Even if you’re not a jazz fan, you’ve probably heard of Miles Davis. While he may not have been the best-selling jazz artist on Columbia Records’ roster (Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and others probably outsold him during his lifetime), at this point he’s one of the most iconic figures in music history. And fortunately for the record industry, he was extremely prolific, making multiple albums per year and leaving hundreds of hours of material in the vaults at the time of his death, which has been steadily dripping out ever since, even as the back catalog is repackaged and reissued again…and again…and again. Miles Davis has more boxed sets than many artists have albums.
The Original Mono Recordings, the latest Davis doorstop (get it on Amazon), is exactly what it claims to be—a nine-CD box containing reissues of Davis’s earliest releases on Columbia, beginning with 1956′s ‘Round About Midnight and ending with 1964′s Miles and Monk at Newport, with Miles Ahead, Milestones, Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come and the compilation Jazz Track (which featured his music for the French thriller Ascenseur pour l’échafaud on one side, and three leftover tracks from 1958 on the other) in between. All of these albums were originally recorded and released in mono, and remixed for stereo later. One could argue—indeed, producer George Avakian does argue, in the liner notes—that these reissues present the albums as they were meant to be heard. “Mono has always been truer to the studio sound and the original intent,” he tells writer Marc Myers, arguing that it offers “less audio trickery and fewer audio distractions.”
This seems undeniable. These are recordings of musicians in a room, playing together; it makes no sense to separate them by creating an artificially spacious sound field. Mono recording does more than document their interplay; it also grants an accurate representation of the atmosphere, the “room sound” which modern engineers—working with players isolated by Plexiglas barriers, if not playing in separate rooms—have struggled mightily to conjure under antiseptic laboratory conditions, coming up with more and more elaborate tricks and stunts (putting Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham‘s kit at the bottom of a concrete staircase, for example, to get the booming beat for “When the Levee Breaks,” or the bass direct, which inflicted that horrible strung-with-giant-rubber-bands sound on the upright bass on so many acoustic jazz albums of the 1970s and 1980s). That’s not to suggest that engineers of prior decades didn’t have tricks up their own sleeves—Peter Doyle‘s astonishing book Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900-1960 (get it on Amazon) is an essential history of acoustic effects and the creation of imaginary worlds through sound.
Let’s get right down to it: The albums included in The Original Mono Recordings sound fantastic. The clarity of the remastering, done from the master tapes but re-EQ’d to match the original LP releases, is breathtaking. The lush, florid orchestrations of Miles Ahead are perfectly balanced behind the leader’s trumpet; the same is true of Porgy and Bess and, most of all, Sketches of Spain, which manages to be one of Davis’s most intimate and emotionally affecting records despite being a large-ensemble effort. The small group albums—‘Round About Midnight, Milestones, and Kind of Blue in particular—are reborn. Paul Chambers‘ bass is a throb so powerful and warm, you’ll think it’s your own pulse you’re hearing. The drums, whether played by Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones, or Art Taylor (on Miles Ahead), have a greater impact—rolls and bomb-drops can almost make you jump in your seat. This is clearly the way this music was meant to be heard, and frankly, Sony should withdraw the stereo versions of the individual albums and put these out separately, so they can be appreciated by people unlikely to spring for the full box.
This brings up a broader question: Should acoustic jazz as a whole consider a return to mono recording? It might give present-day artists, who frequently sound diffident and distant on their studied, chamber-jazz albums, an impetus to punch their stuff up a little, to give it more swing and impact. Many of the artists recording for labels like Criss Cross, Fresh Sound New Talent, and Posi-Tone are already stylistically indebted—to varying degrees, granted—to the music of the 1950s and early 1960s, so why not adopt the technological methodologies of the time? If they went into the session knowing they’d be documented in a way that would demand a certain broad-stroke vitality, balanced with a need to make room for their bandmates as the music happened, rather than “fixing it in the mix” after the fact, who knows what kind of effect it might have? I can think of a number of groups, from the Nick Hempton Band to the William Parker Quartet, who I’d love to hear in a punchy mono mix.
Furthermore, other labels should consider reissuing their classic albums in mono. All the 1950s work of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and everyone else you can name has only been available in artificial, rechanneled stereo for decades. Let those of us who grew up in the CD era hear this music as it was made, and as it was meant to be heard.