Tag Archives: 1960s

A Miles Davis primer.

A few years ago, I made an annotated mix CD for a friend who was unfamiliar with the work of Miles Davis. For some reason, I’ve decided to make a Spotify playlist based on that CD and post my original notes for his mix. 

My notes aren’t (obviously) intended to be exhaustive, just a few observations about some of the songs. This was never intended to be an all-time greatest hits playlist, as his label has already released several best-of collections. Additionally, the songs are not presented in chronological or preferential order. I merely aimed to create a listenable track order with some of my favorite tunes.

I hope this helps as you discover the music of Miles Davis.

1 — “Joshua”
To me, “Joshua” is Miles’ big pop song from the 60’s: catchy, succinct and upbeat. And it starts with finger-snaps!

2 — “Eighty-One”
I remember finding E.S.P. for cheap in college. I loved the album from the start, but I wondered why it seemed no one talked about it. (Maybe I just don’t talk to the right people.) To me, “Eighty-One” is a perfect song. It’s complex, swinging and catchy. Tony Williams is the star of the song. His ride playing gives it so much character; it instantly drew me in.

3 — “So What”
Everybody in the world owns a copy of Kind of Blue, right? Enough ink has been spilled about that record, but I could still write a book about Coltrane’s solo in “So What.”

I don’t know anything about jazz piano, but I love Bill Evans. In fact, one of my favorite records of all time is his album, Conversations with Myself. Even farther down the rabbit trail, his albums with Tony Bennett in the early 70’s are essential listening.

4 — “Seven Steps to Heaven”
I love it when songs start on the bass!

Seven Steps to Heaven marks the beginning of Miles’ famed second great quartet. While it’s tempting to listen to the album and think that the band hit the ground running with clarity and cohesion, researching the recording process proves otherwise.

He began with roughly the same band that recorded Kind of Blue, but jettisoned some players and added super-young guys like Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. (To be fair, ex-band members consistently remarked that Miles never fired anyone; everyone left when it was his time.) Miles then re-recorded several cuts with his new band. I feel this, the title cut, is the strongest of the bunch and a clear indication where the band would go on the next few records.

5 — “Black Comedy”
I haven’t changed much since I was young and pre-judged albums by their cover art. When I saw Miles in the Sky in a documentary on 60’s music, I knew I must own the album. With its bright, psychedelic design, it looked more like a Jimi Hendrix album than a jazz record. I was intrigued.

When I first listened to it, my head exploded. Apart from big band recordings by Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie or Glenn Miller, I had never heard a jazz album. Certainly none by a jazz combo. Half-way in, my head was already a mess, then Tony Williams’ “Black Comedy” blew me away. I didn’t even have to check the credits to know the drummer wrote it. This piece just feels like an amazing seven-minute drum fill.

6 — “Masqualero”
This is such a strange, meandering song. The vibe is certainly cool, but I don’t know if I could follow the tune if it weren’t for the drums. And Tony Williams just nails it on this track. The song wanders around a Spanish/quasi-twentieth century classical piano motif, but the drums explode and launch into orbit.

7 — “Little One”
This is a perfect example of why I love Herbie Hancock’s work in the 60’s. The chord changes are so…lyrical? The changes are so good that the melody just seems to write itself. It’s a commonly-held belief that Wayne Shorter was a better writer than improviser. While this may be pretty accurate, I feel that his work with Hancock on this song is perfection. They just seem to get one another.

8 — “Prince of Darkness”
I bought Sorcerer on a whim. At the time, I only had a few Miles albums, and this didn’t seem to have any notable songs on it. Since it was in the bargain bin at Half Price Books, I took the gamble. “Prince of Darkness” kicks off the record in a huge way. It got me into an album that features (mostly) moody and mid-tempo tunes. I doubt that I, at that point in my musical discovery, would have had the patience to wade through the rest of the record if it hadn’t been for the opener.

While it’s a Wayne Shorter tune (and he is known for elaborate song structures), it is rather straightforward in its construction. It is Ron Carter’s bass line that does it for me. He seems to work against the Tony Williams at times, creating tension that makes the song more interesting.

9 — “Once Upon a Summertime”
While Quiet Nights is clearly not a perfect record (critics and even Miles himself agreed on this), I feel it has its moments. Maybe I’m just a sucker for bossa nova, but I think Gil Evans arrangements might be better suited for Brazilian music than Spanish.

Gil Evans is one of those rare guys with whom I feel a connection, at least musically. He seemed to be as interested in creating soundscapes as he was serving the melody. This was such a rare thing in the 50’s and early 60’s. Remember, this was before Philip Glass, Weather Report or Brian Eno. Evans made Miles’ solos more interesting; he didn’t just write some counterpoint. Whenever I write horn arrangements, I think of Evans and this song in particular.

10 — “Milestones”
I know, I know…this is a standard. I’m sure you’ve played it, but it has to make this mix. I’m in love with the head to this piece. It seems split into two eight-bar sections, and I love how Miles constantly switches his phrasing in the second, legato section. I don’t think he ever repeats himself. It’s amazing. And maybe it’s too much information for you, but I should mention that we were listening to “Milestones” in the hospital when our son was born.

11 — “Circle”
Sixteen years ago, I attended a Robert Deeble concert at a church in Overland Park. My family was crumbling, and I was on the brink of depression. The show was soothing, cathartic, melancholy, quiet and hopeful. It was everything I needed. When I walked in, the sound man was playing a compilation of Miles’ ballads. The first song I heard was “Circle.” That was the first time I heard Miles Davis.

The song just had that perfect sound. In fact, I don’t really know how objective I can be about this. It may be a sub-par tune, but I wouldn’t know it. It just sounds like the sum of my college experiences, both in school and with my family. Longing. That’s what I heard.

12 — “Gone Gone Gone”
If you listen to any song on this mix to understand why I love Miles Davis, this is it. There’s something about his tone and phrasing that shows intentionality and feels like the longing I’ve felt at so many stages in my life.

I’ve already gushed over Gil Evans’ arrangements. While Quiet Nights seemed pastoral, he worked with a similar ensemble to create a bombastic, nearly orchestral sound on Porgy and Bess. This is the exception, a quiet, reflective tune. It’s my favorite on that album and, I feel, a great way to end the mix.

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