Order Is Everything: Collecting…Miles Davis
Good morn’ or evening, friends. Welcome to the latest installment of Order is Everything. This is a how-to-guide for music lovers looking to invest in the catalogs of prolific artists. These articles will instruct – better yet suggest – the would-be consumer on not only which albums to buy, but also in which order to collect them. You might think to buy them in chronological order, but for a great artist with 10 or more albums, there’s a science to collecting the records. First of all, not every record is essential to own; secondly, the first purchase is crucial to the listening experience of the consumer. The first album you buy must be a microcosm of their entire career, and/or, at the very least, must be equally creative and accessible. Basically, if you like the first CD you buy, the very next one in line is an expansion of what you’ve heard, making it more likely that you’ll purchase it. As you go on, you’ll develop a genuine admiration of the artists’ music. Our next artist is Miles Davis.
The fact that you only have to say his first name to know who you’re talking about is quite telling about the greatness of Miles Davis. The trumpeter from St. Louis is the most influential trumpeter in American Jazz history, working with the cream of jazz royalty throughout his career, including John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Max Roach, and others. He was prolific with his output, so much so that we just don’t have the time to concentrate on everything, so we’ll focus on his most productive period: his tenure with Columbia Records. From 1957 to 1985, Miles released 28 studio albums. The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict has narrowed down 10 essential recordings for the music lover to own. Here’s the order in which to collect them:
1. Kind of Blue, 1959
When the average person thinks about jazz, this is the album that probably plays in their head. Kind of Blue was the culmination of Miles Davis’ gifts of establishing mood, restraint and spontenaiety. The album featured a legendary sextet of musicians, including saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. It was released in 1959, which saw the release of monumental jazz LPs like Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz, David Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Um Ah and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Songs like “So What” and “All Blues” are ingrained into the subconscious of American music forever.
2. ‘Round About Midnight, 1957
From one landmark recording to another, this was the Columbia debut for Miles and the unveiling of his first legendary quintet: John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Philly Joe Jones (drums), Paul Chambers (bass) and Red Garland (piano). Named after the Thelonius Monk composition, Miles and co. displayed their mastery of interpretation, playing rousing renditions of Monk’s classic, as well as tunes from Charlie Parker and Cole Porter. Their take on “Bye Bye Blackbird” is perhaps the definitive recording of that song. The chemistry you heard between Miles and Coltrane on Kind of Blue is at a fever pitch on ‘Round About Midnight.
3. Miles Smiles, 1967
We go from one great quintet to another. Davis second five-piece were twenty-something – and teenage – musicians; all prodigies, all radical players. Pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter recorded great six records with Miles as a unit, but none better than this one. Shorter asserted himself as main composer here, contributing three of the six tracks, creating complex melodies, while William’s drumming paved the way for all contemporary jazz drummers years later. “Footprints” and “Circles” is a testament to the complicated arrangements just mentioned and “Freedom Jazz Dance” is rugged and funky. Miles Smiles will have you smiling from ear to ear.
4. Sketches of Spain, 1960
You’ve heard Miles in three famous phases of his career: with his sextet, with his 1st great quintet and with his second great quintet. Another great phase of Miles’ career was his collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, which usually found Miles backed by a multi-piece orchestra. Following the unparalleled success of Kind of Blue, Miles took a sizable risk with his next record, Sketches of Spain. The album explored the Spanish flamenco sound and Latin-tinge, filtered through incredibly traditional musicianship. Somehow, Miles managed to incorporate some subtle flecks of be-bop into Evans’ sublime arrangements, especially in the epic “Concierto de Aranjuez,” making an album as gorgeous as it was controversial.
5. Seven Steps to Heaven, 1963
This album is worth it simply because of the title track. Seven Steps to Heaven is the bridge between Miles playing standards with his peers and him playing new material with the youngsters. With the exception of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, members of the his second great quintet make their debut with Miles on Seven Steps, and with great affect. Herbie Hancock’s piano work here is colorful and soulful. Miles plays some of the fastest, most exciting solos of his career on this LP, showcasing a dexterity many did not believe he possessed. Seven Steps to Heaven finds Miles making the easy seem impossible and the difficult seem simple all at once.
6. Miles in the Sky, 1968
Speaking of bridges, once again we find the mad trumpeter making another crucial transition: from playing acoustic instruments to playing electric instruments. Two of the four tracks, “Stuff” and “Paraphernalia” were the first time electric bass and fender Rhodes were used on one of Miles’ albums (electric guitarist George Benson was featured on the latter, as well). The album saw the direction that Davis was going, in terms of texture and groove. It’s apparent that the influence of his second great quintet on him had surpassed his influence on them, which would open the door for Miles’ future endevours.
7. In a Silent Way, 1969
Heralded as the Kind of Blue of the 1960’s, In a Silent Way was the foundation of a new sub-genre in Jazz that Miles jump started: “fusion.” Miles took the sonic power of electric instruments and rock and roll performance aestatics and combined them with traditional jazz composition. In a Silent Way was an album of serene, soothing songs, made to relax as well as captivate. In addition to his band of Hancock, Williams and Shorter, this record featured new progressive players like electric guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardist Chick Corea and organist Joe Zawinul, all of whom would later found groundbreaking jazz/fusion bands of their own (Mahavishu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Weather Report, respectfully).
8. A Tribute to Jack Johnson, 1971
By 1971, Miles had defined jazz fusion with In a Silent Way and other records, but they were still jazz at the core. With A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the soundtrack to a documentary on the former boxing champion, Miles became more transparent about who was influencing him at the time. The two tracks, “Right Off” and “Yesternow” both contain dense, rhythmic elements from Sly Stone and James Brown, whom Davis admired above all others at that moment. With some aggressive energy from guitarist McLaughin, Hancock on keys and Billy Cobham on drums, Jack Johnson is far heavier and thicker than any of Miles’ previous releases, and for that reason, one of the most satisfying as well.
9. Bitches Brew, 1970
Don’t be fooled by the placement of this album on this list. By many historic accounts, Bitches Brew is as equally essential as Kind of Blue. Bitches is the definitive fusion record; the closest Davis would ever come to recording a “free jazz” album. Miles and his sidemen, who included Corea on keys, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, Dave Holland on bass and many others, created a series of soundscapes rather than traditional songs. On the cover, it says “directions in music by Miles Davis,” implying a kind of controlled chaos that made this record profoundly progressive, and sublimely dangerous. Songs like the title track and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” are not for the faint of heart, but it’s impossible to ignore the magnetism. If you still had preconceived notions about jazz after the first eight records on the list, they’re about to die now.
10. On the Corner, 1972
We’ve finally reached the last album on our journey. For a musician like Miles who was always pushing the envelope, and listeners and critics buttons as a result, to call On the Corner his most controversial album is an achievement in and of itself. It’s the funkiest album his ever recorded, but because of the boundless nature in which it was recorded, it’s also one of the hardest to digest; ironic considering this album was Miles’ attempted to draw younger listeners to jazz. Davis felt he needed to connect with the Black youth who were listening to Sly Stone and James Brown, as well as rock artists. He found new ways to innovate, playing trumpet through a wah wah pedal to get a more grimy, organic sound to matched the rawness of the compositions. “Black Satin” introduced Indian influences to his fusion movement, thank to the skillful playing of tabla player Badal Roy and electric sitarist Khalil Balakrishna. R&B pioneers Michael Henderson (bass) and Mtume (percussion) gave the record a subtle soul that puts it over the top as an essential acquisition. (By the way, the reason On the Corner comes after Bitches Brew instead of Jack Johnson is because you needed to hear the transition from one to the other to have a better chance to enjoy On the Corner).
There you have it. The 10 Miles Davis albums you must own. For you completists out there, here are the remaining Miles Davis albums, including his recordings with Prestige Records:
* Recommended, but not essential
Cookin‘, 1957 (Prestige)
*Relaxin’, 1957 (Prestige)
*Porgy & Bess, 1958
Workin’, 1959 (Prestige)
Someday My Prince Will Come, 1961
Steamin’, 1961 (Prestige)
Quiet Nights, 1963
Filles de Kilimanjaro, 1969
Big Fun, 1974
Get Up with It, 1974
Water Babies, 1976
The Man With the Horn, 1981
Star People, 1983
You’re Under Arrest, 1985
Thank you for listening. I hope this proves helpful to you. Please report back to keep us posted on your progress. And remember: Black Americans may only be one tenth of the population, but that tenth is talented.