If you could have any one artist’s career, who’s would it be? Many people would resort to their favorite rock stars or singers when faced with this situation, but in my lifetime I’ve only heard one person state Miles Davis as their answer. It makes perfect sense when you think about it – although he may not have been the wealthiest musician of his time, Miles Dewey Davis III is possibly the only modern musician to rank among the undefinable musical phenomenons in history, and that’s a tier that includes the likes of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. He changed jazz at least five times over, so here are five of the trumpeter’s greatest pieces.
Miles got his big break in the 1940s as a sideman for none other than bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. He had critical mentors like Kenny Dorham and Dizzy Gillespie to keep his young and excitable personality curbed. During this period, Davis met composer Gil Evans, and they agreed to cut a dozen or so sides reflecting the new “cool jazz” movement out on the West Coast, an alternative to the speeding bop that was the norm at the time. These sessions would be released as singles initially, then collected on the 1956 compilation Birth Of The Cool. Through their distinct blend of breezy orchestral jazz arrangements, Davis and Evans found themselves to be musical soulmates, and they would go on to produce many classic albums together such as Miles Ahead and Sketches Of Spain, exercises in Third-Stream (orchestral) jazz and Latin jazz, respectively.
“’Round Midnight” from ‘Round About Midnight (1957)
Regardless of his affair with the cool, Miles could never forget his bebop roots. When he transferred over to the Columbia label after initial success at Capitol, Prestige, and Blue Note, he produced one of his seminal recordings. Performing with his “first great quintet” including a fresh John Coltrane, Davis’s rendition of the Thelonious Monk standard is essentially the jazz equivalent of “All Along The Watchtower”. His performance of the piece alongside Monk at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is considered one of the cornerstone moments of jazz’s “golden era”.
“So What” from Kind Of Blue (1959)
I mentioned above that Miles was never a huge seller in his lifetime; that being said, he claims authorship of the greatest selling jazz album of all time. With Kind Of Blue, Miles created a completely new form of modern jazz that was based around musical modes. Rather than following the melodic and theoretical rules of jazz by soloing based on the chord progression, Miles’s quintet play a series of scales which opened up tons of new melodic possibilities. The opener from the album fluctuates between the D Dorian and Eb Dorian modes. Perhaps what’s most memorable about this track are the dueling saxophone solos from John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
”Footprints” from Miles Smiles (1966)
Kind Of Blue was both the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter for Miles. By 1965, the golden era of bop was winding down. The development of “free jazz” left some of the elder jazz statesmen up in arms about the art-form’s future. Not Mile’s, though; the now-jazz-icon garnered even more praise for the introduction of his “second great quintet” featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. On the Shorter composition “Footprints”, the centerpiece of Miles Smiles, Davis and Co. are stuck right in the middle of the bop heyday they had previously left behind and the rich experimentation that would come to define his 70’s work. The switch-and-swap nature of “post-bop” – changing syncopation, combinations of time signatures, and advanced tonalities – pushed Miles towards what would arguably be his final career sea change.
“Bitches Brew” from Bitches Brew (1970)
Over the next four years through Davis’s post-bop albums such as Sorcerer and Nefertiti, the new quintet augmented itself to contain anywhere between seven and ten members. It could be called “noise” until you hear In A Silent Way, Miles’s first foray into jazz fusion. As out there as it was, Davis went even further on his next album. A double album of epic proportions, Bitches Brew is arguably the greatest album Miles ever made, and certainly his last true classic. Using a whole palette of sounds not typically associated with jazz, such as the psychedelic noodling of new guitarist John McLaughlin and the mystic electric piano of Chick Correa, the ensemble was now a duodecet (twelve musicians) and could go anywhere. The title track takes up the entirety of side two of the double LP, and clocks in a nearly half an hour.