Miles Davis | Ascenseur pour l’échafaud remembered.

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It was exactly 60 years ago today that Miles Davis entered Le Poste Parisien studio’s in Paris to record the sound track for the 1958 Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud.  Malle’s assistant at the time, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, was a jazz fan and suggested asking Miles Davis to create the film’s soundtrack. It’s suggested that the choice was possibly inspired by the Modern Jazz Quartet’s soundtrack recording for Roger Vadim’s film “Sait-on jamais” released a few months earlier in 1957.

The mid fifties was an interesting time for Miles Davis. In 1955 Miles signed with Colombia and recorded his first album for the label that would eventually be released under the title “Round About Midnight”. As part of the contract Colombia agreed an advance of $4,000 and to release this album after Miles had completed his obligations  under his current contract with the Prestige label (for more on this see Hayim Kobi’s article “Miles Davis Quintet, It Never Entered My Mind!“). His first release for Colombia was finally released to mixed critical acclaim in March 1957.

Towards the end of 1956, Miles temporarily split with his quintet and accepted an offer to tour Europe with a formation called the Birdland All Stars, which also included Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet, along with European musicians such as pianist René Urtréger, bassist Pierre Michelot and drummer Christian Garros. On his return to the USA, he reunited his quartet, and toured the US for a number of months starting in December 1956.

The tour however was met with internal friction as Davis had become tired of Jones’ and Coltrane’s drug addictions, causing them to turn up late to gigs or at times not at all. Davis, on the other hand, was exercising regularly and consuming alcohol in moderation. Davis fired Jones and Coltrane at the tour’s end in March 1957, and replaced them with Sonny Rollins and drummer Art Taylor.

In November of 1957, he once again returned to Europe, leaving his band behind, to play dates in France and the Netherlands. On this trip Miles picked up a band of French based musicians, some of which he knew from the Birdland All Stars tour. The line-up included Barney Wilen (tenor saxophone), René Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and ex-pat drummer Kenny Clarke. This is the band that Miles took into the studio to record the soundtrack.

Davis was booked to perform at the Club Saint-Germain in Paris. Rappeneau introduced him to Malle, and Davis agreed to record the music after attending a private screening. On December 4, he brought his four sidemen to the recording studio without having had them prepare anything. 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 pre-composed theme, while edited loops of the relevant film sequences were projected in the background.

In Europe, the soundtrack was originally released as a 10 inch LP on the Fontana label. In America it was released by Columbia as side one of the album Jazz Track (CL 1268), with the second side filled by three new tracks recorded with his regular sextet (later to be re-released on the 1958 Miles CD). Jazz Track received a 1960 Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Solo or Small Group. The CD edition, released internationally by Fontana/Polygram in the late ’80s, contains the original soundtrack material, versions of the original album tracks without the reverb that was added to the initial release, and several previously unreleased alternate takes. With the CD being out of print for a number of years in 2004 Universal Music France rectified that situation, reissuing the complete session in a beautiful 24-bit/96 kHz remastered version in a digipack complete with session photos and liner notes.

The Ascenseur pour l’échafaud recording has always been an outlier in the Miles Davis discography however this recording along with the Amsterdam concert – 1957 (released on the Lone Hill Jazz label in 2005) recorded with the same line-up at the Concertgebouw just a few days after the Paris form an interesting document of this period of Miles’s career.


Miles Davis (Trumpet) Barney Wilen (tenor saxophone), René Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass), Kenny Clarke (Drums)

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Last modified: July 15, 2018