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Miles Davis


As restlessly creative and supernaturally talented a figure as popular music – never mind jazz – has yet witnessed, trumpeter MILES DAVIS rung the changes in his chosen milieu with an unparalleled flair and a foresight bordering on the clairvoyant. The single most influential black musician (and certainly jazz musician) ever, next to JAMES BROWN, Miles began playing trumpet professionally in the early 40s. As early as 1949, he was manipulating and changing the course of bebop, retaining its harmonic complexity while substituting a more laid-back lyricism for its frenetic tempo. The hugely influential session in question was belatedly released more than seven years later as “Birth Of The Cool” (1957), by which point its casual languor had already influenced a generation of players.
Born Miles Dewey Davis III, May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois, but raised by his Afro-American parents in nearby East St. Louis, he graduated from school in 1944, and straight into the firing-line (third trumpeter) for bandleader, Billy Eckstine; Miles would move with his common-law-wife Frances Taylor and newly-born first child, Cheryl Davis, to New York, where he briefly attended the Juilliard School of Music before joining singer, Rubberlegs Williams. Around the same time, Miles also recorded and performed with his roommate/mentor, saxophonist CHARLIE “Bird” PARKER. DAVIS duly assembled his own 9-piece ensemble, dubbed the Tuba Band, which included saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. This combo issued a number of radical 78s (singles), which were as previously mentioned, compiled on seminal jazz work, BIRTH OF THE COOL {*9}.
After initially being influenced by bop pioneers such as PARKER and DIZZY GILLESPIE, Miles was now beginning to develop his own languid, downbeat style. Through the early to mid-50s, with revolving personnel (including SONNY ROLLINS and ART BLAKEY), DAVIS worked sporadically due to his heroin addiction, although his reputation as the hippest cat on the jazz block continued to spread. Signed to Prestige Records, 10” long-players spurted out thick and fast through THE NEW SOUNDS (1952) {*6}, and a series of belated sets, including MILES DAVIS AND THE MODERN JAZZ GIANTS (1959) {*8}; the latter recorded late 1954 to October ’56.
In 1955, after a bout of illness, the trumpeter formed his now famous MILES DAVIS QUINTET, a ground-breaking formation that numbered JOHN COLTRANE (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums). This relatively stable line-up recorded a string of recurring-theme albums for Prestige between 1956-57, namely COOKIN’ (1957) {*8}, RELAXIN’ (1958) {*8}, WORKIN’ (1959) {*8} and the belatedly-issued STEAMIN’ (1961) {*8}, while “the man with the horn” subsequently signed for Columbia Records, putting together a new band consisting of Jimmy Cobb, Gil Evans and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, amongst an ever-changing cast of others; the solo-billed ’ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT (1957) {*8} and the collaborative MILES AHEAD (1957) {*8}, MILESTONES (1958) {*8} marked out DAVIS as a truly wonderful and prolific musician.
DAVIS’ inaugural soundtrack, for Louis Malle’s pseudo-noir, ASCENSEUR POUR L’ECHAFAUD (1960) {*8}, displayed all the haunting grace of his more meditative work even if, by this point, he’d progressed to playing hard bop. Cut ad-hoc during a brief European tour in December ’57, the record boasts neither an orchestra nor EVANS’ arranging skills, but in terms of lowering eloquence, it approaches the best of all three. It was also almost wholly improvised, recorded over the course of one night against a loop of studio-projected film scenes. From the haunted crescendo of his opening gambit in `Générique’, DAVIS sets a tone of night-wandering ennui. Underlain by pianist René Urteger’s grave ostinato and the doleful, sleepwalking rhythm shuffle of Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke, DAVIS’ pensive, questing lines penetrate beyond Jeanne Moreau’s tortured perambulations to the restless spirit of Charles Baudelaire himself. MILES brilliantly approximates the claustrophobia of `Julien Dans L’Ascenseur’ (actually sounding like he’s playing from the bottom of a well rather than a life shaft) and come closest to some kind of resolution on the preternaturally elegant `Florence Sur Les Champs-Élysées’, drawing out the film’s monochrome soul and lancing it with soaring, sustained notes. Together with tenor-saxophonist Barney Wilen, he gives a nod to hard bop on the likes of `Sur L’Autoroute’, but it’s the horn meditations which linger.
Further ground-breaking albums followed: notably a new GIL EVANS arrangement of George Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS (1959) {*8}, the seminal KIND OF BLUE (1959) {*10}, and the hauntingly beautiful SKETCHES OF SPAIN (1960) {*8}, all re-drawing the parameters of jazz and re-imagining its possibilities. “Kind Of Blue” was an album which revolutionised jazz with its substitution of conventional chord structures for modal improvisation; each track meticulously crafted throughout and a dream set for any vinyl buff. From the first blue notes of signature tune, `So What’, to the Manhattan skyline passage to the heavens in `Flamenco Sketches’, no jazz album has come close to emulating this Empire State Building of a recording – especially his back-to-basics, SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME (1961) {*7}; his wife Frances (whom he finally wed in ’58) models on the front-cover pic.
In ‘63, Miles formed a new combo of young musicians, namely keyboard wizard HERBIE HANCOCK, bassist Ron Carter, drummer TONY WILLIAMS and tenor saxophonist WAYNE SHORTER; this line-up produced enough brilliant performances to enthuse a new beatnik buying public, giving the unfashionable trumpet a new lease of life and an unlikely US chart position for the SEVEN STEPS TO HEAVEN {*7} long-player. Subsequent studio set, QUIET NIGHTS (1964) {*4} – his swansong with Gil – followed the same bossa nova pattern, while a much-improved batch: E.S.P. (1965) {*8}, MILES SMILES (1967) {*8}, SORCERER (1967) {*7}, NEFERTITI (1968) {*7}, his first “electric fusion” set MILES IN THE SKY (1968) {*6} and FILLES DE KILIMANJARO (1969) {*8}, went a long way in the process of breaking down the barriers between the jazz and rock fraternities; in other words, DAVIS pioneered jazz-rock fusion. Other new talent to emerge and benefit during this transitional period, were newbies JOHN McLAUGHLIN (electric guitar), Joe Zawinul (organ) and CHICK COREA (electric piano), who, together with stalwart sidemen Hancock, Shorter, Williams and double-bassist Dave Holland, had begun re-mapping jazz all over again, this time more radically and controversially than before. Using electric instruments, and welding his dazzling command of complex harmony onto rock and funk rhythms, the trumpeter alienated many of his more conservative fans but attracted new ones willing to ride with the all-out experimentation.
DAVIS’ cosmic-grooved, space-inspired IN A SILENT WAY (1969) {*10} – featuring only two side-long pieces, `Shhh – Peaceful’ and the title track – was breath-taking in its outer dimensional approach; its quality lay with the players.
The follow-up double-set, BITCHES BREW (1970) {*10} – four tracks this time – saw Miles and Co universally peaking, both critically and commercially (the latter hit the US Top 40, his only effort ever to do so!). Augmented by keyboard wizard, Larry Young (who’d replaced HANCOCK), DAVIS and Co had created a work of genre-defying genius that explored the outermost limits of jazz, a mission that SUN RA had set out upon some years earlier. The simmering molten rock of `Pharaoh’s Dance’, the improv spurts of his horn on the 27-minute title track, heralded a re-birth of jazz; the middle-aged Miles had now given the injection it so sadly needed. The unnecessary and bloated double-live set, AT FILLMORE (1970) {*6} threw a spanner into the works so to speak, a second organist Keith Jarrett, one too many additions for his motley brewers.
Unleashed a mere year after the epochal “Bitches Brew”, A tribute to JACK JOHNSON (1971) {*9} soundtrack was the sound of worlds in collision, of rules being rewritten, reinvented. Just as boxer Johnson had taken on whitey at his own game and given him a bloody nose, MILES DAVIS fearlessly squared up to the possibilities of jazz taking on rock music at its most primal. The results were electric, if not exactly pretty. As Rough Guide critic Ben Smith put it, “Jack Johnson managed to capture all of the sex and swagger of the boxing ring (plus some of the mess)”. Yet even the mess – especially the mess – was compulsive listening as DAVIS – who wasn’t averse to a few rounds in the ring himself – slugged it out greasy note by greasy note with guitarist McLAUGHLIN to create what is often regarded as the definitive fiery fusion of jazz and rock. Like a prize-fighter deep in the zone, DAVIS makes an unforgettable entrance a couple of minutes into the side-long `Right Off’, cranking out a searing high-register solo – one of the most astonishing of his long career – ablaze with that tribal, almost mystical energy which had made “Bitches Brew” so intoxicating. While BILLY COBHAM and Michael Henderson stitch up a burning backbeat, HERBIE HANCOCK’s blunt, chalky Hammond stabs begin ratcheting up the tension on the quarter of an hour mark, while the groove finally breaks down five minutes later, with McLAUGHLIN’s hypnotic, spidery runs pointing towards an end game. `Yesternow’ is the hazy aftermath, all blurred vision and open wounds. While its endlessly repeated bass riff and rueful horn morphs into another muted, dissonant blues-funk workout and a haunting coda by way of an excerpt from “In A Silent Way”, the genesis and exact make-up of this second piece is even more complex than first appears, with two different line-ups and various overdubs, including sections from `Right Off’. As a primer for DAVIS’ latter period career, it remains unsurpassed. Suffice to say, however, that the original album – regardless of its constituent parts – still sounds like nothing else.
After the release of another two wildly experimental double-concert sets, LIVE-EVIL (1971) {*7} and IN CONCERT (1973) {*6}, DAVIS survived a serious car crash and became increasingly more reclusive, shying away from the mainstream music business. Its debilitating aftermath in which he broke both his ankles saw Miles initially withdraw from the performance aspect of the business as he continued moving further away from jazz-fusion and into electronic jazz-funk with albums, ON THE CORNER (1972) {*8}, GET UP WITH IT (1974) {*6} and the simultaneously released double-live packages AGHARTA (1976) {*8} and its Japanese sister PANGAEA {*6}; the latter set was his last for five years.
His return was heralded with the comeback album, THE MAN WITH THE HORN (1981) {*5}; a decidedly more commercial affair, although it helped the infamously volatile DAVIS reach a new plateau of middle-ground popularity. A link-up with electric bassist, Marcus Miller, further albums WE WANT MILES (1982) {*7} – a double, STAR PEOPLE (1983) {*7} – dedicating `Star On Cicely’ to his new wife, actress Cicely Tyson, DECOY (1983) {*4} and YOU’RE UNDER ARREST (1985) {*5}, were aimed at MOR audiences.
In 1986, he broke a 27-year partnership with Columbia Records after signing with Warner Brothers; his umpteenth album TUTU {*6} delivering his smooth interpretation of SCRITTI POLITTI’s `Perfect Way’, having previously challenged his long-standing fans with an elevator-friendly version of CYNDI LAUPER’s `Time After Time’, the previous year.
Producer MARCUS MILLER was closely involved in Miles’ latter-day material; while a third soundtrack, SIESTA (1987) {*6}, saw the pair share the billing. If its title didn’t give it away at first, the duende-rapt trumpet calls of `Lost In Madrid Part 1’ herald a mid-80s take on “Sketches…”. Given the album’s canonical status, it must’ve taken serious Pelotas to apply the kind of synth programming which elevated it from “Tutu”, but DAVIS’ sideman/producer/multi-instrumentalist saw it through with grace and aplomb. There’s no point denying that the likes of `Afterglow’ and `Lost In Madrid Part III’ sound more like MORRICONE (and `Conchita’ like PETER GABRIEL-meets-VANGELIS) than MILES DAVIS, but MM’s devotion to “Sketches…” is obvious in the “Solea”-esque rattling snares and classical-guitar flourishes of the title theme and the familiar arpeggios and symphonic counterpoint which open `Lost In Madrid Part IV’. The lazy hum of his baritone parts on `Lost In Madrid Part II’, `Theme For Augustine’ (the only track with a DAVIS credit) have searching themes, themes dedicated to GIL EVANS.
Following on from 1989’s contemporary jazz effort, AMANDLA {*6}, a collaboration with composer Michel LeGrand, DINGO (1991) {*5} was the posthumous score to an Australian movie centering on a young trumpeter inspired by an older legend. That legend was, of course, DAVIS himself, the ailing star making both his acting debut and providing a fittingly poetic and metaphorical epitaph to a dazzling career. Billing the OST as a MILES DAVIS album was perhaps a little disingenuous given that he only appears on half of it. The use of sound-alike Chuck Findley on the other half means that listeners not au fait with either jazz or DAVIS likely couldn’t tell the difference. The French composer lays off the strings (although he does play keyboards), and `The Arrival’ – performed by DAVIS – established Dingo’s main theme as a gaunt, haunted avowal of merciless heat and outback isolation. Miles revisits it in both `The Dream’ and `Going Home’, and it’s the kind of deceptively diffident motif that spins around your brain for hours and days later. `Concert On The Runway’ is DAVIS in bustling, pre-“Kind Of Blue” hard bop mode, the first time he’d attempted any kind of regular jazz since the dawn of his electric phase. But Findley – with whom DAVIS duels on 80s jazz-funk workout, `The Jam Session’ – also deserves a mention; he proves no slacker at bop-derived material himself on the sprightly `Paris Walking I’.
LIVE AT MONTREUX (1993) {*6} was down to MILES & QUINCY, the former “Thriller” man, asserting magnificent arrangements of GIL EVANS on this reunion timepiece. Like his final studio album, DOO-BOP {*5} – posthumously released by/with rapper Easy Mo Bee – following Miles’ death from recurring heart problems and pneumonia on September 28, 1991, the set also won a Grammy award. A fitting homage to a legend.
Inevitably, a bio-pic was made of the great trumpeter. Appropriately-titled Miles Ahead, “Don Cheadle was born to play the man”, as one reviewer rightly put it.
Whether Miles would approve of the tampering of his mid-80s studio dabbling for a “new” album was a contentious one for disciples and reviewers. 2019’s uber-posthumous RUBBERBAND {*6} was the collaborative set in question, a quiet-storm pop carnival of soul, funk and jazz-rock, and that unmistakable blow of the man himself. And under the guidance of the trumpeter’s nephew/session drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr. (utilizing original co-producers Randy Hall and Attala Zane Giles), the first half at least echoed the sadly missed genius of DAVIS. Judging by the edginess of the SANTANA-meets-SCRITTI POLITTI-inspired highlight `This Is It’; sandwiched between the Ledesi-sung `Rubberband Of Life’ and Medina Johnson’s exotic `Paradise’ (trailing into the Lalah Hathaway-enhanced `So Emotional’), all seemed a worthwhile exercise until the over-production values dug in.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Sep2019

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