"I never thought that the music called 'jazz' was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all the other dead things that were once considered artistic." — Miles Davis
"White folks always think that you have to have a label on everything — you know what I mean?" - Miles Davis, interview with Les Tomkins, 1969
Over the course of a career that spanned nearly five decades, Miles Davis constantly stayed ahead of every label people tried to stick to him, including some he partially coined. Cool jazz, modal jazz, hard bop, fusion. Miles helped pioneer them all, mastered them and then moved on just as copycats moved in to try to figure him out. Everything about Miles screamed "genius" -- in the sideman world of jazz, he became a leader early and stayed a leader, spring-boarding from Charlie Parker's bebop quintet to make his breakthrough album, Birth of the Cool, a reversal from Parker's style despite Bird's input and the bebop chops of all involved. That was the first sign of Davis' ability to abruptly change everything, but it wouldn't be the last, not by a long shot.
Davis is often dismissed as the jazz musician rock kids listen to in order to say they listen to jazz. Musically, the connection between Davis and rock is thin (well, at least before he led the charge of moving jazz into rock, of course). I would look to John Coltrane and his sheets of sound before Miles' modal explorations when linking jazz to rock; Coltrane's spiritualism throughout the '60s even made the ties more obvious, what with the Love Generation rising around the same time. But aesthetically, oh man. There ain't never been a rock star like Miles Davis, and that was as true when he played smooth legato lines down in Birdland as it was when he took to stadiums. Davis once said he could tell if a cat could play just by how he stood; one look at Davis and you not only knew that he could play, you could surmise how he played. Cool in the classical (i.e. poised and resolute) and contemporary (i.e. one bad mutha) senses, Miles parlayed his glacial mood into the atmosphere of his music. Even when he pushed his music into fiery cataclysms of rock, funk and white-hot jazz, Miles still brought the smooth.
I will not try to write even a basic summary of Davis' progression from his days as a sideman after dropping out of Juilliard in '44 through his death in 1991 after he had crawled back from the brink and enjoyed a popular comeback almost no one expected of the habitual heroin addict. No single volume could ever capture the twists and turns of Davis' career nor the number of masterpieces he put out under ever-shifting lineups. Besides, I don't know a thing about music theory, so I would only stumble more in the futile effort to to catalog the evolutions and impacts of Davis' output.
What attracts me to Davis is that sense of growth, that incessant reaching for something more, something fresh. Born to a middle-class family in 1926, Davis fought against both racism from whites and scorn for his higher upbringing to keep African and African-American music alive. He abandoned the Western, white music preached at Juilliard to play jazz with Charlie Parker, helped bring the blues back to the medium via hard bop, and by the time he moved into jazz-rock and hard funk, he'd incorporated soul, funk, R&B and tribal rhythms into his sound. Everything Miles ever played tied into a rich musical past, but he modernized it, contextualized it around new ideas. In the process, he laid the foundations for future forms of black and urban music, from dance and dub (On the Corner) to electronic-driven hip-hop (much of his '80s material). Why, where would dear old Prince be without him?
Yet no matter how far Miles went with his sound, you can always recognize him. His chops, unreliable even during his rare moments of mental and physical health, do not lend to a consistency in sound: on some of his finest albums, Davis himself clearly falters, straining for notes and occasionally blowing out such watery tones I wondered if he just hadn't drained his spit valve in a month or so. You can hear the same soul-searching-as-tonal-straying at the nadir of his mid-'70s personal tailspin and a decade earlier with the second great quintet at the Plugged Nickel. And the powerful work with the first great quintet and resultant sextant returns later in Miles' earliest fusion recordings when the prince of darkness felt emboldened by his risky musical cartography. Through it all, however, he maintains a certain feel, a clearly defined approach that identifies the player as Miles from the first note.
The tone and the swagger might make Miles a dominating presence, but, for this writer, Davis' greatest contribution to music was his ability to find and nurture talent in others. Selecting only a handful of the musicians he launched through his work, one could still wind up with such names as John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Ron Carter, John McLaughlin and Tony Williams. He brought out the best in his bandmates, and while he unlocked their fullest potential, few reached the same level without him. The fusion musicians especially wandered without him, McLaughlin initially crafting incendiary work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra before that project set the benchmark for tedious, masturbatory excess in the genre. (Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea's projects followed similar arcs, while Herbie Hancock managed to break the mainstream by softening his style enough to work in pop.) Davis' ability to not just pick talent but give his backup musicians the space to explore made him more than a mere leader; small wonder that, by the time he released Bitches Brew, the album credited Miles with "directions in music." That's what he did, checked his inner compass and pointed his crew toward his idea of north, and along they went into the jungle. Somehow, they always made it to the other side.
After his five-year hiatus at the end of the '70s, Miles never fully recovered his embouchure nor his strength, but he still gathered significant rising talent, still pushed the boundaries where he could, still pushed himself. That restlessness is the truest sign of artistic genius. Davis himself railed against the idea of comfort and complacency in artists, treating it as the ultimate sign of surrender. Whether smoothly taking jazz forward by returning it to the pre-Bird and Diz days, incorporating the free jazz he initially disparaged into his work or finally playing over synthesizers and drum loops, Miles always worked fads and trends into his sounds, but when he played them he ensured their immortality. Since his death, Davis' legacy has only grown, partially because the half-admirable, half-cynical onslaught of box sets and archived material released but primarily because the public and critics are only now beginning to fully uncover the depth and beauty of his work. More than any artist, Davis encapsulated the technical and theoretical intricacies of jazz but also the emotional immediacy of the genre. Of course, by the end of his life, he'd moved so far beyond genre he could never be said to be representative of any genre, though he damn near mastered them all.
Top Ten Albums
1. Agharta/Pangaea (both 1975)
Two double-CDs culled from one day in Osaka (the former the afternoon show, the latter the evening gig), Agharta and Pangaea collectively represent the pinnacle of Davis musical wanderings. Agharta, taking its name from the mythological underground city filled with the greatest wisdom mankind could ever learn, appropriately matches its title. Churning like the magma in the Earth's mantle, it unleashes sounds unlike any that have been heard before or since, the fullest extent of Davis musical exploration. After the eruption of the first show, Pangaea cools the lava to form a new supercontinent, resetting the Earth to coincide with the uncovering of our destiny. The music here isn't as blazing as Agharta's, but cooling lava can still melt you.
Davis sounds on the brink of his impending collapse on these records, his pinched, electric squeal the dying moans of a sonic Moses trying to enter the promised land he's taken his people to, only to be denied at the last moment. Around him, his virile band -- Pete Cosey (one of a handful of guitarists to ever launch off Hendrix in just the right way, exploring sonic wash over technical tedium), Sonny Fortune, Reggie Lucas, good ol' Michael Henderson, Al Foster and Mtume -- gathers as if waiting to bear his casket. Beautiful, terrifying, conquering, defeated. It's all here. Not for the faint of heart. (Note: in 2006 Sony Japan remastered these albums, which can be found floating around the Internet as rips from the out-of-print DSD-CD. The remastering is revelatory, rescuing these sonic journeys from muddled whump-whump bass and overheated treble. It says something about the nature of the music that contemporary technology just couldn't handle it.)
2. Kind of Blue (1959)
The highest selling jazz album of all time and such an essential work it should be included gratis in all desert island selections alongside the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, Kind of Blue more than lives up to its sterling reputation. Universally hailed by critics and appreciators of all music styles, Kind of Blue represents the pinnacle of Miles' modal efforts, each song beginning on a key, not a theme, allowing for greater range of exploration during group improvisations and individual solos. Yet the focus on modal, not chordal or harmonic, development made each exploration melodic, to the point that the album rewards whether studied intently or played as background music. It's one of the few times Davis' backing group -- incidentally one of his finest, with Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb contributing -- fully reflected Miles' own sound: cool, legato and beautiful. That unison makes the album listenable long after one nails down its variations.
3. A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
Though Davis' mid-'70s material plunged the artist fully into soul-funk territory, A Tribute to Jack Johnson is by some degree the "rockiest" album he ever made. Opening on a downright sick riff by John McLaughlin, "Right Off" gives way to what is quite possibly Miles' strongest, boldest solo, the result of sobriety and a brief dedication to ultra-healthy living. The second side, "Yesternow," incorporates takes from a group take-off of "Shh/Peaceful," a modification of the bassline of James Brown's "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" and an edited version of the tune "Willie Nelson" recorded by a different lineup. Yet of all Miles' electric studio albums, this one sounds the least spliced together, the force of the music carrying a spontaneity and perfectly synchronized looseness to it that gives the illusion of being a single take. After Kind of Blue, Miles' purest record.
4. The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (recorded 1965, released 1995)
The second great quintet had only released one album together when then played seven gigs across two nights in December 1965, but you can tell from these complete recordings just why the lineup ended up Davis' longest lasting. With Miles himself slightly faltering, the rest of the band steps in, especially the boisterous Tony Williams on drums and a hopped-up Wayne Shorter looking to prove himself worthy of taking the spot vacated by John Coltrane. Packed into 8 CDs, these hours of music demonstrate exactly where Davis would take the quintet: forward through the past. They stick mainly to standards and classics from Miles' back catalogue, but each version played sounds different from the studio, and even the other versions heard at the club. After slamming free jazz for years, Miles starts to absorb some of it, freeing his compositions along harmonic and rhythmic lines. But he still directs his band through smooth jams, and his own solos sidestep the occasional weakness of his phrasing to overpower. Fair warning: your hard drive will not like you becoming a Miles Davis fan, but those lost gigabytes (oh yes, you'll measure Miles by the gig) are more than worth it.
5. Milestones (1958)
Following the brief dissolution of the first great quintet over money and drug issues, Miles let them back in and picked up Cannonball Adderley while he was at it in order to deliver his first great modal statement. Though it lives in the shadow of Kind of Blue, Milestones is nearly as worthy and features a white-hot band at its peak. As ever, Coltrane tends to start each song by lying down his sound, at which point Davis glides in and gently shapes those sheets in a direction as Paul Chambers saws his bass and Philly Joe Jones monitors the shifts in current to adjust the beat. More electric than Kind of Blue in tone, the album nevertheless has a stripped-down, classic tone that lets each song breathe. Essential.
6. In a Silent Way (1969)
Bitches Brew might have been the album to truly herald jazz fusion to an unsuspecting and unprepared world, but for my money Davis' first electric record holds more rewards. The sound of a band dipping its toe into the water to test its temperature, In a Silent Way is one of the quietest artistic revolutions I've ever heard. When Dylan went electric, he did so boisterously, scabrously, ready to take on anyone. But Dylan ultimately was only responsible to his own image. When Miles made the switch, some thought he took down jazz with him. Maybe they were right; Miles certainly did care for any kind of boundary after this. Heard today, I process only the gentle courage of the music, one figure drifting out into the darkness with a torch until he finds the way clear and calling the others to come to him until the next member of the party moves forward another hundred yards. Yet for the gentle nature of the album's probing, it still displays enough of Miles' restless invention that it still does not fit neatly into either jazz nor rock. Already, he was aiming beyond such labels.
(The degree of evolution and softly radical change in these two sidelong pieces is reflected by the strength of the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions box set, by some degree the strongest of all the mammoth sets documenting the creation of Miles' electric albums. Taking some piece from Filles de Kilimanjaro (the preceding second quintet album that was outright fusion in every way save electric instrumentation), alternate takes and revealing jams, the set demonstrates the astonishing pace with which Miles and co. advanced their already adventurous sound, even as it points toward the huge leaps to follow.)
7. Porgy & Bess (1958)
Davis scarcely looked back from his time at Juilliard, but he acknowledged the influence his brief formal education on his understanding of music theory. One of the clearest examples of that impact is Davis' take on Porgy & Bess, the Third Stream opera by George Gershwin, one that respects the original but emphasizes the ethnic flavors Gershwin sprinkled into his operatic gumbo. The best of Miles' collaborations with Gil Evans, Porgy & Bess is one of the most enduringly entertaining, complex and captivating of Davis' classic records. As ever, Miles does not settle for simply capturing the feel of the past, instead adding new dimensions, new interpretations, Davis' lyricism forging subtle new paths just as adroitly as the passages of Kind of Blue.
8. On the Corner (1972)
Always resentful of jazz's position in the public consciousness as something for the arty and elite, Miles constantly sought new ways to add current flavors to his music. On the Corner marked the first time Miles managed to fully jump ahead of the curve and predict a trend rather than work with one. With its title and finger-snappin' cover right out of a Fat Albert cartoon, On the Corner gave some idea as to its musical contents, but no one could have anticipated the sounds coming from the vinyl. Not only infused with soul and funk, On the Corner took Teo Macero's (a man deserving of Sir George Martin-esque veneration) editing skills to their zenith, piecing together fragments of hot, sulfuric sludge into one of Davis' most forward-thinking albums. Not only does it show Miles finally achieving his wish of becoming the Sly Stone and George Clinton of jazz, the album also lays down all new sounds. Hip-hop, dance music, even post-punk can be heard in its ragged, angular soundscapes and unexpected moments of swing. It's as scathing as Bitches Brew, and as revolutionary, but by now Miles and his crew (whomever they might be, for the lineups shifted all over these four numbers) had worked out the kinks, and one could tell they knew exactly what they were doing.
(Just as the In a Silent Way sessions proved fruitful, the box set of On the Corner provides hours of pleasure, incorporating all the outtakes that made fine cuts of their own on vault-airing releases Big Fun and Get Up With It and adding enough alternate takes to set the mouth watering. The box set for Bitches Brew contained a great deal of superfluous material, the one for A Tribute to Jack Johnson the most relevant to seeing how the final music was made (yet also the most boring save for a few fascinating takes), but the sets for In a Silent Way and On the Corner, though perhaps the ones that cheat most brazenly by widening the time interval to include material that simply fits with the final music and not just the relevant sessions, offer the greatest insights into Miles' electric growth.)
9. Birth of the Cool (recorded 1949/1950, released 1957)
Comprising three sessions in 1949 and 1950 with an orchestral nonet, Birth of the Cool's belated release in 1957 did nothing to detract from its forward-thinking prescience. Of course, by the time this compilation came out, Miles had moved far beyond, having already pumped out classics with his first quintet that found the harder edges around this sound, but other players scrambled to imitate it. Even today, it's easy to see why someone would be glad to copy it after Daivs himself had grown bored of the sound; hell, it'd be a joy to nail down this sound 20 years after the man passed on. Birth of the Cool has all the hallmarks of the classic Miles sound: smooth enough to go down without a fuss but with an after kick that makes your whole chest burn.
10. Sketches of Spain (1960)
After Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane departed Miles' band following Kind of Blue, Miles decided to morph the sound of that album to compensate, turning his ear to Spanish folk music after hearing a classical arrangement of the Concierto de Aranjuez. With Gil Evans, Davis crafted one of his finest modernist pieces, a work so respectful of the traditions it recreates that, if you close your eyes to sway with the piece, you start to think that you'll be in Barcelona when you open them. Backed by 19 musicians, Miles proved his leadership abilities once and for all. Plus, he would not sound as in command of his own playing for another decade; check the solo on "Saeta," his best until "Right Off" blasted out of speakers in 1971. One of Davis' most popular albums, it remains so for a reason.