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Eight albums to learn to love Miles Davis

At first glance, jazz can be scary. Even more Miles Davis discography. Plethoric, heterogeneous as possible, often complex. However, it is quite possible to immerse yourself in it and understand it without hurting yourself too much. For that, you have to know where to start. First, two periods are the most suitable for an introduction to his music: the end of the 1950s and the 1980s. genius of the greatest jazzman in history.

But let’s be clear: this list is in no way intended to list and even less to classify the best albums of the trumpeter. It is a question of condensing those who serve as gateways to his work and his different periods. At the risk of neglecting some of his masterpieces like Bitches Brew, On The Corner, A Tribute To Jack Johnson, ESP or Milestones. But for once, the important thing is not there.

1. “Kind Of Blue” (1959)

This is the best-selling jazz album of all time. And that’s no coincidence. Kind Of Blue is considered by many to be the centerpiece of Miles Davis’ discography. But it is also one of its most accessible. At the end of the 1950s, with the complicity of his then tenor saxophonist, the immense John Coltrane, the trumpeter developed an attraction for what is called modal jazz. To put it simply, this means that the chord sequences are less complex, more regular, and that instrumentalists can indulge in improvisations without worrying too much about setting up or structures that are increasingly difficult to remember. In other words, if the basis of the composition is refined, its melodies become predominant. “Why play so many notes when it is enough to play the most beautiful ones?”, said Miles Davis.

When sacred monsters are given the possibility of expressing themselves with almost total freedom, the result is insanely deep and smooth. The first track of the album, “So What”, illustrates this approach in itself, with this double bass line then these two piano chords repeated at will and which form one of the most famous themes of the genre. For those who would like to push the experience beyond listening, the book Kind Of Blue – The making-of of Miles Davis’ masterpiece (The Word and the Rest, 2017), is essential.

2. “Tutus” (1986)

With Miles Davis, there are therefore two major gateways: his period from 1955 to 1960 and which therefore characterizes his entry into modal jazz. But also the last decade of his career. Not because it would be better than the others, but because the musician used a lot of elements or motifs that spoke to the general public of the time. In a way, his goal during this period was above all to explore new sounds, new formats, and to introduce purely rock, funk and synthetic elements into his jazz.

This approach has conquered a very wide audience, in particular via the album Tutu, released in 1986. Mainly composed and produced by young bassist Marcus Miller, it is imbued with sounds that are both mysterious and industrial. It is largely on drums, percussion and drum machines that its structure rests (as evidenced by the title “Tomaas”), Miles Davis having recorded his trumpet parts alone in the studio, after everyone else, something he had almost never done before.

3. “Elevator for the scaffold” (1957)

Back to modal jazz. The soundtrack of the film Elevator to the Gallows (directed by Louis Malle) was recorded by Miles Davis and his musicians as they viewed the footage for the first time, in direct reaction to the scenes. Misty, enigmatic, this music alone symbolizes the sound dressing of film noir of the time. There are simple structures, slower tempos, loose melodies full of reverberation.

Sometimes populated by very short pieces, such as “Évasion de Julien”, it is certainly centered around the trumpet, but above all the double bass, an instrument which perfectly suits the atmospheres and the muffled steps shot by the director. The credits of the film, appearing in the introduction of the disc, is a popular classic, the kind of piece that one has the impression of having already heard even if this is not the case.

4. “Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet” (hard bop period, 1957)

Only one year before the recording of the soundtrack ofElevator to the Gallows, Miles Davis is in a completely different musical universe. He has just signed with the biggest record company of the moment, Columbia. Problem, he is still under contract with Prestige Record, to whom he still owes five albums. Never mind, in two days (May 11 and October 26, 1956), he summoned his musicians for two marathon studio sessions. What to draw from it the five remaining discs including the tetralogy Cookin’, Relaxin’, Steamin’ and Workin’.

For the story, this series is part, with other discs, of the bases of the hard bob movement, which succeeds be-bop and is characterized by a slower tempo and more turned towards the heritage of swing and blues. Relaxin’ is a model of the genre, consisting of the sweet ballad ‘You’re My Everything’, the classic ‘It Could Happen To You’ or the energetic “I Could Write A Book”.

5. “The Man With The Horn” (1981)

Another major disc of his last period, The Man With The Horn is a superb example of utterly affordable and funky jazz fusion. We find Marcus Miller on bass, certainly the most highlighted musician on this disc. Unlike in Tutu, which will be released five years later, we find here even more pronounced rock influences, thanks in particular to guitarist Mike Stern, who signs crazy solos like on “Fat Time”.

The eponymous track is a fine example of Miles Davis’ open-mindedness at this time in his life: he used wah-wah effects on his trumpet and invited keyboardist Randy Hall to sing, a rather rare occurrence in the discography of the leader. This atmosphere contrasts completely with what was then the leader’s last album, On The Cornerreleased nine years earlier, one of the most difficult to approach, but also one of the best (patience, you will come to that).

6. “In A Silent Way” (1969)

“Play as if you don’t know how to play!” Here is what Miles Davis would have said to his new guitarist John McLaughlin before starting the recording of “In A Silent Way”, the second track from the album of the same name. So the musician played as basic a chord as possible, an E major, and started to improvise on that basis. Then, things gradually become more complex while keeping in mind this desire for simplicity and stripping.

We are in 1969, Miles Davis begins his jazz fusion period, the one that will give birth to the masterpiece Bitches Brew a year later, the one that would mark the rest of his career, until his death in 1991. If the first track, “Shhh/Peaceful”, is a little more difficult to access, it is nevertheless a magnificent proof of the ability of the trumpeter to set singular and very visual atmospheres.

7. “Porgy and Bess” (1958)

Total registry change. Composed in 1935 by George Gershwin, the opera Porgy and Bess has been reinterpreted many times. The track “Summertime” is one of the most well-known tunes in American music history. Yes, just that. Several jazz versions exist, but that of Miles Davis and Gil Evans certainly remains the most notable.

The two acolytes, then in the process of taking the opposite view of the hyper complex chord structures of the be-bop movement, want to simplify the approach to jazz (hello, modal jazz). Their new exploration of Porgy and Bess replaces the vocalists’ lyrics with wind instruments performing the melodies, giving Miles Davis’ trumpet a spoken, focused feel to the intonation of every note.

8. “Dig” (1951)

After all that, it only remains to return to the sources, to the bebop, to the first period of Miles Davis. It would be tempting to rush towards Birth Of The Coolrecorded in 1949 (but only released in 1957), but dig, less known, seems more appropriate for those who discover his work. Bebop having revolutionized the approach to jazz while making it more complex, the second period of the movement already tends to make it less eccentric and experimental. dig is part of this wave.

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The tempos are less frantic like “Bluing” (but not “Conception”, let’s face it), and the disc is adorned with a magnificent ballad with a version of the standard “My Old Flame”, on which the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins offers a solo to cry.

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