Featured: Anticipating Miles Ahead
We normally don’t talk about music here but as the musician of InSession Film, and one who is eagerly awaiting to discuss the latest musical biopic Miles Ahead (spoiler alert, I loved it), I had to take the opportunity to talk about one of my very favorite musical artists of all time; Miles Davis.
Miles Davis was a man who was always innovating musically; whenever a new trend was brewing in the music world, Miles Davis was there either keeping up with the trend or taking it in directions no one had dared to go. As a result, he became a major player in the growth modal jazz in the 1950s, and eventual jazz fusion, funk, and rock as he embraced his “electric period” in the late 1960s and 1970s. As a further result, Miles Davis has become one of my favorite names in jazz music, perhaps my very favorite.
With that, I would like to share my top 10 favorite Miles Davis albums. Many of these are among my favorite jazz albums of all time, and for someone with over 50 albums (and those are only during his Columbia years), this was a rather daunting yet fun task for me. Even some of his best and most important albums (such as In a Silent Way, Miles Smiles, Milestones and Someday My Prince Will Come, all spectacular pieces of music) didn’t quite make my top 10 favorites, which goes to show the influence the man of cool had on jazz, fusion, funk, and rock music. So here are some of my favorites, and hopefully you will find yourself compelled to check out Davis’ music if you haven’t already.
- Big Fun (1974)
To be perfectly honest, Big Fun is not necessarily one of Miles Davis’ “best” albums; it’s a little overlong and a bit of a patchwork (with pieces recording during different sessions with different lineups), but its high points are some of the best pieces Miles released in the 1970s. This includes the incredible “Go Ahead John” with its complex and funky groove, backed by John McLaughlin’s incredible guitar playing, and “Ife”, another funk driven monster taken from the On the Corner sessions. Despite it feeling more like a compilation rather than an actual album, Big Fun shows some of the most grooving moments of Miles Davis’ career.
- ‘Round About Midnight (1955)
‘Round About Midnight is one of the most important albums for Miles Davis, being his debut on Columbia Records and also with his first “great quintet”. The album ranged from classic bebop to raunchy hard bop that was ahead of its time, and also included beautiful ballads like the opening title track as well as covers of classic Broadway tunes. And with that scorching cover art, this was a real “birth of the cool”.
- Sketches of Spain (1960)
Miles Davis collaborated with composer and arranger Gil Evans on multiple occasions, with Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess (a reinterpretation of the classic Gershwin opera) prior to this one, yet Sketches of Spain is widely recognized as the most unique and overall best of Davis’ orchestral and third stream albums. Sketches of Spain is a brooding and beautiful work of Spanish delight, evident in the downright gorgeous “Solea” juxtaposed with the strange arrangements of “Will o’ the Wisp”. This one is a keeper.
- On the Corner (1972)
On the Corner was a very controversial release at its time, receiving very negative initial reviews. But that is usually evidence of something just ahead of its time, and On the Corner is arguably the nastiest and most “street” sounding jazz album of all time. Influenced by the likes of Sly Stone and James Brown, as well as even Indian music, this is a strange but funk-driven monster, and songs like “Black Satin” demonstrate this album’s dirt quite perfectly. It still remains a “love-it or hate-it” album, but has since become an important album for Miles Davis.
- Nefertiti (1968)
Nefertiti was the last of Miles Davis’ acoustic bop albums, before beginning to explore electric territory that would give way to his fusion era, and the result was one of the moodiest and most melodic albums of his career. Nefertiti also consists of arguably Davis’ strongest rhythm section during the 1960s, including the great Herbie Hancock on piano and Tony Williams on drums, and the album’s title track, with its fluctuating rhythmic twists, demonstrates this perfectly. The remaining songs are more traditional (“Fall” is one of Davis’ most beautiful ballads), but they vary in tempo substantially to give this album a beautiful diversity.
- Miles Ahead (1957)
The first of Miles Davis’ orchestral collaborations with arranger Gil Evans (not including Birth of the Cool from 1947), this is the album that best showcases Davis’ skills as a trumpet player, as he is the only soloist on this album. Miles Ahead has a real “big band” feel to it, with a beautiful combination of pure energy and beauty, and it would also paint the way for what Davis and Evans would create with Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain in the future. But Miles Ahead stands out as a brief but beautiful classic, with notable tunes such as the title track and the album opener “Springville”.
- Bitches Brew (1970)
Bitches Brew is one of Miles Davis’ true classic albums, and arguably the most popular of his electric period. Featuring a monster lineup (two keyboardists, two bass players, and two drummers), Bitches Brew is incredibly dense, loosely played, and musically improvised, and may take a while to sink in for some listeners. It was also incredibly innovative in its use of studio editing that would go on to influence more modern groups such as Radiohead. The result is an album that is greasy, bluesy, and red hot, with fiery playing by the likes of John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, as well as Miles himself. Goodbye “My Funny Valentine”, hello “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”. For those movie lovers, you will hear a portion of the funky “Spanish Key” in Michael Mann’s Collateral.
- Agharta (1975)
I told myself I would not include any live albums on this list, only studio albums. But I couldn’t kid myself; Agharta is one of the greatest electric funk-rock jazz albums ever recorded, regardless of where or how it was recorded. It is a few years after this album where the film Miles Ahead takes place, where we see Miles Davis at his strangest and most broken, yet he was still able to experiment with complex grooves and a wild virtuosity, resulting in this masterpiece of a live album. Recorded in Japan at the Osaka Festival Hall, this is Miles Davis and his band at their most energetic; the 30-minute opening “Prelude” is a monster funk jam that never gets old, with the remaining songs just as explosive as the last.
- Kind of Blue (1959)
No jazz list would be complete without Kind of Blue, arguably the greatest jazz album of all time, and at the very least the greatest-selling pure jazz album ever released. For those not familiar with Davis’ music, this is a great starting point, and it is a gorgeous example of modal jazz in its purest form. Featuring some of Davis’ most recognizable songs, such as the glorious opener “So What” and the beautiful “Blue in Green”, Kind of Blue embraces its simplicity and creates a soothing meditation of modality, yet still with some impeccable playing by the likes of John Coltrane and Bill Evans. If Michael Jackson has Thriller, then Miles Davis has Kind of Blue.
- A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
Miles Davis said with Bitches Brew that he wanted to create the greatest rock band of all time. On A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the soundtrack for the documentary on the first African American heavyweight champion of the world, Miles succeeded in that goal. Comprised of only two 20+ minute epics, this is Miles Davis and his band firing on all red-hot cylinders, creating an album that is more “rock-jazz” as opposed to “jazz-rock”; a real fire-breathing dragon of an album. The album opens with “Right Off”, kicking right into gear with a blistering blues guitar solo by John McLaughlin, before leading into one of the greatest trumpet solos of Miles Davis’ career, all backed by an earthquake that is the great Billy Cobham on drums. The rest of the song’s jam, as well as the more moody second track “Yesternow”, features elements of funk and soul music, coupled by phenomenal soprano sax solos by Steve Grossman and organ work by the wonderful Herbie Hancock. A Tribute to Jack Johnson doesn’t just find a place on my list of favorite jazz albums of all time, it finds a spot as one of my overall favorite albums of all time, period.
Well there you have it! Hopefully you had as much of a good time reading this as I did writing it, and if you are a Miles Davis fan already, please hit me up so we can continue this conversation even further. Bring on Don Cheadle and Miles Ahead!