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Order Is Everything: Collecting…Miles Davis

September 17, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Miles Davis was one of the most influential jazz artists in history. His tenure at Columbia produced a legendary catalog of music no fan should be without.

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 BlueBitches 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)
Milestones, 1958
*Porgy & Bess, 1958
Workin’, 1959 (Prestige)
Someday My Prince Will Come, 1961
Steamin’, 1961 (Prestige)
Quiet Nights, 1963
E.S.P., 1965
*Sorcerer,1967
*Nefertiti,1968
Filles de Kilimanjaro, 1969
*Live-Evil, 1971
Big Fun, 1974
Get Up with It, 1974
Water Babies, 1976
The Man With the Horn, 1981
Star People, 1983
Decoy, 1984
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.

Categories: Order/Everything

Order Is Everything: Collecting…Stevie Wonder

August 1, 2011 1 comment

Good morn’ or evening, friends.  Well-Dressed Headphone Addict has added a brand new installment: Order is Everything.  This new venture 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 first artist is Stevie Wonder. 

Stevie Wonder is an Essential Figure in Modern Music. Here, you'll learn how to collect his timeless catalog.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer has been a revolution unto himself.  He’s considered a genius of the highest order by fans and peers alike, not only as a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, but an innovator of technology in the R&B community, embracing the use of synthesizers in a manner never conceived before.  Blind since birth, Wonder used his lack of visual sight as a means to gain a prodigious vision of the human spirit.  It’s that vision that’s allowed him to use the platform of pop music to expose fans to various genres and styles, making him an invaluable artist to the world at large.  Since 1963, Wonder has released 26 studio albums.  The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict has narrowed down nine essential recordings for the music lover to own.  Here’s the order in which to collect them:

1. Songs In The Key Of Life, 1976
As Stevie’s biggest selling album – over 10 million copies sold – Songs in the Key of Life is a logical choice for the first purchase of a Wonder Lover-in-training.  The double album covers every single aspect of Stevie’s adult musical output, both creatively and thematically: There are songs in which he plays all the instruments himself (“Have A Talk With God,” “Village Ghetto Land,”) and songs with famous musicians (“Another Star,” featuring George Benson and Bobby Humphrey; “If It’s Magic,” featuring Dorothy Ashby on Harp).  A concept album on life itself, there are songs that deal with everything from heartbreak (“Ordinary Pain”), childhood innocence (“I Wish”), to birth (“Isn’t She Lovely”) and transcendental love (“As).  With music ranging from classic symphony to heavy metal, a listener would be hard pressed to find something they didn’t like among these 21 classics.

2. Innervisions, 1973
Among Stevie connoisseurs, it is argued that Innervisions is indeed a better record than Songs in the Key of Life.  Be that as it may, it stands alone as one of the single greatest statements in soul music history.  Inspired by label mate Marvin Gaye’s epic What’s Going On LP, Wonder wrote politically charged records that were much more biting and confrontational than that of Gaye’s sage observational approach.  The jazzy “Too High” exposes the deadly consequences of the flower power drug movement, the funky blues of “Living For The City” tells a sad story of a man destined only to get by but never through, and “He’s Misstra Know-it-all” is a harsh, gospel-tinged, criticism of former President Nixon.  Stevie does, however, sprinkle some beauty in, with love ballad “Golden Lady” and the latin-tinged anthem of support, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.”  Innervisions is an album no one should be without.

3. Talking Book, 1972
With the monster pop success of number 1 singles “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” it’s easy to overlook that Talking Book is the one of the more melancholy albums in Stevie’s catalog, made so by his dissolving relationship with his first wife, Syreeta Wright.  With Wright writing lyrics to some of the songs, tracks like “Blame It On the Sun” and “Looking For Another Pure Love” were comments about Stevie neglectful ways – to which Stevie interpreted sublimely with his voice and his production – while  “You’ve Got it Bad, Girl” would go on to be one of the most covered songs by jazz artists in the 1970s (Quincy Jones, Hank Crawford, Herbie Hancock).  If for nothing else, Talking Book is worth having for its superb song craft and Stevie’s dynamic singing.

4. Fulfillingness’ First Finale, 1974
If you found the painful tone of Talking Book intriguing, then Fulfillingness’ First Finale is right up your alley, as it’s even more of an emotionally solemn experience.  This album was written and recorded in the aftermath of a near-fatal accident Stevie suffered in 1973.  On Fulfillingness’ First Finale, his voice is much more subdued than any of his recordings before or since.  He focused on God quite a bit here, whether it be obviously (“Heaven is Ten Zillion Light Years Away”) or abstractly (“They Won’t Go When I Go”).  ”  An LP much more brooding than Talking Book, even the love ballads like “Too Shy to Say” and “Creepin'” sound incredibly somber.  He turned his political angst for President Nixon up 10 notches with the funky, Jackson 5 assited, assault of “You Haven’t Done Nothing.”  Surprisingly, Stevie’s ominous state of mind is ultimately what makes this album so compelling, and indirectly revealing to his personality.  Fulfillingness’ is as close as we’ll ever get to Stevie being autobiographical.

5. Original Musiquarium I, 1982
Compilation albums, or greatest hit releases, are ordinarily off limits for this series, but in this case, there is an unavoidable exception.  A 16 song double LP, most of the songs you’ve already heard on the four previous records, like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground” and “Sir Duke.”  Original Musiquarium I will also introduce you to other Stevie tracks on albums you’ve yet to hear, like the sentimental “Send One Your Love.”  However, among the 12 hit singles are four new songs recorded specifically for this release, and three of those tracks would go on to be classics in their own rights, perfectly blending in with Stevie smashes.  “Ribbon in the Sky” is one of those timeless ballads that gives you goosebumps after the first four notes.  The jazz/soul coolness of “That Girl” seeps into your skin thanks to Stevie’s killer drumming.  Lastly, the 10 minute workout of “Do I Do” is not a second too long, full of infectious double guitar work, eye-popping horns and a memorable trumpet solo from the legendary Dizzy Gillespie. 

6. Music of My Mind, 1972
Ok, by this point you may be emotionally drained from deepness of Stevie’s material, so the next album should offer a much welcomed air of relaxation.  Released six months before the melancholy Talking Book, Music of My Mind is a collection of songs that embrace love and denounce evil.  His first time writing his own lyrics, Stevie’s mood ranges from carefree (“Happier Than the Morning Sun”),  to resentful (“Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)), and he shows a glimpse of his, now-famous, sense of humor (“Sweet Little Girl”).  Although he’d been composing his own music for a few years and playing keyboard sporadically on record, Music of My Mind was Stevie’s true coming out party.  With the exception of guitar on one song and trombone on another, Stevie played every instrument on the album, personifying his legendary reputation as a one mand band. The real beauty of this album is the innovative use of synthesizers.  Before Music of My Mind, it was an invention for imitating acoustic instruments, but Stevie used them to create new colors and sonic atmospheres. 

7. Hotter Than July, 1980
Stevie was not as prolific with his music output in the 1980’s as he was in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  In all, he released three full length studio albums (not including The Woman in Red Sountrack), compared to eight in the previous decade (two of those were double albums)!  However, if there’s one Wonder album from the “Me” decade to own, it’s Hotter Than July.   Appropriately enough, July has a similar tone as Music of My Mind, a compilation of numerous themes and dispositions, be it the political disbelief of “Cash in Your Face,” crippling heartbreak of “Rocket Love” or “Do Like You’s” youthful exuberance.  The highlight is the reggae dance hit “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a tribute to Bob Marley (before he passed).  Once again, Stevie goes out of his way to educate the masses on new sounds and experiences. 

8. Signed Sealed Delivered, 1970
Now, you may already know that Stevie Wonder was a star at age 12, with many hits during his teenage years.  While none of his albums from the 1960’s appear on this list, Signed Sealed Delivered is a conduit between Little Stevie Wonder and Stevie Wonder, the grown man.  Stevie’s asserted himself as producer of the title track and his funky, clavinet driven Beatles cover, “We Can Work It Out,” but the majority of the record was written, produced by played by Motown staffers, much like his preceeding LPs.  Stevie’s voice is masculine and sure on songs like the hopeful “Heaven Help Us All,” but he allows his adolescent spirit to run wild on the drum happy “Sugar.”  You’ll be accustomed enough to Stevie by this time to embrace his younger aura, but you’ll still hear the maturity that’s gotten you this far. 

9. Where I’m Coming From, 1971
Now, we’ve reached the end of our run.  This is the last of the essential albums of Stevie’s, Where I’m Coming From.  Motown records awarded Wonder full creative freedom at age 21.  Even though he’d been allowed to compose music for himself and others, he was still under the restraints of Motown’s pop assembly line.  Eager to go beyond the box he was trapped in, this would be the first time he could produce the entire album on his own, playing drums, keyboard, clavinet and harmonica on all tunes, with Funk Brothers like bassist James Jamerson filling in the blanks.  He wrote the music to all nine tracks and his future wife, Syreeta Wright, contributed every lyric.  The political leanings you’ve heard on Innervisions first come through here on the hard rocking “Do Yourself A Favor” and “I Wanna Talk To You.”  Still not quite finding his footing like he would on Music of My Mind the following year, “If You Really Love Me” and “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” were previews to Stevie’s signature themes of love and heartbreak, respectively.

There you have it.  The nine Stevie Wonder albums you must own.  For you completists out there, here are the remaining Stevie Wonder albums:

* Recommended, but not essential

The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, 1962
Tribute To Uncle Ray, 1963
With a Song In My Heart, 1963
Stevie at the Beach, 1964
Uptight, 1965
*Down To Earth, 1966
I Was Made to Love Her, 1967
*Someday at Christmas, 1967
Eivets Rednow, 1968
*For Once in My Life, 1968
My Cherie Amour, 1969
Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, 1979
The Woman in Red Soundtrack, 1984
In Square Circle, 1985
Characters, 1987
*Jungle Fever, 1991
Conversation Peace, 1995
*A Time 2 Love, 2005

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.

Categories: Order/Everything