Miles and Coltrane Kick off the Return of the Original Jazz Classics series (review)

Miles Davis – Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane

Craft Recordings resurrects the very popular Original Jazz Classics series

The vinyl resurgence has come with a huge caveat: quality control.  Vinyl records have flooded the market with often dubious results: inferior sound, noisy grooves, etc.  As a vinyl fan, oftentimes I just feel ripped off.

Luckily, there’s companies like Craft Recordings that continue to strive to excellence in their vinyl releases.  The company has decided to relaunch the Original Jazz Classics reissue series, which originally began in the 1980’s with Fantasy Records, making available hundreds of classic and long-forgotten jazz albums  The new reissues will be available in 180-gram vinyl and HD audio downloads.  

First, a note about these reissues.  Each album has been faithfully reproduced, right down to the original liner notes (the original, yellow Prestige label on the vinyl is a nice touch too).  The album jackets are made from a heavy grade paper, there’s even a wrap around (vinyl junkies know them as OBI’s) that gives historical details on each album.  And the vinyl?  Heavy, and most important, oh so quiet.  Very, very nice.

First in the series is Workin’ from the Miles Davis Quintet.  Featuring the blockbuster lineup of Davis on trumpet, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and a relatively unknown sax player named John Coltrane (you may have heard of him?), the album was recorded as part of two marathon sessions between 1955-56.  These fruitful dates produced no less than five albums that saw release over the next few years.  Workin’ was the third in the series, which came out in 1960.

The album opens with the gorgeous “It Never Entered My Mind.”  Compare the new vinyl with any streaming version: at :19, Davis and Chambers come in.  The streaming version is distorted, while the vinyl is clean.  On the next cut, the dizzying “Four,” both Coltrane and Davis’ solos are sharp, while Jones’ cymbals are crisp, with no rolloff that would be evident if this were poorly manufactured.  

You really feel the warmth of Garland’s piano on “Your Own Sweet Way,” featuring an extended Coltrane solo.  Marvel at Chambers’ walking bassline on “Trane’s Blues,” or Garland’s melodic phrasing on “Ahmad’s Blues.”  Things wrap up with the hard bop of “Half Nelson.”  

Next up is Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane – a pairing of two, trailblazing musicians, who were both coming into their own at the time of these recordings (1957).  The title of the album is somewhat misleading – only three of the album’s six tracks are truly Monk/Trane collaborations (two cuts are larger band affairs with Coleman Hawkins joining on tenor sax, and one is a solo Monk piece).  Still, it’s the only document of these two giants of jazz coming together.

“Ruby, My Dear” is a ballad, really giving Coltrane a chance to show that he was more than a crazy soloist.  The track sounds big and warm in this analog environment.  Things shift quickly with “Trinkle, Tinkle,” with Coltrane playing some of his “sheets of sound” soloing which is just exhilarating.  Monk gives Trane a full three minutes before he takes the spotlight – playfully toying with the melody, before giving way to bassist Wilbur Ware.

Although credited to Monk and Coltrane, “Off Minor” is a larger band recording, that features altoist Gigi Gryce and Ray Copeland on trumpet – I don’t hear Coltrane or Hawkins here at all.  

I was taken by the tape dropouts about :17 into “Epistrophy,” but they’re apparently on all reissues (the tape must be damaged).  We do get a Coltrane solo here, but I’m not a big fan of this large band format – too many cooks.

The final track is a long (over nine minutes!) solo piece featuring just Monk on piano called “Functional.”  In this stark environment, you really appreciate how quiet the vinyl pressing is.  You feel like Thelonious is in the room with you.  

The label is planning lots more releases in the Original Jazz Classics series, including albums from Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Coltrane, and Yusef Lateef.  Here’s to Craft Recordings for giving these classic albums the treatment they deserve.  —Tony Peters