It’s time for a new installment of Revive Music’s original literary series: Order is Everything! This is a how-to guide for music lovers looking to invest in the catalogs of prolific artists. Let’s say you are curious about Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, etc. You want to see what the fuss is all about, but you don’t know where to begin. Which album should you buy first? Well, Revive is here to help! Each installment will instruct – better yet, suggest – the would-be consumer on not only which albums to buy, but also in which order to collect them. One might think to buy them in chronological order, but for a great artist with 10 or more albums, there’s a science to collecting the records. First of all, not every record is essential to own, especially if you’re a casual music fan with a reasonably extensive palette. Second, the first purchase is crucial to the listening experience of the consumer. The first album you acquire is usually a microcosm of their artistry as a whole, balancing the crucial line between individuality and accessibility. Each succeeding album you get would be an expansion of the last, increasing the likelihood that you’ll purchase it, developing a genuine admiration of the artist’s music during the process. Today’s artist is Miles Davis.
When the average person thinks about jazz, this is the album that probably plays in their head. Kind of Blue was the culmination of Miles Davis’ gifts of establishing mood, restraint, and spontaneity. The album featured a legendary sextet of musicians, including saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. It was released in 1959, the same year as the release of monumental jazz LPs like Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz, David Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Um Ah, and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Songs like “So What” and “All Blues” are ingrained into the subconscious of American music forever.
From one landmark recording to another, this was the Columbia debut for Miles and the unveiling of his first legendary quintet: John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Philly Joe Jones (drums), Paul Chambers (bass), and Red Garland (piano). Named after the Thelonius Monk composition, Miles and co. displayed their mastery of interpretation, playing rousing renditions of Monk’s classic as well as tunes from Charlie Parker and Cole Porter. Their take on “Bye Bye Blackbird” is perhaps the definitive recording of that song. The chemistry you heard between Miles and Coltrane on Kind of Blue is at a fever pitch on ‘Round About Midnight.
We go from one great quintet to another. Davis’ second five-piece were twenty-something– and teenage– musicians. All prodigies. All radical players. Pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams, and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter recorded six great records with Miles as a unit, but none better than this one. Shorter asserted himself as the main composer here, contributing three of the six tracks each with a complex melody, while Williams’ drumming paved the way for all contemporary jazz drummers for years to come. “Footprints” and “Circles” is a testament to the complicated arrangements just mentioned and “Freedom Jazz Dance” is rugged and funky. Miles Smiles will have you smiling from ear to ear.
You’ve heard Miles in three famous phases of his career: with his sextet, with his first great quintet, and with his second great quintet. Another great phase of Miles’ career was his collaborations with arranger Gil Evans that usually found Miles backed by a multi-piece orchestra. Following the unparalleled success of Kind of Blue, Miles took a sizable risk with his next record, Sketches of Spain. The album explored the Spanish flamenco sound and Latin-tinge, filtered through incredibly traditional musicianship. Somehow, Miles managed to incorporate some subtle flecks of be-bop into Evans’ sublime arrangements, especially in the epic “Concierto de Aranjuez,” making an album as gorgeous as it was controversial.
This album is worth it simply because of the title track. Seven Steps to Heaven is the bridge between Miles playing standards with his peers and him playing new material with the youngsters. With the exception of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, members of his second great quintet make their debut with Miles on Seven Steps and with great affect. Herbie Hancock’s piano work here is colorful and soulful. Miles plays some of the fastest, most exciting solos of his career on this LP, showcasing a dexterity many did not believe he possessed. Seven Steps to Heaven finds Miles making the easy seem impossible and the difficult seem simple all at once.
Speaking of bridges, once again we find the mad trumpeter making another crucial transition: from playing acoustic instruments to playing electric instruments. Two of the four tracks, “Stuff” and “Paraphernalia,” were the first time electric bass and fender Rhodes were used on one of Miles’ albums (electric guitarist George Benson was featured on the latter, as well.) The album revealed the direction that Davis was going, in terms of texture and groove. It’s apparent that the influence on him of his second great quintet had surpassed his influence on them, which would open the door for Miles’ future endeavors.
Heralded as the Kind of Blue of the 1960′s, In a Silent Way was the foundation of a new sub-genre in jazz that Miles jumpstarted: “fusion.” Miles took the sonic power of electric instruments and rock and roll performance aesthetics and combined them with traditional jazz composition. In a Silent Way is an album of serene, soothing songs, made to relax as well as captivate. In addition to his band of Hancock, Williams, and Shorter, this record features new progressive players like electric guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardist Chick Corea, and organist Joe Zawinul, all of whom would later found groundbreaking jazz/fusion bands of their own (Mahavishu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report, respectfully).
By 1971, Miles had defined jazz fusion with In a Silent Way and other records, but they were still jazz at the core. With A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the soundtrack for a documentary on the former boxing champion, Miles became more transparent about his influences at the time. The two tracks “Right Off” and “Yesternow” both contain dense, rhythmic elements from Sly Stone and James Brown, whom Davis admired above all others at that moment. With some aggressive energy from guitarist McLaughin, Hancock on keys, and Billy Cobham on drums, Jack Johnson is far heavier and thicker than any of Miles’ previous releases and, for that reason, one of the most satisfying as well.
Don’t be fooled by the placement of this album on this list. By many historic accounts, Bitches Brew is as essential as Kind of Blue. Bitches Brew is the definitive fusion record, the closest Davis would ever come to recording a “free jazz” album. Miles and his sidemen– Corea (keys), Bennie Maupin (bass clarinet), Dave Holland (bass) and many others, created a series of soundscapes rather than traditional songs. On the cover it says “directions in music by Miles Davis” implying a kind of controlled chaos that made this record profoundly progressive and sublimely dangerous. Songs like the title track and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” are not for the faint of heart, but it’s impossible to ignore the magnetism. If you still had preconceived notions about jazz after the first eight records on the list, they’re now about to die.
We’ve finally reached the last album on our journey. For a musician like Miles who was always pushing the envelope, and listeners’ and critics’ buttons as a result, to call On the Corner his most controversial album is an achievement in and of itself. It’s the funkiest album he ever made, but because of the boundless nature in which it was recorded, it’s also one of the hardest to digest– ironic considering this album was Miles’ attempted to draw younger listeners to jazz. Davis felt he needed to connect with the Black youth who were listening to Sly Stone and James Brown, as well as rock artists. He found new ways to innovate like playing trumpet through a wah wah pedal to get a grimy, organic sound that matched the rawness of the compositions. “Black Satin” introduced Indian influences to his fusion movement, thanks to the skillful playing of tabla player Badal Roy and electric sitarist Khalil Balakrishna. R&B pioneers Michael Henderson (bass) and Mtume (percussion) gave the record a subtle soul that puts it over the top as an essential acquisition. (By the way, the reason On the Corner comes after Bitches Brew instead of Jack Johnson is because you needed to hear the transition from one to the other to have a better chance to enjoy On the Corner).
There you have it. The 10 Miles Davis albums you must own. For you completists out there, here are the remaining Miles Davis albums from Columbia Records:
* Recommended, but not essential
*Miles Ahead, 1957
*Porgy & Bess, 1958
Someday My Prince Will Come, 1961
Quiet Nights, 1963
Filles de Kilimanjaro, 1969
Big Fun, 1974
Get Up with It, 1974
Water Babies, 1976
The Man With the Horn, 1981
Star People, 1983
You’re Under Arrest, 1985