Miles Styles

A review of essential stages of Miles Davis' career through recorded performances.

by Michael S. Smith

Any comments or questions? Please e-mail me!

Visit The Band of Brothers Official Web Site

Miles and the All-Stars The First Great Quintet Arrangements by Gil Evans Miles and Cannonball The Second Great Quintet
Before the Brew Bitches Brew and Beyond Funky, Funky Miles The Resurrection of Miles Davis Final Recordings and Reconstructions

Miles Davis - The major musical force of the second half of the 20th century. Period. Bigger than rock, bop, pop, hip-hop or any genre label stuck on for Miles to sneer at. Miles Davis - The Prince of Darkness - brooding and reclusive on stage, addicted at various times to heroin and cocaine. Miles Davis - The Chameleon of Modern Music - restless, always moving ahead - despite what his audience, critics or sidemen would prefer - even when they knew better.

After all, the MUSIC that this man created is what is important. Yeah, Miles the man was a pretty interesting guy. You can pick up any of several biographies on Miles - or surf the web (I've listed some of the more interesting books and web sites below), but here you'll find discussion of the music. The music of Miles Davis demands respect that transcends the man - just as the man transcended the music. It worked that way for Miles.

The major recordings of Miles Davis will be examined here - in an order and selection that will work for some - and not for others. If you haven't heard the music of Miles Davis, maybe I can steer you in a direction that will work for you - but maybe not, 'cause this music goes its own way - just like Miles did.

Miles and the All-Stars

| Back to Top | Next Section |

Miles Dewey Davis, the son of a dentist, was born in 1926. His trumpet playing attracted notice early - in fact he had to turn down his first job offer because his mother insisted that he finish High School! In 1945 Miles enrolled in the Julliard School of Music, but turned away from his formal studies in the Big Apple to spend time soaking up master lessons from the legendary saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, eventually becoming his roommate and sideman. Parker's life and music was intricate and fast, and Miles wasn't certain he could keep up with the pace. But Bird was encouraging to the young man with the horn, and soon Miles was making a name for himself.

By 1949 Miles had hooked up with Gil Evans (more on this team later) and during the next year or so recorded what was to become known as The Birth of the Cool (as opposed to the music of Jelly Roll Morton or Louie Armstrong - or the Big Band Swing that was on it's way out in post-WWII America). This music gave impetus to the West Coast or cool jazz period, and in retrospect, it is apparent Miles began doing what he did best - creating a style and then abandoning it for new horizons.

In 1953 and 1954, Miles made a series of recordings for the Prestige label with jazz all-stars - luminaries such as Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Thelonious Monk, John Lewis, Horace Silver, and Charles Mingus (piano), Milt Jackson (vibes), Percy Heath (bass), and on percussion, the incredibly diverse talents of Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, and Max Roach - listen to these cats and try to tell me that all drummers (and their solos) sound the same.

Four Prestige albums of this period are essential - "Miles Davis All Stars - Walkin'", "Blue Haze", "Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants", and "Bag's Groove". The All Stars disc signals Miles' burst into jazz history with the jam sessions "Walkin'" and "Blue 'n' Boogie". The sessions with Thelonious Monk (appearing on "Modern Jazz Giants" and "Bag's Groove") are especially remarkable - recorded the day before Christmas in 1954 - the quintet featured the rhythm section of the Modern Jazz Quartet and a quarrel between Monk and Miles. Miles demanded that Monk "lay off" comping behind his solos - Monk was insulted, and with that, the musical feud was on. As Monk's piano reenters the song following Miles' solo turn (during the second take of Jackson's composition "Bag's Groove"), Monk plays with a vengeance - at times sounding as if he wants to throw the keys at Miles, with the piano not far behind. Jazz as contact sport - more boxing match than jam session.

What Miles develops with these recordings is a uniquely articulate style, utilizing the timbral qualities of his trumpet, expressing an emotional state that matches the demands of the melody, and swinging it at the same time. This combination is also demanding of the listener - it doesn't so much make one think as it makes one feel - and some folks just aren't comfortable with this arrangement. Not that Miles cared - he wasn't in a position to care - he was just doing what he did best, communicating with his horn. Also recommended: "Dig" with Sonny Rollins, recorded in 1951, with remarkably lengthy numbers for the time, and "Collectors Items," with cuts from 1953 (featuring Rollins again and Charlie Parker - listed as "Charlie Chan") and 1956 (again with Rollins).

The First Great Quintet

| Back to Top | Next Section |

This is where Miles moved from being important to being great: with his quintet of John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). Miles caught some criticism at the time for hiring such a group of young unknowns, (Chambers was a teen-ager, Coltrane was considered out-of-tune and an amateur!). Six essential albums chronicle this team - the first, titled "The New Miles Davis Quintet" was followed by "Relaxin'">, "Cookin'", "Steamin'", and "Workin'" all for the Prestige label, and "'Round About Midnight" as the quintet's major label debut for Columbia.

The Prestige quintet albums were recorded in Hackensack, New Jersey with engineer Rudy Van Gelder, with the bulk of the material coming from a marathon session on October 26, 1956. There were no rehearsals or second takes at this session - generally, Miles' attitude was that all necessary rehearsal should occur in performance. Amazingly, these recordings were the result of a contractual obligation that Miles owed the Prestige label - he had already recorded "'Round About Midnight" for Columbia in October 1955 and June 1956! Miles had developed a style of playing in the middle register of his horn (critics of the time wrongly considered this the only register he could play), a warm sexy sound (often utilizing a Harmon mute) that made every ballad he played sound like it was written for him (for example, check out "If I Were A Bell" from the stage musical "Guys and Dolls" on the "Relaxin'" album.

But this quintet could also sizzle on up-tempo tunes (as on Rollins' "Airegin" from "Cookin'"). Garland kicks it off with a vamp, followed by Jones demonic stick-work on his high-hat - Coltrane picks up on Garland's vamp and then Miles enters blaring the melody, with Coltrane racing beside him. Miles takes the first solo, a bit somber until after the bridge, when he begins flying through the chord changes, accompanied by Jones slamming on his tom-toms. Coltrane follows with a typically charging solo (Coltrane's so-called "sheets of sound" were just his way of fitting in all that he had to say). No solos for the rhythm section - Garland comps nicely during much of Coltrane's solo - at times deciding to punch in only a few chords here and there to accent Coltrane's propulsions, with Chambers and Jones maintaining the furious tempo. It's interesting to note that many critics thought Jones played "too loud" - which of course, was exactly the quality that Miles desired - passionate performance from all of his sidemen.

It is this passion that sets this quintet off as great. These five men became greater than the sum of their parts, creating a music that refuses to age, that only deepens in meaning with each passing year.

Arrangements by Gil Evans

| Back to Top | Next Section |

Gil Evans - about as unlikely a companion for Miles Davis as one can imagine, until one takes into consideration Gil's incomparable ability to arrange music - and specifically music for Miles Davis. This is not to take away from Gil's work with his own orchestra, hunt these down and listen to them (especially 1960's "Out Of The Cool") - all have much to recommend them. However, when Evans and Davis teamed up - and they teamed up frequently in the 1950s - their combined genius made all other orchestral music of the time sound same old, same old. And everything they released during that time belongs in everybody's collection.

Gil and Miles initially collaborated in the successful experiment that produced "The Birth of the Cool" in 1949-50, with Evans arranging "Boplicity", "Moon Dreams", and "Theme". (Now available as "The Complete Birth Of The Cool", including a number of "live" sessions recorded at the Royal Roost in September 1948). Following the signing of Miles Davis to a Columbia Records recording contract in 1955, Gil and Miles were brought together for the "Miles Ahead" sessions in 1957. This was followed in 1958 by "Porgy and Bess", an interpretation of the musical opera by George Gershwin featuring an immortal version of "Summertime".

In 1960 came "Sketches of Spain". Spearheaded by the sixteen minute "Concierto De Aranjuez", an interpretation of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo's (note: Rodrigo passed away in 1999) concierto for guitar and orchestra, the album became an unqualified critical success. However, in the studio Miles found the task before him to be especially daunting. At times he expressed hesitation that he was up to the challenge. However, the finished project documents none of this uncertainty - Miles blows with an assured maturity and an ability to get so far inside this music that every note is of epic proportions. I am aware that some prefer the "Porgy and Bess" project to "Sketches of Spain" but for me this performance is the definition of Miles Davis' ability as a master storyteller.

A concert in May of 1961 (released as the two-CD set "Miles Davis At Carnegie Hall") chronicled what the Miles Davis/Gil Evans orchestra sounded like live, including a version of "Concierto de Aranjuez" (In the studio the complex concierto was recorded in sections to reduce error, so this is a rare opportunity to hear the composition performed in its entirety). Finally - although Gil Evans was to remain as a trusted musical advisor and arranger to Miles for the remainder of their careers (example: 1983's "Star People") - there was the album "Quiet Nights". This last album (not popular with the critics of the day) has been a favorite of mine since I found the LP in a cut-out bin back in the 70's. When it was finally released on CD in 1997, I was so excited that I couldn't help but extol the album's virtues to the perplexed teen-aged clerk behind the store counter! It doesn't matter that the original album barely makes it through a half hour of music, Gil and Miles use the excuse of producing a Bossa-Nova album to record some beautiful music. Most of the selections could have been slipped onto "Sketches of Spain" without complaint, and besides, there is a finite amount of music available from these collaborators - would we rather that they didn't take the time to make this music? (By the way, the next great quintet - Hancock, Shorter, et al - performed with the Gil Evans orchestra in 1968. The performance was recorded, but is reportedly of a poor quality.)

A final note: in the early 1990's Quincy Jones convinced Miles to have a final go with the classic Gil Evans arrangements in concert. Good intentions, no doubt, and even so late in his career Miles was up to the task, but listen to the original recordings first - there is no comparison.

Modal Miles and Cannonball

| Back to Top | Next Section |

As vital as the first great quintet was, the addition of Julian Cannonball Adderley (as well as the stylings of Bill Evans on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums) to the musical mix created a level of friendly competition to the band that would never be repeated. As wild and exciting as Coltrane's lengthy improvisations were, Adderley brought a rounded, bluesy, wailing tone to the faster numbers and a gorgeous sense of melody and timing to the ballads. Cannonball was a favorite of the audiences as well. For evidence, just listen to the crowd at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival respond to Cannonball's introduction by Willis Conover. And then check on your own response as Cannonball cuts loose on "Ah-Leu-Cha". (Incidentally, why does someone say "Hey, tell Chambers to leave everything alone, he's alright." Was Chambers messing with the microphones?)

Cannonball's addition also gave Coltrane a foil to play with, as each seems to try to outwit one another during their solo turns. Certainly, Coltrane is now playing with an aura of self-assurance that rarely falters (he will not be much longer with Miles, already Coltrane has completed a seminal stint with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Club in New York City, and by 1959 he will have recorded the classic "Giant Steps," followed by the formation of his own "classic quartet" with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones - by 1967 John Coltrane will be dead, leaving a musical legacy as important in its own way as that of his mentor, Miles Davis).

Despite the instrumental pyrotechnics that hallmark this period (including Miles' horn playing which is now stronger in tone) it is the development of Miles' compositional skills that catapults these efforts, for however important the trio of albums that Miles recorded with Cannonball Adderley during 1958 ("Milestones">, Adderley's album "Somethin' Else", and "Live at Newport 1958") it was 1959's "Kind of Blue" that led jazz in another direction. During this session, Miles' sextet recorded five compositions that were introduced in the studio to the band members by Miles just prior to recording them, and in a very "sketchy" form. The intent was to create a spontaneity would complement the modal form of the music. Although the concept of improvisation on new compositions was hardly new, the success within this form created a mood that transcended expectations - "Kind Of Blue" travels beyond the timelessness of its music - it demands inclusion in everyone's musical library regardless of musical taste. Incidentally, the most recently remastered release of "Kind of Blue" is preferred as all previous releases have selections in the wrong key due to a slight difference in recording speed.

Note: Another album deserves inclusion here (despite the absence of Adderley) 1961's "Someday My Prince Will Come" with Coltrane, Hank Mobley (sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Chambers (bass), and Cobb (drums). There is some very good music here, especially on the title cut, which features one of Coltrane's best solos. Also, a box set of all of the music recorded together by Miles and Coltrane has been released in April 2000, which includes tracks not otherwise available.

The Second Great Quintet

| Back to Top | Next Section |

The transition to this stage of Davis' career is a bit more complicated. The combination didn't occur spontaneously, but not surprisingly, even the transition period was interesting. When John Coltrane left the group, he hand-picked Wayne Shorter as his replacement on the tenor sax. Regrettably, Shorter had other commitments, so George Coleman stepped in and displayed that he was very capable of fiery playing in the tenor chair (witness his solo on So What from "The Complete Concert 1964.") It was at this concert that Miles Davis punched critical ears into cauliflower with his blistering attacks, (listen to his solo on "Walkin'") forcing them to consider him the undisputed heavy-weight champion; top-ranked among trumpeters who venture into the upper-registers on their horns. Also, it is here that we began to realize that Miles had once again surrounded himself with sidemen that can keep up with his furious pace.

And what sidemen! 18-year-old Tony Williams had joined the band - a drumming dervish, Williams brought youthful energy and fresh musical ideas - allowing the rest of the ensemble to develop what was to become "free-bop" - virtuoso playing free of conventional time constraints and simultaneously capable of mammoth swing. On bass, Ron Carter, a graduate of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, offers a vast capacity for complimentary improvisation while keeping firm the foundation of this ever-shifting music. Herbie Hancock, soon to become himself one of the major architects of modern jazz, carves out the most gorgeous cascades of notes from his piano (listen to "Seven Steps To Heaven" from the 1964 concert if you need proof).

By the next available live recording from this group (the enormous collection "The Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965" - absolutely essential, but Columbia has also released a more modestly-priced "Highlights" selection) Wayne Shorter is firmly ensconced as saxophonist, bringing masterful tone, creativity, and compositional skills to both the tenor and soprano variants of his instrument. (Wayne had earned his chops playing in Maynard Ferguson's band - with Joe Zawinul - and had most recently been a member of drummer Art Blakey's group. And now Miles has reached another zenith in his playing - listen to his opening statements on "Milestones" from the third set on December 23rd at the Plugged Nickel. And with only a short flurry of notes, it is apparent that Miles Davis is now the Zen master of jazz - capable of going anywhere he desires, in any time, at any time, with any time, and also capable of bringing his disciples with him.

By "E.S.P." (recorded in early 1965), the band had virtually discarded playing standards on studio albums - from here on out the quintet would focus on recording original music by either Miles or his sidemen. "E. S. P." was designed to push the limits of the territory previously explored by "Kind Of Blue" - with two compositions from Shorter, three from Carter (Davis helping with musical ideas on two of these), and one from Hancock, "E.S.P." soared with their explorations of various modes. On numbers like "Eighty-One", Davis and Shorter sound like ghostly twins during their concurrent thematic statements, creating an ethereal harmony - with pulsing cymbal work from Williams and a popping bass from Carter.

In October of 1966, the quintet was back in the studio recording "Miles Smiles", with Shorter contributing half of the session's six selections. Here is a band at the pinnacle - five men with five voices, playing together as if they occupied each others subconscious. As Davis remarks at the end of his composition Circle: "See how that sounds to you."

Next up is "Sorcerer," featuring four works by Shorter, which continues on its predecessors path. This album is extremely contemplative, with Hancock opening several of the numbers with marvelous melodic statements that blossom into the intimacy of Davis' trumpet. Listening to this album is akin to gazing at a Japanese painting: deceptively simple lines reveal incredible depth with continued attention.

And now for the crowning achievement: "Nefertiti". What we hear as the title cut was supposed to be a simple run-through of the melody, but as explained by Bob Belden in his excellent liner notes to it's reissue in 1998, this run-through became the performance - which became the composition! Throughout the album, Tony Williams slashes away with amazing facility. But of course, he is not alone - listen to Davis' phrasing on "Fall", or Hancock's delicate solo on the same cut, with Davis and Shorter weaving a web throughout. Another standout is Shorter's airy contribution to "Madness".

As creative and stimulating as this music was, Miles continued to seek out new musical directions, directions that would eventually lead to "Bitches Brew", the watershed of "jazz-rock".

Before the Brew

| Back to Top | Next Section |

So quickly did change occur during this transitional period that it is a difficult task to pinpoint the albums that constitute this portion of Miles' oeuvre. "In A Silent Way" certainly belongs, but only parts of (working backwards) "Filles de Kilimanjaro" and "Miles In The Sky," the remainder belongs rightfully so as excellent examples of the second great quintet's legacy. Also, both of the compilation albums released during Miles' mid-1970s retirement ("Circle in the Round" and "Directions") feature music recorded during this period. Regardless, the winds of change were in the air. Witness the use of Joe Beck's guitar in the hypnotic title cut of "Circle in the Round," recorded in late 1967, (a month and a half before George Benson's appearance on "Paraphernalia" from the "Miles In The Sky" album), and Hancock's electric piano and Tony Williams laying down a very funky R&B groove on "Stuff," the opening track of "Miles in the Sky."

By June of 1968 "Filles De Kilimanjaro" was being recorded - with Chick Corea and Dave Holland replacing Hancock and Carter on two cuts. (Please, spend some time listening to the final cut on "Filles" - The floodgates were opening for full-scale change. In February 1969 "In A Silent Way" was recorded. John McLaughlin makes his major-league debut on electric guitar, virtually inventing jazz-rock at the same time. And Miles adds a triumvirate of electric pianists to the mix: Hancock, Corea, and Josef Zawinul. These four would dominate jazz-rock in the 1970s with their respective bands (The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Headhunters, Return to Forever, and Weather Report), and with Miles they would fashion an album that would turn the world on its ear.

But before we jump into the "Brew," a few comments on "In A Silent Way" are deserved. The album begins with what is essentially an eighteen-minute jam over Tony Williams' high-hat work - nice work from all, but this is more of a meditation than a fully realized work; Shorter's soprano saxophone is the most interesting soloist here, although Miles' seems to be trying to turn his horn into an organ.

It is on the title cut, the twenty minute "In A Silent Way" (penned by Zawinul) that we hear a band rather than a jam session.�Miles' reading of the opening statement contains all of his ability to get inside a melody, and as the piece moves into its second section (at about the four minute mark) Miles swings hard into this tune (also, listen to Williams' accompanying rim shots - like handclaps from hell!). After Miles completes his solo McLaughlin adds some rather laconic guitar licks (over Hancock's [?] comping), until Holland's bass and Zawinul's organ slap life into the proceedings with a repeated eleven-note figure. Shorter adds some interesting soprano that presages his future contributions to Weather Report (in fact this particular section could fit in well with any of that band's albums). After Shorter comes the return of Father Miles - showing the kids how to do it right - and the band responds, upping the beat and the volume, and Miles begins playing call-and-response with himself! With about four minutes to go, the group returns to the opening section, taking us out "in a silent way." (Note: the "box set" of the complete "In A Silent Way" sessions is essential.)

Bitches Brew and Beyond

| Back to Top | Next Section |

And now for the fury.�This was the one - "Bitches Brew" - the one that blew them all away, no matter what had gone on before. "Bitches Brew" - the only Miles Davis album to break Billboard's Top 40 chart (reaching the number 35 spot for four weeks in 1970). "Bitches Brew" - finding its way onto rock radio stations as if it belonged there (and it did and it didn't - it was actually too good for the playlists). The first time that I heard this music was an edited version of "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," played on a local underground radio station after Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" - Miles would have loved to have known about that play list pairing!!

The album starts with "Pharaoh's Dance," another contribution from Joe Zawinul - at times reminiscent of "In A Silent Way," with the added attraction of Bennie Maupin's meanderings on bass clarinet - and then you realize that there are several percussionists: a veritable polyrhythmic playground; suddenly Miles begins his magic: searing, soaring lines way above everything that is happening - and so much is happening! All of it demanding attention, from Shorter, from McLaughlin, from the entire band - and this is a band - perhaps the most incredible collective of soloists jazz had ever heard. In 1998, a remix was released as part of "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions", which includes several tracks recorded during the same time period.

The following cut, the twenty-seven minute title piece, finds Miles utilizing an echo effect on his horn - it is clear that he is embracing the new technology as well as the new sound. After about four minutes, the tune settles into a funky, bluesy beat that allows Miles to stretch way out, blowing great long mid-register notes from of his horn, occasionally appropriately screeching a few in the upper register. Interestingly, many have said about this period: "it's the same old Miles," which apparently is to suggest that if one were to take away the electronic trappings, one could graft his solos onto any other of his songs, say, "My Funny Valentine." Yeah, right. All I can suggest is getting a hold of this album, set aside enough time to listen to it (and turn it up - this is not background music) and baste in the juices of "Bitches Brew."

In 1997 Columbia finally released in America the April, 1970 live recording of a sextet version of "Bitches Brew" entitled "Black Beauty - Miles Davis At Fillmore West." In this stripped-down version of the Bitches Brew orchestra, Steve Grossman replaces Shorter, Corea and Holland remain on electric piano and bass respectively, and Jack DeJohnette (on drums) and Airto Moreira (on a variety of world beat percussion instruments) complete the rhythm section. This blast furnace of a band would be augmented in June of the same year with the addition of Keith Jarrett (having a blast on the organ). Jarrett had been wiping listeners out as a member of the Charles Lloyd Quartet for the past few years and was ably prepared for the demands of Miles' music. (However, shortly after his stint with Miles, Jarrett turned his back on electronics and produced a deep catalog of acoustic piano albums for the ECM label). Miles plays with ferocity here, although the pieces were edited in the studio by producer Teo Macero - I would love to hear the unedited concert recordings from this period.

Next up: "A Tribute To Jack Johnson" - music from a movie nobody has seen and it doesn't matter! What matters is this music. Recorded in two sessions during 1970 (with a little bit of "In A Silent Way" thrown in during the editing by Teo Macero) this is the rock album Miles wanted to record earlier in his career, but was unable to do until he reduced his group to rock band size. John McLaughlin's guitar is all over this effort - take away Miles and this is his album. Billy Cobham's extremely powerful drumming kicks massive butt throughout (Bop-pa-chew, Bop-pa-chew!!) and Michael Henderson lays down killer-funk-drenched bass, with Herbie Hancock on organ and Steve Grossman (wailing on sax - this cat deserves a lot more attention for his work with Miles)�slam their way through the first of two tunes that comprise the album (forget about the moody "Yesternow" - it's the opening cut "Right Off" that rocks.)

Eight days after the recording of "Right Off," John McLaughlin sat in with Miles' band on a live date at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. Some of this is documented in the excellent collection "Live Evil" which also includes some worthy post-Bitches Brew studio material from February and June of the same year. At the time of its initial release, this album was constantly on my turntable - I love Airto's weird percussion and singing on "Sivad," and Miles' playing is astounding - his ability to incorporate passion into every note, every time, is breath-taking. Aside from the music, what's up with the audience? It sounds as if there are only about six or seven paying customers out there!! No matter - thankfully, what the general public missed that night is available to us all.

Funky, Funky Miles

| Back to Top | Next Section |

The rock-based beat of Bitches Brew, et al, was acclaimed by many critics and fans, but no one knew how to take Miles' next venture. Miles said at the time that he wanted to create a "black music" - what he came up with was a bottom-heavy, gut-bucket, funky stew of an album: "On the Corner." At first, I didn't know what to think about this new direction of Miles - but the rhythms and the beat kept it spinning on my turntable (and now CD player). Over twenty-five years later, this creation from June of 1972 is still one of my favorite albums, despite the criticism of the time calling it "anti-music". The album opens seemingly in mid-beat, with John McLaughlin banging away on guitar and either Billy Hart or Jack DeJohnette (or both!) hitting the snare hard between machine gun strikes on the top-hat. Badal Roy's tabla, Colin Wolcott's sitar, and Don Alias' offerings on percussion add a world beat sheen to the mix. Michael Henderson plays an incessant triplet on his bass, keeping the whole jam together from the bottom. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea are in there too - at the time of release, the musicians were not credited on the record sleeve, leaving most of us (critics and fans alike) absolutely clueless as to who was riding with Miles on this trip. McLaughlin's presence on guitar - at least - should have been unmistakable. Also, a week following the On The Corner sessions Miles recorded "Ife" (available on the double-disc "Big Fun") - over 21 minutes of perhaps a bit more accessable OTC-tinged havoc, with Miles playing a ghostly horn over the percussive world-beat of Al Foster, Billy Hart, Badal Roy and Mtume.

Soon Miles was touring and performing this music (to larger audiences than chronicled on "Live Evil") - as evidenced on the double disc "Miles Davis In Concert," recorded live September 29, 1972 at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Here, with Miles' foot firmly attached to a wah-wah pedal, (as is Reggie Lucas on guitar - this album is a wah-wah wonderland), Henderson and Badal Roy remain on bass and tabla, Khalil Balakrishna is now on electric sitar, Al Foster on drums with Mtume on percussion, Cedric Lawson adding to the weirdness with spits and burps on the synthesizer, and finally, Carlos Garnett is on soprano sax. And it all works - this is funk-in-your-face-fun!

Live recordings are all about we have to listen to from this period. The only recordings from 1973 are "Calypso Frelimo" and "Red China Blues", which appear on 1974's "Get Up With It" (finally available on CD in the USA). The lengthy cuts "He Loved Him Madly" and "Calypso Frelimo" include some essential music. What remains are the three double-CD collections "Dark Magus," "Agharta," and "Pangaea." (The latter two were recorded on the same day, and where the final concerts Miles would give until his return from retirement). Six CD's worth of dense, unyielding (and yet often beautiful) energy led by Miles' scorching trumpet. Gone are any sustained attempts at songs - what is here is the culmination of "On The Corner" - music as full-throttle, ecstatic climax.

The Resurrection of Miles

| Back to Top | Next Section |

After the funk-noise of "Pangaea," what was there left for Miles to do but retire? Silence seemed to be the only response. Regardless of the reasons, Miles deserved a rest, and for several years he refrained from recording and performing. Only one thing was certain - Miles wasn't doing or saying anything public and everyone was left to guess. Was it the end?

The end seemed possible at the time. There were the releases of compilation albums of unreleased outtakes like "Circle in the Round" and "Directions", and there were the reports that Miles was supposed to be sick, or retired, or both - and so when "The Man With The Horn" appeared in 1981, many of his fans were taken by surprise. And it wasn't only Miles return that surprised. Gone were the rough-edged dynamisms of the mid-seventies. Instead, we are offered a much slicker musical style - which, perhaps because of the chaotic form of the earlier music was the logical next step.

During Miles absence recording techniques had become more sophisticated - and so had the electronic instruments that Miles pioneered with earlier bands. Miles must have felt like a kid in a candy store! And "The Man With Horn" has some pretty tasty music - only Al Foster remains from previous bands - Barry Finnerty howls on guitar, Marcus Miller offers up some fat bass playing, and Bill Evans (not the pianist of earlier fame) appears on soprano sax. Miles sounds well-rested, a bit thin in tone at times perhaps, but maintaining his trademark swing and voice.

"We Want Miles" a two-record live recording from the same period is available as an import, but not domestically in the USA, and worse yet, the excellent "Star People" from 1983 is out-of-print (Thank God, I was able to find a copy before it's inexplicable removal from circulation). Drenched in electronic blues, featuring Mike Stern and John Scofield on guitar, this is the best of all of Miles' efforts of the 1980's. Some copies may remain in well-stocked stores or may be available by auction on e-bay. Good luck! This is the one to find!

The two subsequent albums, 1984's "Decoy" and 1985's "You're Under Arrest" offer slicker versions of "Star People," although Davis, Evans, Scofield, and Foster continue to delight with their contributions - and Branford Marsalis joins the band on three cuts ("Decoy," "Code M. D.," and "That's Right"). "You're Under Arrest" is slicker yet: but with renditions of contemporary ballads like "Human Nature" and "Time After Time" for Miles to muse on late in his life, who has the right to complain?

The end of the 1980s brought out "Aura" (recorded 1985, released 1989), "Tutu" (1986) and "Amandla" (1989) - the final studio albums by Miles to be considered here. "Aura" is a suite by European composer Palle Mikkelborg, featuring John McLaughlin. Although Miles is reported as considering "Aura" to contain some of his best work, I admit to initially being put-off by Millelborg's compositions. However, after repeated listenings (and the release of a remastered CD) I developed a liking of this atypical entry to Miles' canon. "Tutu" and "Amandla" (especially "Tutu") are dominated by the musical personality of Marcus Miller. "Tutu" is a sequence of moody, synthesized orchestral pieces that compliment Miles' brooding presence, and although the daring of past efforts seems to be gone, there is still that horn: that haunting horn. "Amandla" offers the most musical variety and some nice soloing by Kenny Garrett on alto and soprano sax. (Note: there are some other recordings available of Miles late in his career: "Siesta" also with Miller, "Do-Bop" a sometimes interesting (and at other times infuriating) attempt at hip-hop (finished after Miles' death.)

Final Recordings and Reconstructions

| Back to Top | Next Section |

There had to be an end - after all, there was a mortal man behind the immortal music. Still, his death came as a shock to all. The newspapers reported death due to pneumonia and stroke - but the drugs and the other physical ailments demanded payment also. However, there was some good, if not great music near the end.

The only official recording of the final music that I can strongly recommend is "Live Around The World," a collection of live recordings from the period just before Miles' death. Once again Miles surrounded himself with a crackling band - especially noteworthy is the alto saxophone of Kenny Garrett, the "lead bass" of Foley and the drumming by Ricky Wellman. The tunes are all from the final period of Miles' career with the notable exception of "In A Silent Way" which opens the album. A fanfare of bells and cymbals is quickly followed by Miles' horn - initially thin in timbre, but as the song segues into the next number "Intruder," Miles fattens up his horn and blasts away. (Note: a recently released multi-box set of Miles live at Montreaux is so essential to understanding his final period - and contains perhaps the best work of his post-retirement years.)

The recording is crisp, the interplay of the musicians indicates they are having a good time with the music, and the arrangements deviate enough from the original recordings to justify the revival of familiar (albeit recent) material. My personal favorite is the nearly 13 minutes of "Human Nature" - with lengthy solos from Miles and a nice call-and-response section between Miles and Garrett. At the end of this exchange, Miles calls Kenny Garrett over to him commenting on the applause: "Oh man, that wasn't nothing, that wasn't nothing, man, we do that every night." Only Miles.

Now, a consideration of "Panthalassa", the 1998 reconstruction album by Bill Laswell of Miles' music from 1969 - 1974 (followed in 1999 by another collection of remixes by Laswell, DJ Cam, King Britt, Doc Scott, Philip Charles and Jamie Myerson). Teo Macero's original arrangements are tossed in the shredder, and we are given the opportunity to hear these songs afresh (which, of course, is the intent).

Listening to John McLaughlin's haunting guitar on the remix of "In A Silent Way" is revelatory, but for me the main attraction is Panthalassa's closer "He Loved Him Madly." This track, taken from the recently-made-available album "Get Up With It" is a vast improvement over the original mix. Transformed into a dreamlike, yet stately piece, Miles' trumpet enters as if from the edge of consciousness - every note perfect, every note sounded with fluid unpredictability.

One final recommendation: 1992's "A Tribute To Miles" a reunion of the great sixties quintet of Hancock, Shorter, Carter, and Williams with (in my view the extremely talented and underappreciated) Wallace Roney smoking on trumpet. (Note: All of Roney's albums are worth seeking out, with frequently featured accompianists Cindy Blackman (d), Geri Allen (p), Ravi Coltrane (ts), and Christian McBride (b), among others. Roney recorded seven albums for Muse Records: "Verses", "Intuition", "The Standard Bearer", "Obsession", "Seth Air", Munchin'", and Crunchin'"; three albums for Warner Brothers: "Misterios", "The Wallace Roney Quintet" and "Village"; and one album (to date) for Stretch Records: "No Room For Argument". The latter is the work of a master, and "Village" is also strongly recommended, featuring a stellar band that includes Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Lenny White, Geri Allen (Geri is amazing), and Antoine Roney. If you are a fan of Miles' second great quintet, then these albums belong in your collection.

Links to More Miles

| Back to Top | Next Section |

Below are some links to other web sites on the life and music of Miles Davis:

Miles Davis Tune Up!

Miles Ahead: A Miles Davis website - A virtual encyclopedia on Miles Davis. If you haven't stopped by yet, you deserve to give this site a visit.

Miles Davis at CDnow - You can view the album covers and listen to snippets of Miles' music - and buy them too.

Miles Davis Site at Sony - Something of an official site. Nice graphical layout, but a bit light on content.

Sources and Biographical Material:

| Back to Top |

All personnel listings and recording dates cited are taken from liner notes from the respective albums. The vast bulk of this web page is the result of thirty years of listening to the music of Miles Davis, an almost daily occurrence at my house. In addition to the information available here and at other web sites, there are also many excellent biographies of Miles Davis available at your favorite local (or on-line) bookstore. May I suggest:

Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, by Paul Tingen.

Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, by Ian Carr.

Milestones: The Music And Times of Miles Davis, by Jack Chambers.

Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe.

Around About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis, by Eric Nisenson.

E-Mail Me

visits to this site.

Copyright 1999 by Michael S. Smith.

Revised August 2008

Hosting by WebRing.