I’ve known Miles Davis’ music since the age of twelve or thirteen. It was around the time I moved next door to jazz clarinettist and saxophonist, Brian Thompson, who was undoubtedly one of the most influential forces in my early musical life. Over the dozen or so lessons I had with him, Brian exposed me to all things jazz and blues: from learning to Boogie Woogie in a 12-bar blues, to understanding how the circle of fifths can be used in chord progressions. Suffice it to say, this was far from the kind of stuff I was working on in my classical piano lessons, which I loved too, make no mistake. He also introduced me to a lot of records by Dr John, Professor Longhair, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis. Incidentally, Brian happened to be helping out at the Antibes Jazz Festival one year when the latter was there back in the 60s. The first album by Davis on my jazz teacher’s list was, of course, Kind of Blue (1959). His modal, cool jazz album that set the standard for all jazz that came after. Beyond that, I went on by myself to explore some of his other records from some of his other musical stages: namely, Bitches Brew (1970), from when he explored the vanguard, and Amandla (1989), from his jazz-fusion phase. In this article, my goal is to give you a glimpse of the diverse career and discography of Miles Davis – just some of the music that inspired me to practise my instrument and, ultimately, to become a musician.
Kind of Blue
For Davis, Kind of Blue was an attempt to fulfil several musical concepts – both broad and specific. He, for instance, didn’t fully write out the individual parts – not even the head – as he wanted the band to emulate the spontaneity between the dancers and drummers of the Ballets Africains. It is for this reason, too, that the album was created in only two recording sessions with no prior rehearsal. Davis also wanted to develop his use of modality in jazz, stemming from one of his previous albums, Milestones (1958), and to recapture the gospel and blues sound-worlds he cherished from his time in Arkansas. Through Bill Evans’ influence, classical music had a place in this album too. Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 are specifically named in the trumpeter’s autobiography as key influences. One of my favourite tracks has to be Blue in Green. There is some discrepancy about its main author: some say Evans, others (including himself) say Davis. Davis’ argument is that it would have been impossible for the former to have written the number as Davis showed the band all the music just minutes before recording. Some sources contradict this but, in my opinion, it is of little importance; whoever wrote it, it is movingly beautiful. Blue in Green is essentially a conversation between the piano and trumpet: the former often exploring quartal harmony, the latter drawing long lines over the ever-shifting accompaniment – for Giddins and DeVeaux, it is one of Davis’ “most moving” recordings. All the solos add to its impressionistic obscurity. One thing that this album missed, according to its composer, was getting the exact sound of the African finger piano, particularly in All Blues and So What. Before reading this in his autobiography, this supposed failing would never have occurred to me, although it does now provide for a more nuanced listening of those tracks.
This album marks a completely different sound-world to that in Kind of Blue. With its strange sonorities and electronic effects, Davis rightfully labelled this a composition in the vanguard. Although Davis was open minded about this genre, as we broadly look upon his career, his musical ambition was never to complexify, rather the opposite. Kind of Blue, for instance, showed a new direction: away from the complex, chromatic harmony of Bebop, to a simpler, yet just as artistic, modal harmony. Bitches Brew, however, doesn’t necessarily fall in line with that observation – nor should it. This was at a stage in Davis’ career when jazz was becoming less and less popular and started to be viewed by some record companies as historical. This album was, according to his autobiography, Davis’ rebellion against that; he was searching for new sounds, sounds that had never been heard. With this album, too, Davis avoided writing down all his ideas. It was an experiment in improvisation; the element of jazz which, for the bandleader, made it so fabulous. And this is audible from the first bar. In the album’s title track, at several points Davis’ clicking can be heard, where he’s marking out the beat. One can even hear “keep it tight” and “John” at points. This was all about maximising spontaneity within the ensemble; keeping everyone in focus and reactive to other players’ musical decisions. Although Davis admired classical music, he didn’t care much for the mechanical repetition of notes, devoid of creativity, often associated with classical musicians. (That is not to say he disliked concert artists; indeed, he loved Horowitz!). Ultimately, he wanted to maximise the improvisatory nature of jazz. What is truly remarkable about this album, and specifically its title track, is the quality of the musicians and how they can generate so much material together, instantaneously and without much information with which to begin.
For many at the time, the music produced by Davis at this stage of his career wasn’t considered jazz, but a new genre: fusion. The history of jazz tends to reflect this strange mentality. Be it at the creation of Dixieland, swing, bebop or fusion, many contemporaneous musicians thought of these as new genres in themselves. Of course, each style was eventually absorbed into what we call jazz, including Davis’ later contributions. This album truly embodies the new subgenre, integrating elements of jazz – from harmony to improvisation – with Caribbean zouk percussion and funk basslines, accompanied by synths fragrant of the late 80s. I particularly enjoy listening to the track, Jo-Jo; it seems to balance all of its stylistic elements particularly well. It begins with synths and syncopated finger-clicking, followed by a bassline that wouldn’t be out of place in Jaco Pastorius record. (It comes as no surprise that Davis renders homage to the funk bassist in the track Mr. Pastorius.) The head, played by Davis and saxophonist Rick Margitza, and the solos are certainly reminiscent of jazz, too. It is the album’s namesake track, however, that grounds itself in the distant world of the cool. Not unlike the aforementioned Blue in Green at points, this performance is, in my opinion, the most moving of the album. Without question, Amandla is extremely different to Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew: from the project’s goals to its importance in the minds of many musicians. Unfortunately, Davis’ fusion albums are an oft-overlooked period of his career. If one wishes to understand the true breadth of Davis’ musical contributions, however, listening to the fusion albums, like Amandla, is essential.
Zachary Davies, December 2020
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Davis, Miles, Miles The Autobiography/ Miles Davies with Quincy Troupe, (London: Picardor, 1990)