In anticipation of Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis Biopic Miles Ahead, we asked our resident Miles Davis aficionado Eric Sampson to take us through his ten favorite Davis cuts. In chronological order.
Miles Ahead premiers locally this weekend. And as always, give us a ring or stop on by and we’ll be glad to try and find a copy of any—or all—of these records for you.
1. “Moon Dreams” (1950)
At the end of the forties, an exceedingly fortunate meeting of like minds occurred when Miles Davis met Gil Evans. They evolved a soft, refined jazz, rich with textures and colors that can be heard on the Miles Davis Nonet recordings on Capitol Records. The recordings were later collected as the Birth of the Cool, which documents both the birth of cool jazz and its pinnacle. “Moon Dreams,” a Gil Evans rearrangement of Jimmy Mercer’s love ballad, is a reverie of tender, untainted love.
“Oleo” was composed by one of the greatest jazz geniuses, Sonny Rollins, and has since become a jazz standard. This version in particular is a swingin’ masterpiece. It’s also famous for a innovative move by Miles that was highly influential at the time, even outside of jazz: his introduction of the Harmon mute to recorded music. Berendt and Huesmann pointed out in The Jazz Book that Davis’ playing a muted trumpet right into the microphone represents perhaps the first appreciation within jazz of electronics as a continuation of music. More importantly, the Harmon mute is a key aspect of arguably the most affecting thing about Davis’ music—his tone—which is instantly recognizable even by the most untrained ear. Theater critic Kenneth Tyner reported that, to his nine-year old daughter, Miles’ sound was discernible because of its likeness to “a little boy who’s been locked out and wants to get in.” Three decades later author Paul Tingen’s 5-year old daughter echoed the same sentiment, saying “He sounds like a little boy who’s looking for his mum.”
3. “L’Assassinat De Carala” (1957)
One of the most neglected and radical releases in Miles’ discography is the original soundtrack to Malle’s Ascensour pour l’echafaud. In the making of the recording, Davis and his group would play as they watched loops of Malle’s film; without the guide of song structure, they aimed to conjure moods fitting to what they saw on screen. Malle took control of the recordings, cut and altered them (notably adding a liberal dose of echo), and then placed them behind the picture’s dialogue and visuals. Miles is at his very best here; and this slow, simple song serves as a moving, atmospheric accompaniment to the French new wave thriller.
4. “All Blues” (1959)
Davis’ experiments with modality—inspired by Gil Evans and George Russell—brought us two of the most successful jazz albums ever recorded: Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. It’s hard to overstate the influence these albums have had on the history of music—their lengthening of form while at the same time minimizing the occurrence of tones enabled the band to focus on developing a mood. The album demands to be listened to as a whole, but “All Blues” is arguably its single most seamless, haunting, and hushed masterstroke.
5.“Concierto de Aranjuez: Adagio” (1960)
On Sketches of Spain, the modal expansion of form brings jazz into contact with classical music. This song, a gorgeous rearrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Spanish flamenco composition by Gil Evans, is a brilliant transformation that foreshadows the fusion of Miles’ electric period. Improvisation never sounded so majestic, meditative and unhurried as it does in these heartbreaking sixteen minutes and twenty-two seconds.
6. “Gingerbread Boy” (1967)
Two of Miles Davis’ Quintets were each the touchstones for jazz combos in their respective times and beyond: the 1955-1958 Quintet and the so-called Second Quintet (1964-1968). The Second Quintet were young players influenced by free jazz—which was at its genre-peak at the time—and while they do often loosen the tethers on rhythm and harmony they always interact in basically standard ways unlike what one hears in free jazz. The last song on Miles Smiles, “Gingerbread Boy,” is a dizzying, joyous recording of the great Quintet. Miles Smiles was, astonishingly, recorded in one take for each piece, and at the end of “Gingerbread Boy” one can hear Davis gleefully instruct producer Teo Macero to play the recording back for him.
7. “Nefertiti” (1968)
For this brilliant Wayne Shorter composition, in what is a radical re-imagining of jazz form, the player who comes to the fore is drummer Tony Williams. Murray Horowitz in an NPR article explains that the song is a sort of concerto for drums; Miles and Wayne each repeat a melody, not quite in unison, which provides an eerie trumpet and saxophone framework for the highly experimental, shimmering, throbbing symphonic improvisation of Williams. This experimentation seems so wild and restless as to express a desire to break the barriers of jazz, and indeed percussion soon rose to prominence in a big way in the jazz-rock of Bitches Brew. (Tony Williams Lifetime would release their own grand jazz-rock album Emergency!; and Wayne Shorter went on to form a jazz-rock band of almost equal stature to Miles’ own: Weather Report).
8. “In a Silent Way” (1969)
Joe Zawinul, the other founder of Weather Report, played electric piano on Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” in 1966. When Davis heard this song he was inspired to shift to electric, and with Zawinul, he made this harmonious masterpiece of silence and space. When listening to In a Silent Way, the listener can hear quite vividly the barriers of jazz dissolve effortlessly, as if into water.
9. “Bitches Brew” (1970)
Miles took the minimalism and contemplative mood of Kind of Blue to yet further reaches on his first jazz-rock fusion album In a Silent Way—which would lay the foundation on which he would build the staggering, hybrid architecture of his next release. Bitches Brew is an electric fusion of jazz, improv, funk and psychedelic rock, and despite its immense complexity and huge breadth, it’s as spellbinding as it is harmonious. Davis’ masterful leadership and improvisation, the unmatched chemistry of the orchestral band, the richness and depth of the kaleidoscopic soundscape, and the tape-editing and studio techniques used by producer Teo Macero—all marry for an utterly astonishing achievement.
10. “Helen Butte / Mr. Freedom X” (1972)
On the Corner is a trance-like fever dream that’s rightly acknowledged as a precursor to hip-hop and electronic dance music due to its emphasis on heavy grooves, texture and repetition over formal song structure; Macero uses loops and delay copiously, resulting in a constantly repetitive music. This is far from either restrained cool or reflective blue. It is hectic, cramped and sweltering. Mtume brings African percussion to the mix, and Badal Roy’s tabla playing adds Indian rhythms that greatly enhance the trance-inducing effect of the music. One of the most memorbale moments occurs in the last eight or so minutes when the band finally finds a bit of space to breathe, and the compact mass of rhythms and electric sound expand through the dark atmosphere conjured by the keyboard playing of Herbie Hancock and Harold L. Williams.