strong emotions underneath – even when phrased with a delicacy bordering on insouciance – his alternately clipped and breathy intonation suggesting great sadness and yearning. Few players have gotten more out of the drama generated by a note first hitting the air.

Trane and Miles were a great pair in the same way that Laurel and Hardy were, having nothing in common except a shared purpose: Trane fattened by ideas, never satiated, his restlessness growing more abstract over the course of the collection; Miles thinly evasive, almost sentimentally melodic but bittersweet and sounding, during his more pensive moments, as though he would disappear if he only knew how.

Though this collection has the usual accouterments of its type – lots of alternate takes and poorly recorded live material – it’s too essential to be for completists only. If there’s a high point it is, of course, the cuts from the Kind of Blue sessions (1959), with both players finding a new freedom in the still but deep waters of modality. Momentarily, Trane’s persistent and piercing anxiety evaporates and a stately summation of his discoveries is made, while Miles’ minimalist lyricism achieves a symmetrical precision he would soon abandon for a more wild and wooly style. Bliss it was, and bliss it is.

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