I have been binging on Miles Davis for a few months now and have realised how ignorant I have been about his music. Back in my 20s, I just grabbed a couple of CDs I had heard about – Kind of Blue, Relaxin’, Cookin’, Miles Smiles – without really knowing anything about where he was in his career at the time, the musicians he surrounded himself with, etc. By listening more closely to his catalog I have come to realise how incredibly deep this music goes. From when he starts out with his first recording with Bird in 1946 (his own song “Now’s the Time” was falsely credited to Parker), his distinctive tremolo-less sound comes through. His first big project and also first collaboration with Gil Evans in 1949, The Birth of the Cool set the standard for what was to become “cool jazz” particularly on the west coast with Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. After several brief lineups including Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and old friend and mentor Thelonious Monk, he assembled his first quartet with Trane/Jones/Garland/Chambers which recorded some of the most beautiful and recognisable post-bop ever recorded: Working, Cookin, Relaxin and Steamin with the Miles Davis Quintet. Then in 1959, there was a reshuffling with Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans briefly rejoining for the magnificent Kind of Blue. Band members started leaving definitively and in 1965, he established his second quintet with Shorter/Williams/Hancock/Carter, and achieved what many considered the highest pinnacle of improvisational jazz ever recorded. Miles made it a habit to take young jazzmen under his wing (Tony Williams in particular in this case) and bring them into full power. Listening to the famous Plugged Nickel sessions, you can see the way that the music is changing – it is reported that Tony Williams dared the band to play the classics completely different as anti-jazz and the gauntlet was taken up. It is a heady piece of work. One of many amazing live performances actually. Following up on this period comes the epic In a Silent Way ushering in the epoch of fusion which hits its stride with Bitches Brew There is loads of experimentation here – three keyboards including Keith Jarrett (allegedly forced against his will by Miles to play electric piano), Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinaul and just an enormous depth to the sound and composition. Other incredible classics in this period include Live at the Fillmore, Live at the Cellar Door, and Live Evil. This band must have been something else to watch. Miles went into semi-retirement to re-emerge with Marcus Miller and other youngsters on The Man With The Horn and We Want Miles which contain some great songs as Miles tries to get his chops back. The peak was probably the pop success, Tutu. What strikes me most is how Miles goes from style to style breaking codes and laying new rhythmic and stylistic elements every time. Over nearly five decades he never stopped innovating or surprising his audience. Many critics found him too arrogant, too deprecating to his audience and too difficult to understand. I can only say without having ever seen him and just now really discovering the amazing depth to his catalog that he was a unique artist and one of the key jazz innovators along with Duke, Satch, and Bird. The first two had the advantage of longevity as he did and Bird, well, he was a self-made revolution and self-destruction as well.
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