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.