MILES DAVIS – Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige ’58): This is less a review than a recollection, as I first bought Relaxin’ (along with Kind of Blue, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Blue Train, and Monk’s Music) on a trip to New York City with good friends several years ago, and it was along with the other discs I snatched up my first real introduction to jazz. Before that I’d attempted to move through Miles Davis’s catalogue chronologically only to find the folly of 1) undertaking such a titanic task alone and without guidance and 2) assuming I wouldn’t get bored by a bevy of early schlock that couldn’t hold a candle to the classics he’d later be known for. And while Best Jazz Album of All Time Kind of Blue may have changed the face of jazz, and while Milestones and Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way will forever be the face of Davis’s output, Relaxin’ remains one of my favorite albums of all time, if not for its pure bebop bliss, than for the fond memories I associate with my first listenings to it.
As is well-known now, Relaxin’ was one of four albums cut in a couple of marathon sessions in late ’56 to fulfill Davis’s contractual obligations for Prestige before moving to Columbia (the other three being Cookin’, Steamin’, and Workin’, which all have their highlights and are all fine albums in their own right), and considering how tossed-off the whole affair could have been, it’s remarkable how clean, clear, and fun the album is. Give it up to Davis’s band direction, Red Garland’s chiming piano, and the chameleonic Coltrane, who, along with rhythm section Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, laid down what I believe is the most inspired set of the four records that came out of their playing; relaxed as the title suggest but never so loose as to be sloppy, tight-sounding in the sense of trust and respect for each other rather than stiff because of over-rehearsal, and eclectic in its song choice, few records are better suited for introductions to unadulterated bebop than Relaxin’. The tick-tock piano intro to Lousser’s “If I Were a Bell” with Chambers’ plunking bass before Davis slides in with a smooth-as-silk trumpet is sublime, and the long, pining rolls in “You’re My Everything” make it a romantic gem. While the other three albums have their own highlights (“Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Steamin’, “My Funny Valentine” from Cookin’, and “It Never Entered My Mind” from Workin’), none measure up to the flawless six-song setlist here.
So perhaps my judgment is clouded because it was the first jazz album I ever loved, the epiphanic moment every jazz lover encounters in their early year, and maybe every time I hear Davis’s trumpet toot my warm feelings for that loveable band of misfits darting around NYC in early grey November resurface, but no matter. Relaxin’ is ideal for a snowy pre-Christmas morning with a good book and cup of coffee, an album that encapsulates all that jazz can be without itself being transformative. It is the album against which all comparable jazz is measured, and few match it. It is, in short, a perfect record. A PLUS