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Miles Davis


Reviewed on this page:
The Birth Of The Cool - Bags' Groove - Musings Of Miles - Miles and Milt - Blue Moods - Miles Ahead - 'Round About Midnight - Milestones - Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud - Kind Of Blue - Sketches Of Spain - Someday My Prince Will Come - E.S.P. - Sorceror - Nefertiti - Miles In The Sky - Filles De Kilimanjaro - In A Silent Way - Water Babies - Bitches Brew - A Tribute To Jack Johnson - Live Evil - We Want Miles - The Man With The Horn - Amandla


Even more than John Coltrane, Miles Davis' cultural icon status has overshadowed his music. So it's worth mentioning that he was a masterful trumpet player who explored the instrument's lower register and tended to play slower, more lyrical lines, often deeply melancholy, rather than the showers of high notes of Dizzy Gillespie and his imitators. If you're new to Miles it's easy to get confused, as he released a multitude of records during a 45-year career, in a bewildering array of different styles. Davis was at the center of almost every movement in modern jazz (he skipped "free jazz"): early be-bop (he played with Charlie Parker in 1945); the "cool" sound; hard bop; orchestral experimentation; the "modal revolution"; fusion. He also played with most of the key jazz artists of the post-war period (Monk, Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, etc. etc.), and is probably the single artist who best represents the turbulent course jazz has taken.

Like our discussion of Frank Zappa and several others, this is not a thorough review of Davis' work, simply because I'm missing too many of his important records. I have heard enough of his early 70s fusion to say that aside from the brilliant Live-Evil, it doesn't bear comparison to even mediocre rock and roll or funk. (DBW)

There are some nice Miles Davis resources on the net. Here's the best page I've found.


The Birth

The Birth Of The Cool (1949-50)
I recently got this collection of sides originally released in 1949 and 1950 by the Miles Davis Nonet, not released on LP until 1957. The unusual instrumentation (with French horn and tuba) is carefully used by the arrangers (including Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis) to create an incredibly full sound, with a remarkable range of tonal colors. The tunes are also novel and beautiful. The famous "cool" sound is a bit too reserved for my taste, and the arrangements have a certain Hollywood aroma, but there's no denying the power and originality of the work here. (DBW)
Fans may find this jarring because of its transitional nature, with obvious big band elements such as Kenny Hagood's dated-sounding vocal on "Darn That Dream." Some of the arrangements display the breathtaking complexity of later records, though. (JA)

Dig (1951)

Blue Haze (1954)

Walkin' (1954)
The extended title cut is a jazz classic; I haven't heard the rest. (DBW)

Bags' Groove (1955)
This is worth having (although I don't have it yet myself) if only for the famous title track, one of the colossal hard-bop grooves of the 50's, featuring outstanding solos by Miles, Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk. (DBW)

The Musings of Miles (6/7/55)
This is a quartet recording, allowing Davis plenty of room for his bittersweet, melancholy interpretations. It's a very short album, but worth it for his solos on the standards "Will You Still Be Mine" and "I See Your Face Before Me," plus the beautiful original "Green Haze." There's also a hell-raising version of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia." (DBW)

Miles And Milt (1955)
Milt Jackson is the other featured soloist here, and his trademark blues-based vibes playing is all over the place. Jackie McLean also drops in to play blistering alto sax on his own tune, "Dr. Jackle." Like most of the Prestige albums you don't get many tunes for your money (four tunes on a 30 minute album) but what's there is straightforward uptempo bop ("Minor March," "Bitty Ditty") plus one more moody, contemplative number ("Changes"). (DBW)

Blue Moods (1955)
There's a suspended, off-balance feeling to this album, partly because there's no piano player, and partly because of the influence of bassist Charlie Mingus. The tunes are all standards ("Nature Boy," later recorded by Coltrane, "Alone Together") but they don't sound stale, with clever arrangements (by Mingus) and bright, effective work by Britt Woodman on trombone and Teddy Charles on vibes. (DBW)

The Coltrane-Garland-Jones-Chambers Quintet

John Coltrane, tenor sax; Red Garland, piano; Philly Jo Jones, drums; Paul Chambers, bass

The New Miles Davis Quintet (1955)

Cookin' (1956)
This album and the three following were all recorded in two marathon sessions to fulfill Davis' Prestige contract. Review coming soon. (DBW)

Relaxin' (1956)
There's an almost cookie-cutter quality to this collection of six tunes, none of them originals. Most of them open with Davis or Garland stating a catchy theme, and then run through five or six minutes of precise, low-key, flawlessly professional traded solos (the cutesy "If I Were A Bell" runs eight). Despite a couple of small-scale experiments with dynamics ("Oleo," where most of the band intermittently lays off), I think the idea here was to create pleasant background music, and in that sense it's a success: it's lyrical, but most of it's also dull ("You Are My Everything"). The only really memorable number is their irresistable take on Gillespie's finger-snapping "Woody'n You." (JA)

Workin' (1956)
Review coming soon. (DBW)

Steamin' (1956)
Kind of playin' that title concept to death, huh? Review coming soon. (DBW)

Miles Ahead (1957)
Working with arranger Gil Evans for the first time since Birth Of The Cool, Davis created a set of lush, lyrical recordings backed by a 19-piece band. It's about as arranged as jazz can get (Miles plays the record's only improvisations), and formed the beginning of a very successful partnership. The album consists of ten short tracks linked by segues or transitions; it's hard for me to evaluate the originality of what Davis and Evans are doing here, because I'm not familiar enough with Duke Ellington's work (Dave Brubeck's salute to him, "The Duke" is included here). Evans' "Blues For Pablo" presages the Sketches of Spain album, shifting back and forth between Spanish-tinged and straight blues sections. The whole project is impeccably rendered, but for me the arrangements are so much in the foreground they overshadow the compositions themselves, and Davis's solos. But I have a strong small-combo bias: if you're into orchestrated jazz this is the top of the line. (DBW)

'Round About Midnight (1957)
An absolute classic of modern jazz, with brilliant solo work from the leader and from Coltrane, who was preparing for his own solo career at this point, plus subtle backing from the rhythm section. Tunes range from Monk's famous title track to the ancient standard "Bye Bye Blackbird." (DBW)

Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (1958)
A movie soundtrack consisting of completely improvised music - the tracks are short, and many feature just one or two instruments - it's atmospheric, moving, and certainly not your average 50's jazz record. Beefed up for CD release with simlar but less successful soundtrack selections from Art Taylor. (DBW)

Milestones (1958)
The group is in good form, particularly Cannonball Adderley, a new addition on alto, and Coltrane (who often play in each other's register, to amusing effect), but I don't hear anything that sets this CD above Davis' other work in this period. The two originals ("Miles" and "Sid's Ahead") are standard-issue 50's bop, and they don't inspire any particularly brilliant improvisations. The other tunes are very familiar: "Dr. Jackle" (mispelled on this release), the Modern Jazz Quartet's "Two Bass Hit," Monk's "Straight No Chaser" and the ancient pop song "Billy Boy." If you think this is the same pattern as 'Round Midnight, you're right, it is. You won't be disappointed by this disc, but you won't find it a revelation either. (DBW)

Porgy And Bess (1958)
Another collaboration with Evans, entirely drawn from the Gershwin opera except for Evans's "Gone." (DBW)

Live At The Plaza, Volume 1 (rec. 1958, rel. 1974)
Review coming soon. (DBW)

The Adderley-Evans-Cobb-Chambers Quintet

Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, alto; Bill Evans, piano; Jimmy Cobb, drums; Paul Chambers, bass

Jazz Track (1958)

Kind Of Blue (1960)
One of the most famous jazz records ever made, this launched the "modal revolution," a style in which the complex chord substitutions of hard bop were replaced by extended soloing based on one or two scales or modes. The tunes are simple, often blues-based, and they're the starting point for some startling solos by Adderly, Coltrane, Bill Evans and Davis. If you've read this far, you probably have this album. If you don't, get it. (DBW)

Sketches Of Spain (1960)
The third of his four orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans. It's modern classical music, largely based on Spanish folk songs, and while it succeeds on its terms you should be aware you're not getting what you would think of as a jazz record. (DBW)

Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)
There's a lot of excellent music here, from the title track (yes, the Disney tune) which features some of the finest playing I've ever heard from Davis, sad and tender and gorgeous, to the blues "Pfrancing" to the return-to-modes "Teo"... hell, every track on the record works. (DBW)
On this record, Adderly is replaced by Hank Mobley, and Evans by Wynton Kelly. They're both good, but John Coltrane completely steals the spotlight with guest spots on "Teo" and the title track. (JA)

Quiet Nights (rec. 1962, rel. 1964)
Another collaboration with Evans, this time the focus is on Brazilian compositions and rhythms. (DBW)

Seven Steps To Heaven (1963)
This was a transitional album: Ron Carter is on bass, and Hancock and Williams also appear on half the tracks. The other tracks feature Victor Feldman on piano (who later played with Joni Mitchell) and Frank Butler on drums. The tenor sax player is George Coleman. I have this on vinyl and remember liking it, but I can't write a real review until I can get my turntable working again. The title track is a Feldman-Davis original; other tunes include the old chestnuts "Basin Street Blues" and "I Fall In Love Too Easily." (DBW)

The Shorter-Hancock-Williams-Carter Quintet

Wayne Shorter, tenor; Herbie Hancock, piano; Tony Williams, drums; Ron Carter, bass

E.S.P. (1965)
Considering that the quintet had recently formed, "E.S.P." does seem like a plausible explanation for the band's uncannily sensitive interplay - they support and complement each other as if they'd grown up playing together. At this point Shorter's tone sounds a lot like Trane's, but he's already impressively himself. Probably the most technically proficient and harmonically advanced rhythm section Davis ever worked with, in peak form. In contrast to his earlier quartets, Davis included compositions by and with his other band members from the start: Davis and Shorter wrote the title track and the lovely "Iris"; Hancock turns in "Little One," and Carter contributes two: the uptempo "R.J" and the stately, spacious "Mood." (DBW)

Miles Smiles (1966)
It's hard for me to choose among the Quintet albums, because they're all more or less in the same mold, and they all have interesting compositions and intriguing performances. This time, Hancock is often silent, which makes it all the more striking when he chimes in with one of his off-kilter riffs or compelling solos. Also, Davis and Shorter indulge in some rapid-fire unison runs ("Orbits"), and there are some enjoyable R&B influences ("Dolores," Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance"). Plus, every track ends with a brief, almost unintelligible spoken comment from Davis. (DBW)

Sorceror (1967)
A collection of compositions by everyone in the band except Miles, showing off the considerable talents of his young bandmates. He even lays out completely on Williams' "Pee Wee," but you can hear his influence even when you can't hear him: in the wide open spaces and extreme harmonic and rhythmic freedom of the recordings. The album ends with a bizarre tongue-in-cheek vocal by Bob Dorough, recorded with a different backing band back in 1962. (DBW)

Nefertiti (1967)
I'd better listen to this one some more: when I first got it I hadn't developed much of an appreciation for Wayne Shorter, who wrote half the songs here (again, no originals by Davis). In any case, the Williams and Hancock tunes are awesome, and the rhythm section is so inventive you can't get bored for even a second. (DBW)

Miles In The Sky (1968)
The soul and funk influence is beginning to be felt here, with George Benson contributing a lead guitar solo, and the rhythm section coming down out of the stratosphere to lay down more accessible grooves. The tunes concern some of Davis' main issues of the day, with titles like "Stuff" and "Paraphernalia." (DBW)

Directions In Music

Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968)
Miles goes electric - piano and bass - with a bunch of really long songs, and it's hit or miss: he said in his autobiography that the Quintet's work had gotten too abstract, and that he wanted to get back to the basics of the blues. If that's so, he's lost me: I find this record about as abstract as any jazz I've ever heard. In fact, I'd better go back and listen to it some more. Carter's last appearance with Davis; "Frelon Brun" and the lengthy "Madamoiselle Mabry" feature Dave Holland and Chick Corea instead of Carter and Hancock. (DBW)

Water Babies (rec. 1967-1968, rel. 1977)
A set of outtakes released during Davis's retirement, three songs recorded during sessions for Nefertiti, and two cut during exploratory sessions for In A Silent Way, with Chick Corea and Dave Holland added on electric piano and bass respectively. It's a weird set because the Nefertiti side has the anything-can-happen combustibility of the Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams quintet ("Capricorn"), and the second side has the mostly absent Miles and endlessly raining electric pianos of the Zawinul-Corea-McLaughlin group ("Two Faced"). The first side isn't up to Quintet standard - the title track is a simple sequence outlined by block chords from Hancock, with unremarkable solos from Davis and Shorter - but the gently unhinged "Sweet Pea" (a tribute to Billy Strayhorn) is a classic, and I like even the later tracks better than most of Davis's fusion, because Williams keeps things from drifting entirely out to sea, and there are recognizable tunes and a minimum of tape manipulation. All the tunes are Shorter's except for "Mr. Tillman Anthony (William Process)"; the 2002 reissue also includes Davis's "Splash" (I believe the same take that's on on the Silent Way Sessions boxed set). (DBW)

In A Silent Way (1969)
Setting a pattern that would hold for a few years, there are two side-long tracks assembled by Davis and Teo Macero through the miracle of tape-splicing: for example, the last six minutes of the master recording of "Shhh/Peaceful" was moved to the beginning of the released version, and duped again at the end, while most of the early part of the recording was tossed out. Corea and Holland are back, and Joe Zawinul plays electric keyboard on the title track, which was assembled by pasting his incredibly dull composition "In A Silent Way" at the beginning and end of Davis's mellow funk groove "It's About That Time" (which also features some uninspired Shorter soprano soloing). When you consider that four minutes are repeated on one track, and six on the other, there are less than thirty distinct minutes of music on the LP, and what little there is is mostly atmospheric noodling (John McLaughlin spends most of "Shhh" trying to find a decent lick, and failing), so I can't see this as anything close to a classic. On the other hand, Miles does come up with some spirited playing in the latter part of "Shhh," and much of his electric period is even worse. The 4-CD Complete Silent Way Sessions boxed set contains all the unedited recordings, plus a bunch of other unreleased or under-released tracks cut around the same time. (DBW)

Bitches Brew (1969)
All the same weaknesses of the previous record, but much longer, duller and less focused; a double album featuring Zawinul, Corea, Shorter, Holland, McLaughlin, Bennie Maupin (bass clarinet), Larry Young (keys), Harvey Brooks (bass), Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White (drums), Don Aliasand Jumma Santos (percussion). This was a big seller and is supposed to be the seminal classic of jazz-fusion, but to me it's a bunch of tuneless jams that don't have the invention of jazz or the grit of soul or the propulsive kick of rock and roll: just lots of proto-New Age nothingness and electric pianos holding chords. By the way, the 4-CD boxed set Complete Bitches Brew Sessions is mistitled, as the two and a half CDs of outtakes were all recorded months after the actual Brew sessions. (DBW)
Miles' only gold record, and it even hit the Top 40. (JA)

Circle In The Round (rec. 1955-1970, rel. 1979)
A 2-LP set of unreleased material: everything from a 1955 performance of "One Bass Hit" to an early 1970 fusion take on David Crosby's "Guinnevere." The title track is a lengthy (edited to 26 minutes) tune featuring Hancock, Shorter, Carter, Williams and very repetitive fretwork from guitarist Joe Beck. (DBW)

Live At The Fillmore East (rec. 1970, rel. 2001)
Shorter's last live appearance with Davis, recorded on March 7; the material is nearly all from Bitches Brew. The regular working band at this point was Davis, Shorter, Corea, Holland, DeJohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira. (DBW)

A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1970)
Two side-long tunes, mostly sloppy Sly Stone-inspired funk (one section of "Right Off" is actually "Sing A Simple Song," uncredited). Though this is way below Davis's previous standard, he was still capable of amazing things: the first twelve minutes of "Yesternow" is the dullest pseudo-funk you can imagine (based on James Brown's "Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud"), but then Miles starts blowing a heartbreaking lyrical line as the groove shifts to "Shhh," "Willie Nelson," and finally a full orchestra playing an unrelated piece. I don't object to cut-and-paste composition as long as the result holds water, and it does here, at least for a few minutes. Overall, though, I'd much rather listen to a real funk band - even a mediocre one - than this bunch of poseurs playing condescending, tepid grooves. Shorter is gone, replaced by Steve Grossman; Michael Henderson makes his first appearance on bass: he would hold the chair for several years. (DBW)

Black Beauty (1970)
Recorded live at the Fillmore East on April 10 with Holland on bass. The set list is mostly from Bitches Brew ("Miles Runs The Voodoo Down"), with "I Fall In Love Too Easily" the one standard, but the album doesn't list the tunes separately, so you'd better listen close. (DBW)

At Fillmore (1970)
Another live double album, this time consisting of brief snippets from four nights of June performances: four pieces of "Bitches Brew" and "It's About That Time," two each of "The Mask" and "Directions," etc. (DBW)

Directions (rec. 1960-1970, rel. 1980)
A rather random collection of unreleased studio material, including some familiar tunes (title track, "Willie Nelson") and some otherwise unheard ("Duran" and "Konda," both recorded in Spring 1970). (DBW)

Live-Evil (1971)
Hey, I finally found a fusion Miles record I like! A double LP - four tracks live, four studio - but since the studio tracks are all short, about 80% of the running time is heavily edited live performances from December 1970. The live band includes McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett and saxophonist Gary Bartz (replacing Grossman), and they sound quite good, with McLaughlin playing heavy lines that avoid funk/rock clichés, Jarrett's busy playing is an improvement over Zawinul's minimalism, and the rhythm section lays down a foundation that's solid but not immobile (Henderson's so much more limber he hardly sounds like the same player). And though I've never heard much about Bartz, I like his soprano playing better than Grossman's or even Shorter's: less ornamentation and more swing ("Funky Tonk"). "Sivad" consists of a fun take on "Directions" spliced together with three excerpts from "Honky Tonk," and the album also has the only readily available version of the Davis hard groove "What I Say," though the band played the tune regularly through the end of 1971. It's a shame this group didn't stick together longer and hasn't been documented better. The studio unit - with Jarrett, Corea and Hancock - shines on the fiery "Gemini/Double Image" and the subtle, drummer-less "Little Church"; "Nem Um Talvez" and "Selim," different takes of the same drab tune by vocalist Hermete Pascoal, are the album's only weakness. (DBW)

On The Corner (1972)
Perhaps the most trying of Davis's supercilious faux funk efforts, and that's saying something. Grating toy percussion (some of it by Alias), moronic two-note bass vamps, almost no trumpet. Yecch. Players include holdovers Hancock, DeJohnette, McLaughlin, Corea, Maupin and new faces Mtume (percussion), Dave Liebman and Carlos Garnett (sax), Lonnie Liston Smith (organ), Harold Ivory Williams (keys), Collin Walcott (sitar), Billy Hart and Paul Buckmaster (cello). Full review coming soon. (DBW)

Big Fun (rec. 1969-1972, rel. 1974)
Outtakes, three of which reappeared on the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions: "Great Expectations," "Orange Lady," and "Lonely Fire." The exceptions are "Go Ahead John," an 28-minute outtake from the Jack Johnson era; and "Ife," a concert staple recorded in June 1972, just after On The Corner. (DBW)

In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall (1973)
A double album with a radically new band: Reggie Lucas (guitar), Khalil Balakrishna (sitar), Cedric Lawson (keys) and Al Foster (drums) join Mtume, Henderson, Garnett and Roy. Just six different compositions, with two versions each of "Sanctuary" and "Right Off," and some material from On The Corner ("Rated X," "Black Satin"). (DBW)

Dark Magus (1974)
Another live double album, but nearly all the tunes are new: there are two takes each of "Turnaroundphrase," "Tune In 5," and "Funk," and "For Dave" would also become a concert favorite. By now Davis had dropped the tabla and sitar and added two more guitarists, Pete Cosey and Dominique Gaumont. (DBW)

Get Up With It (rec. 1972-1974, rel. 1975)
Davis had been releasing live records like mad, and a bunch of studio tracks had piled up, resulting in this double LP. Many of these tunes had already appeared on concert LPs ("Calypso Frelimo"), but there's some fresh stuff like "Red China Blues" (the sole product of a March 1972 session with Bernard Purdie and Cornell Dupree) and the half-hour Ellington tribute "He Loved Him Madly." (DBW)

Agharta (rec. 1975)
Yes, another live double album, recorded in Osaka on the afternoon of February 1, 1975. The Dark Magus band with saxophonist
Sonny Fortune in, and Gaumont out. The opening "Prelude" is unlistenable: half an hour of riffless, tuneless jamming, dominated by Cosey's fruitless journeys to the Land Of Wah-Wah. By the time they break out an actual melody on "Maiysha," you've almost forgotten there is such a thing. I'm not saying the emperor has no clothes - the spare middle of "Ife" (mistitled "Interlude") is terrific, with Miles blowing over ghostly chord washes - but he's not exactly overdressed. Full review coming soon. (DBW)

Pangaea (rec. 1975)
The evening show of the same day that produced Agharta. Miles visited the studio a few times after this tour, but didn't release anything before hanging up his trumpet for five years. (DBW)

Post-Retirement

During his absence from the scene, Columbia developed his mystique even more by releasing several live albums and compilations.

We Want Miles (1981)
Miles is rarely what you get on this live double LP (he does play nearly all the way through "Back Street Betty," but doesn't find much to say). That leaves most of the solo space open for his weak new band, led by guitarist Stern, whose meaningless note streams and neutral tone are reminiscent of Jan Hammer's worst excesses, and Bill Evans, who plays some decent tenor (the part-reggae "Kix") but spends more time bleating on soprano ("Aïda"). Just five different tunes, and apart from an unrecognizeable version of Porgy's "My Man's Gone Now," the only notable tune is the sly "Jean Pierre" (presented in full and sharply curtailed versions). (DBW)

The Man With The Horn (1981)
Again, there's not much horn here, but it's a decent funk record, with the slow, deliberate "Fat Time" (although Mike Stern still takes up way too much solo space), the creepy "Back Seat Betty," and an extended Miles solo on the almost-retrobop "Ursula." (DBW)

Star People (1982)

Decoy (1983)

You're Under Arrest (1985)
With covers of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." (DBW)

Tutu (1986)

Music From Siesta (1987)

Aura (1989)
An orchestral record composed by Palle Mikkelbourg. (DBW)

Amandla (1989)
Bassist/producer/composer Marcus Miller was firmly in control by now, which didn't have to be a bad thing: he did write and produce E.U.'s "Da Butt," after all. But here he focuses on bland fusion, with routine arrangements and weak melodies, and Miles doesn't add much, except for one soaring solo on "Hannibal." Guest musicians include George Duke, Don Alias, Michael Landau, Omar Hakim, Foley, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Joe Sample and of course Paulinho Da Costa. Note: Prince fans often claim that the title track is a Prince composition, even though it doesn't sound like him, it sounds like Miller, and it's credited to Miller. (DBW)

Miles & Quincy Live At Montreux (1991)
Close to death, Davis performed a set of Gil Evans arrangements ("Summertime," "Boplicity," "Miles Ahead") conducted by Quincy Jones. (DBW)

Doo-Bop (1992)
Produced by Easy Mo Bee. (DBW)


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