on 5 January 2004
The music on this CD was recorded in 1949/50, but acquired its famous album title only retrospectively, in 1957. As a jazz term, ‘cool’ means something more specific than the vague, all-purpose adjective it has since become. It came to particular prominence in the 1950s to describe a more cerebral, less impassioned way of playing jazz. It’s generally supposed that these sessions were part of the inspiration for the ‘cool school’ of jazz.which flourished especially on the American west coast in the 1950s. That’s the main reason for the historical importance of the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sessions and the album may therefore be of more appeal to those interested in the historical development of jazz than to listeners who merely enjoy Miles’s own playing.
The historical interest centres primarily on these pieces as examples of jazz composition and arrangement. Along with the work of composer-arranger Tadd Dameron and some of Gil Evans’s arranging for the Claude Thornhill Band, these scores were innovative in adapting the procedures of ‘Be-Bop’ to orchestrated jazz and in the ways in which they deployed the instruments of the nine-piece band, which included, unusually, French horn and tuba alongside trumpet, trombone and alto and baritone saxes. They skilfully exploit the variety of timbres and tone colours to create a sound suggestive of a larger band. This is especially true of Evans’s pieces, which show his interest in rich, unusual and shifting chord voicings, although Mulligan’s arrangements also create some full-sounding, inventive passages. There’s a brilliant moment in Evans’s arrangement of ‘Boplicity’ when, within the space of just a few bars, a thematic figure spreads through the instrumentation with a kind of ‘rippling’ effect as a bridging section between Mulligan’s and Miles’s solos. It is inspired scoring in its own right, but it also seems to anticipate in miniature some of what Evans was later to do with larger jazz orchestras. His slow ballad arrangement, ‘Moondreams’, makes use of a favourite Evans technique of varying the chord voicings for different sections of a composition, to give the piece a sense of variety and continuous development. In the final bars he also employs a kind of ‘impressionist’ technique when the music seems to dissolve into little asymmetrical fragments of melody and rhythm before resolving itself in a brief, quiet coda.
Some of the other tracks – like John Lewis’s arrangement of the up-tempo, ‘Move’ - are entertaining as scaled-down ‘big-band’ performances without being as strikingly original as Evans’s scores. John Carisi’s contribution, ‘Israel’, is one of the most adventurous themes on the album, seeming to point a way forward from ‘Be-Bop’ to a more advanced harmonic style, but doing so by means of a skilful variation on one of jazz’s most ‘traditional’ forms, the 12-bar blues. It may be that Gerry Mulligan’s arrangements tend to be underrated by comparison with Evans’s - perhaps because they sound more influenced by the styles and procedures of mainstream jazz. There was often in Mulligan’s composing-arranging and his baritone sax playing something of the feeling of ‘traditional’ jazz with its bouncing, four-square rhythms (in ‘Jeru’ and ‘Godchild’, for example). But his scores have their innovative touches, like the rhythmic and harmonic ‘dislocation’ he gives to the middle-eight section of ‘Jeru’. In their own right they are characterful, enjoyable pieces, and since he contributed most of the arrangements he was a major factor in the success of the album and its subsequent influence. He contributes an interesting essay in reminiscence of the sessions as an addition to the liner notes.
Another interesting ‘historical’ dimension of Birth of the Cool is the collaboration of three composer-musicians who in the 1950s went on to make major contributions to modern jazz through their subsequent individual projects: Lewis with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Mulligan with his pianoless quartets and Concert Jazz Band, and Evans with his later collaborations with Miles and others.
This was, I believe, Miles’s first album under his own name; but it’s his early-fifties small-group sessions that best document his progress as a jazz improviser, particularly those which produced such classics as “Walkin”, “Bemsha Swing” and “Bags’ Groove”. Arguably, Miles had been a ‘cool’ musician from the start of his career with Charlie Parker. If so, these sessions can be seen as part of a process (begun during his time with Parker) of his adapting the ‘hot’ medium of Be-Bop to his own stylistic purposes. However, the liner note argues a contrary view: that Miles could not really be categorised as a ‘cool’ player. For me, Miles’s improvised solos here are less interesting than his later work was to become, when the overt expression of feeling had became more prominent in his music. He was some way from developing that individual sound, with its brooding ‘flat’ tonality and emotive colouring, which from the late 1950s was to make him one of the most immediately identifiable soloists in jazz. An additional limitation is that the soloists were restricted to very short solos, so that one of the strengths in Miles’s later music – his ability to ‘build’ an improvisation over two or more choruses – was not possible in these sessions. Nevertheless, there are some well-constructed solos from Miles, especially on “Jeru”, “Godchild” and “Rocker”, suggesting that the need for brevity encouraged him to make short solos as structured and ‘eventful’ as he could.
So, historically significant though it is, Birth of the Cool won’t necessarily appeal to those who have discovered Miles’s music via Kind of Blue, Milestones, Sketches of Spain, etc. Less immediate in its appeal than that later work, it is perhaps music that you have to ‘learn to like’ – though maybe that’s generally true of modern jazz.
The more devoted of Miles's fans will welcome the inclusion, on this 'complete edition', of the live, ‘Royal Roost’ performances by the band. As they were ‘unofficial’ recordings of radio broadcasts, the sound is poorer than on the studio sessions, but some of the playing has more vitality.