Beyond Kind of Blue: Dig deeper into Miles Davis

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Miles Ahead, the long-awaited biographical film about Miles Davis, opens in New York and LA on April 1 and nationwide later in the month. Don Cheadle directed and stars as the influential jazz trumpeter.

Regardless of whether the movie is a critical or commercial success, its release is already bringing fresh attention to an artist who clearly still has the ability to fascinate and frustrate us 25 years after his death.

Miles’ music still sells, especially the 1959 album Kind of Blue, often called “the one jazz record everyone must own.” The sound of his muted trumpet is embedded in our collective consciousness as epitomizing a certain mid-century brand of cool.

Davis’ best music is accessible because, above all, it is reflective of his humanity. He doesn’t care about showing off his technique; he shows you himself. It’s his personality, not his virtuosity, that comes through in every note.

Miles is also inspiring to artists of all kinds because of his refusal to rest on his laurels. He reinvented himself and his music every few years, even at the risk of alienating fans. Consider that one guy did all of this:

  • Played with Charlie Parker during the heyday of bebop.
  • Helped invent cool jazz, then turned right around to dominate hard bop.
  • Stood astride jazz as its biggest star during arguably its best period, the 1950s and 60s, fronting legendary bands that served as launching pads for future jazz icons.
  • Went electric in the late 60s—incorporating rock and funk rhythms—and never looked back.

Kind of Blue certainly lives up to its reputation as an essential album, and for those curious about Miles, it’s a great place to start. But there’s no reason to stop there. Here are a few other suggestions for getting to know the so-called Dark Prince.

First, the music:

Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1956)
In 1956, Miles signed a huge deal with Columbia Records but still owed a lot of music to his old label, Prestige. He brought his working band into the studio and essentially performed his nightclub act, cranking out four albums’ worth of material. This is Davis’ first great quintet, which included John Coltrane, and the music is 1950s hard bop at its very best.

Sketches of Spain (1960)
The long, close collaboration between Davis and arranger Gil Evans resulted in several exemplary recordings featuring Miles in a large ensemble setting. Sketches of Spain was perhaps the least jazz-like of these albums; its centerpiece is Gil’s arrangement of “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a hauntingly beautiful Spanish piece originally written for classical guitar and orchestra.

Miles Smiles (1967)
As Miles approached his middle years, he began hiring musicians several years his junior. He wound up with his second great quintet, a group of young, daring improvisers who would become stars in their own right—Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and the explosive drummer Tony Williams. With this group pushing Miles in more intense, abstract directions, he would abandon his old repertoire of standards in favor of new compositions written by the band members. Miles Smiles is a great document of this lineup in action.

On the Corner (1972)
Hated by critics and largely ignored by listeners when it was first released, On the Corner is now lauded as a classic. As indicated by the title and cover art, this was an effort by Miles to connect with the young African-American audiences of the 70s. Here we find Miles and saxophonist David Liebman jabbing and snaking around noisy, distorted guitars and Indian percussion, all over repetitive, hypnotic drum and bass grooves.

Tutu (1986)
It’s hard to actually recommend this over dozens of other, better albums from Miles’ body of work, but Tutu is the best of his late-career output. If you can handle the synthy mid-80s patina, there’s a lot of appealing music here, much of it written by bassist Marcus Miller. This one’s a guilty pleasure.

A few books:

Miles: The Autobiography (Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe)
Miles holds nothing back in his 1990 memoir. In his own profanity-laced voice, he holds forth about the twists and turns of his career, the drug problem he kicked, his volatile love life, his feelings on racism and—most of all—the music he made and the other legends he knew and worked with.

Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (Ashley Kahn)
Music journalist Ashley Kahn takes us behind the scenes of the creation of Miles’ most popular album. This detailed and absorbing book includes blow-by-blow accounts of the recording sessions, plus background information and interviews that place Kind of Blue into historical context.

We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz (Vincent Bessieres and Franck Bergerot)
Part coffee-table book, part biography and part musical analysis, this handsome volume was produced in conjunction with a museum exhibit in 2010. It’s an unprecedented collection of rarely-seen-before photos, album cover art, musical scores and ephemera that brings Davis’s career to vivid life.

And one DVD:

Miles Davis: The Cool Jazz Sound
This DVD includes “The Sound of Miles Davis,” a half-hour television broadcast from 1959 that showcases Miles in performance with his both his working band (including John Coltrane) and in a large ensemble conducted by Gil Evans. It’s a rare look at the stylish trumpeter at the height of his career.

Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.
You can follow him online here.


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