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Culture Re-View: The three essential albums to understand Miles Davis

Culture Re-View: The three essential albums to understand Miles Davis

On this day, perhaps the greatest ever name in jazz music died. Miles Davis wasn’t just a great jazz musician. He was THE jazz musician. Born in Illinois near St. Louis in 1926, he grew up around jazz music. His mother was a music teacher and he was trained first in trumpet by Elwood Buchanan, a patient of his father’s dentistry practice. By the time he was 12, he was being taught by the principal trumpeter of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

At just 18 years old, David filled in on trumpet for Billy Eckstine’s band which included other legends-in-the-making Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. The basis for the group of jazz musicians who would revolutionise the genre with the introduction of bebop.

After moving to New York to study at Julliard, David continued to work with the impressive collection of musicians who would define jazz during the 40s and 50s. Davis followed Parker to Harlem clubs where he played with Thelonious Monk and Fats Navarro. Davis joined Parker’s quintet, the start of his move through many bands, increasingly with him at the centre.

Success and acclaim followed. Davis moved from bebop through to hardbop, before experimenting with modal jazz with his newly formed quartet – including the saxophonist legend John Coltrane.

It was with this quintet that Davis recorded a huge number of albums across mammoth sessions. For many musicians, these years, at the end of the 50s would have been enough to sustain a lifetime of creative ambition. Davis only continued to evolve, moving into increasingly complex composition styles, including a departure from purely live recorded music altogether.

Despite a long career of critical success, Davis’ life was marred with personal strife. His relationships were tempestuous and often suffered due to his various addictions to alcohol, cocaine and heroin. During a bout of pneumonia, Davis went into a coma and was put on life support. He died on this day in 1991.

The story of Miles Davis’ life is the story of jazz through the middle of the 20th century. He moved with the times, paving the way forward for other musicians to follow. On the anniversary of his death, here are Euronews Culture’s essential starting points to understand his music.

Where to start

Kind of Blue (1959)

The single greatest selling jazz album of all time, most will recognise the cover. It is seared into the minds of record collectors alongside classics like Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

Recorded at the height of Davis’ quintet years, Bill Evans took over piano duties and the most famous line-up of the quintet was created. ‘Kind of Blue’ is a prime example of Davis’ work in modal jazz – a style of jazz defined by “modulating” and improvising over the basic chord progression.

The brilliance of ‘Kind of Blue’ is in its combination of the avant garde and simplicity. For the era, the experimentation with musical phrasing was revolutionary, but looking back from today, it’s the mellifluous anchoring that Evans’ piano, Coltrane’s sax, and Davis’ trumpet provide to create something that flows organically while remaining surprising.

Witness the evolution

In a Silent Way (1969)

A decade after Davis’ masterpiece, he went out of his way to divide critics with the beginning of his electric period. Davis’ 41st album was defined by its formalistic experimentation. Davis recorded the album in a single three-hour session that was edited down to the two album tracklisting.

The album is largely defined by the way producer Teo Macero edited the session into a coherent whole defined as jazz fusion for its combination of electric and traditional jazz instruments.

Sonically, this album stands at the crossroads between Davis’ work until then and the increasingly experimental work that would follow. There is still the melancholic jazz sound of ‘Kind of Blue’, but it is energised by a new sound, the creeping influence of rock music to create a new kind of jazz music.

The masterpiece

Bitches Brew (1970)

Immediately following the previous year’s ‘In a Silent Way’, Davis took the influence of rock music and transformed the genre’s stylings into the backbone for an entirely new sound, unlike anything that preceded it.

Rhythm is at the forefront with two drum sets, congas, shakers, electric and acoustic bassists and multiple pianists featuring on all the tracks. Then, Davis weaves in electric guitars, clarinets, saxophones, and of course his trumpet to create a sound that sometimes resembles Latin jazz, sometimes resembles rock, and sometimes was just pure cacophony.

‘Bitches Brew’ is one of the less accessible albums in Davis’ discography. There aren’t any of the sweet melodies from the days that Bill Evans was a part of the quintet. Yet if you sit with the album and meet it on its terms, it’s a one-way train to jazz reverie.