Where To Start With... Miles Davis
On May 26 in 1926, the modestly-sized city of Alton, Illinois witnessed the birth of a true musical genius – and while that’s a word that is undoubtedly overused, in the case of Miles Davis it is surely justified.
Raised in East St. Louis, Davis was prodigious talent with a trumpet from an early age and was still a teenager when he moved to New York and enrolled at the storied Juilliard School – only to drop out and quickly work himself into the line-up of Charlie Parker’s quintet.
Talent-spotted by Capitol Records, Davis began recording sessions for what would later be released as the album Birth of the Cool. So began a legendary career that saw Davis create some of the most popular jazz recordings in history and become a restless innovator for the genre, pushing it into new areas that would incorporate rock, funk and all manner of other styles, leaving behind an extraordinary musical legacy that reaches far beyond the record collections of jazz aficionados alone.
To celebrate what would have been the great man’s 95th birthday, we spent a good few hours combing through his extensive back catalogue and picked out five of his finest albums that represent key moments in an astonishing career…
Kind of Blue
By the end of the 1950s, Davis had already spent the best part of a decade establishing himself as one of the jazz scene’s leading lights, but it was towards the end of that decade that the restless, experimental spirit that would come to define his musical legacy really began to take root as he moved away from the bebop and ‘hard bop’ styles of his formative years and into experimentations with modal jazz.
Beginning with Milestones, released the previous year, Davis entered one of the most prolific and critically-acclaimed periods of his career, turning in albums such as his reimagined Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, the beautifully evocative Sketches of Spain and, of course, 1959’s Kind of Blue. Although never considered one of his best by Davis himself, who was famously critical of his early work during the latter part of his career, Kind of Blue is still regarded by many as his masterpiece and it remains the biggest-selling jazz album of all time.
Featuring the first of his ‘great quintets’, which included among its ranks two of the finest saxophonists of their generation in Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley and John Coltrane, as well as pianist/arranger Bill Evans and legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb, Kind of Blue still stands as one of the finest jazz albums ever made and its centrepiece, ‘So What?’, is arguably Davis’ most iconic recording.
A decade on from Kind of Blue, Davis was once again making a transition to a new musical style, commonly referred to as his ‘electric’ period, which ran from the late 1960s until his hiatus in the late 1970s and saw his music becoming more influenced by the increasingly psychedelic and experimental rock music of the era. Part of that shift was the recent addition of guitarist John McLaughlin, who had cut his teeth with Davis’ band on his previous album In a Silent Way.
Performing alongside a band that also included Chick Correa on keys and Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, Davis departed from the traditional jazz rhythms and recording methods of his earlier days, using the studio in more radical ways and utilising echo, tape delays and other effects to create a dense, layered sound with looser arrangements.
The biggest shift on Bitches Brew however was its use of rhythm, often featuring two or even three drummers at the same time and usually employing both electric and double bass together, creating a fusion of rock and free jazz that proved to be hugely influential and saw Davis moving into an entirely new genre of his own.
On the Corner
By 1972 Davis had moved further away from pure jazz and, alongside the jazz rock fusion created on Bitches Brew and explored further on his Jack Johnson soundtrack, was becoming increasingly fascinated with funk – particularly the work of artists such as James Brown and Sly Stone, whose music would become a huge influence on Davis’ next studio album On the Corner, as was the experimental work of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose adventures with tape manipulation were also cited by Davis as a key inspiration for the new record.
Featuring Herbie Hancock on keys and the recently-recruited Michael Henderson (also of Stevie Wonder’s band) on bass, On the Corner could be seen as a progenitor to the sound that eventually morphed into hip-hop via the influence on groups like The Last Poets, but has also been described as a forerunner to all kinds of genres from jungle to post-rock.
Blending together a heady stew that incorporated elements as disparate as dub-style tape echo effects and Indian percussion, On the Corner finds Davis well into one of his most experimental phases and while it remains one of his most divisive albums among jazz purists, it’s undoubtedly one of his most adventurous moments.
The only live album included on this list, Agharta is probably not one of the albums that most Miles Davis fans would list among his best, but it nevertheless marks an intriguing chapter in Davis’ life and would end up being his last recording for several years, embarking on a hiatus that was partly fuelled by a dispute with his record company and partly by his increasing problems with drug and alcohol use.
That period of his life – along with some of the music that would end up on Agharta – is brilliantly documented in Don Cheadle’s 2015 biopic Miles Ahead – but the album itself is perhaps an even better descriptor of Davis’ mental state at that time.
As part of a three-week tour of Japan, Davis performed and recorded two concerts at the Osaka Festival Hall on the same day – the first of which was released as Agharta, the second arriving as the album Pangaea the following year. What makes Agharta interesting though is that it serves as a bookend to his ‘electric’ era, not only be being one of the last recordings made in that period, but also by the fact that its second half includes a new version of the Jack Johnson theme, which had marked the beginning of Davis’ experiments in the studio that kicked off the electric period in the first place.
Possibly the last truly great album Miles Davis recorded before his death in 1991, at least part of Tutu had reportedly started out as a collaboration with Prince before the latter pulled out of the project, but after making his comeback in 1981 with Man With the Horn Davis had moved yet further away from his jazz roots and produced an album heavy with drum machines and synthesizers that baffled some critics at the time.
Nevertheless, Davis won a Grammy for his efforts and in the years since Tutu has come to be regarded as one of the defining jazz albums of the decade and, if nothing else, stands as a testament to his never-ending quest to push the boundaries of jazz, often far beyond recognition, but always in a way that is provocative and exciting.