Stereo Schmerio

Classic Miles Davis Recordings Reveal New Beauty in Their Classic Mono Format

Monaural recorded sound has made a comeback, and it’s more than a gimmick—for proof just listen to classic Davis in its original format.

It would take a musicological Borges to write the true history of recorded sound and its effect on the way we hear music. It would be a book full of Wonderland logic about how a technology invented to reproduce sound has, in turn, gradually shaped our expectations of what a song or a symphony sounds like.

Somewhere in that arcane volume you would find a long chapter on the checkered past of monaural recording in the music industry, how it reigned alone for decades, was eclipsed by stereo, and how it rose again—if not to prominence then at least to parity.

Until the early ‘60s, monaural recording was all the record industry knew. Stereos existed, but that market was still limited to audio buffs. Most people who bought albums before the mid-60s purchased mono records (same sound out of every speaker) and certainly anyone who bought a 45 rpm record was buying a mono recording. Then, in less than a decade, everything changed. By 1970, stereo recording ruled supreme.

But musical styles are nothing if not mutable and so just as we have returned, courtesy of song downloads, to a new singles heyday, we’re also currently rediscovering just how good mono can sound.

The trend began in 2009, when a boxed set of mono Beatles recordings appeared, followed a year later by a mono set of 1960s Dylan albums. Both sold well, probably because customers who’d grown up taking stereo for granted really were hearing something new in these collections. (People old enough to have bought the originals when they first appeared may well have purchased mono versions then, too, but let’s assume that the record players of the day gave no real clue as to a recordings’ sonic capabilities.) It’s become common to see the mono and stereo versions of, say, a Beach Boys album re-released as a package deal. Most recently—and most notably—there is Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings.

Like all music up through the early ‘60s, the material on this set’s nine albums—which include such high water marks as Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue—was recorded and produced to be heard in mono. Stereo mixing was an afterthought. And producing something in mono wasn’t easy. Record producers labored for hours to get everything balanced. But when it worked, the quality was astonishing. Think of the way a song seems to jump out of a car radio or a jukebox, and then add the high fidelity of a good sound system. Instead of the signal being split between two speakers, with some instruments over here, some over there and drums and bass usually anchored in the middle, the signal comes roaring at you undiluted. The surprising thing is that the sound, while it gains intensity, isn’t cluttered. Indeed, a rhythm section sounds much clearer, with more bottom and a lot more punch.

The Miles mono box is noteworthy first for showcasing the legendary pairing of Miles and John Coltrane—the sound of their playing here is robust, even beefy, yet always sinuous, with a beguiling airiness to the sound. But for my money, the albums that benefit most are the collaborations between Miles and the composer/arranger Gil Evans that were recorded with full jazz orchestras: Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, and Porgy and Bess. Here the balance between Miles and everyone else is much more pleasing, and the sound generally is richer and more layered. Quincy Jones has said that if he were forced to pick music to take to a desert island, these three recordings would lead his list. And who am I to disagree with Quincy Jones?

One of the albums included is Miles and Monk at Newport, which is a technically accurate title. But Miles’s side of the album was recorded in 1958 and Thelonious Monk’s in 1963, and there’s of course no overlap between the two performances (other than Miles recording a version of Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”). Still, for the chance to hear two excellent bands side by side and with quality sound, who’s going to complain? Was Monk in particular already past his creative peak? Some would say yes. But by the time Miles and Monk was released, Monk had played and recorded “Nutty” and “Blue Monk” over and over, and yet these performances sound fresh and energetic. Monk seemingly designed his skeletal compositions as launching pads for improvisation, and the soloing here, particularly by guesting sideman Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, vindicates Monk’s strategy in all respects.

This brings us back to the pros and cons of packaging. Blue Note has just released a previously unreleased 1969 concert by Monk in Paris, Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969. These were not the happiest days for Monk. His health was precarious. His label, Columbia, had dropped him. Prior to the tour of which the Paris concert was a part, Monk’s rhythm section had quit, and although Charlie Rouse, Monk’s longtime sax player, was still in the band at this point, he too was itching to leave.

All that might surprise someone listening to the music without knowing the history. It sounds muscular, inventive, completely focused. As a bonus, Philly Joe Jones sits in on drums for a track or two, kindling enough excitement among his fellow musicians to transform what starts out as a good performance into a great one.

Now for the packaging: In addition to the concert recording, there’s also a DVD with film of the concert. Shot for French television, the black-and-white footage isn’t the most adroit filming you’ll ever see, but it’s reasonably unobtrusive, and it sticks closely to Monk, often even when others are soloing. Never pass up a chance to watch Monk at the keyboard. Here he’s like some unreadable Buddha, rocking slightly on the piano bench while his thick, almost boardlike hands—Monk played with his fingers unbent—seek out the most subtle riffs and flourishes. How do those spatulate hands deliver such delicacy? And then suddenly fall like a ten-pound weight on the keyboard at just the right juncture? And where did that scrap of an almost boogie woogie “Blue Monk” come from?

There aren’t many current recordings or pieces of film footage that set your mind to wondering like this one will. But that’s one of the things that genius does: it liberates and recasts. In that respect, Monk, like Miles, made a virtue out of restlessness. Even in the twilight of his career, he never lost the knack for unsettling and delighting a listener all at once, and that ability is in full display on Paris 1969.