Music Review: The Complete Birth of the Cool By Miles Davis

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A modern-jazz touchstone that opened the door to the sleek introspection and sophisticated aplomb of 1950s cool jazz gets an exquisite and essential vinyl reissue.

“And right now, ladies and gentlemen, we bring you something new in modern music,” announces Symphony Sid Torin from the stage of the Royal Roost, a chicken shack turned bebop haunt on Broadway, near Times Square. “We bring you: Impressions in Modern Music, with the great Miles Davis and his wonderful new organization.”

This introduction opens Side 3 of The Complete Birth of the Cool, a deluxe vinyl reissue of a modern-jazz touchstone that opened the door to sleek introspection and sophisticated aplomb and, fairly or not, was credited with the boom in 1950s cool jazz.

Davis was only 22 at the time of the Royal Roost gig. Best known as the trumpeter who’d bravely succeeded Dizzy Gillespie in the Charlie Parker Quintet, he had been workshopping a less mercurial, more chamberlike strain of bop in collaboration with the brilliant arranger Gil Evans. Their experiments in form and mood, fleshed out in Evans’ New York basement apartment on 55th Street, expanded on ideas that had gestated in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra before the war. Thornhill’s signature was a delicate blend of timbres, with soft projection and virtually no vibrato—a far cry from the regimental blare of a garden-variety big band. Evans, who arranged for the orchestra, famously described its effect: “The sound hung like a cloud.”

The unorthodox nonet that Davis brought to the Royal Roost in 1948—featuring bebop confreres like Max Roach (drums) and John Lewis (piano) as well as forward-thinking Thornhill alums like Lee Konitz (alto saxophone) and Gerry Mulligan (baritone saxophone)—did in fact represent “something new in modern music.” But as Symphony Sid’s next utterance implies, the ensemble wasn’t yet known by a catchy album title. Studio sessions for The Birth of the Cool were still months away, initiated by a Capitol Records producer, Pete Rugolo, who was persuaded by the gig. Those sessions would yield a series of 78-rpm sides in ’49 and ’50. The iconic moniker wouldn’t be attached to the project until a compilation album in 1957, touted on the LP jacket as “the classic recordings” that “launched a jazz era.”

Which is to say that The Complete Birth of the Cool is a repackaging of a repackaging, informed at every stage by a canny awareness of its own cachet. Seventy years since the studio recording of The Birth of the Cool, we’re equipped to understand that phrase as a signifier of aura and intention in Davis’ multifarious career. A documentary film by that name premiered at Sundance this year. It’s also the title of a new children’s book. To state the obvious, that earlier tag, Impressions in Modern Music, has a lot less mystique; The Birth of the Cool, timed to coincide with the rise of hi-fi systems and the word “cool” as a lifestyle, had a title intrinsic to its success.

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