Miles Davis • Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud

Fontana/Sam Records 660.213 MR
10" LP



by Guy Lemcoe | November 11, 2016

last wrote about reissues from Sam Records in February 2015, when I enthusiastically recommended a pair of Donald Byrd albums. Like those earlier LPs, this new limited-edition reissue is another labor of love from Sam Records' Fred Thomas. It is authentic to the original pressing, down to the 10" size, the flat edge, the European-style "flipback" sleeve, the French liner notes, the label design, and the jacket photography featuring a sultry photo of Jeanne Moreau. It even includes the rare OBI wrap proclaiming "Grand Prix du Disque 1958." Also included is an insert featuring a moody photo of Miles Davis in performance taken by Gérard Landau.

Discogs has 70 listings for this recording, Miles Davis’s real-time improvised soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film noir Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Overlooked by many, it was recorded in Paris (subsequent to Miles's appearance at the Club Saint-Germain) at the Le Poste Parisien Studio in a four-hour session on December 4, 1957. The musicians were locals: Rene Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass, and American expatriates Barney Wilen on tenor sax and Kenny Clarke on drums. It was a very relaxed and informal session with little prior preparation. As the action in several principle scenes unfolded on the screen, the musicians improvised music to accompany them. It is rumored that Jeanne Moreau, the principal star of the film, adopted her new role as the charming hostess and served refreshments to the musicians and technicians.

Whoever says Miles couldn’t articulate a musical line should listen to “Sur L Autoroute.” The man is on fire here and doesn’t miss a step. Throughout, the music is drenched in atmosphere and darkness, beginning with the horn-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel sound of the opener, "Générique." The show is all Miles, with Wilen acquitting himself very nicely. The all-star rhythm section is all but lost in the mix, with the exception of two short cues on side two. Every lover of modern jazz, and especially every Miles Davis fan, should own this music. In addition to serving as a precursor to Davis’s later modal musical palette, it is the perfect accompaniment to a late-evening read of a Raymond Chandler story.

I own a six-eye mono pressing of Jazz Track [Columbia CL 1268], and side one has all ten cuts used for the soundtrack crowded right up to the label. The Sam Records reissue sensibly puts five cuts per 10" side. A comparison of the sound between the two editions is educational. The sound lifted off the tape is surprisingly good, but I could have done without the occasionally overwhelming mood-enhancing echo on some of the tracks. For the most part, the sound brought me into the studio. Davis’s close-miked, astringent, buzzing Harmon-muted trumpet solos, especially on side one’s “Sur L Autoroute" and side two’s "Diner au Motel" and closer "Chez le Photographe du Motel," will test the best cartridges. They certainly did mine. To my ears, the reissue reveals a rather hot mastering by Ray Staff, which might have contributed to that challenge. The Columbia LP did not exhibit this anomaly to the same degree. Overall I found that the reissue had greater dynamics, better pace and transparency, but less body and texture than the Columbia LP. For example, Miles’s muted trumpet exhibited more brassy trumpet sound and less aluminum mute. Barney Wilen’s tenor sax sounded reedier as well.

Absent a pricey mint original, this reissue from Sam Records is the one to own. It contains 39 minutes of unique, freely improvised jazz performed by one of the masters.

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