Trying to rank Miles Davis albums in a larger list might qualify us (and most others) as body-parts-in-the-freezer crazy. Sure, the top contenders would make themselves known, but his is such a panoramic catalog that determining the order of however many entries would come down to momentary preferences. Discriminate in what he envisioned yet forward-looking enough to move beyond each stage (bebop, coolbop, hardbop, arranged settings, modalism, freebop, rock/funk infusions), Miles’ career both mirrored and helped shape the history of jazz during his lifetime.
Anyway, we’ve selected ten favorite albums apiece. Chris’ are in chronological order, and Todd lists his in ascending order of preference. Some overlapping occurs, but that was hardly a surprise.
CM: Billed as Miles Davis All Stars (though almost everyone he recorded with in the golden age of small-group jazz was or would become a star), these five 1954 tracks make up one of Davis’ most consistent Prestige titles. Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke provide the grooves while a difference in horns marks the album’s halves. First up is a two-course hardbop feast in “Walkin’” and “Blue ‛n Boogie”, both blues variants where Miles solos with enticing economy, followed likewise by Lucky Thompson and J.J. Johnson (who tosses Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” into his “Boogie” turn – as does Silver!). It’s not groundbreaking jazz, more like grounding jazz where roots are emphasized as much as spontaneity.
Side two softens the sound with muted trumpet, brushed drums, and Dave Schildtkraut’s alto sax replacing tenor and trombone. “Solar” (written by guitarist Chuck Wayne but credited to Davis, a serial tune thief) plots ii-V changes over a 12-bar structure to enigmatic result, followed by memorable Miles assertions in “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and a snappy “Love Me Or Leave Me”. I suppose the contrast between these three tracks and the hardbop numbers (maybe a classical/romantic divide?) makes this a fave of mine because the quality never dips and it’s fun to hear Miles play early chameleon.
CM: The quintet in question is one of the all-time greats, sitting Miles’ bop-lyricism and John Coltrane’s ambitious sax atop Red Garland’s plush piano cushion and the sweet motions of Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Their first LP appeared in 1955, and they went on to make Davis’ brilliant Columbia debut ’Round About Midnight, but their legacy was ensured by the Prestige quadrilogy drawn from two 1956 studio visits: Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’. Of these, Cookin’ was the first released, often acclaimed as the cream of the crop, and happens to be my personal favorite (though Steamin’ and Workin’ were the first to grab me, and Relaxin’ excels all the way...get ‛em all).
Those four records hit the spot because the band treated the sessions as if they were on stage, hitting each tune with due diligence and moving on to the next. Neat then that Miles’ exquisite short-take on “My Funny Valentine” materialized in that scenario, and that’s how Cookin’ starts, six elegant minutes where Chambers’ bass contributes just as much as the leader’s trumpet to the mood. Following that are the amiable “Blues by Five” and Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin”, a tense chase Miles recorded earlier with its composer that reaches a higher gear here. “Tune Up” cruises fast with nary a skid – though Coltrane dangles a few diminished scales over the edge – and Miles signals “When Lights Are Low” to bring everything home with ease. In sum, a well-balanced album that I always enjoy.
CM: Here’s my pick of the collaborations between Miles and arranger extraordinaire Gil Evans, where Miles does some excellent playing over Gil’s virtual re-composition of excerpts from a Gershwin opera. It’s a favorite on both counts: Miles’ lines, written or improvised, bear a lot of poignant and/or dramatic inflections (mainly on flugelhorn, a rounder sound than trumpet), and Gil’s large-band orchestration elevates most of the source material to damn near genius – par for him.
Standout moments include “Gone” (a hopping Evans original featuring drummer Philly Joe Jones); Miles’ vulnerable read of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and singing “Summertime” as only he could over Gil’s coaxing backdrop; the bluesy aria “Prayer” (an auspice of “Saeta” on Sketches of Spain); and “I Loves You Porgy”, lovely indeed. (Pianist Bill Evans made it equally lovely during his 1961 Village Vanguard stint, along with another Porgy song in “My Man’s Gone Now”. Miles reintroduced the latter into his repertoire when Bill passed away in 1980.) The final “Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” starts with a twee theme but recalls earlier motifs to great effect.
Whenever I play this album, it’s like revisiting an old friend’s cottage where seats are comfy, kettles percolate, and candles stay alight. Most Miles/Gil music is tops in my book: Miles Ahead has the title track, “Springsville”, and “Blues for Pablo” amongst other gems, and Todd will tell you about the splendiferous Sketches of Spain. I also tip my cap to the “Time of the Barracudas” suite from the complete Columbia box. (Not much to say about the abortive Quiet Nights, though it has a glimpse or two...)
CM: Perfection is a relative term in jazz; it’s most aptly used to describe execution of written elements, but improvisation – or the “never-ending state of getting there” – resists the notion by its very nature. Kind of Blue is one of the rare exceptions where every bar sounds, well, perfect. Granted, the largely modal tunes and laid-back tempos aren’t hazardous per se, but in leaving chord-change licks behind for longer melodic potential, everyone sounds inspired. Miles spreads his wings over unhurried phrases and stirring single notes. Coltrane and Cannonball, both capable of many more notes, recalibrate their verbosity to shine in a new way. Bill Evans’s piano is subdued in comparison but not without the ‛quiet fire’ that Miles prized in him. Plus, he wrote the empyrean “Blue in Green” from a couple of chords Miles plopped on his plate.
The program is perfectly ordered, too. “So What” opens the door with irresistible light swing (Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb) and solos one could sing from memory. Not to be pedantic, but it’s also the best example of how modal improv works versus bop, or the extremity of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. (Trane would produce his own “Impressions” of “So What” soon enough; Kind of Blue clearly offered him another direction.) Wynton Kelly claims the piano bench for “Freddie Freeloader”, a casual blues that sets up a gallery of harmonic color in “Blue in Green”. (Lend an ear to Evans’ not-long-after version on Portrait in Jazz.) “All Blues” sways seductively under a long-note melody, then “Flamenco Sketches” ends the album with utterly beautiful improvisations over Evans’ lilting vamp. On paper, “Flamenco” is the most abstract piece – just a cycle of five scales – yet turns out the most emotionally direct, too.
Kind of Blue was one of my first Miles albums, but I couldn’t recognize its one-of-a-kind greatness until becoming the flattened-fifth (or raised-fourth?) jazzhead that I’ve been since. Playing it is always a special occasion; the only question is which copy I spin. :) On that note, I recommend the Legacy Edition that has a bonus disc containing some fine 1958 tracks (notably “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Love for Sale”) by nearly the same lineup.
CM: The recording of Davis’ 2/12/64 concert at Philharmonic Hall was originally divvied into My Funny Valentine (featuring slower pieces) and Four and More (the uptempo numbers). 2004’s Seven Steps boxset presents the full show in order – the best way to appreciate its magnificence – but Valentine still makes a significant album on its own. This is where the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams discover unprecedented levels of interactivity that not only deepen the songs but raise the bar for small-band jazz. Dynamics bypass traditional markers (bridge, next chorus, etc.) to follow organic threads; more than just the soloist telling a story, it’s the whole band telling a larger one. Another favorable point is tenor saxman George Coleman’s masterly performance. Yeah, Wayne Shorter was on Miles’ doorstep, but I wouldn’t substitute anyone else (not even Trane or Rollins) for Coleman here.
Anyway, these journeys through “My Funny Valentine”, “Stella by Starlight” (hear the attentive shout from the audience when Miles reaches a key point), “All of You” (all praise Ron Carter), and “I Thought About You” wondrously exceed what anyone may have expected from them at the time, and there’s a nice rendition of “All Blues” to boot. A-plus selections from an historic evening.
CM: Miles’ 1960s quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams always takes me to a special place. Nothing mystical, rather an earthbound experience where five masters creatively interact on the highest level within some fantastic compositions. If you asked which of the group’s titles I would keep for a desert island, I’d hope to sneak the 1997 boxset containing their complete studio output past customs. But we’re naming individual albums here, and Nefertiti is a prime choice.
Wayne pens two excellent themes in “Nefertiti” and “Pinnochio”, the former so self-sustained that Miles and Wayne forgo solos to repeat it several times over rhythmic variations. (The same approach was tried on an alternate take of “Pinnochio”.) Herbie’s “Riot” fits the group’s sound and M.O. quite well. “Hand Jive” and “Madness” aren’t as deep tune-wise but nonetheless lead to improvisational hot zones, which is the record’s other appeal. Dig the freebop voyages in “Jive” and hear Herbie find method to “Madness”. Motivic solos course through “Pinnochio”, and the delicate “Fall” is treated to sensitive interplay. I don’t think there’s a single definitive album from this quintet – they all are, really – but Nefertiti captures much of their essence.
CM: Bowing to nostalgia, Sky reminds me of getting acquainted with Miles twenty-some years ago. Even the colorful cover prompts a smirk, because I remember how it looked on the cassette with the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces stamp. This was the last full record from the ‛60s quintet, and while I don’t objectively rate it above the others, its best moments stand as tall. One example would be “Paraphernalia”, a modal Shorter piece with a spread-out melody (a la “Masqualero”) carried by a tight pulse and discreetly augmented by guitar (George Benson). The group’s collective instincts and internal communication are razor-sharp throughout, Tony Williams in particular being completely on the ball. Another highlight is “Country Son”, a formal venture that specifies harmony but has no written lines to speak of; it’s most obviously partitioned by rhythms – swinging, rubato, banging about, even some straight eights. I have no idea how Miles presented his “composition” to the group, but what they did with it totally amazes. The alternate take has just as much merit, and that can be said about many other alternates from these guys.
“Stuff” attempts an R&B-flavored beat (with electric piano and bass) under a lengthy melody that varies slightly each time its played, followed by penetrative trumpet and sax solos. “Stuff” is usually what people have in mind when referring to Sky as a transitional album, but while it tests new waters, let’s not call it fusion just yet. On the other hand, “Black Comedy” comes closest to previous tunes from this group; I’ve never made sense out of the odd-time kicks that litter the arrangement, but I can definitely feed off the energy. Altogether, these four cuts look in different directions but somehow bond into a stimulating disc.
CM: Kind of Blue ten years forward. It’s got the same modal simplicity, wide landscape, and soft-glow mix, while electrified keyboards and guitar enter the picture for good. Sans melodies and chord changes, the music dwells in evocative spaces, solos being part of the overall texture. (They’re not out to state anything, rather to exist within a larger state.) Even “It’s About That Time”, the most active of the three pieces, mesmerizes with its vamp and bass ostinatos. Silent Way was made by a roster of leading lights that aligned their efforts into a reverie bridging the complexities of Miles’ 1960s quintet and pioneering fusions to come. The effect of this music is so specific that I hear it with exactly the same feeling now as I did half my life ago. An everlasting favorite.
The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions box reveals that “Shhh/Peaceful” originally had a lengthy written part that’s absent from the album edit. It’s an interesting theme that adds to the mood of the piece, which makes producer Teo Macero’s decision to use only the pulsing middle section all the bolder. Another revelation is that Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way” was recorded with chord changes intact before being reduced to the pedal-point version that’s heard (twice) on the album. It’s a breathtaking piece either way.
CM (with apologies to ralph j. gleason’s liner essay):
“there is so much to say...” todd & i first sipped this brew ‛round about a younger midnight, one of many musical buzzes we shared. i got a good impression but twasn’t until the ‛98 remix that i dove into the swirl of two drumsets, two basses, multiple keyboards, guitar, horns, etc and fully registered the unlikely coalescence of it all. malleable grooves, outer-space chords, spiky sounds, commando top lines – who pilots this ship? the dark prince in name, but how to predict or chart the destinations? he gambled and won, as usual, by succinctly instructing the right people at the right time.
pharoah starts indecisively but settles on a sure path, entourage in tow. the title piece births a new cosmos to search – anyone out there? (i started to ask teo how the bass clarinet sound was made, but then i realized, oh, that’s a bass clarinet, great choice of voice.) spanish key is an edgier flamenco sketch of dark and joyous modes. the voodoo rundown comes across all sexy, but don’t fall in love too easily in sanctuary, ha ha. all waxed on two platters that run long, short, or if you’re truly listening, vanish time altogether.
brew is a token choice in many top rock album lists, perhaps to insert more color, but given the shifting planes of boys playing at this level, it’s jazz for sure, bitching magic from the evolving lab. miles never made another quite like it.
CM: This music was assembled for a 1970 documentary on Johnson, a boxer that Miles (who occasionally got in the ring himself) admired; coincidentally or not, it’s his most direct electric album, not pulling any punches. For one thing, John McLaughlin’s guitar replaces keyboards as the main harmonic instrument, and he utilizes a tougher sound than his thin tone on previous Miles sessions. Another is the explicit use of rock and funk grooves. In “Right Off”, one of two sidelong pieces, McLaughlin, Michael Henderson, and Billy Cobham cook up a choppy shuffle that inspires a bold, jabbing, quick on its feet, loud and proud Miles solo. The track continues at length through other solos and a separate riff section, never losing its initial excitement. “Yesternow” dwells in a mysterioso atmosphere for the first several minutes – suggestive bassline, sparse drums, spectral guitar – wherein Miles issues another inimitably phrased statement, by turns inquisitor, scout, and oracle. Who else could have built up to that dramatic held note starting at 3:50? Steve Grossman takes soprano flight as the drums mark a steady pulse, then the suite-ness of the track really kicks in, moving from one zone to another, ratcheting up the sonic palette at the same time (including Chick Corea’s ring-modulated piano and Sonny Sharrock’s Echoplex guitar.)
Credit to producer Teo Macero for assembling takes from separate sessions into a compelling whole, especially “Yesternow”, which even replays a segment from Silent Way. Individual components can be heard on the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions box, and while some reveal their own thrills (like the “Willie Nelson” bits), the final construction kicks arse and resounds with purpose.
TG: “Dr. Jekyll” (aka, Dr. Jackle – probably for its writer, Jackie McLean) is an uptempo affair where the saxes shine. Red Garland’s sparse block comping makes me smile. And Paul Chambers and Philly Joe are even given space to shine. It’s a showcase piece for the whole group. “Sid’s Ahead” is mostly notable because Miles performs double duty on trumpet and piano – piano because Red Garland apparently walked out in a huff (or a minute and a huff if you’re Groucho Marx), probably because of one of Miles’ frequent digs or snide comments. Other players have noted that Miles would pick on you if he felt he could get under your skin. Subsequently, Miles does play some block chords, but he’s no Red. I also like this tune because I imagine it sounds like New York City did in the late ‛50s.
“Two Bass Hit” is a wonder. It starts in a bop vein with Philly Joe pushing the pace during the intro, but he soon pulls back into cruise mode once the horn solos start, and those solos are damn good. And then things get even gooder thanks to the presence of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Although Cannonball was in fine form on Kind of Blue, he’s in his total element on this recording. The title track, a modal hint of things to come, features an effusive melody where Cannonball fires away; he’s so buoyant that he makes Miles’ solo sound like it’s treading water (though it should be noted that Miles’ style was to leave space and let notes breathe, the difference between the two is quite marked here). Coltrane adds a bit of his own taste before the band bows out in tandem.
“Billy Boy” is an ebullient excursion for the rhythm section. Thelonious Monk’s classic “Straight, No Chaser” is given fine review, but Coltrane takes giant steps in his solo – previewing what would soon appear in his stand as a group leader.
TG: In case you didn’t know (and I didn't before I heard it the first time on cassette – yes, cassette), Pangaea was the ancient supercontinent made up of all the current continents melded together. I think the title is Miles’ pun upon the music this band made – it’s a mashed up fusion of Jazz, Rock, Funk, and a wafer-thin slice of Electronica.
Due to poor health and overall critical disinterest in the music he was making in the ‛70s, this was Miles’ last concert before retiring (until his 1980s-90s “comeback”). Amazingly, another concert released under the title Agharta was recorded earlier the same day. Miles plays more bandleader than trumpet on both, but he stirs the crowd when he blows his horn.
“Zimbabwe” is visceral and pulses with life. Sonny Fortune on saxes and flute and Pete Cosey on guitar post fantastic runs while toting the baton for Miles. The rhythms are prehistoric jungles – twisted, dense and full of noisy creatures.
“Gondwana” is pensive with moments of beauty displayed for your wonderment. Even though I’m trying to use words to describe this music, it evokes feelings and moods in me that shift and thus defy easy linguistic categorization. That goes for both tracks, actually. Pangaea is singular; it is something you should experience yourself. What you do with it after is up to you. I’m sharing...
TG: I didn’t know the original tune when I first heard the Miles Quintet version of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”, but I hear now how Miles & Co. pay tribute to the lyrics while exploring the musical themes behind them. As much as “Surrey” pretties up the studio, “Salt Peanuts” comes in, throws shells on the floor, orders a beer and then spills it on the floor. Full club mode is engaged as Philly Joe applies heat and roasts deez Nuts.
The excellent thing about this first quintet is that they spin gold from straw compositions like “Dreamed” and “Diane”. The tunes are heightened by the talents of the gentlemen’s combined powers – Coltrane, especially, gives Diane a good once over.
Coltrane also gives a Rouse-ing performance in “Well, You Needn’t”. The steamin’ affair concludes with the lovely and controlled “When I Fall In Love”, a Victor Young composition famously given wings by Nat King Cole. Here, Miles takes control from the start before giving way to Red Garland’s solo, which is bright and quiet at the same time.
TG: Miles Smiles is Earth; Sorcerer is Venus. We know all about Earth and how great it is. Venus, however, is clouded by mystery. I believe the reason for the difference is that Sorcerer is a bit more “Free” Jazz than Smiles (even though Miles himself disliked the term). “Prince of Darkness” is bursting with ideas and movement – Miles even hesitates a bit at the beginning of his solo while trying to figure out where Tony is heading. The push and pull of sounds and interactions is exhilarating.
Miles sits out on “Pee Wee” – maybe because it was a Tony composition? Don’t know, but his probing tone evident on the first track is a needed dynamic here. No worries, though, the full complement is back for the stunning “Masqualero”, a slinky, almost-ballad that erupts into a dance at various times. The interplay between Wayne, Herbie, and Ron at around the midway point is amusing and amazing. Miles enjoyed this Shorter tune so much that he took it with him into his post-Bitches live fusion era where its excellence shone through even those dense polyrhythms.
“Limbo” and “Vonetta” are again Shorter tunes. Tony aggressively aggrandizes his position on “Limbo” – hitting hard and girding the band’s pace for its majority but easing off briefly to let Ron and Herbie drive. “Vonetta” is more contemplative and features Miles and Wayne blowing the melody in uneasy unison.
Imagine you’re at a Jazz club in the late 60s. You’ve discovered the Miles Davis Quintet, and you’ve been receptive to and appreciative of their ideas and chemistry even though the music has been intense and challenging throughout the evening. The final notes of “Vonetta” float into the melange of smoke and still-hushed voices. Your scotch has settled neatly in your stomach, and your synapses have relaxed after buzzing along with the whirling harmonies and dis-harmonies.
Suddenly, a snazzily dressed longhair leaps onto the stage and starts belting out his ode upon an ideal of woman with big band style backing. Miles and Wayne are there to be sure, but the rest of the band is as out of place as the singer’s voice, which seems better suited to Saturday morning cartoons than Saturday evening post-bop. Indeed, the band and singer are at odds with each other, and the entire postlude is a disheveled lump at the tail-end of an otherwise splendid evening. That, my friends, is “Nothing Like You”.*
*Although it’s out of place, I do like this song. The vocalist is Bob Dorough, whom oldsters and hipsters may remember from several tunes he sang for the Schoolhouse Rock shorts back in the day – “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly” probably being the most famous. If you like “Nothing Like Me”, then you'll probably want to check out his release, I Get the Neck of the Chicken, which is a fun and well-played romp.
TG: On second thought, maybe Sorcerer is Leah and Smiles is Rachel. Leah was veiled and hidden while Rachel drew all the attention, but they both ended up birthing myriads of followers. At any rate, “Orbits” is swirling patterns forming a maelstrom. R.C.’s bass provides atmospheric pressure, allowing the horns and piano to explore the current of melody. “Circle” is an expressive ballad that might have been played at any point in Miles’ career, but now it is given freer range by this quintet while maintaining beauty.
When a track like “Footprints” starts with a bass line like this one, you know it’s going to be great. Ron’s concrete footing allows Tony free flow on the high hat and cymbals (he barely touches his kit until 1:30 in). “Footprints” rightly became Wayne’s signature track. “Dolores” is another Wayne song; Miles takes it for a spin while Ron again does heavy lifting. In fact, this whole record is a platform for Carter’s talents and is one of my favorites for that reason alone. However....
Shove aside your sofa and fold up your futon, it’s time for a “Freedom Jazz Dance”! Circles, Orbits, Dances – I don’t know what was going on with these titles. Maybe their heads were spinning as much as mine is after listening to this fantastic music. “Dance” is sneakily funky; the rhythm section pushes in a way that would be approached electronically on Bitches and other releases. And then there’s the running “Gingerbread Boy”. If ever one could label an acoustic Jazz tune as “Metal”, this would be the one. It has the drive, energy and attitude that says, “Listen to this and try to think about Jazz the same way again.”
TG: The opener, “Basin Street Blues”, is a slinky burner. Victor Feldman lays down gorgeous ivory lines while Miles paints an aurora borealis in the sky. Ron Carter thumbs a ride while Frank Butler provides tasteful accents on the kit. However, all this will soon be usurped as the “next” band jumps the title track and takes its lunch money. Seven Steps’ brief intro is anagrammed into nitro by young Tony Williams treating the drums like his personal playground. And where Vic Feldman made you marvel at his touch, Herbie displays a different yet just as effective feel. Once you hear the title track melody, it will stick in your head the rest of the day (and probably the rest of your life).
“I Fall In Love Too Easily” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” round out the balladry on this recording, and they are heavenly, but Miles would leave this style behind to focus on originals on subsequent albums (and a lot of those originals were penned or played by others). “So Near, So Far” and “Joshua” are forward-looking tracks with an uncommon energy provided by (most of) Miles’ new band. Seven Steps represents a recalling of past glory and a heralding of things to come.
Players: Victor Feldman – piano (Basin, Fall In Love, Come Home) ● Frank Butler – drums (Basin, Fall In Love, Come Home) ● Miles – trumpet (all tracks) ● Ron Carter – bass (all tracks) ● Herbie Hancock – piano (Seven Steps, So Near, Joshua) ● Tony Williams (Seven Steps, So Near, Joshua) ● George Coleman – tenor sax (Seven Steps, So Near, Joshua)
TG: Features Miles’ and Gil Evans’ take on the Adagio section of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”, which is a beautiful piece originally intended for guitar and orchestra. Miles played trumpet and flugelhorn at different points to get the sounds he wanted. The large ensemble was in excellent form. And though it’s hard to call this music Jazz as it was highly structured and featured little-to-no improvisation, it certainly had elements of swing. The Adagio as presented is a masterpiece of timing and feel, tone and timbre. It’s followed by the jaunty “Will O’ the Wisp”, a short flamenco dance interlude.
“The Pan Piper” starts the “Miles in the West” trilogy (also including “Saeta” and “Solea”), as I like to call it. Miles applies a crisp, dry tone that captures the essence of blazing heat and beating sun in an arid desert setting. If assigned to a deserted island and tasked with only picking one Miles recording to take, I’d probably choose this one. It’s the perfect soundtrack for your skin crisping under UV radiation, slow, gut-rending starvation, and an unquenchable thirst taking hold of your gullet. I mean that in the best way possible, of course. Sketches is highly cinematic; it would be equally at home as the backing for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Indeed, playing in this style would be taken up again by Miles for the soundtrack to the 1987 film, Siesta.
To continue the death by desert theme, “Saeta” begins with a bolero which subsides long enough for Miles to puncture your heart with lonesome calls before the bolero lifts the mood again at the end. “Solea” plies the same trade with subdued orchestral backing this time given rhythmic lift by Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Elvin Jones (see, Ma, it is so Jazz!). With Miles playing such high lonesome reverie, you might not even care if you make it off the island.
As the title “Song of Our Country” suggests, we do make it home with this CD-era bonus track. I’m quite happy with “Solea” as the traditional finisher, but “Country” gives Miles another chance to show his skills. Sketches may be the best place to hear what Miles brings to the table as a performer. Gil provided the charts and direction, and Miles gave the strongest performance of his long career (due respect to Miles and Gil’s Porgy and Bess, which offers a similar stage).
TG: If nothing else happens at my funeral, I want someone to play “So What” - not for the flippant title, but for the flippin’ beauty it contains. “So What” sets the table for the remainder of the album with its pseudo-classical intro indicating calm, Mr. P.C.’s bass adding warmth, and the two-note figure declaring ‛So What’ throughout the track and becoming more insistent as the song progresses. The second track I’d pick for my wake would be "All Blues" because, for me, it encapsulates “all” blues. This time, two two-note themes are clustered together and presented for the sextet to use for their own purposes. The players bring joy, sadness, and melancholy with their interpretations. Our lives are all blues, after all; each triumph and significance is balanced by the knowledge that someday it will end. Might as well enjoy your blues....
May I take another moment here to praise Cannonball Adderley? Coltrane plays well, but he would reach greater heights as a leader. However, some of Cannonball’s runs on Kind of Blue are simply perfect for the mood and piece. Adderley’s playing here and on his own date, Somethin’ Else, is just that. The two sax masters are highlighted on my absolute favorite KoB track, “Flamenco Sketches”. You know what? Just play the whole damn disc at my funeral and let “Flamenco” be the last thing people hear as they’re walking away. If they associate that song with my life in some meaningful way, that will be the ultimate compliment. As a coda, I’d also like to add that Bill Evans was a great choice for this session. Bill’s phrasing on “Flamenco” reminds me of his own “Peace Piece”, which is one of my favorite tracks ever.
All these words, and I haven’t even mentioned Miles yet. Many have agreed and disagreed about Miles as a trumpeter, but there can be no doubt that he was an absolute genius as a band leader. He had an incredible talent for bringing together the right group of players to create whatever music was in his head at that given time. An artist doesn’t create so many excellent records by accident or by merely riding the talents of others. Some people view Miles as a jazz god; so, it seems appropriate that when talking about Kind of Blue, Q-Tip said, “It’s like the Bible – you just have one in your house.”
TG: The opening keyboard tendrils of “Pharaoh’s Dance” give the track an Arkestral feel, but the funk underneath posts a decidedly different tack than Sun Ra’s intergalactic yacht. It’s hard to say what’s more impressive here. Is it the fact that Miles was able to conjure such a dense (yet cohesive) miasma from his selected players, or is it the fact that Teo Macero essentially diced, spliced, and enticed the same from miles of recorded tape? Obviously, both facts are equally impressive. I say that because I’m a fence-sitter; I’m the devil’s advocate; I’m the wolf in sheep’s clothing who finds a nice sheep, takes it home for dinner and then discovers that I’ve found a sheepdog. But enough about me, you louts! “Pharaoh’s Dance” is wide and sweeping like the Nile. The muddy bottom roils beneath while surface waves of interest arise and dissipate. Atop it all floats Miles’ voice mutated and echoed by Teo’s touch. Dive in.
Miles’ horn blared disjointed runs on “Dance”, but “Bitches” takes the concept and spreads it to the entire assemblage. The first half of the track is surging rhythms and searching instruments looking for hold in a seemingly formless void. Finally, Harvey Brooks and Dave Holland toss out a bass motif. The bitches pounce and pound their way home.
Leave it to Miles to name a song “Spanish Key”. Leave it to me to call it the key to Bitches Brew. Where disc one is the product of studio magic, disc two is the product of studious mastery. The musicians have reached a heightened state of rapport. Miles (likely) gives a brief instruction along the lines of “Play some funky Spanish shit.” The band starts out with a surging rhythm while Latin-tinged phrases are passed around like paella. Miles even tosses out quotes from his own playing on Sketches of Spain. It sets a high bar and great mood for disc two. “John McLaughlin” can be viewed as an interstitial piece and a nod to the brilliant guitarist’s abilities. John’s work stands out in many more places than this track.
Next, Miles and crew run down the voodoo that they do in this stuttery funkspression that would have felt at home on Filles (see below) in a small-scale setting. Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet lends gravitas to the opening vamp. The track slides into more familiar territory after the opening movement, but the best way for me to describe the resulting action is that each player proclaims his individual voice while maintaining the overall feel.
“Sanctuary” begins with a gentle pulse which builds to wild abandon about halfway through – only to begin the cycle anew. The ending is an abrupt edit leaving me wanting more – some sanctuary.
TG: “Frelon Brun” – I think of the title of this track as a nickname for Miles the boxer. The drums are aggressive. The keys are punchy. Miles tags his lines; Wayne's sax dances. And after five and a half minutes, I’m knocked out!
“Tout de Suite” – It’s what you say when you get into a French taxi, yet this track is more “Suite” than “Tout de” (even with Tony pushing the pace in the middle section). Tracks 2-4 feature the same group as Smiles and Sorcerer, but the sonic palette is different – in part because Herbie and Ron employ electric piano and bass, yet there’s also more of a group voice at work here. In those earlier records, it sometimes seemed each player was satisfying his own ends within the composition. They still do so here to be sure, but “Suite” “Machins” and “Filles” feel more relaxed. Maybe the electronic element provided a suitable atmosphere due to the elongated properties of sustained notes. Maybe it was the influence of Gil Evans; he collaborated on Filles but was not credited as such.
“Petits Machins” – “The fact that these musicians mostly follow each other instinctively into such undefined territory is jolting. Absent of any form of actual standardization, these rare glimpses into the thought processes of geniuses validates their singular language as impossible to replicate in any way that would do this original recording justice. Though relatively brief, this track is the highlight of the album, and its significance to jazz remains tantamount. Through it, an apex of creativity in Miles’ career was reached, and the track also shows why each musician here is considered an A-list innovator." – Marcus Singletary
“Filles de Kilimanjaro” – This track has always seemed mountainous to me with its peaks and valleys, yet it also makes me feel like dancing because of Ron’s strong bass work. Herbie and Tony respond in kind, and Miles calls the filles home with some of his most poignant playing.
“Mademoiselle Mabry” – They saved the best for last. As on track one, the piano and bass are handled by Chick Corea and Dave Holland, but where “Frelon Brun” would have fit in well with the oeuvre of the second great quintet, “Mabry” is as unique and beautiful as its namesake, Betty. Still, the callouts to Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary” are fairly obvious but that’s kind of the point. Miles married Betty because she was young, exciting, and hip, and by most accounts, she introduced or at least increased Miles’ interest in Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly Stone. In turn, Miles himself would pursue future funk avenues.