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Miles Davis

AAJ Staff By

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Trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991) is perhaps the most influential figure in the history of jazz. He regularly reinvented his sound, changing styles abruptly and pulling the rest of the jazz community along with him.

Davis moved from East St. Louis to New York City in 1944, ostensibly to attend Juilliard. But he soon lost interest in school and spent his time gigging with local musicians. In 1945, at the age of nineteen, he joined Charlie Parker's quintet, where he played an active role in the birth of bebop. He stayed with Parker until 1948. Shortly thereafter, he abruptly leapt off the bebop train and began playing with an expanded nonet, introducing the world to cool jazz (1949-50), a more relaxed, textured style. Along with Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and Lee Konitz, he helped create a new sound which contrasted sharply with the fast and furious energy of bebop.

Miles got back into bop with his first great quintet, which included a young John Coltrane. During 1955-56, this group recorded extensively on Prestige. Four discs from this period stand as pure masterpieces: Relaxin,' Steamin,' Workin,' and Cookin'.

Amidst a couple of orchestral efforts, Davis formed a quintet which yielded the best-loved record in jazz history: Kind of Blue (1959). He continued to expand and develop modal jazz, a platform for extended improvisation. Then, early in the '60s, Miles formed a new all-star quintet. Each musician's role became more flexible and the overall sound had a more energetic tone. Some of Davis's most enduring music comes from this period.

Starting in 1968, Davis began to electrify his groups, eventually launching fusion. This music brought the rhythms of rock together with a new style of open-ended improvisation. Producer Teo Macero played a key role on studio dates, recombining and reforming these performances. Fusion made Davis immensely popular with young people; and it sparked a number of spinoffs, including Weather Report and various groups led by guitarist John McLaughlin. After a brief retirement from 1975 to 1981, Davis returned to recording, with mostly disappointing results.

The Complete Birth of the Cool (Columbia, 1948-50)

The fluid, softer group sound of these large-ensemble recordings offers a distinct contrast to the edginess and drive of bebop, which was the dominant jazz form at the time.
Cookin' (Prestige/OJC 1956)

Any one of the four discs recorded over this productive six-month period is a masterpiece. This particular one features some inspired bop-oriented playing by Miles's first great quintet, with infectious warmth and true clarity.
Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)

With its lyrical solos and feeling of gentle urgency, KOB stands as a landmark of extended modal improvisation. KOB is the greatest record in Miles's oeuvre, and the best introduction to his work.
Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1959-60)

This extended ensemble fuses jazz with the minor tonalities and rhythmic subtleties of flamenco music. It's laid back and at times melancholy; subtlety plays a huge role here, so listen closely.
The Complete Concert, 1964 (Columbia, 1964)

This two-disc set documents the powerfully energizing sounds of a driving mid-'60s quintet, featuring a degree of cohesion rarely found in the live setting.
Highlights From The Plugged Nickel (Columbia, 1965)

This sampler from the 7-CD box presents creative improvisation teetering over the boundaries of hard bop. The degree of interaction and bold adventurism on this disc remains unparalleled, though the sound quality dips a bit.
Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966)

The most successful studio recording by Miles' hugely influential '60s quintet, warmly documenting the group's flexible, adventurous, and dynamic interaction.
In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969)

The first true fusion record was recorded six months before the hugely successful Bitches Brew. It offers a softer-edged, abstract sound enhanced by extensive studio production.
Tribute To Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970)

Jack Johnson takes fusion in more of a rock direction, digging deep into the groove with some real punch and more of a funky flavor. This disc offers the greatest clarity of any discs from Miles's fusion-era work.
Aura (Columbia, 1985)

Miles's last truly great record, Aura, is actually improvisation built around a composed framework by Palle Mikkelborg. This suite of pieces, named after different colors, covers a wide range of sounds and exploits the expert guitar playing of John McLaughlin.
Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis, 1969-74 (Columbia, 1997)

This posthumous tribute by producer Bill Laswell offers an interesting and authentic alternative to Teo Macero's influential production on Miles's fusion records.

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