Miles Davis

TrackAlbum
So WhatKind Of Blue
MilestonesMilestones
My Funny ValentineCookin’' With The Miles Davis Quintet
Venus de MiloBirth Of The Cool
SummertimePorgy And Bess
Freedom Jazz DanceMiles Smiles
Shhh/PeacefulIn A Silent Way
Miles Runs The Voodoo DownBitches Brew
Right OffA Tribute To Jack Johnson
TeoSomeday My Prince Will Come

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Contributor: Simon Appleby

“Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” So said Miles Davis, my jazz idol. And he did, always. He was a relentless innovator, at the forefront of numerous changes in the world of jazz – the cool sound of the West Coast, hard bop, modal jazz, orchestral jazz, post-bop and jazz fusion were all driven forward by his restlessness and desire for re-invention. He promoted and developed a who’s who of other jazz talents – from Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane to Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul – you could create ten jazz supergroups with Davis band alumni and still have a packed subs bench.

I own 48 Miles Davis albums, of which 17 are live albums – and that’s by no means the whole of the great man’s discography. So how on earth do you pick the 10 best cuts from all those albums? Compilers of Davis ‘Best of’ albums have struggled with this issue down the years – resulting in few sets of tracks that could please everyone.

I have decided the only way to do it is this: pick the (in my view) ten greatest and most important albums. And then pick the best, most important or simply loveliest track from each album. Easy, right? (I have reluctantly put live albums to one side, as including them would make this even harder!)

Well, forget chronology, let’s start with the album that many non-jazz-lovers own, Kind Of Blue (1959). Whole tomes have been written about the importance of this album, the ineffable quality of the music, the atmosphere is evokes – but it’s impossible to do justice to the beauty or power of this music in mere words. The use of modes instead of chords, pioneered on the track Milestones the previous year, accounts for some of it, but much of it comes down to the quality of the playing – of the six tracks on the album, all but one (Flamenco Sketches) represents the only completed take, so Evans, Kelly, Adderley, Coltrane, Chambers and Cobb must have really clicked with Miles. It’s ethereal, it’s timeless, it’s wonderful and it repays endless listening. I love all the tracks, but the opener, So What, gets the nod here – I never want it to end. Check out the video for a contemporary performance on US TV.

It’s hard not to also include the track that launched Miles in the modal direction that culminated in Kind Of Blue; Milestones, from the album of the same name (1958), is modal jazz at breakneck pace, with Davis, Adderley and Coltrane improvising furiously over the grooved rhythm section. It’s impossible to avoid toe-tapping to this one.

Where next? In order to appreciate what made Kind Of Blue and Milestones so special, we need to hear Miles at the very top of his game playing straight-ahead be-bop. The hot streak he embarked on with his so-called First Great Quintet (Coltrane, Garland, Chambers and Jones) yielded six albums, five of which are acknowledged classics. Choosing just one of these albums is very hard – but of the four Prestige classics (Cookin’, Workin’, Steamin’ and Relaxin’), it’s Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet (1956) which edges ahead, largely for the tender, lyrical and simply remarkable, My Funny Valentine. The change of tempo around 2:30 always makes me smile and Red Garland, on the ivories, never sounded better.

Miles wasn’t just comfortable in a small group setting. His work with Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and others on the Birth Of The Cool sessions in 1949 created a whole new sound in jazz, utilising unusual instruments like the French horn and tuba as part of a nonet. It’s warm-toned music that eschews some of the predominant pyrotechnics of the beboppers in favour of greater lyricism. The opener, Move, is indeed kinetic, but for a track that sums up the charm of the album I would plump for the mid-paced Venus de Milo.

That collaboration with arranger Evans later bore fruit in three even greater albums, Miles Ahead, Sketches Of Spain, and my pick of the three, Porgy And Bess (1958). Evans’ arrangements provided the perfect foil for Miles’s playing, and together they showed people Gershwin’s famous tunes in a whole new light. Summertime is for me the definitive instrumental rendering of this jazz standard.

Miles never played with dummies, but for a while after John Coltrane left him he couldn’t really settle with a band who really got his creative juices flowing, that is, until the Second Great Quintet coalesced around him. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams were all much younger than Davis, but instead of being intimidated by their youth, he was excited by it. The creative journey that Miles led this group on pushed the boundaries of acoustic jazz and ultimately led them in to the uncharted territory of fusion. Their four acoustic albums, E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Nefertiti and Sorceror, contained no jazz standards; they consisted largely of new material written by the band. This was exciting music – shifting, pulsing, hard to pin down, driven by the incredible drumming of the young Tony Williams. While never veering in to ‘free jazz’ territory, these were not conventional tunes, and it’s still possible to imagine how thrilling and new they must have seemed in 1965. For a track that represents this intensity and energy, I am going for the wonderfully-titled Freedom Jazz Dance from Miles Smiles (1967) though I challenge you to dance to it.

From there, via the partially electric Filles de Kilimanjaro and Miles In The Sky, Miles led his Young Turks towards true electric jazz fusion. In A Silent Way (1969) is in many ways the spiritual descendant of Kind Of Blue – a calm and reflective album – but the ensemble and instrumentation are very different – shimmering organ, electric piano and guitar are all present. Lots of production tricks went in to making it too, so unlike acoustic jazz which maintained a link to the art of live performance, the result the listener hears owes quite a lot to the work of producer Teo Macero in the booth. In A Silent Way is a fusion album that it’s still possible for an acoustic jazz fan to love and, given the choice, I would plump for the first track (side 1 of the LP), Shhh/Peaceful.

If its predecessor maintained some links with acoustic tradition, the same could not be said for Bitches Brew (1970) – everything about it said that Miles was aggressively pursuing a new, rock-infused direction (when he was the only jazz musician on the bill at the Isle of Wight Festival the same year, Miles focused largely on material from Brew). It’s not as heavy as later fusion by any means, and it’s still recognisably jazz, but it must have been incredibly exciting and shocking in 1970, and it’s still pretty thrilling now. Listen to the slow-build of Miles Runs The Voodoo Down and you’ll get what I mean.

The true fusion turning point came with A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1970). The astonishing Right Off kicks off with a truly epic groove of guitar (courtesy of John McLaughlin) and electric bass over which Davis eventually enters. Unlike later work in this vein, it’s all still clear and well separated sonically – you can hear Miles’ fine playing and he sounds really energised by the music he’s part of. From this point on, Davis worked with more and more rock-trained musicians, often subsuming his own playing in to a dense mixture of sounds – there’s some good fun stuff that comes after Jack Johnson, but you could have a good argument about how much of it’s truly essential.

So that’s nine albums. That was easy! And because it’s my list, and because by musical volume the three fusion tracks rather gang up on their shorter acoustic counterparts, I have decided the final track should be something to redress the balance – and perhaps something slightly off the beaten track too. Someday My Prince Will Come is a 1961 album that marked the last appearance together in a studio of Miles and John Coltrane. On the title track, Coltrane shares saxophone duties with Hank Mobley, and blows him away, but on track 5, Teo, he’s on his own with Davis. It’s a wonderful tune, inflected with Spanish flavour (echoes of Sketches Of Spain) and tinged with melancholy – and it’s also named after Teo Macero, the producer who was instrumental in so many of the brilliant recordings Miles made for Columbia Records. A fitting wildcard pick to end, then.

The official Miles Davis website

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Miles Davis biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #157

3 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 3, 2014

    Another Toppermost that will set my listening for a day or two. Many thanks. I’ve always dipped into Miles Davis without any depth of knowledge, and the first one I ever bought was Nefertiti, because it was (a) in the W.H. Smith sale for about 6/- and (b) I loved the sound of the name. I love the languid pace of the title track. Good a reason as any, then it was Filles de Kilimanjaro for much the same reason. Then it was the Bitches Brew / Jack Johnson era leading to On The Corner, which I found abrasive. This is probably blasphemy to true Miles fans, but I love “You’re Under Arrest” from 1985, where he covers Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time (she says it’s her favourite version) and Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and the title track, You’re Under Arrest, is great. A friend (who believes Jack Johnson the best album of all, judging by how often he had it playing) told me that I might as well listen to Bob James doing “Theme from Taxi” as Miles doing smooth Top 20 covers and stuff like Ms. Morrisene (perhaps the best track!), and also sniffed that a Weather Report fan (me) would need a synth on the record somewhere. But I like it. I have the earlier classics, but I haven’t devoted enough time to them. Will go back inspired by Simon’s article.

  2. Rob Millis
    Jan 5, 2014

    Full marks and a gold star for including Right Off. I’ve had that Jack Johnson LP for years and it always gets neglected when In A Silent Way to On The Corner get talked about as great bits of noisy, challenging fusion. Bravo I say again.

  3. Simon Appleby
    Jan 18, 2014

    Very glad of the full marks and gold star 🙂

    Electric Miles is interesting but acoustic Miles definitely means more to me. I do think that Right Off would be the perfect track to play to any rocker who says they don’t like jazz and watch their jaw drop!

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