10 Miles: An annotated guide
July 23, 2015
There are many musicians who come to define a musical genre but there are far fewer who are able to transcend genre altogether and be about music in its purest form .
Often their greatness is such that their artistry can be conjured up with just a single name.
If you look up the word “miles” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary one of the definitions is “a relatively great distance, degree, or interval —used chiefly adverbially in plural [as in] ‘was miles ahead of them in education’”. This definition feels somehow very appropriate when you are talking about Miles Davis.
In terms of the distance or interval Miles travelled musically, it was vast. His career started in the 40s where he was part of the bebop revolution that gave birth to modern jazz and lasted for over 40 years spanning almost every major stylistic movement within jazz. But longevity wasn’t his only achievement, it was also the degree that he consistently operated at – a truth borne out by the fact that he was at the forefront of every major shift in jazz music over that period not just playing it but defining it.
In this time he honed and perfected a unique trumpet style with a sound that could be both lyrical and fierce – initially augmented by a mute and later by all form of electronics. In addition to his musical talent, Miles possessed an incredible ability to bring together and shape the most disparate musical figures into tight, focused groups that then went on to produce many of the seminal (and in some cases definitive) recordings and performances of the jazz canon. Finally he was a style icon who’s sharp threads, European sports cars, bad ass attitude and keen eye for the ladies gave jazz its first true superstar and who, still to this day, is the template for effortless cool.
So to listen to Miles is to listen not just to some of the most extraordinary music ever made but also a running history of modern jazz which, many would argue, was the true soundtrack to a large part of the 20th century.
Listen for yourself with the 10 tracks below. Miles ahead indeed.
1945 – Bebop
The birth of bebop was a true revolution in jazz – blowing away the old order of swing and replacing it with fast, highly improvised, intellectually demanding music and sowing the seeds of modern jazz in the process. It came about in New York in the mid-forties spearheaded by the legendary Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie amongst others. As it happens the 19 year old Miles cut his teeth with Parker and played on what are now considered some of his key recordings. Listen to Koko by Charlie Parker which features Miles on trumpet.
1949 – Cool Jazz
After the fire of bebop had freed jazz from just being dance music, there was a move to cool things down just a bit and blend some of the innovations with more of an arranged chamber music sound. Again Miles was there and led what is now seen as the definitive manifesto of this music – an LP fittingly called The Birth of the Cool. Here he is playing Godchild from that session.
1954 – Hard Bop
The 50s ushered in a hardening of the jazz sound which made a more overt connection between the innovations of bop and its source material the blues – this music was called hard bop and yet again our man Miles was right on it. Listen to this classic number with an all star cast of players called Walkin’.
1958 – Modal Jazz
As the 50s progressed, Miles’ ever restless nature pushed him to move on from the somewhat rigid harmonic structures of hard bop into a more fluid sound based increasingly open improvisation on simplified chords – a style now called modal. Although in 1959 Miles recorded Kind of Blue which is, without dispute, the highest statement of this style (and the biggest selling jazz album of all time) it all starts with the fittingly title Milestones from the eponymous LP featuring none other than John Coltrane on tenor sax.
1963 – Classic Quintet Mk 1 (what people now think of as jazz).
After the turbo charged stylistic evolution of the 50s, Miles settled into a classic quintet structure from which he pushed the bounds of jazz relentlessly without ever giving in to the screaming excesses of free jazz. This is a first iteration of Miles’ group throughout most of the 60s playing a lesser known tune called Joshua.
1966 – Classic Quintet Mk 2 (even more what people now think of as jazz).
The classic quintet was made up of Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. This is essentially the marker, alongside the classic Coltrane quartet, for what a modern jazz group sounds like. Constantly inventive, soulful and fierce this group’s telepathic togetherness is unmatched. From their classic album Miles Smiles here is Footprints.
1968 – Going Electric
As the 60s progressed Miles was increasingly interested in rock music and, more specifically, players like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, for their ability to innovate in the genre while keeping a firm grounding in their black roots in line with the political and civil rights climate of the time. While In a Silent Way is the LP that officially kicks off Miles’ electric period it is this loving tribute to his (soon to be wife) Betty Mabry based on the chords of Hendrix’s When the Wind Cried Mary that signals his intent.
1970 – Jazz Rock
As the hippie dream evaporated to give way to the harsh reality of the 70s, Miles pushed his electric leanings forward into a straighter rock vibe. Albums like Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and Live-Evil all became a core part of post self-respecting rock fan’s collections with their extended jams, psychedelic artwork and heavy sounds. From Bitches Brew listen to the 7” single version of Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.
1972 – Jazz Funk
As more electricity coursed through jazz’s veins and the sound of the ghetto veered from soul into harder edged funk Miles was on to it producing the seminal On the Corner album with its heavy street beats and wah-wah drenched sound. Listen to One and One to get a taste.
1985 – Jazz Pop
From the mid 70s to the early 80s Miles basically disappeared due to illness and recurring health problems. When he returned, his style had changed again to encompass some of the pop hits of the day and a much more mellow, less demanding, but still highly accomplished sound. Listen to his beguiling cover of Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time.
1991 – Jazz Hip Hop
In his final studio statement before passing away, Miles attempted one final stylistic leap by fusing jazz with the sounds of hip hop – a music many argue it itself descended from the blues and jazz. Although the Doo-Bop album received mixed reviews it still points to the fact that almost 50 years on from his first recordings Miles was still pushing to find and evolve his musical language. Listen to Mystery from that album.
– Federico Bolza
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