Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings (box set)

Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings (Sony / Legacy) review

A nine-disc box set of classic Miles – the way it was originally meant to be heard

Prior to 1970, before stereo became the norm, most people listened to music through a single speaker, or “mono” sound.  So, most artists created their albums with mono in mind.  Sony / Legacy has just issued Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings, a nine-disc set, covering the early stages of the legend’s career at Columbia Records, and restoring these classic albums to their original, mono configuration.

It would be foolish to get into a big discussion about which is better, mono or stereo (there are lots of websites already devoted to that topic).  The fact is, these mixes sound different, and in some cases, very different, from their stereo counterparts.  The advantage  here is, instead of being separated over the left and right channel, all the music is blended together.  Some of these results may surprise you.

The Original Mono Recordings also manages to trace John Coltrane’s tenure with Davis – the legendary saxophonist joined his band right before Davis signed with Columbia, and his unique style can be heard on ‘Round About Midnight, Milestones, and the monumental Kind of Blue.  Coltrane exited the group for a solo career during the sessions for the final disc in this set, Someday My Prince Will Come.

Also included in the set are the three large band collaborations that Davis did with arranger Gil Evans –  Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead, and Sketches of Spain.

The collection also features two of the rarest albums in the Davis oeuvre – Jazz Track is a soundtrack to a French film that’s never been issued in the US, and Miles and Monk at Newport is a long-out-of-print live album featuring two giants of jazz.

The albums that benefit the most from the mono mixes are the big band recordings between Davis and Evans.  In stereo, these large groups of musicians are spread out from left to right in the audio spectrum.  In mono, the horns and woodwinds are all blended together – creating a single sound, which is really impressive to hear.

The first disc in the set, ’Round About Midnight, was originally released on CD in an awful, “fake stereo” mix, which added a watery echo to the entire album.  This has since been corrected, so this disc is no different from the remastered individual album which has now been restored to its original mono.

Miles Ahead, with its lush arrangements from Gil Evans of the large band, definitely benefits from the mono mix.  These instruments were intended to blend into a single sound, and you really hear everything mixed beautifully as one – as in “The Maids of Cadiz.”  “The Meaning of the Blues” has a lot more punch in mono form.  Plus, the mono master also runs slower than the released stereo version.

For Milestones – the bass really stands out in the mix on “Sid’s Ahead.”  The stereo mix of the studio version of “Two Bass Hit” had the snare drum panned right and the piano left – in mono, they’re all together.

Jazz Track is the rarest of the albums in this collection.  The first ten songs were cut with musicians from Europe for a French movie.  Most of these tracks are mood pieces –  they aren’t bad – certainly anything with Davis’ trumpet is worthy.  But, they lack the stellar musicianship that was typical of Davis’ recordings of this time period.  Tacked on the end are three cuts with the same lineup that would reconvene months later for the Kind of Blue Sessions.  The only place these are available are on the out of print ’58 Sessions album.  Davis’ muted cornet is front and center on the gorgeous “Fran-Dance,” while the bass is grittier on “Stella By Starlight” on the mono mix.

Arguably the finest of the big band collaborations, Porgy & Bess again sounds fantastic in this mono setting.  “Gone” is stunning – instead of spread out, everything is melded together – and it just gives so much more immediacy to these classic tracks.  On his timeless interpretation of “Summertime,” Davis’ trumpet is crisp. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” sounds weak and timid in stereo – in mono it’s got a more grandiose feel.  “I Wants to Stay Here” is 20 seconds longer in mono form, one of the few time differences between the mixes in the entire collection.

Davis’ highest-regarded work, and the best-selling jazz album of all-time, Kind of Blue, really gets the best treatment from the mono mix.  In the stereo version, everything is spread out too far – pianist Bill Evans and saxophonist Cannonball Adderly are in one channel, while fellow saxman John Coltrane and drummer James Cobb are in the other.  No one hears music that way – certainly not in a live setting.  In mono, everything is morphed into a single sound. Plus, you get a better appreciation for bassist Paul Chambers, and how he interlocked with Evans and Cobb – his playing is certainly upped in the mix.  You may have heard this album a hundred times, but you’ll hear new things in this mono mix.

Sketches of Spain is the last of the large band recordings with Gil Evans.  On “Concierto de Aranjuez,” the flutes and horns blend into a single sound which is breathtaking.  The fidelity on this disc is noticeably less harsh as well.

The final disc, Someday My Prince Will Come, sounds fabulous in mono.  There’s a light echo that’s over the entire album, giving it a little bit of presence.  Paul Chambers bass is fat on “Pfrancing,” while Jimmy Cobb’s drumming is crisp and tight on “Teo.”

One final note – you don’t need to understand the difference between mono and stereo to enjoy this set.  This collection contains many of the greatest albums that Miles Davis would record during his long career.  Many of these records helped build him into the legend he became.  Having these recordings all in one place is fantastic, no matter what mix it is.

When these classic albums were recorded, they were originally intended to be heard in mono.  Once stereo rose in popularity, these mixes were largely forgotten.  Now with The Original Mono Recordings, we finally get to hear these vintage albums they way they were originally intended.  —Tony Peters