By the release of “‘Round About Midnight” in 1957, the reputation of Miles Davis had already been well established in the jazz scene. He had already recorded “Birth of the Cool,” which was instrumental in the popularization of cool jazz, as well as played in Charlie Parker’s Bebop Quintet from 1944 to 1948. But, as jazz fans now know, there was much more in store for the jazz trendsetter.
In 1955 Davis staged a comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival, which found him back in top form after struggling with heroin addiction. Soon he had signed a new record deal with Columbia Records and put together the “first great quintet,” which notably included tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who would eventually gain legendary status in the jazz community.
The result of the the new record deal and band was “‘Round About Midnight,” which has been hailed as one of the first, and finest, hard bop recordings in jazz. Hard bop was notable for its inclusion of rhythm and blues, gospel and blues styles in its song arrangement. Jazz musicians at the time were attempting to get away from the fast tempo and inaccessible complexity of bebop, which many felt had gotten away from jazz’s roots as music steeped in African-American tradition.
Hard bop players also distanced themselves from the cool jazz scene, which fed off of relaxed arrangements and influence from classical music. Davis, who was instrumental in the formation of the cool jazz sound, knew better than others what he wanted out of the future of jazz. Throughout “‘Round About Midnight,” you can hear the change of sound that Davis curated.
Rhythmic yet reserved, meticulously planned yet with just the right amount of improvisation, “‘Round About Midnight” revels in balancing out its instrumentation. One great example of this is “Dear Old Stockholm,” which delicately plays with rhythm as each instrument carefully nestles itself into its right place. When Coltrane’s sax solo takes center stage, the rest of the band lock into a rhythmic play, helping to augment the color of Coltrane’s playing.
“Ah-Leu-Cha” works in the final ideas of the bebop era into “‘Round About Midnight.” It’s frenetic playing style and hold-on-to-your-seats tempo hearken back to the days when bebop was king. Yet Davis and crew hold back a little on the recording. Davis’ trumpet shirks wild solos to find a more melodic style, still able to demonstrate his larger-than-life talent on the instrument.
Coltrane, of course, would expand upon the style we hear on “‘Round About Midnight,” going on to dazzle the world with recordings such as “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things,” in which the musician embraced a style that came to be known as modal jazz. Still, the musician prospered in any jazz environment. Even on the Davis recording, his solos show the virtuosic movement of his solos, which effortlessly move through melodic lines, inserting themselves like puzzle pieces into the curated hard bop arrangements of the songs.
Over the years “‘Round About Midnight” has come to be recognized as a classic and a milestone in the expansion of jazz. You can purchase the album here.