Tag Archives: miles davis

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)

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1415312/102radiofreeraytown.mp3″

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.

Enjoy.

  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)
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1415312/77radiofreeraytown.mp3″

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

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