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.