ANNIVERSARIES: Miles Davis Born 85 Years Ago (Part 1: Acoustic)


Miles Davis (May 26, 1926 - September 28, 1991) was never just a trumpet player -- and I'm not referring to his occasional outings on piano or synthesizer. Even when he was a technically limited Charlie Parker sideman, he garnered attention; as his knack for constructing innovative bands became obvious, his salty persona and cool attitude became as iconic as his ground-breaking albums, which regularly changed the course of jazz history while making abstruse concepts accessible to mainstream listeners.

Throughout his career, Davis was reproached for abandoning styles he'd made popular in pursuit of new sounds that often alienated his fans.When he and his collaborators invented "cool jazz," nay-sayers wondered why he'd abandoned the bebop he'd honed with Parker. After he'd created a more refined style of bop and then moved on to modal jazz and large-group arrangements, once again some listeners were left behind.

In the mid-'60s, the increasing complexity of his music in response to the freedoms of the avant-garde left many unable to keep up, and even more abandoned him when he made electric instruments and rock rhythms and textures an integral part of his sound at the end of the decade.

Usually, however, it turned out that the relatively unexplored paths that he had headed down quickly became much-traveled thoroughfares. Right until the end he continued to explore new styles, recording with Prince and even incorporating rap and hip-hop rhythms, in his ceaseless quest for new challenges. He left a legacy of around 70 studio albums plus oodles of concert recordings both official and bootlegged. Here, moving chronologically, are the albums that will give you a solid Miles collection. If you want a shorter list to work from, the most crucial are the ones with LP covers.

The Complete Birth of the Cool (Capitol)

In the move of jazz from pop music to art music, the two major nodal points were bebop and the Claude Thornhill band. Those generative points converged in the Miles Davis Nonet that made the recordings collected here: notably, Davis, trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianists John Lewis and Al Haig, and drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach came from the bebop camp; alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, French horn player Sandy Siegelstein, tuba player Bill Barber, and arranger Gil Evans (who wrote the quintessential Thornhill arrangements) came from the latter organization. This is jazz that doesn’t care if you dance or party, music that practically insists that you sit and listen quietly. Though the components of this album barely sold when they were issued as singles at the time, these lushly arranged 1949-50 recordings (augmented here by 1948 radio broadcasts from the Royal Roost nightclub that include some arrangements not recorded at the later studio sessions) gave birth to the highly influential "cool jazz" style, emphasizing the interplay of instrumental colors in carefully sculpted settings -- and providing a context in which Davis's fragile trumpet tone was beautifully displayed -- instead of bebop's focus on speed.

Walkin' (Prestige)

On these April 1954 sessions, Miles moved away from his Cool style, but not back to the crowd-pleasing simplicity of pop or the colleague-impressing virtuosity of bebop -- though both (relative) simplicity and artistic integrity are here. He reconfigured the crucial elements of blues and what would eventually be loosely characterized as soul within a format more sophisticated than their norm, but also less overtly abstract in impact than the Cool arrangements. You still probably wouldn’t dance to it, but it had a groove you could tap your foot to, nod your head to, snap your fingers to. It was, some would say, more black. It was also when it became clear that Miles was not going to stand still stylistically.

I could break these down individually, but that wasn't how they were created, merely how they were sold. The story of their creation is familiar, grounded in non-musical mundanity, and all the more amazing for the distance between exigency and quality. Miles had been signed to Columbia but under his contract to Prestige still owed the latter several LPs. So he convened his working quintet on May 11, 1956, and recorded 13 songs (one twice); they reconvened on October 26 (exactly a year after Davis's first session for Columbia) and laid down another 12. Even by the standards of jazz, those are extremely productive dates. The results were no get-it-over-with hackwork, though. Mixing 11 "standards," eight familiar bop tunes, and six compositions by group members, there's a good balance of ballads and uptempo numbers. It's a seminar in how much can be done to invigorate a formula (we’re pretty much back to head/solos/head) -- if the trumpeter's the great lyrical player of his generation (this is where his Harmon mute sound became iconic) but also at his technical peak, the tenor saxophonist (John Coltrane) is maturing into the most technically dazzling player of his instrument while also learning lyricism from his boss, and the rhythm section (pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer "Philly" Joe Jones) is as tight and swinging as any in bebop. If you want just one of these, Relaxin' operates at the most consistently high level of excellence, with "If I Were a Bell" a particular highlight. Or, if you want to be comprehensive, get the eight-CD set Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings 1951-1956 (which, of course, also includes Walkin').

Milestones (Columbia)

Alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley had been asked to fill the slot that Coltrane had gotten; Adderley said no to the first invitation because he had a teaching obligation in his native Florida. He then was able to join Davis when Coltrane was briefly fired for musical lapses due to his drug problem (and if the hard-living Miles Davis thought drugs were fucking you up, you must've been really fucked up). But of course Miles rehired Trane, and so the group by the time of these February/March 1958 sessions was a sextet with Adderley’s easy-flowing soulfulness staking out the middle ground between Davis and Coltrane (now in his "sheets of sound" period where he played twice as many notes as most saxophonists)  in the frontline -- though, truth be told, none of these guys' talents could be accurately characterized in just a word or two. Milestones became iconic for the modality of its title track, but four of the six tunes are blues, so it's mostly what jazzers call a "blowing session," but thanks to three horns, with room for a little fancier arranging of the heads. There's also a famous trio track, "Billy Boy," on which the horns lay out and the rhythm section moves into the spotlight. But it's "Milestones" that captivates with its then-new sound. (For around $50 you can get a used copy of Columbia’s six-CD compilation of The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961 of Miles and Trane, which has Milestones and Kind of Blue along with his first Columbia LP, 'Round About Midnight, and a wealth of concert recordings and more.)

At Newport 1958 (Columbia)

This is the first official concert recording we have with the Sextet's two new members, pianist Bill Evans and drummer Jimmy Cobb (July 3; a June 30 set in Washington, D.C. of just under 19 minutes has been bootlegged on an album titled Four-Play issued by the Italian label JMY). I include this not only because it's so good, but because it so effectively counters the clichés about Evans. Didn't swing? Swings like crazy. No blues feeling? Check out what he does on Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser." This band is smokin' on the uptempo numbers ("Two Bass Hit" is especially hot) and grooves so hard on "Bye Bye Blackbird" that it almost seems like a new song. Coltrane's solo there looks forward to many later performances of his, though his best performance here is on "Straight No Chaser," which he'd probably played many times when he was in Monk's quartet the previous year during its residency at the Five Spot Café. Maybe recommending three albums from 1958 is overdoing it, and certainly this isn't as important as the two that bracket it,!

Porgy and Bess (Columbia)

For this July/August 1958 selection of music from the Gershwin opera depicting life in the South, Davis teamed with master arranger Gil Evans again for one of the trumpeter's most classic LPs, one that belongs not just in every jazz collection, but any music collection at all. But its great popularity wasn't due to pandering; it's a carefully crafted project, not the sort of quickie adaptation jazzers were prone to in those days. Its popular appeal in spite of its sophistication is obviously due to the communicative power of Davis's sound, which brings new depth to Gershwin's songs. But while, in terms of improvised solos, Davis is always the focal point in the Davis/Evans collaborations, working with a 19-piece band allowed Evans to highlight many other sounds, not least his favorite tuba player, Bill Barber. The orchestra is Evans's instrument, and he plays its timbres and textures with as much mastery as Davis plays his trumpet and flugelhorn. The results in this classic tragedy of the heart are wrenchingly emotional.

Kind of Blue (Columbia)

There may be no more universally acclaimed album in the history of jazz. It has been many people's introduction to jazz, yet holds up to decades of listening and inspires even the most adept musicians. Perfect? Miles Davis aspired to loftier goals than mere perfection. Reuniting with Evans (replaced by then-regular pianist Wynton Kelly on the blues "Freddie Freeloader") on a session characterized by modality and spontaneity produced a perennial candidate for the mythical title of "greatest jazz album." The near-Impressionism of the harmonies reflects Evans's style (he didn't receive nearly as much credit as was due him for writing and arranging here), but most tracks are still grounded in the blues. Of course, Davis had already experimented with music based on modes (scales besides major and minor) rather than chord progressions a year earlier when he'd recorded "Milestones," but he goes far more unreservedly into modality here. Feeling that jazz had become too "thick," as he put it, he pared it back to its melodic essence.

He also, as usual with his small groups, emphasized improvisation. Given the masterful players he was working with, he could afford to take risks. As a result, the band managed to get four of the five tracks down on the first full take of each. (The sole alternate take from the sessions, for "Flamenco Sketches," has  been included as a bonus track for several decades now.) The delicacy and intricacy of "So What," "Blue in Green," and "Flamenco Sketches," contrasted with the earthier "All Blues" and the peppier "Freddie Freeloader," has been a mellow and satisfying listen ever since it was released in August 1959. It's well worth spending the extra money in this case for the two-CD Legacy Edition. Appended to the LP's five tracks and the now familiar alternate take of "Flamenco Sketches" are snippets of studio conversation, which in the context of one of the most historically important jazz albums are quite welcome. The second CD has the May 26, 1958 session by the Evans edition of the Sextet, so that now all its studio work is in one place; finally, there's an epic 1960 concert version of "So What" that lets us hear Wynton Kelly's take on it, and lets Coltrane cut loose at length. (If you want more of this band at its peak in concert, The Legendary Stockholm Concert (Natasha Imports) bootlegs a spectacular 3/22/60 show.)

Sketches of Spain (Columbia)

Another classic Miles/Gil collaboration. It began when Miles heard a recording of contemporary classical composer Joaquin Rodrigo's concerto for guitar and orchestra, Concierto de Aranjuez; his enthusiasm for the piece infected Evans, who began working on putting together enough Hispanic material for an LP: Andalusian folk songs, a Peruvian Indian theme, and a section of Manuel de Falla's ballet El Amor Brujo (Love the Magician). But Evans's arrangement of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s concerto stayed the figurative centerpiece of the album; it transcends musical boundaries, but can still be called with justice one of the most beautiful jazz recordings ever. The delicacy of Evans's orchestration is astonishing, matched superbly by Davis's duende-filled delivery of the melodies. Davis's superb deployment of nuance in phrasing and timbre across the long lines of these melodies proved challenging to him, but needless to say, he rose to that challenge to convey the aching emotional heart of this music with an expressive profundity that crosses all borders.

Miles in Berlin (Columbia)

Not to diss any of the saxophonists Miles worked with then, but while many of Miles's early '60s albums are enjoyable (the two In the Blackhawk sets show just how good the band with Hank Mobley was, while 'Four' + More and My Funny Valentine display the quintet with George Coleman to best effect), none of them are of overarching historical importance; they are not innovative. But the personnel of the quintet was mutating, and by 1964 Davis had a rhythm section of forward-looking youngsters: pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams (still a teenager when he joined). Then Wayne Shorter (Miles had coveted him for years, but Shorter stayed in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for five years) took over the saxophone chair and sparks flew. After three songs filmed for the Steve Allen TV show, this 9/25/64 concert is the earliest documentation we have of the group, and even though the repertoire was stuff Davis had been playing for years ("Milestones," "Autumn Leaves," "So What," "Stella by Starlight," "Walkin'" -- all but the first lasting over ten minutes), the difference can be heard. More harmonic chances are taken, the grooves are more fluid, and in general there's more spontaneity, more living on the edge. (If you want to hear this band in concert, in depth, after it had matured for a year, spring for the eight-CD box The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965, which contains seven full sets recorded that December 22-23 at a Chicago club. Yes, you hear the same compositions many times, but never the same; the spontaneity and creativity on display are dazzling. There's also a single-CD Highlights compilation.)

E.S.P. (Columbia)

The "second great quintet"'s studio work is all collected on the Miles box most worth owning (in the sense of having the largest percentage of must-have material), the six-CD Quintet 1965-68; buy that and you've got the next few albums (starting with this one) on this list. The biggest change from his previous '60s repertoire, even more important perhaps than the players' styles, is that the original material contributed by Shorter, Hancock, Carter, and Davis himself is more freeform. It wasn't free jazz (which Davis derided); it still had a sort of structure to it, but it was extremely flexible structure rather than the standards with their structures proceeding in eight-bar blocks or the familiar 12-bar blues. It's also more rhythmically complex, often with implied (but not rigid) meter shifts deployed by Williams. It still swings in its own way, but it's a sort of non-Euclidean swing. The structures, in other words, are there, but they're not extrapolatable from their beginnings. There's a sense of mystery to this music, a built-in tension of unpredictability. But though rhythm and harmony are deconstructed, melody is -- in a way, as a direct result -- emphasized even more (which was not how people generally felt about free jazz, though players such as Albert Ayler did have some strong melodies). That gave jazz fans something to hang onto in otherwise unfamiliar territory, and perhaps even made the music seem superficially less strange than it really is. And, of course, Davis's pensive trumpet style fit well into this atmosphere.

Miles Smiles (Columbia)

Miles Smiles was this group's greatest album, a creative statement boasting complex compositions (including creative reworkings of tunes by Jimmy Heath ("Gingerbread Boy") and Eddie Harris ("Freedom Jazz Dance")) that became touchstones for succeeding generations of players. Carter and Williams penned no material this time out, but their interaction here, far more than just a foundation, changed the way rhythm sections accompanied soloists, offering more oblique support that allowed more freedom. Shorter's tunes ("Orbits," "Dolores," the amazing "Footprints") dominate; as both a player and composer, his elliptical style well matched Davis's (the leader contributed one original of his own). That helped keep the resulting sounds immediately identifiable as Miles music, seductive on its surfaces at the same time it remained innately challenging at its core.

Nefertiti (Columbia)

By this point (June/July '67), Davis was -- as he so often did -- moving to pare down the density of his music. This reaches its apex (or, some would say, its nadir, though I pity anyone who thinks that) on Shorter's title track, where the horns basically repeat the melody through the entire piece, though sometimes drifting out of sync in a vaguely antiphonal way that contributes piquancy; the rhythm section adds the most variety, with Williams in particular getting to shine. Elsewhere themes are more dissonant than expected, making the music rather unsettling. One often waits for climaxes that don't arrive; this is a more circular kind of creating that's much more about tension than release. Shorter's "Pinocchio" started out somewhat like the title track but evolved into a faster and less repetitive approach, but finds the soloists, if not merely restating the melody, sticking closely to its intervallic motifs. Hancock's tracks, especially "Riot," provide more overt thrills, but this is still music than old-time jazz fans didn't really consider jazz. They had no idea how much further away from their ideas of jazz Miles was about to move -- a move (really, a series of moves) to be covered in Part 2. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.


Sierra Club