When you talk to pretty much anyone about jazz, be he or she a novice or expert, you’re bound to discuss certain names. And among them, perhaps none is said more often than Miles Davis. The king of cool (shouts out to that lady in Billy Madison) has a storied career worthy of years upon years of studying, so I can understand any listener’s apprehension when it comes to diving into his discography. And it’s not just the fact that he released a lot of albums; dude also jumped into different ends of the jazz pool throughout his time on this planet. Whereas some of his earlier stuff is straight-ahead, laid-back jazz made for dinner parties, other records are more or less guaranteed to floor you with their experimental approach.
But hey, just as my good friend/jazz musician Ryan Kowal and I aimed to introduce readers to jazz as a genre, we’re here to do the same with Miles Davis’s extensive catalog. And if you read those articles, you will know that we covered two of his best records already: Kind of Blue and Live-Evil. As phenomenal as those albums are, we just didn’t want to retread any previously covered ground. Yes, you need to listen to them—seriously, you need to do that right now if you haven’t yet—but you also need to hear these if you’re looking for the essential Miles Davis albums. In addition to being his finest efforts, they also cover his varied and groundbreaking approach to jazz, a genre that surely wouldn’t be where it is today without Miles.
Andrew Martin: The two sides of A Tribute To Jack Johnson may as well be labeled as mind-altering substances by the feds. You could probably say that about a lot of Davis’ fusion releases, but this one will expand your mind without making you shake your head (see some of his, erm, cornier electronic-jazz albums). Side A, or “Right Off,” is immediate in its rock-leaning tendencies. The highlight of this track — and arguably the entire project — is guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin, who hardly ever lets off his ax. If he’s not soloing, he’s riffing behind brass blasts and complementing the insane drum work of Billy Cobham. Yes, there are moments where Davis waltzes in like a thief in the night (the middle of “Right Off” is straight-up nasty), but he wasn’t afraid to let other stars shine. That’s also true on Side B, “Yesternow,” which is anchored by bassist Michael Henderson until, well, you’ll have to hear this track’s transition for yourself.
Ryan Kowal: Even though this is a superb example of the jazz/rock genre, I think of it like a classical recording. The band explores all the different sound possibilities and fleshes out theme and variations in a revolutionary way. The pieces, clocking in at around 30 minutes each, don’t feel too long. These tracks are the perfect length for the band to push the boundaries of their musical expression.
AM: OK, I may be cheating a bit here by using what’s technically a compilation, but Birth Of The Cool is both necessary and perfect for newcomers to Davis’ discography. For one, you get the benefit of hearing some of his most straight-ahead recordings, because these tracks are short (they hover around three minutes) and infectious (they swing from one end of the planet to the other). What you’re left with is a quick, catchy listen that’ll be the perfect soundtrack for your next dinner party (or date!) or homework/writing/study session. You’ll know what I mean as soon as you throw it on and hear Miles and his nine-piece (!) band groove through the aptly titled “Move.” Also, it’s hard to argue against a project that ends with such a ridiculously cool closer as “Darn That Dream,” which features the smooth vocals of Kenny Hagood.
RK: One could call this a must-hear recording for its classic tracks (“Isreal” being my personal favorite), for its arrangements (being dense and airy all at once), or for its personnel (J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, etc.). It is the sum of these elements that catapults this classic recording into another universe! Miles spent a lot of time figuring out not only which instruments he wanted, but who the players would be. It is this thoughtfulness and attention to detail that made Miles the legend that he became.
AM: Sketches Of Spain is straight-up one of the most beautiful and arresting albums you’ll hear from anyone. And in the context of Davis’ career, it came after a little record called Kind of Blue. So yeah, dude could have easily gone for low-hanging fruit and delivered something average and probably appeased the jazz-listening world. But instead, he went the big-band route, dug up some amazing compositions, and got to work on one of my personal favorite records in his discography. My adoration is based almost entirely on the album’s opening composition, “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a stunning and sweeping listen that’ll keep you engaged for its entire 16:11 runtime. That’s no easy feat, and neither is taking the works of others and making it your own. But that’s just what Davis and collaborator/arranger/composer Gil Evans accomplished with Sketches Of Spain, a true masterpiece of orchestral jazz.
RK: This feels like a continuation of what Davis accomplished with Birth of the Cool in that it is a large ensemble creating beautiful soundscapes with real substance. The musicians are able to stretch out on this album because the compositions include the space for improvisation and creativity. In a way, it feels like a bridge album between Davis’ straight-ahead jazz and his fusion work with the common element being the long vamps for soloing. The vamps on this album are heavily orchestrated and structured as opposed to the examples on later albums, which feature all instruments improvising.
AM: There are a number of informational anecdotes that make E.S.P. such an important record. In addition to being the first from Davis’ so-called “second great quintet,” it was also an anomaly in that the composition duties were handled by different members of the group. Given that information, you’d be right to expect something that sounds half-baked. You’d also be wrong because Davis and his players were in their prime (and giants in their own right). Hell, pianist Herbie Hancock dropped his classic Maiden Voyage album that same year. But I digress. E.S.P. succeeds for many reasons, but for me, it’s all about just how listenable it is along with the energy emanating from the music. That’s particularly true of the solos, like Davis’ stellar turn on “Iris” and drummer Tony Williams murdering his kit for two minutes straight to open “Agitation.”
RK: A standout element on many of these recordings is the light touch of the instrumentalists. They play some of the most intricate and inventive music imaginable and it sounds like they aren’t even breaking a sweat. E.S.P. is an album that showcases that aesthetic with its songwriting, performance and interaction. To add to the mastery and magnificence, when this album was released, Tony Williams was only 19.
AM: Narrowing down a single live album from Davis wasn’t easy, nor does it exactly feel fair. But hey, if you’re really feeling his music in a live setting, just know there are plenty of options For what it’s worth, though, Miles In Tokyo stood out for a number of reasons. For one, the modified version of “So What” (from Kind of Blue) played here is fantastic, high-energy and may even flip your perception of how the classic tune could be heard. Likewise, albeit not quite as propulsive, it’s hard not to instantly love the quintet’s take on “My Funny Valentine” (absolutely sublime) and “All of You” (finger-snappin’ goodness). You’ll also hear bits and pieces of Davis’ later foray into fusion, especially on that aforementioned bananas version of “So What.” I mean, the “Flintstones” theme?! Brilliant.
RK: This live set is all about space and energy. The head in for the first tune gives a perfect synopsis for this album; high energy and speed, playfulness with both melodic themes and accompaniment, and masterful listening/interacting. There is a hint of the melody from “Concierto de Aranjuez” from Sketches in Spain during the first melody statement of My Funny Valentine (or maybe I’ve been listening to too much Miles and am hearing things). Hancock pushes the tempo right out of the gate on “So What” and Rivers hints at the theme to “Flintstones” during his solo, which make this a memorable and interesting version of the tune. This band was loose and ready for inspiration to strike.
AM: They say great minds think alike, so it’s unsurprising that, like former bandmate John Coltrane, Davis had his own well-known standard. Whereas the Trane murked “My Favorite Things” and made it his own, Davis did the damn thing with “Someday My Prince Will Come” (on the record of the same name). The title track absolutely shines, equally smooth and soulful in all the right ways while being accessible enough to entice even the most frightened would-be jazz listener. That’s particularly true of any kids who may have an inclination toward the genre or playing a musical instrument, given that “Someday My Prince Will Come” stems from 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But the Davis originals, of which there are three, never get too out there or challenging, especially the super-chill “Drad-Dog.” If I had children, I’d absolutely keep this one in rotation, for our shared benefit.
RK: This is straight-ahead jazz at its very best. Everything on this album is understated as it features some of the most relaxed playing that I’ve ever heard (which is a good thing). All these guys had such a powerful command of their instruments that it would be hard to point out anything in the entire album that is not perfect!
AM: When you have an album featuring both John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophone, you know you’re doing something right. And for Davis, he did that something right for several albums. Those include the aforementioned Kind Of Blue and this killer record here, Milestones. It can actually be taken in as an appetizer of sorts for KOB, which took everything Davis and his players explored on Milestones and transformed it into the classic so many adore today. But enough about that album, because Milestones is fantastic. That sentiment holds true whether the sextet is performing a Davis original — peep his piano playing on “Sid’s Ahead” — or taking on a glorious Thelonious Monk standard, “Straight, No Chaser.” This is also one of the easier records to dig into on here, so you could use it as a starting point if you feel so inclined.
RK: This album is usually hailed for its foray into modal jazz, which it should, but I like to listen to it without thinking of the larger picture. This album is perfect to just enjoy. Yes, it was a turning point in the jazz world, yes, it influenced how jazz musicians would approach music in the future, but if you can, put that all aside and just listen. The playing on here is some of the best you will ever hear, every musician is on fire, the compositions are great, and the recording is spot on. Once you have enjoyed it for being a fine piece of recorded music, then enjoy it for being a fine piece of music history.
AM: Before diving into fusion and embarking on his “electric” voyage, Davis was cranking out some seriously amazing post-bop records. Those include the aforementioned E.S.P. and its follow-up, the superb Miles Smiles. Once again, we’ve got the man trading notes with some of the finest players to pick up their respective instruments, and they’re unleashed in ways that are freeing but subtle. Like E.S.P., there’s never an all-out free-jazz moment, but there are hints that Davis and co. were heading there. The ending of “Dolores,” for example, seemingly ends out of nowhere after Tony Williams’ drum solo. And yet, it drifts perfectly into the aptly titled “Freedom Jazz Dance” and the playful brass of “Gingerbread Boy,” which are funky and just a touch weird by conventional standards. Even so, they’re not necessarily skronky or dissonant, simply less confined. If you’re thinking of dipping into the more challenging stuff on here (aka the next entry), you may want to flirt with Miles Smiles first.
RK: The rhythm section here is exceptional. Pushing through the veil of what was expected by listeners, they perceived and presented pulse in an innovative way. The metric modulation from measure to measure continues to astound even today. With that as the backing, a soloist could have broken their horn in half and still delivered a great solo. That, fortunately, is not the case here. Davis and Shorter are monsters on their instruments throughout the entire recording.
AM: Bitches Brew is one of those records that’d be bigger than itself if it wasn’t already so freaking massive. It’s not just the fact that Davis led his players through a movie’s worth of music, because this thing checks in at 94 minutes. It’s the sound of Bitches Brew that makes it so huge. Like many of his stronger fusion releases, this one is like taking a trip into another universe, where genres are thrown out the window for a sound all its own. And even though I could pick a song or two to explore on here, you’re really better off immersing yourself in the entire thing. Yes, it’s “out there” and can be a bit much at times, but set aside those 94 minutes, brew some tea or coffee, and dig in. It’s an experience you need to have, especially as someone trying to better understand the vision of Miles Davis. Plus, come on, that artwork is amazing.
RK: What strikes me most about this album is that is doesn’t seem cluttered. On each track, there are two drummers, two bassists, and two to three keyboardists! With that lineup, it would be easy to have everyone playing on top of each other, but they don’t, everyone is given space. That is the magic of Miles Davis, he brought together the best musicians, constantly challenged them (through arrangements, forms, and lineups), and somehow produced a completely innovative project every time.
AM: Listening to Tutu in the year 2016 isn’t exactly easy. Like plenty of albums from the '80s — this one’s from 1986 — this record has elements that sound, well, dated. That’s particularly true of the synthesizers, which hit fast and hard from the jump (the title track) and never leave. But once you look past them, you’ll hear bits and pieces of brilliance. Like the dubby, sweltering reggae tings on “Don’t Lose Your Mind” and the very Prince-like funk of “Full Nelson.” Funny enough, you’d think Davis recorded that as an homage to Prince, but it was actually a song for Nelson Mandela. And yet, Tutu was supposed to be a collaboration with the late, great purple one. Ridiculous, right? It is, but it’s also fitting in a strange way. Tutu may not strike you immediately like other records on here, but you absolutely need to hear it.
RK: Throughout his career, Miles strived to stay on the forefront of music. He was always looking for the best way to incorporate new ideas and technologies into his art. Tutu is exactly that; he utilized new tools and ideas about writing, recording, performing, and arranging. While this was cutting-edge at the time, it does feel dated now. The key to this album is to look past the sounds that feel overdone and corny at this point and look at it from the perspective of when it was created. It follows in a long line of innovation and creativity in Davis’ huge catalog.