My Miles Davis musical man-crush knows no bounds. He represents one third of my personal Musical Holy Trinity, along with Frank Zappa and King Crimson. But of the three, Miles probably occupies the most space in my collection.
Like any musician fortunate enough to have a long career, Miles's music underwent many changes. He's credited with being at the forefront of at least five musical movements. That covers a LOT of ground. So when I'm asked to name my favorite Miles Davis album, I have to stop and think about it.
The truth of the matter is I could name any one of several albums, depending on my mood that day. It's not quite like trying to pick your favorite child, but it's close. Then again, maybe I've been coming at the question from the wrong angle.
Throughout the last three decades of listening to Miles, it's never been about hearing a favorite. Rather, it's been about which music held the most meaning at that particular moment. Based on that criteria, I have chosen the 10 Miles Davis records to consistently hold the most personal meaning. And for the record, there were a LOT of Honorable Mentions. So if you're new to Miles, maybe this list will help get you going.
Let's count 'em down!
10. Tutu (1986).The Doorway. I heard my dad invoke Miles's name a million times as a kid, but until I got a copy of Tutu as part of my initial Columbia House Record and Tape Club shipment (remember them?), I didn't know a note of his music. This album was my introduction. My ignorance proved beneficial, since I would learn later that the majority of this album was recorded by Marcus Miller, who also produced the album. Miles would add his parts later. That is not how a jazz musician makes records. Equally loved and loathed by fans and critics, Tutu made Miles relevant in the jazz world again (the era was being taken over by smooth jazz and the Young Lions like the Marsalis brothers). I thought this record was decent. It certainly made Miles worthy of further exploration.
9. Aura (1984). The Artistic Statement. This album is a ten-song suite written specifically for Miles by Palle Mikkelborg. Each song represents a color in the spectrum. The aura, I would imagine, is provided by Miles. The album also features the return of some famous Miles Davis band alumni, like guitarist John McLaughlin. The music smolders, sizzles, and burns. Only the use of Simmons electronic drums (very much of the era) keep it from becoming a timeless classic. Still, it is an album worth study. Not only is Miles's playing strong, but the music is wonderfully abstract. Seek this one out.
8. Walkin' (1954).The Old-School Peak. This is probably my favorite of the Prestige recordings Miles made before switching over to Columbia Records in '55. It's also the record my dad and I bonded hardest over. I was hypnotized by the clarity of Miles's tone, and the way the band swung with and around him. Dad loved this record as a boy (he was 11 when it was released) and was thrilled by how it sounded so fresh, even as we played it in the mid-90s. Of all the Miles Davis straight-ahead recordings, this album is probably the straightest. That's not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.
7. Bitches Brew (1970). The Fundamental Shift. Let's be clear: this is NOT a jazz record. Miles even warned us on the album's cover when he declared Bitches Brew "directions in music by Miles Davis." He didn't say directions in jazz. That should've been the first clue of what was to come, as Miles proceeded to re-define music as we knew it in the '70s. Still, Miles managed to shock the world with this album. Many still haven't recovered. It was a long time before I truly understood this record, but the payoff was well worth the patience. Listen: if you know nothing about Miles Davis, DO NOT MAKE THIS THE FIRST MILES ALBUM YOU EVER HEAR!!! Trust me on this! This album requires a wide open musical mind. Once you grasp what's happening, you'll understand that anything is possible in music with enough effort. That's when the genius reveals itself. And that's what give this album such deep personal meaning.
6. A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971). The Ass-Kicker. Most fusion bands chose to add rock elements to jazz. So did Miles, by way of McLaughlin. But Miles took things to the next level by rooting his sound in funk and soul. The key element is bassist Michael Henderson, who brought his Motown sound to the proceedings, allowing the rest of the band to lay waste to the studio. You can almost taste the funk! The album is the soundtrack for a documentary about the legendary boxer. Miles, an avid boxer himself, made the most of his subject matter. His tone here is at its most "in your face," as it should be.
5. Sketches of Spain (1960). The Beautiful One. Miles's reputation as a gruff, no-nonsense man caused people to miss what a romantic he could be. The evidence is found on this album, where Miles plays trumpet and flugelhorn while backed by an orchestra arranged and conducted by the legendary Gil Evans. All you need to make the most of this music is a glass of good wine and a candlelit room. Miles will take care of the rest. (A date is optional.)
4. In a Silent Way (1969). The Transition. Miles is credited as one of the fathers of jazz fusion. It can be argued that credit should go to drummer Tony Williams, who formed one of the first fusion bands, called the Tony Williams Lifetime. Williams is also the drummer on this album, which I will forever love for its incredible use of space. What isn't played by this band is just as important as what is. Miles was dropping a little hint about what was to come, as Bitches Brew followed a year later. But In a Silent Way was an album even jazz purists could dig, if they tried. This is one of the ultimate "chill" records, and it adds a nice little bounce toward the end of the title track.
3. Star People (1983). The Real Comeback Album. Miles went into seclusion in 1975, primarily for health reasons. (There was much more to it, but you can read his autobiography if you want to know about that.) He emerged in 1981 with an album called The Man with The Horn. While it features some fine playing by Miller, saxophonist Bill Evans, and guitarist Mike Stern, Miles had yet to find his sound. His tone is relatively weak. After taking his new band on the road, he came back to the studio to record Star People. Now this was more like it! Miles was feeling strong, and the band raised its game to keep up. It's hard. It's funky. It's groovy. It ROCKS. In my book, I tell the story of my five-year quest to find a copy of this album. Believe me when I tell you it was worth the effort.
2. Kind of Blue (1959). The Standard Bearer. When pressed to pick just one Miles album for a new fan, this is the one I choose. It has the rare distinction of being both highly intricate and completely accessible. I've never played this record and not been blown away by it. Not once. I don't know what I admire more: that Miles didn't bring any complete songs into this session, offering instead only basic themes for the rest of his legendary sextet to improvise over; or that the entire record was recorded over TWO DAYS. No matter. There is no ignoring the talents of Miles, John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums). This band is what nearly every jazz band since has tried to be. Even after almost 60 years, Kind of Blue is still a stunner.
1. Miles Smiles (1966). The Revolution. This album is the realization of jazz's true potential. Critics might point out that the album contains more than a few bad notes, most of them played by Miles. But the clams are part of what make this record legendary. From start to finish, this is the sound of a band stretching! Miles and his legendary band of Wayne Shorter (sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Williams were doing all they could to push everything they knew about jazz past them, clearing the path for The Next Big Idea. In the process, they made an incredible album. Even more frightening is experiencing these legendary tunes live, where the band stretches out even more, and has the gall to play these tunes even faster! This is a band at the peak of its prowess, and they know it! If someone came up to me and asked, "Ced, what is jazz?" I'd hand them a copy of Miles Smiles and say, "This. This is jazz."
There you have it. That's my list. Your list may vary. Feel free to tell me about it, for no two musical experiences are alike, especially where Miles Davis is concerned.
‘Miles Smiles’ is my favourite also, with Tony Williams at his peak. ‘My Funny Valentine’ would also sneak into my list, George Coleman plays superbly.
It would be fun to argue the toss over ‘Top 10’ Miles albums – or even a Top 20! I think I have more Miles albums than any other artist, which is slightly alarming. Perhaps it’s because his catalogue is so vast, and so varied that if you’re browsing for some music and can’t find something that tickles your fancy, there’s always the ‘Grab a Miles’ option. He rarely disappoints.
For what it’s worth, I’m pretty happy with 1 and 2. After that:
In a silent way
(both of which I’ve written about at Vinyl Connection)
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I had to smile at your warning about not making Bitches the first listen.
That’s exactly what I did several years ago, jumping in with both feet, and buying the complete sessions box set. I actually enjoyed it from the first few notes, so maybe that says something about my open-minded approach to new music.
I also bought the complete Silent Way sessions at the same time. Seven discs of Miles was perhaps a big leap in the dark but it didn’t put me off.
Haven’t bought anything since, but perhaps that’s because I feel I have enough to be going on with.
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I guess one could almost describe Miles as the Picasso of Jazz (as pretentious as that may sound). So many moods and colours. Whenever I listen to Miles, what I hear are endless possibilities
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That’s a really good way to look at it!
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