Jazz and film noir are perfect bedfellows, as evidenced by the soundtrack of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold). This dark and seductive tale is wonderfully accentuated by the late-’50s cool or bop music of Miles Davis, played with French jazzmen — bassist Pierre Michelot, pianist René Urtreger, and tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen — and American expatriate drummer Kenny Clarke. These complete recordings, including multiple alternate takes, evoke the sensual nature of a mysterious chanteuse and the contrasting scurrying rat race lifestyle of the times, when the popularity of the automobile, cigarettes, and the late-night bar scene were central figures. Davis had seen a screening of the movie prior to his making of this music, and knew exactly how to portray the smoky hazed or frantic scenes though sonic imagery, dictated by the trumpeter mainly in D-minor and C-seventh chords. Michelot is as important a figure as the trumpeter because he sets the tone, whether on four takes of the ballad/blues “Nuit sur les Champs-Élysées,” the last version a bit more swinging than the others; his probing one-note sound with the whispering horn of Davis during “Assassinat” and “Final”; and especially on his solo tracks, the slow walking “Ascenseur” (aka “Evasion de Julien”) and the stalking “Visite du Vigile.” While the mood of the soundtrack is generally dour and somber, the group collectively picks up the pace exponentially on the hard-swinging and freewheeling “Motel,” the hotter “Sequence Voiture,” and “Diner au Motel.”
These selections with the entire quintet featuring Wilen effectively realize chase scenes or mind gears crazily turning. At times the distinctive Davis trumpet style is echoed into dire straits or death wish motifs, as on “Generique” or “L’Assassinat de Carala,” respectively, but the band can get kinda blue on takes of “Le Petit Bal,” with Davis and Wilen more unified up front. Clarke is his usual marvelous self, and listeners should pay close attention to the able Urtreger, by no means a virtuoso but a capable and flexible accompanist. This recording can stand proudly alongside Duke Ellington’s music from Anatomy of a Murder and the soundtrack of Play Misty for Me as great achievements of artistic excellence in fusing dramatic scenes with equally compelling modern jazz music.
-Michael G. Nastos, allmusic.com
Miles Davis-ASCENSEUR POUR L’ÉCHAFAUD: COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1958)
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