I guess it’s a cliché to say that Miles is your favorite jazz musician. But for me it’s the absolute truth. I was fortunate enough to see Miles at a now-defunct Boston club named Kix. This was in 1981 and I know that because in researching this post I found out – to my great surprise – that an album was released called “We Want Miles” which was partially recorded there.
This was his first live appearance in five years and I really don’t know why he came to Boston. Maybe because Boston-based guitarist Mike Stern was a force at that time and perhaps he suggested the place, don’t know.
In any event, this was my one and only time actually seeing Miles. I wish I could say that at the time I was blown away. But all I personally remember is a lot of tooting on the horn and him turning his back to the audience. So, one of those “I saw a living legend things” that didn’t quite live up to the hype. But now that I can hear the album on YouTube, I have to say that he – and the band – were playing better than my memory would allow. (Or perhaps I can just appreciate it more these days).
But regardless of my then-disappointment, that takes nothing away from his greatness. The sweep and breadth of his career, the plaintive ‘wah’ of his playing, his lasting influence and his growth through a variety of styles from be-bop to cool to modal to fusion is nothing short of breathtaking.
The following number, “Blues by Five,” is fairly representative of his mid-fifties sound. It is from the 1956 Quintet featuring Miles, John Coltrane (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (double bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums). This is what jazz sounds like to me:
Miles didn’t come out of nowhere of course. Shortly after he got to New York in the ’40’s, he replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s band and quickly made a name for himself. (I’ll do a separate post on Parker in the not-too-distant future).
In the following number – “Now’s The Time” – Parker takes the first solo followed by Miles. Wikipedia says, “Davis takes a melodic solo, whose unbop-like quality anticipates the “cool jazz” period that followed.” This one was recorded in 1945 as part of the Savoy (label) Sessions. Personnel on this track are Parker, Miles, Dizzy Gillespie (piano), Curley Russel (bass), and Max Roach (drums).
In the late ’50’s, Miles started making forays into modal playing. “The term “modal jazz” refers to improvisational music that is organized in a scalar (“horizontal”) way rather than in a chordal (“vertical”) manner. By de-emphasizing the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means: melody, rhythm, timbre, and emotion.
A modal piece will generally use chords, but the chords will be more or less derived from the prevailing mode.”1 A nice example of this is “Milestones” from the album of the same name. Personnel on the following number are Davis, Cannonball Adderly (alto sax), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (double bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums).