There can't be too many musical tasks as daunting as trying to trim Miles Davis' prodigious output down into two discs worth of "essentials". No matter how much time and thought went into this amazing package, arguments are sure to ensue for years to come. That said, reissue producers Michael Cuscuna and Bob Belden have done a most commendable job of distilling Miles' essence. From his 1945 sessions with Charlie Parker through his 1986 smash hit Tutu, all the major phases of Davis' multifaceted career are covered here.
The chronological order of this set offers an important look at Davis' full artistic development. In '45 Miles was an uncertain teenager, his solo on "Now's The Time" plodding at a thoughtful snail's pace compared to Bird's prior flurry. A little over three years later, he was still calculating but more self-assured as he formulated an "anti-bop" in the form of cool jazz. Come 1953, he and Parker were back to bop, but with a new, listener-friendly sensibility that characterized his playing for the next several years. And so it goes, through the timeless Gil Evans big-band dates ( Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain ), modal jazz (the huge best-seller Kind Of Blue ), chord substitutions with Coltrane, and the eventual movement away from standard forms with the "classic quintet" with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.
Thankfully, the compilers avoided the few clear dogs in Davis' discography, particularly his uneven comeback, The Man With The Horn, and his horrendous swansong, Doo-Bop. Miles' post-1970 recordings tended to be of a piece, and a few selections may have been chosen more for track length than their timelessness. "Little Church" is almost nerve-grating, with Hermeto Pascoal's whistling, Keith Jarrett's wheezy organ, and Davis' groaning muted trumpet abrading each other like rocks in a waterfall. Also, "Portia" seems a bit light-tempered to end such a retrospective. Then again, this set is largely about Miles' experimental nature, his frequent willingness to try new things and move on if they failed. By and large this set is outstanding, and as good an overview of Miles' opus as could ever be assembled. Essential indeed.
Track Listing: Disc 1: Now's The Time; Jeru; Compulsion; Tempus Fugit; Walkin'; 'Round Midnight; Bye Bye Blackbird; New Rhumba; Generique; Summertime; So What; The Pan Piper; Someday My Prince Will Come. Disc 2: My Funny Valentine; E.S.P.; Nefertiti; Petits Machins; Miles Runs The Voodoo Down; Little Church; Black Satin; Jean Pierre; Time After Time; Portia.
Personnel: (Collective:) Miles Davis, trumpet, organ on #8; Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, Cannonball Adderley, alto sax; Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, Lucky Thompson, John Coltrane, Barney Wilen, George Coleman, Hank Mobley, tenor sax; Wayne Shorter, tenor and soprano sax; Carlos Garnett, Bill Evans, soprano sax; Gerry Mulligan, baritone sax; Dizzy Gillespie, Al Haig, Walter Bishop, Gil Coggins, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Rene Urtreger, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, piano; Curly Russell, Joe Shulman, Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, Pierre Michelot, acoustic bass; Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Art Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Don Alias, Billy Hart, Al Foster, drums; Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Joe Bennett, Tom Mitchell, Dick Hixon, trombone; Junior Collins, Willie Ruff, Jimmy Buffington, Gunther Schuller, Joe Singer, Tony Miranda, French horn; Bill Barber, tuba; Ernie Royal, Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, Taft Jordan, Johnny Carisi, Johnny Coles, trumpet; Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque, flute, alto flute, clarinet, oboe; Al Block, Harold Feldman, flute; Sid Cooper, clarinet; Danny Bank, Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet; Jack Knitzer, bassoon; Janet Putnam, harp; Elvin Jones, Jose Mangual, Lenny White, Jumma Santos, Airto Moreira, James "Mtume" Foreman, Mino Cinelu, Steve Thornton, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion; Herbie Hancock, piano, electric piano; Chick Corea, Larry Young, electric piano; Keith Jarrett, organ; John McLaughlin, Reggie Lucas, Mike Stern, John Scofield, electric guitar; Dave Holland, electric and acoustic bass; Harvey Brooks, Michael Henderson, Darryl Jones, electric bass; Hermeto Pascoal, whistling; Cedric Lawson, Robert Irving III, keyboards; Khalil Balakrishna, electric sitar; Badal Roy, tabla; Marcus Miller, electric bass and other instruments; Gil Evans, arrangements.