Tag Archives: miles davis

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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The most important Miles Davis record (for me).

During my last few years in college, I’d occasionally housesit for a professor and his wife. These jobs provided opportunities to escape my stressful home life and for me to catch up on reading and cable television. During one of my stays at their River Market loft, I watched a documentary on sixties’ psychedelia. I don’t remember much about that VH1 show, except a closing montage of classic psychedelic albums. Taking its place among the famous British invasion albums was Miles in the Sky. At that point, I knew nothing about Miles Davis, except that he played trumpet. But the cover was so cool that I knew I needed to locate it right away.

When I found the CD, I was shocked by what I encountered. The drums in stereo sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Perhaps, more precisely, Tony Williams’ cymbal playing was unlike anything I had heard before. At times, it almost sounded like the band had two drummers.

While not my favorite Davis record, it’s certainly the most important for me. It propelled me into his and his bandmates’ catalogs. It also introduced me to long songs; this was at least two years before I discovered progressive rock. Unlike most albums, the surprising thing about Miles in the Sky is that I can listen to it today and have some of the same impressions as when I first played it.

The first track, “Stuff,” was my first encounter with jazz fusion. It was also Miles’ first real foray into fusion, with electric keyboard and bass. Wayne Shorter’s tenor saxophone sounds so distant, so cold and harsh. (Later, I’d learn he was playing through an amp.) Ron Carter’s bass playing on this track still blows my mind. Playing more in the mid-range of the instrument, he often implies the groove instead of explicitly stating it.

“Paraphernalia” was my first dive into the deep pool of Wayne Shorter compositions. Now, it sounds to me like so many of his other great compositions. Back then, however, its floating, esoteric melody just seemed weird. Inviting, but still weird. I believe too much ink has been spilled debating whether he’s a better writer or improviser; this song proves he’s great at both. I think his solo may be as memorable as the head. Of course, it helps that he uses the old trick of restating bits of the melody in his solo, which helps ground his improvisation.

The most swinging cut on the album, “Black Comedy,” inspired me to play drums. I’m sure I’ll never play like Tony Williams, but I sure can pretend. I was immediately taken by his overuse of the high-hat and weird turnarounds. Probably the most accessible (or short) track on the album, this track found its way onto numerous mix tapes in college.

The last song, “Country Son,” is so weird. Without any discernible melody, the master and alternate takes included on the CD sound completely different. The meandering feel of the composition seems emphasized by Davis and Shorter, who sound like they’re wandering around the studio as they play.

All that said, maybe Miles in the Sky sucks and you should check out Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew first. I just feel too close to the record to be objective. Because it was in constant rotation around the time my parents split, it just sounds to me like their divorce. I feel a longing in its grooves and an aching transcendence in its melodies. And that’s why, after amassing most of his catalog, it continues to the most important Miles Davis record for me.

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Episode 102: Milestones

I can still remember the day I coerced Tim into buying his first Miles Davis album. We were visiting Earwaxx Records, and I showed him to a couple crates in the back filled with 60’s and 70’s jazz records. Most were marginal efforts by washed-up cats trying to make a go at the easy listening market, but I had found a few gems. One such gem was Bitches Brew, Miles’ head-first dive into fusion and tape edits and manipulation. The double album was only $12, and I knew my friend needed it.

Several records sit next to Tim’s turntable. It gives a peek into what he’s recently played or, like the radio stations of yore, his heavy rotation. While the stack always changes, one constant remains: Bitches Brew. He told me he has to listen to it once a week. (He listens to it so much, in fact, that he bought another copy!)

It probably didn’t take you 101 episodes to realize I’m excited to help others discover an artist. I’m especially happy when it’s a jazz artist. See, anxiety seems to mount when the discussion turns from post-punk (or whatever I’m blathering about at the time) to jazz. It’s almost as if jazz is a menu at an Ethiopian restaurant: no one knows what he’s ordering, and no one knows what to do with it once it arrives.

I certainly get people’s trepidation; jazz can be heady. In the 20 years after World War II, virtually all big bands went the way of the dinosaur. Small combos took their place, allowing artist-composers freedom to write more complex tunes. Eventually, jazz became polarized. Either the artists played free or they boasted in their ability to improve in a certain mode and in a time signature in opposition to the rhythm section. Either extreme scares off most of my friends.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and I think Miles Davis’ work proves this. He could be, at once, complex and accessible. The problem with his vast catalog is knowing where to start. Hopefully I can give you a few starting points this week. Enjoy.

  1. “Circle” – Miles Davis Quintet (Miles Smiles | Columbia | 1967)
  2. “Milestones” – Miles Davis (Milestones | Columbia | 1958)
  3. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” – Miles Davis (Bitches Brew | Columbia | 1970)
  4. “Prelude (Part One)” – Miles Davis (Agharta | Columbia | 1975)


Radio Free Raytown – Episode #102 (4/27/12)

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Episode 77: Never Learned a Thing

The original 10" of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool.

I do a lot of research about records at my father-in-law’s house.  Because he lives 10 hours away, I have to squeeze all this education into the few days a year we visit.

While there, I pour through liner notes for personnel and production notes.  I also look for pictures of other albums in an artist’s catalog.  Most importantly, however, I love the opportunity to actually see some of his records that I doubted even existed in real life.

Sure, I’ve seen the cover to the original Birth of the Cool 10″, as it’s in the liner notes for the CD reissue.  I assumed I’d have to wait and see the real thing in a museum, though.  As it turns out, my father-in-law stumbed upon the 10″ in some warehouse in Miami for $10.  He also has the first and second reissues of the album in the 12″ LP format.  Interestingly enough, all three iterations of the album feature different track listings and artwork.

It is a really good album.  The arrangements are, well…cool.  The performances stand up well, even against Davis’ later, celebrated forays into modal improvisation. It was probably the first album to really propel Davis, Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan in to the spotlight.  This was an album Capitol Records, after all, home to heavy hitters like Nat King  Cole and Judy Collins.  It was a big deal, and this week I play the Mulligan-penned tune from the album, “Jeru.”

Anyway, I think I saw the sun once in the past week.  Is this what it’s like to live in Seattle, Washington, or Manchester, England?  Sheesh.


  1. “Gleaming Endless Ocean” – Scarlet Youth (Breaking the Patterns | Homesick Music | 2009)
  2. “What Lies Before” – Highspire (Aquatic | Reverse Reverb | 2010)
  3. “Jeru” – Miles Davis (Birth of the Cool | Capitol | 1957)
  4. “Desert Island Discs” – The Jags (Evening Standards | 1980
  5. “Kites Without Strings” – The Seventy-Sevens (Pray Naked | Brainstorm | 1992)

Radio Free Raytown – Episode 77 (4/29/11)

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