MILES AWAY

It’s the biggest single slab of music by a single artist in the entire Vinyl Connection collection. More titles than anyone needs, I suspect, and certainly more than I care to admit to. Why do I always come back to Miles? Perhaps the answer is simple. Miles Davis was an innovator, talent spotter, restless musical mariner and courter of fame, fortune, and self-destruction. He was a core member of more great ensembles than anyone in jazz history—comrades included John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock… the list is a roll call of major American jazz musicians—whose recordings built a catalogue awe-inspiring in its depth and diversity.

Born in Illinois to a successful dentist and property accumulator, young master Davis was certainly not the archetypal penniless outcast. When he went to New York in 1945 it was to study music. Study, not play. That’s the badge of the middle classes: education. But Miles was soon drawn to the NY jazz scene, falling into the orbit of legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history… the history of America’s major contribution to music: jazz.

Today I decided to trawl through some Miles vinyl and share the journey.

What better place to begin than this neatly curated compilation of early Davis recordings, released by CBS in 1973. I saw this in the record shop where I started work just before Christmas of that year. High School was done, the future was a blur of terrifying possibilities and all I really knew about jazz at that time came from the soothing sounds of Ian Neil’s “Music To Midnight” on AM radio, 3LO. I suspect the lush loneliness of the cover was a big part of my being drawn to this LP. But the contents did not disappoint. Nine cuts, beginning in 1955 with “Budo”, through 1956’s orchestral arrangement of “‘Round Midnight” (Gil Evans) through to another Evans collaboration “Devil may care” from 1962. That last has a different feel; there’s an urgency as Davis accelerates towards something new.

Basic Miles also includes my first—but certainly not the last—encounter with the tune I’d name (if push came to shove) as my favourite jazz standard, “On Green Dolphin Street”. There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of Miles Davis compilations but this one has never been re-issued on CD. Shame. It’s a great intro to the man with the horn.

Between the bookend years covered by Basic Miles lay one of the trumpeter’s most prolific periods. In particular, a series of dates by the Miles Davis Quintet between May and October 1956 produced a set of legendary albums: Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and (a little later in terms of actual release) Steamin’. They are all fabulous. I mean, look at the band:

Miles Davis, trumpet

John Coltrane, tenor sax

Red Garland, piano

Paul Chambers, bass

Philly Joe Jones, drums

Perhaps Relaxin’ and Steamin’ are my favourites, but that is more to do with familiarity than any objective assessment. What an outfit. Great album cover too.

Jump forward a decade and we are now listening to the second recording of the second Miles Davis Quintet. This is more insistent, probing jazz, demanding more listener attention and less likely to lay back into a groove.

Tenor sax player Wayne Shorter wrote three of the six tunes; his presence in both writing and playing pushes things forward. Having said that, after the fast post-bop opening number “Orbits”, the Davis composition “Circle” is a romantic triple-time ballad where both horn players get to shine while leaving space for Herbie Hancock to step forward on piano. The rhythm section of Ron Carter (bass) and young drumming prodigy Tony Williams are inventive yet supportive throughout. Williams was just 21 when the recordings for this LP were made, yet by that time he had multiple dates under his belt and myriad accolades in his scrap book.

Miles Smiles began an impressive run of albums for this quintet, one that established and enhanced each member’s career. Sorcerer (1967) and Nefertiti (1968) are both brilliant, the latter being amongst my favourite Davis albums.

I think perhaps three Miles Davis albums in one post might be enough, especially for those yet to adventure deeply into the medium. Let me know in the comments if you have enjoyed this brief trawl, and perhaps we’ll do another Miles feature another time. There are plenty of five-star albums to choose from.

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19 comments

  1. Relaxin’ – I wish I was! In fact I can’t remember what I was about to write before Z called me to the kitchen to engage a wasp in combat. I can’t say it was a straight forward battle but it has been shooed out the window…and the roller blind has now been repaired and reinstalled. So sfter Stanley Turrentine has calmed me down, I’ll queue some Miles. Fabulous stuff in that apostrophised series.
    And of course beyond.

    Thanks

    Liked by 3 people

    1. On green dolphin street is wonderful and clocks in at a shade under ten wonderful minutes on the 1958 Miles compilation album. Well worth considering but aren’t they all?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep. I once compiled a CD-R of different versions of GDS, proving that you can, in fact, have too much of a good thing.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I did an Autumn Leaves compilation CD for a friend with 14 versions. Cannonball’s version with Miles is a ripper.

          Liked by 2 people

    2. Phew! Glad you came out on top in the wasp-jousting contest, DD. Stanley seems just the calming ticket… I recall one of my first shows on 3PBS (a graveyard shift, of course) I played his beautiful version of ‘God Bless the Child’ around dawn. I doubt anyone but me was listening, but I certainly was musically blessed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s taken me a while to get around to listening to this. I love the stuff Stanley did with Shirley Scott and will keep an eye open for the Never let go album. It must have had added extra poignancy and beauty to play God bless the child in the murmuring quiet that tends to define five a.m…
        Thanks Bruce.
        DD

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, I don’t understand jazz although I often find myself enjoying it especially Miles.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. An interesting revelation on the VC collection. Miles wins the prize, eh? But you can’t lose with such an impressive discography. I had no idea about the “Basic Miles” one, and I am a sucker for collections like that. He sure assembled the all star cast nearly every time. – Marty

    Like

  4. Really enjoyed this one, Bruce… made some notes, too – I don’t have an awfy lot of Miles stuff, so there’s some stuff here I’ve never heard (or heard of). What draws me to his stuff is just how inviting it sounds. Effortless and cool. Every note (from every player) essential.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s nicely put, J. ‘Relaxin” is a good entry point for that period of Miles. And in a way, that extraordinary range of styles and developments can certainly act as a barrier to exploration. So glad to be of service mate!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The only proper Miles collection is: ALL THE MILES. You are living correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lifetime quest, Aaron. 🙂

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      1. There’s so much out there. My own collection might be about 30 different releases, at this point.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Enjoyin’ Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I really fancy Basic Miles. And you’re damn right about him being a peerless talent spotter, very egoless when it came to making music.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great stuff as usual (You ever get tired of hearing that let me know). Yeah I have a couple of his records kicking around. Just watched ‘International Jazz Day’ on PBS. It was hosted by Herbie Hancock. A few other Davis alumni showed up. John McLaughlin. Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter. Its all about the music and Miles made lots of it and set the bar high for himself. Regular fare around here.

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    1. Pretty confident we were in a shared zone with this one, CB. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You always keep it about the music Bruce. I like that. Talent is given out to different people. Miles got a truck load of it. He always featured his sidemen to the point where you didnt know who’s record it was a times.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Right on, CB. I have the Miles at Montreux DVD set – you can watch him conduct oh so subtly but always leaveing heaps of room for the other players.

          Liked by 1 person

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