21. Miles Davis

Miles Davis was a jazz trumpeter and composer from Alton, Illinois. One of those rare musicians recognizable on a first name basis, his career is noteworthy for having several distinct phases of musical evolution. Miles performed at or near the top of his field for over twenty years, always at the forefront of jazz innovation.

Miles Davis 10,Copenhagen 1964

Miles Davis (1926-1991), trumpet, bandleader, composer

Miles Davis’ Facebook Wall
Peter Losin’s Website for Miles Davis

A Short List of Notable Collaborators:

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (1920-1955), alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, composer
John Coltrane (1926-1967), alto, tenor and soprano saxophone, composer
Gil Evans (1912-1988), composer, arranger
Bill Evans (1929-1980), piano, composer
William “Red” Garland (1923-1984), piano
Joseph Rudolph “Philly Joe” Jones (1923-1985), drums
Paul Chambers (1935-1969), double bass
Herbie Hancock (b. 1940), piano, keyboards, composer
Ron Carter (b. 1937), double bass
Wayne Shorter (b. 1933), saxophone, composer
Tony Williams (1945-1997), drums

Kind Of Blue, The Album Everyone Should Have

Like many prominent jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, my introduction to Miles Davis came late. Neither of my parents and few of my friends had interest in post-bop jazz. As life progresses, I identify the biggest holes in my musical education, and try to fill in the blanks. I once read that Duane and Gregg Allman listened to Kind Of Blue for inspiration, not surprising given the Allman Brothers’ superb improvisational ability. I must have been in my early thirties before buying the CD. Kind Of Blue is still the best introduction to Miles Davis, and may well be the single best introductory tool into jazz music as an idiom. Many regard it as the finest jazz album ever made.

Modal Jazz

Kind Of Blue is an example of “modal” jazz. Improvisation is based on scales, rather than chord changes. Joachim Ernst-Berendt explains in The Jazz Book:

“In his desire to play simply, Davis (since the second half of the fifties) tended to free his improvisations from the underlying structure of chord changes. He based his solo work on “scales”. About his big-band version of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, Davis said, “When Gil Evans wrote the arrangement of ‘I Love You Porgy’, he only wrote a scale for me to play. No chords. This gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things.”

— Joachim Ernst-Berendt

Books by Joachim Ernst-Berendt Available at Amazon.com

All five songs from Kind Of Blue are included in the collection. Here is the Miles Davis Quintet, with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, on the classic “So What”:

Modal jazz is just one of many innovations with Miles Davis playing a key role.

Bebop with Charlie Parker

Miles Davis graduated from high school in 1944 and moved to New York City to study at the Julliard School of Music. He sought out Charlie Parker, against the advice of those aware of Parker’s destructive habits. Despite this, Davis dropped out of Julliard and became a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet. The iPod collection features thirteen songs with the Davis/Parker duo, listed under Charlie Parker in the “Related Songs” listing. These recordings are considered essential examples of bebop music.

The Birth Of The Cool

In the late forties, Davis began his now familiar quest for new ways to express himself. He teamed with arranger Gil Evans and a larger band of like-minded musicians keen on an ensemble sound, less focused on individual improvisation. The Birth Of The Cool features short, carefully orchestrated pieces by Miles and the talented nonet. Although the album is solid throughout, seven songs were selected for inclusion:

Moon Dreams

Miles Davis with Gil Evans

Davis continued to collaborate with arranger Gil Evans on a series of orchestrated albums in the late fifties. Among their most famous collaborations are the albums Porgy And Bess, Miles Ahead and Sketches Of Spain. Unlike The Birth Of The Cool, which I discovered ten or fifteen years ago, these Evans collaborations are brand new to me, except the well known interpretation of Gershwin’s “Summertime”. Perhaps it required maturity on my part to appreciate these quiet and elaborate pieces of music.

Here’s the Gil Evans Orchestra with Miles Davis on trumpet performing “Blues For Pablo”:

The Miles Davis Quintet

In the mid-fifties, Davis assembled his first classic quintet, with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Though the quintet is not innovative per se, the musicianship is superb. This band is most remembered for four albums created in two marathon recording sessions: Relaxin’, Cookin’, Steamin’ and Workin’.

The Penguin Jazz Guide describes the creation of these classic recordings:

“Great music is sometimes made in inauspicious circumstances. Miles’s 1956 quintet cut these records to round out a contract before moving on (from Prestige) to Columbia, and yet they represent a purple patch; uneven in inspiration, at their greatest they bespeak an extraordinary sense of spontaneity, and a brilliant assemblage of players in creative flux. The greatest contrast, much discussed is between Davis, spare, introverted, guileful, and the leonine, blistering Coltrane. But equally telling are the members of the rhythm section, who contrive to create a different climate behind each soloist and sustain the logical flow of the tunes.”

— Richard Cook & Brian Morton

I wish I could write like that.

Purchase Richard Morton and Brian Cook’s Penguin Jazz Guide at Amazon.com

In particular, these recordings feature elaborate, inventive drumming by Philly Joe Jones. Among the songs included in this collection are:

My Funny Valentine
I Could Write A Book
Trane’s Blues
Ahmad’s Blues
It Never Entered My Mind

The Second Quintet

In the sixties, the restless Davis teamed with a much younger quartet of talented musicians: pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams. Among the best albums with this quintet are E.S.P., Miles Smiles and Live At The Plugged Nickel. Songs chosen from this era are:

Freedom Jazz Dance

Here is the second great quintet performing “All Blues” from Kind Of Blue:

Fusion Jazz

In the late sixties and early seventies, Miles once again stretched the boundaries of jazz expression, this time employing rhythms typically used for rock music. Loosely organized jams were engineered and spliced into long, coherent “songs” in albums such as Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way and The Jack Johnson Sessions.

Two of the longer jams are included, “In A Silent Way” and “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down”, plus a single length version of “Spanish Key”. I prefer shorter songs, and tend to only include long pieces of great distinction. I listened to five long pieces from these albums, and narrowed it down to these two choices. Once again, Miles employs a new cast of musicians, greats like Bennie Maupin and Joe Zawinul. The musicians that perform on Davis’s work read like a Who’s Who of modern jazz.

Selecting The Songs

Among the artists featured in the collection so far, Miles Davis required the most research to assemble a representative list of songs. The breadth of styles, combined with a consensus view that Miles is among the most important figures in jazz history, made a careful review of his work imperative. Starting with the list of twenty songs already in the collection, I reviewed my jazz review books looking for ideas. Over thirty new songs were added and reviewed, then the list was pared down to a total of forty-six songs. Many good songs were surely overlooked, but these choices give a broad introduction to the great man’s music. In addition, there are thirteen Charlie Parker songs and two songs co-credited to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, increasing the list to sixty-one songs. Many Davis songs feature Coltrane prominently; a significant portion of John Coltrane’s contribution to jazz is represented here.

The modest ratings given reflect my tastes in music. A jazz aficianado would surely rate these higher. If compelled to characterize Miles’s music in a single sentence, I would say he surrounded himself with the finest musicians to create complex music, and then floated above the background with deceptively simple and thoughtful sounds.

Miles Davis Songs:

So What, Miles Davis ✭✭✭✭
All Blues, Miles Davis ✭✭✭✭

Moon Dreams, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Milestones, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus), Miles Davis ✭✭✭
My Ship, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Blue In Green, Miles Davis ✭✭✭

Boplicity, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Rocker, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Summertime, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
It Ain’t Necessarily So, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
It Never Entered My Mind, Miles Davis ✭✭✭

Blues For Pablo, Miles Davis ✭✭✭

‘Round Midnight, Miles Davis ✭✭
Nature Boy, Miles Davis ✭✭
Deception, Miles Davis ✭✭
Godchild, Miles Davis ✭✭
Israel, Miles Davis ✭✭

Jeru, Miles Davis ✭✭
Generique, Miles Davis ✭✭
E.S.P., Miles Davis ✭✭
Spanish Key, Miles Davis ✭✭
Someday My Prince Will Come, Miles Davis ✭✭

Freddie Freeloader, Miles Davis ✭✭
Flamenco Sketches, Miles Davis ✭✭
The Maids Of Cadiz, Miles Davis ✭✭
The Duke, Miles Davis ✭✭
Miles Ahead, Miles Davis ✭✭

All Of You, Miles Davis ✭✭
Walkin’, Miles Davis ✭✭
Blue ‘N Boogie, Miles Davis ✭✭
Solar, Miles Davis ✭✭
My Funny Valentine, Miles Davis ✭✭

Footprints, Miles Davis ✭✭
I Could Write A Book, Miles Davis ✭✭
Bags’ Groove (Take 1), Miles Davis ✭✭
Oleo, Miles Davis ✭✭
New Rhumba, Miles Davis ✭✭

Four, Miles Davis ✭✭
Trane’s Blues, Miles Davis ✭✭
Ahmad’s Blues, Miles Davis ✭✭

Bess, You Is My Woman Now, Miles Davis
Sid’s Ahead, Miles Davis
Miles Runs The Voodoo Down, Miles Davis
In A Silent Way, Miles Davis
Freedom Jazz Dance, Miles Davis

Related Songs:

Billie’s Bounce, Charlie Parker ✭✭
Now’s The Time, Charlie Parker ✭✭✭
Donna Lee, Charlie Parker ✭✭
Milestones, Charlie Parker ✭✭✭
Moose The Mooche, Charlie Parker ✭✭
Yardbird Suite, Charlie Parker ✭✭
Ornithology, Charlie Parker ✭✭✭
Chasing The Bird, Charlie Parker ✭✭✭
Bird Of Paradise, Charlie Parker ✭✭
Embraceable You, Charlie Parker ✭✭
Klactoveedsedstene, Charlie Parker ✭✭
Scrapple From The Apple, Charlie Parker ✭✭✭
Out Of Nowhere, Charlie Parker ✭✭✭✭

On Green Dolphin Street, John Coltrane & Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Stella By Starlight, John Coltrane & Miles Davis ✭✭

Generique, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭

My Funny Valentine, Chet Baker ✭✭✭✭
My Funny Valentine, Elvis Costello ✭✭

Note: Van Morrison often sings a verse of “My Funny Valentine” while performing “Moondance”.

Stella By Starlight, Chris Connor ✭✭
Stella By Starlight, Joe Pass ✭✭

Summertime, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭✭
Summertime, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Summertime, Billy Stewart ✭✭
Summertime, Paul Desmond

On Green Dolphin Street, Chet Baker ✭✭
On Green Dolphin Street, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown & Shelly Manne ✭✭

I Could Write A Book, Harry Connick, Jr.

Nature Boy, Nat King Cole ✭✭✭

‘Round Midnight, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭✭
‘Round Midnight, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭

The second (three star) version of “‘Round Midnight” is a solo performance. The four star version can be found on Blue Note compilations.

So What, George Benson ✭✭

Freedom Jazz Dance, Billy Hart, Eddie Harris, George Mraz & Jacky Terrasson

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