Watch Miles Davis Improvise Music for Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle’s New Wave Thriller (1958)

The modal exper­i­men­ta­tion in Miles Davis’ clas­sic albums Mile­stones and, espe­cial­ly, 1959’s Kind of Blue seemed to come out of nowhere. Along with sim­i­lar­ly ground­break­ing releas­es at the end of the fifties, these records irrev­o­ca­bly changed the sound of jazz. But hard­core jazz fans, and cinephiles, would have seen the devel­op­ment com­ing, hav­ing heard Davis’ sound­track to Louis Malle’s 1958 crime thriller Ele­va­tor to the Gal­lows (Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud—trail­er below). As the sto­ry goes, Davis hap­pened to be in Paris in 1957 dur­ing the film’s post­pro­duc­tion to per­form at the Club Saint-Ger­main. Malle’s assistant—perhaps inspired by the moody jazz sound­tracks of films like Roger Vadim’s Does One Ever Know and Alexan­der Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Suc­cess—sug­gest­ed Davis to the direc­tor. After a pri­vate screen­ing of the film, the trum­peter and com­pos­er agreed to take the gig. It was Davis’ first sound­track and Malle’s first fea­ture film.

At the top of the post, we have the great priv­i­lege of seeing—and hearing—Miles and his four side­men record the sound­track, live. The two-day ses­sion took place at Le Post Parisien Stu­dio in Paris on Decem­ber 4th and 5th. Accord­ing to Discogs, “Davis only gave the musi­cians a few rudi­men­ta­ry har­mon­ic sequences he had assem­bled in his hotel room, and once the plot was explained, the band impro­vised with­out any pre­com­posed theme, while edit­ed loops of the musi­cal­ly rel­e­vant film sequences were pro­ject­ed in the back­ground.”

The filmed ses­sion is cap­ti­vat­ing; Davis and band stare intent­ly at the screen and, on the spot, cre­ate the film’s mood. (In the sec­ond half of the clip, the film­mak­ers ban­ter in French about the pro­duc­tion while Davis plays in the back­ground.) See­ing this footage, writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, is akin to “watch­ing Picas­so paint.” Fur­ther­more, “it could be argued that Malle’s cin­e­mat­ic style and the unique pac­ing and char­ac­ter of this par­tic­u­lar film—which Miles obvi­ous­ly had to con­form to in order to score it properly—had a notice­able influ­ence on his music.”

Miles would say as much, claims his biog­ra­ph­er Ian Carr, telling Malle “a year or two lat­er” that “the expe­ri­ence of mak­ing the music for the film had enriched him.” Crit­ic Jean-Louis Gini­bre wrote in Jazz mag­a­zine at the time that Davis “raised him­self to greater heights” dur­ing the ses­sions, “and became aware of the trag­ic char­ac­ter of his music which, until then, had been only dim­ly expressed.” For his part, Malle remarked, “Miles’s commentary—which is of extreme simplicity—gives a real­ly extra­or­di­nary dimen­sion to the visu­al image.” Fans of the film will sure­ly agree. Fans of Miles Davis may want to rush out and get their hands of a copy of the score. (You can find a dimin­ished copy on Youtube here). It was nev­er released in the U.S., but ten songs appeared state­side on an album called Jazz Track. While the sound­track may not work as well with­out the images (All­mu­sic describes some num­bers as “rather ster­ile”), it nonethe­less pro­vides us with a kind of miss­ing link between Davis’ fifties hard bop and the cool jazz he pio­neered the fol­low­ing decade in his most-laud­ed, best-sell­ing album, Kind of Blue.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds/Discogs/

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Miles Davis Sto­ry, the Defin­i­tive Film Biog­ra­phy of a Jazz Leg­end

Miles Davis Plays Music from Kind of Blue Live in 1959, Intro­duc­ing a Com­plete­ly New Style of Jazz

Watch Ani­mat­ed Sheet Music for Miles Davis’ “So What,” Char­lie Parker’s “Con­fir­ma­tion” & Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Bob Msrshall says:

    Miles was such a genius and ever so tal­ent­ed .I loved hear­ing this sound­track over and over again when it first cams out and to be able to see Miles scorn­ing for this French movie was the such a bless­ing.
    So many peo­ple miss the mark by not being on top of their game and lis­ten­ing to sound­tracks from movies.
    Thank you for this shar­ing this.

    Bob Mar­shall

  • Phillip Wand says:

    Ladies and Gen­tle­man, we have the music, we have the trail­er, we have lots of talk and talk and talk but, sur­prise sur­prise, WE HAVE NO FUCKING FILM!

  • Maxwell Brody says:

    Excel­lent arti­cle on Lift to the Scaf­fold, a superb film that is wide­ly avail­ablr

  • ZITA CARNO says:

    I remem­ber when the film first came out and I was asked to review the sound­track for Jazz Review mag­a­zine. I described it as a sus­pense­ful thriller, superbly performed—completely improvised—by a quin­tet head­ed by the great Miles Davis, with a par­tic­u­lar sur­prise: the bass play­er, Pierre Mich­e­lot, of whom I said that if I did­n’t know who it was I would swear that it was Wilbur Ware! Ware was one of the all-time great bassists, whose play­ing was char­ac­ter­ized by extreme accu­ra­cy of into­na­tion (even if the bass was out of tune he played in tune) and the way he played bass lines. The mur­der scene had a walk­ing bass that would­n’t let go; it told you what was about to hap­pen, no words nec­es­sary. Mich­e­lot just remind­ed me of Ware! And Miles—well, he was Miles at his very best, and the whole thing held togeth­er very, very well. Five stars—at least.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.