Jazz Review: Miles Davis

Category: Music

(This is a long post, so you may want to print it and read the hard copy.)

About 6 weeks ago, I pledged to contribute a jazz review every 4-6 weeks. My initial article was about a 5-CD release by Art Pepper, and I had then planned to write a review on the music of David Murray. However, I read a recent article in which the author commented that many younger listeners are either unfamiliar with the work of Miles Davis, or at best have only a limited knowledge of his music. I subsequently decided to write a piece for the jazz neophytes who read Audiogon, and dedicate it to Miles, who is arguably the most important jazz innovator and stylist in the past 50 years. This article relies heavily on information taken from Mark Gridley’s book, “Jazz Styles: History and Analysis”, material taken from various Internet sites and magazine articles, and excerpts from “Miles: The Autobiography” (co-authored by Quincy Troupe).

Miles Dewey Davis, III, was born May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, and was known within his family as “Junior” (which he hated). His father, Miles, and his mother, Cleota Henry Davis, were both born in Arkansas in 1900. His mother was an organ teacher who also played the violin and piano, and his father was a graduate of Northwestern University’s College of Dentistry. Miles’ uncle, Ferdinand, attended Harvard University, and like his brother (Miles’ father), he skipped high school and went straight into university. Obviously, the future trumpet player came from an intelligent and ambitious middle-class family, so it is not surprising that they were less than enthusiastic about Miles’ initial decision to be a musician.

In the early pages of his autobiography, Miles recalls with bitterness the race riots in 1917 in East St. Louis, in which “those crazy, sick white people killed all those black people”. Race relations impacted much of Miles’ formative years, and colored his relationships with whites for much of his life. But the most important influence in Miles’ life was always music, as he explains in the opening sentences of his autobiography:

“Listen. The greatest feeling I ever had in my life – with my clothes on – was when I first heard Diz (Dizzy Gillespie) and Bird (Charlie Parker) together in St. Louis, MO, back in 1944. I was 18 years old and had just graduated from Lincoln High School...When I heard Diz and Bird in B’s band, I said “What’s this?” Man, that shit was so terrible it was scary. I mean, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Buddy Anderson, Gene Ammons, Lucky Thompson, and Art Blakey all together in one band, and not to mention Mr. B – Billy Eckstine – himself. It was a motherfucker. Man, that shit was all up in my body. Music all up in my body, and that’s what I wanted to hear. The way that band was playing music ... it was something. And me up there playing with them.”

Much has been written about Miles as a person, including his problems with drug addiction, his marriage to actress Cicely Tyson, his thorny personality, etc., -- this is fully explored in Miles’ autobiography. So, I am not going to dwell on those aspects of Miles’ life, but instead focus on the key elements of Miles’ music and why Miles was such an important figure in American jazz.

Miles Davis (1926-1991), dubbed the “Picasso of modern jazz”, played a pivotal role in the history of modern jazz, not because he was a dazzling technician on the trumpet, but rather because he was instrumental in developing and promoting several distinct styles of jazz.

During Miles’ 50-year career, his most important contributions are:
1. creating an original and substantial trumpet style, which first became evident in the recordings he made in the mid-1940’s with Charlie Parker:
2. producing a large body of recordings that were almost always featured distinctive, high-quality performances;
3. pioneering the “cool” jazz sound by consolidating the orchestration styles of Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans with the playing styles of Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and himself on the landmark recordings called “Birth of the Cool”;
4. making a significant change in the 1960’s in his style of playing, which subsequently became the basis for the trumpet styles of Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and others;
5. pioneering “modal” jazz on the landmark 1959 album, “Kind of Blue”, which is regarded by many listeners and critics as the most important jazz LP ever recorded;
6. developing the distinct styles of his quintets from 1958 until 1968, which established the predominant mainstream jazz group style of the next 25 years;
7. pioneering jazz-rock fusion from an amalgam of elements taken from modal jazz, rock, and funk music, and first heard on his recordings “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”.

Miles created an unmistakable sound that we can easily identify even in a crowded recording mix or the background of a movie score. There are a number of components to Miles’ trumpet style, including the way he applied pitch and tone qualities to the beginnings and endings of notes. Miles also made frequent use of the Harmon mute without a stem, and then placing the mute directly against the stage microphone (listen to his sound on “Flamenco Sketches” from “Kind of Blue”).

Miles was also noted for his skillful timing and dramatic construction of melodic figures, in which the placement of silence is virtually as important as the played notes. The moments of near silence allow the other musicians to be heard more clearly, and the effectiveness of this lean approach depends on the quality of play and musicality of the accompanists, particularly in the rhythm section. Davis always hired the best sidemen, so this approach worked very well.

Miles individualistic style of play departed from that of most other trumpet players, who played swinging lines with generally strict tempos and precise sub-division of each beat. Miles distinguished himself by improvising swinging melodic figures, but also by improvising figures that were freer of strict tempo and swing feeling. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the tonal quality of Miles’ horn is also distinctive: lighter, softer, less brassy, even gentle at times. This quality changed during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when his style was more explosive and made more use of the upper registers, sometimes combined with electronic echo and use of “wah wah” effects.

The other aspects of Miles’ playing style define a major part of what made him unique: his sensitivity in paraphrasing melodies, and his willingness to play simply and sparingly. His solos were often constructed of brief, simple phrases, particularly on slow pieces and on blues forms. For a good example of this, listen to his playing on “Solea” (from “Sketches of Spain”) and “Freddie the Freeloader” (from “Kind of Blue”).

The last essential component to Miles’ style is the sound that guided the playing of his bands. Throughout his career, Miles showed a strong concern for sound textures, which was evident in the playing of his various groups. Davis often suggested chord voicings to his pianists. His concern with texture was also manifested in his collaborations with arranger Gil Evans. During the jazz-rock fusion period, Davis sometimes used 2-3 pianists and 2-3 guitarists playing at the same time, often accompanied by extra percussionists. He often told them how actively to play, when to play, and when not to play. This reflected the same concern for sound texture that was evident throughout his career.

Miles made many of his historically significant recordings as a bandleader for the Prestige record company. The best known and most successful recordings were recorded in 1956, when his quintet comprised of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and “Philly Joe” Jones recorded the albums “Steamin’ “, Workin’ “, Cookin’ “, and “Relaxin’ “. These recordings were also noteworthy because they were often the first time many jazz fans were exposed to John Coltrane.

This great quintet, with the addition of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, was responsible for recording the transitional album “Milestones”, which broke away from the tradition of improvisations based solely on chord progressions. Instead of using frequently changing chords for their improvisations, the musicians used two modes. (Modes are essentially a kind of 5-note scale.)

In 1959, Miles and his group recorded what was to become one of the best-loved and most historically important albums in modern jazz history: “Kind of Blue”. The group consisted of Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Bill Evans (piano), who conceived most of the harmonies, Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums). What made this recording so important was its’ reliance on modal compositions, in which the sextet followed a preset sequence of five modes. Each mode served as the harmonic guide for improvisation as long as a soloist wanted to use it. The other significant aspect of the recording is that it was done essentially without rehearsal and in one take, essentially like a performance done live.

The “Kind of Blue” recording has been chosen by virtually every “Best of” list as among the top one or two recordings in modern jazz history, and entire articles – and now books – have been devoted to this unique session. If you are interested in a detailed exposition of this recording session, there is an excellent new book called “Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece”, by Ashley Kahn (Granta Books). Here is a brief selection about the making of “Kind of Blue” as described in Miles’ autobiography:

“I didn’t write out the music for “Kind of Blue”, but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play, because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing, just like I thought was in the interplay between those dancers and those drummers and that finger-piano player with the Ballet Africaine. Everything was a first take, which indicates the level everyone was playing on. It was beautiful. Some people went around saying that Bill (Evans) was co-composer of the music on “Kind of Blue”. That wasn’t true; it’s all mine and the concept was mine. What Bill did do was turn me on to some classical composers (Evans was very familiar with the works of Ravel and Rachmaninoff), and they influenced me. But the first time that Bill saw any of that music was when I gave him a sketch to look at just like everyone else. We didn’t even have rehearsals for that music – we’d only had about 5 or 6 in the last two years – because I had great musicians in that band...”

As mentioned before, Miles made a point of surrounding himself with other stellar musicians, all of whom were talented enough to lead their own groups. The members of his groups could not fairly be called “sidemen”, since each was integral to the success of the Davis bands. The 1959-1963 was comprised of Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums), and some of their best work can be heard on the albums “Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall”, “Friday Night and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk” (2 albums); and “Someday My Prince Will Come”.

The rhythm section that Miles assembled between 1963-1968 was probably the finest such group ever assembled: Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums). These musicians created a new jazz idiom. Though there was elements in their music of both hard bop and free jazz, their music did not truly belong to either of those styles. Hints of their new idiom were evident in the 1964 recording, “My Funny Valentine”. Then, by 1965 and 1966, every album they produced was filled with new concepts. Hancock, Carter, and Williams all displayed stunning technical virtuosity on their respective instruments, and together they created what was probably the smoothest rhythm ever heard in jazz. They maintained a nearly magical level of rapport, and were able to play tightly at breakneck tempos.

This group was joined in 1964 by saxophoist and composer Wayne Shorter. After 1964, Davis favored tunes which did not have bridges, complex turnarounds, or other demarcations that acted as a barrier to unencumbered, free-flowing improvisation. Shorter contributed a number of tunes to the repertoire of the group, one of which became the name of the album “Nefertiti”, released in 1967. Shorter remained with Miles until 1970, and during this period grew to become one of the most outstanding tenor saxophonists in jazz. Shorter was also one of the key composers of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and he recorded not only with Miles, but also as a group leader on albums for the Blue Note label.

The 1964-1968 Miles Davis Quintet was one of the first established jazz groups to experiment with mixing rock and funk music with jazz. The 1968 album, “Filles de Kilimanjaro” clearly signalled a trend away from the jazz sound. It not only used electric piano and bass, but also contained the extensive use of military-like drumming patterns that was more characteristic of rock drummers. The next two albums that Davis recorded became significant in directing modern jazz in the 1970’s: “In A Silent Way”, and “Bitches Brew”. Both were made in 1969. These albums marked the beginning of Davis’ partnership with the Austrian pianist-composer Joe Zawinul (perhaps best known for his tune “Birdland”). The textures for these albums were generated by several electric keyboard instruments, guitar (John McLaughlin joined the group at the time “Bitches Brew” was recorded), basses, and several drummers. The bass was the pivot in this music; infact, bass figures were as essential to the 1970-1980’s styles as complex chord changes had been to bop and hard bop.

In the jazz-rock idiom, Davis added new dimensions to his trumpet style, playing fast, sweeping runs in and out of his high register. He wired his trumpet to an amplifier and connected electronic attachments that simulated echo (via use of the Echoplex, as heard on “Bitches Brew”). Usually the band’s playing was very energetic and full of unrelenting tension. The level of playing was very high, and the complexity of the music set it apart from rock.

During the mid- and late-1980’s, Davis emphasized preset accompaniments, and added his trumpet sound to funk vamps that had been prepared for him, sometimes by computerized synthesizers. His formula for much of the 1980’s was to employee a Jimi Hendrix-style player on guitar and a John Coltrane-style tenor saxist, both of whom could play hot, funky solos. During this period, Davis rarely allowed his keyboardists to solo, and much of the music was highly arranged and not as free-wheeling as the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

In the closing pages of his autobiography, Miles says:

“Music has always been like a curse with me because I have always felt driven to play it. It has always been the first thing in my life and it still is. But I’ve made a kind of peace with my musical demons that allows me to live a more relaxed life. I think painting has helped me a lot. The demons are still there, but now I know that they’re there and when they want to be fed...”

For more information about Miles, there are several good Web sites that may be of benefit:
1. www.milesdavis.com
2. www.miles-davis.com

If you are interested in acquiring some of Miles recordings, you may first want to decide which period of his career to concentrate. If you do not currently own “Kind of Blue”, start there. ANYONE interested in jazz MUST own this extraordinary recordings. Then, choose from among these recordings:

1. Birth of the Cool
2. The 4-LP series: Workin’; Relaxin’; Steamin’; Cookin’
3. Round About Midnight
4. Miles Ahead
5. Milestones
6. Porgy & Bess
7. Sketches of Spain
8. Miles Davis & John Coltrane: Stockholm, 1960
9. Friday / Saturday Night at the Blackhawk
10. Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall
11. Seven Steps to Heaven
12. Miles Davis in Europe
13. My Funny Valentine
14. E.S.P.
15. Live at the Plugged Nickel
16. Miles Smiles
17. Sorcerer
18. Nefertiti
19. Miles in the Sky
20. In A Silent Way
21. Bitches Brew
22. Live-Evil
23. Black Beauty
24. On The Corner
25. Agharta
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with us. Although I own one or several copies of most of these recordings, your added perspective to the works of this genius is most welcome. I have printed a copy of your post to add to my collection of album guides.

PS. Track down a copy of the OOP 45-rpm issue of Classic Record’s “Kind of Blue” as well as their other releases. They are wonderful.
I forgot one bit of information that I should have included with the list of recommended recordings. I had suggested that listeners might want to choose recordings from Miles' various periods, but did not categorize the recordings by date. Here's a rough breakdown from the list of 25 albums:
1949-50: Birth of the Cool
1955-1958: recordings #2 - 5
1959-1961: recordings #6 - 10
1963-1968: recordings #11 - 19
1969-1975: recordings #20 - 25

Hope this helps. Good listening to all of you.
Excellent post, SD. I'm very new to Jazz, so I appreciate the info.

FWIW to other members, I bought Sketches of Spain last year in an attempt to broaden my musical horizons. I hope I don't get the boot for heresy, but I didn't like it at all. It brought back too many repressed memories of bad 70's TV shows. I ended up giving away the CD.

I also bought Kind of Blue (a keeper) on the strength of its reputation, but (more heresy coming) I never would have guessed it would be the Jazz classic that it is. It's very mellow and nice when the mood is right, but it just wasn't what I was expecting. Then again, I probably have a rather pedestrian notion of what good Jazz really is. Still, as the notes above attest, it's an album that earned its reputation on it's technical merits more than anything else. Given the acclaim KOB has garnered, I can only conclude that most of Miles' genius is lost on me. Maybe as I learn to appreciate Jazz more I'll come to appreciate better what is happening on KOB. But it's worth owning if for no other reason than so you can pretend you're hip when others talk about it. ;-)

If you're as new to Jazz as I am, and are looking for a sound that's a bit more mainstream, you might want to sample John Coltrane. He's a Jazz legend in his own right, and his Blue Train is more of what I was looking for in a Jazz CD.

Ok, I've flaunted my ignorance enough for one post. Anyways, thanks again, SD, for taking the time to educate us a bit. I hope you write more of these posts in the future.
Thanks, Thanks, Thanks SD. You've done the man justice.

I have a still sealed copy of the Classic 45RPM KOB waiting until my system gets "just right" to crack it open. I've had it for over a year and just last night I was considering opening it. I didn't. However, once I get my new cartridge...
I'm glad you took the time to share your reactions to several of Miles' recordings. Jazz has many styles, like any complex art form, and isn't going to appeal to everyone, all the time. To use a painting analogy, I've never cared for Picasso, but I rather like Salvadore Dali's stuff (go figure...).

It occurred to me in the course of writing the review that some of Miles late work might seem too "radical" to some new listeners, but it might also be true that it will seem more accessible, since younger listeners grew up on rock and might find jazz-rock fusion easier to understand. If you are just starting to listen seriously to Miles, and generally like quintets that play mainstream jazz, you ought to listen to the recordings that Miles did in the 1954-56 time period for Prestige records.

Anyway, since you like Coltrane, start there. Since some of Miles' best recordings were done with Coltrane, you could combine the two. I haven't decided which artist to choose for my next "review" article, but it might be Coltrane, since many on this site like his work. The main objective for anyone who likes jazz is to KEEP LISTENING, so you get exposed to other talents. There is simply too much great music to stick with only a few artists.