I’ve been a Miles Davis fan for more than 30 years. If I haven’t heard every album, I’m 99 percent of the way there. I’ve heard something from every band Miles led or was a part of from 1948 until his death in ’91. I have obsessed over his music, his sound, his mystique, and his overall impact not just on jazz, but on music. After all this time, I was quite sure I could never be truly knocked out by Miles again. As it turns out, I was wrong.
The impetus from this revelation stems from one of the many posthumous box sets Columbia Records and the Miles Davis estate have seen fit to release over the years. In this case, it is Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961. The six CDs in this box make up the efforts resulting in Davis albums Round About Midnight, Newport ’58, Kind of Blue, and Someday My Prince Will Come.
The musicians on these dates are Miles (trumpet), Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Julian “Cannonball” Adderly (alto saxophone), Wynton Kelly (piano), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), “Philly” Joe Jones (drums), and Jimmy Cobb (drums). To call the music made by these cats “classic” is to sell it woefully short. But that is not the point, in this particular case.
As I listened to these discs, I found myself entranced by the sound of Miles’s trumpet. This is nothing new. Miles was revered for the “vocal” tone of his trumpet, particularly when it was played with a mute. It’s a sound that sends shivers down the spine. But as the music played, I realized I was hearing something different. It was something I had never considered before.
Miles has long been considered a musical innovator, who has shaped the form of music no less than four or five times. The sound of Miles’s music was always in a state of flux, moving forward continuously, even when standing pat would have been perfectly acceptable. Miles, it was said, always wanted to be out front. He always wanted to be “ahead” of the curve. It wasn’t enough for him to embrace a musical trend. He wanted to create the trend. All of this suits me just fine.
Here’s where this particular set knocks me out. It may sound obtuse or pretentious, but I sincerely believe Miles approached his earliest work with Columbia from a completely different angle than the music he helped create after 1961. The music Miles produced after ’61 was played, to my ears, from the outside, in. (*) The ’55-’61 material came from the opposite direction. It was played from the inside, out. And therein lies its beauty.
There is no jazz band in the world I cherish more than Miles’s Second Great Quintet, consisting of himself, Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums). The music that band made between 1965 and ’68 is unparalleled. They stretched the limits of acoustic jazz, coming as close as they could to “free-form” without quite going there. When I listen to albums like Miles Smiles and Nefertiti, I hear a band hanging it out over the edge, “clams” be damned. And there were more than a few clams. But Miles made those mistakes sound like part of the composition, which enabled him to get away with it.
This trend continued through the “electric period” that began in 1969 with In a Silent Way, and truly manifested itself with the material Miles produced in the ‘70s. I’m hesitant to refer to that music as “jazz,” because it wasn’t. Purists hated it. I thought it was amazing. It didn’t always work. But that’s what happens when you experiment. Miles essentially demanded his musicians from this era practice on stage. That’s beyond dangerous. Which leads me to my theory.
Starting with the Second Great Quintet, Miles and company were shaping the music as they played it. Miles, it seems, wanted to bend the sound to his will. His trumpet became the glue holding everything together. His sound – be it muted, open, or run through a wah-wah pedal – was raw and aggressive. It fired in fits and starts. It struck with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Miles’s tone came from an air of confidence bordering on (and sometimes crossing into) arrogance. I can almost hear him telling the music in his raspy voice, “Deal with this, motherfucker!”
But the music he made with Coltrane and Company was something altogether different.
Maybe it was because Miles was in a different headspace. He had just kicked a heroin habit. He was trying to regain his reputation, which had taken a major hit because of the drugs. Most of all, he was trying to recapture his voice. The songs he played during the ’55 to ’61 period allowed him to do just that. Miles seemed to allow the music emanating from tunes like “Ah-Leu-Cha,” “Budo,” “Bye-bye, Blackbird,” and “Dear Old Stockholm” to envelop and guide him. The music bent Miles to its will, and he played his way out of its center. It’s a tender, more vulnerable sound. And it is positively beautiful.
That’s what I mean by playing from the inside, out.
I’m not saying one sound is better than the other. I’m just saying I can hear a difference. I also realize its highly probable Miles would read these words, look me dead in the eye, and say, “Man, shut the fuck up!” But I stand by my assessment.
Of course, the only real way to test my theory is to play the music and formulate your own opinion. Let me know what you think.
(*) Miles’s sound was in transition between ’62 and ’64. The music he made during this time culminated in yet another box set called Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis, 1963-1964. I’ll be studying that shortly.