In our first three editions of Treble’s Celebrate the Catalog, we examined the careers of some of the most notable artists to arise from the indie and alternative rock movements of the ’80s and ’90s. Yet, as ambitious as it might have been to tackle all of Sonic Youth’s studio albums, the time seemed right to start an even more audacious discography project: The selected Miles Davis albums.
Twenty years ago, the world lost one of its most incredible and gifted musicians: jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader Miles Davis. Few other artists made as massive an impact on jazz and popular music as Davis did, his nearly five decades of performing adding up to a body of work that runs the gamut from celebrated to controversial. From the late ’40s up through the ’70s, he was at the forefront of every major movement in jazz, from cool jazz to hard bop, modal jazz to fusion. And within these movements, he took inspiration from a wide range of styles, be it the traditional Spanish elements of Sketches of Spain to the raucous rock’ n’ roll sounds of A Tribute to Jack Johnson and the nasty funk of On the Corner.
To listen to Miles Davis is to hear true exploration in music. At times his albums sounded more composed and melodic, while at others, they were alien and disorienting. Davis was the type of artist for whom experimentation meant freedom and vision. By never allowing any one style to dominate, he left little opportunity for any of his music to grow stale. And by having attempted so many different sounds and techniques, he’s been likened to Pablo Picasso. His influence, meanwhile, is immeasurable, having made an impact not only on jazz, but on rock, electronic and hip-hop. The fact that he wasn’t afraid to make music that some people may not like, at least not immediately, certainly speaks to his boldness as a composer, musician and bandleader. And while Davis had his share of dark periods, from drug abuse to depression, the body of music he leaves behind is immense, and a big chunk of it absolutely essential.
To take on Davis’ entire studio discography would be unfathomably forbidding; with 67 studio albums, just to listen to all of them could take a month. So, in a slight twist to the Celebrate the Catalog modus operandi, I’ve chosen to select 20 of Davis’ albums, in honor of the 20 years since his passing, with recordings culled from all of his notable eras: the Prestige years, his early Columbia recordings, collaborations with Gil Evans, his mid-late ’60s quintet recordings, the “electric” years and his somewhat less well-received ’80s recordings. This selected Miles Davis discography is a musical journey unlike any other. Here’s our take on 20 Miles Davis albums ranked, rated, evaluated and given a closer listen.
Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet
With nearly 70 albums in Miles Davis’ repertoire, a good number of those recorded and released in the ’50s, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. He released plenty of short LPs early on that might prove interesting artifacts in terms of his development as an artist, but Davis’ first truly interesting series of albums is a quartet recorded with his first quintet, culled from two recording sessions in 1956. Each of these albums carries a similar name—Cookin’, Workin’, Relaxin’ and Steamin’—yet the first in the series, Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet is a clear frontrunner of this series. Comprising four moderately lengthy pieces, the album is a strong document of the quintet’s skills. As Davis said about the album’s title, the band merely went into the studio and cooked. Compared to much of Davis’ discography, it’s a very straightforward record, and one with no weak links, though the group’s rendition of “My Funny Valentine” is certainly the album’s shining star. And where Davis practiced more restraint in later years, his splendid trumpet solos are a main focal point of the album. Davis would later soar above and beyond this album, but it’s arguably his first great album.
Rating: 8.9 out of 10
Birth of the Cool
Birth of the Cool, in addition to being Lisa Simpson’s favorite album, is notable for being, essentially, the birth of ‘cool jazz’. A compilation of tracks from different sessions recorded in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Birth of the Cool is a very different sound from Davis than the hard bop style he’d perfect on his early Columbia albums, or for that matter, his more experimental fusion records of the ’60s and ’70s. Working with arranger Gil Evans, who’d later prove to be a highly valuable partner on groundbreaking works of later years, Davis heads up a nonet that balances big band and swing elements with more laid back bop sounds to create something undeniably cool. It’s stylish, and succinct, with most tracks spanning no longer than three minutes, and pretty lively at that. With the sole exception of the corny vocal piece “Darn That Dream,” there’s not a bum track in the bunch, but at the same time, there aren’t many tracks that really stun in the same way something like “So What” or “Shhh/Peaceful” do. That said, one can hardly love jazz without liking Birth of the Cool, because it’s just so damn… cool.
Rating: 8.7 out of 10
Round About Midnight
Miles Davis’ first album for Columbia is also his first real stunner. Even more so than on Relaxin’, Cookin’, Workin’ and Steamin’, the quintet sounds incredibly dynamic, nimbly transitioning between breathtaking ballads and vivacious hard-bop pieces. The serpentine harmonization on “Ah-Leu-Cha” is as dizzying as it is mesmerizing, and the quintet’s take on Thelonious Monk’s “Bye Bye Blackbird” is truly gorgeous. But the star of the show is the other Monk-penned track on the album, nigh-title track “Round Midnight.” A moody ballad with a just-so-slightly dark atmosphere, the song is one of Davis’ most memorable performances. In fact, it’s Davis’ weeping trumpet melody that makes this song such a jaw-dropping essential, as his slow, sensual performance pulls the listener into a cool, noir setting. It’s a sound that absolutely never wears out its welcome. And the iconic album cover matches the sound of the music perfectly. Miles leans on his arm, bathed in red light, looking distant but powerful. It’s the first recording of Davis’ that feels like a truly complete album, and a great leap forward in terms of his artistic development. Just remember, the album’s title is almost a set of instructions, because it sounds best around the time the clock strikes 12.
Rating: 9.1 out of 10.
Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet
The second in a series of similarly titled albums recorded with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin’ puts a pretty heavy emphasis on the whole concept of “relaxin’.” A drawing of a woman composed entirely of triangles reclines on the album’s cover and, to capture the loose, relaxed feel of the sessions, the album is one of the rare Davis recordings to feature actual in-studio banter. So yes, indeed, this is a very laid-back recording, especially when held up against the other albums in the [Verb]in’ series. But it’s also highly enjoyable. The talent of Davis’ quintet, which also includes John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, is undeniable. They’re an impressive unit, and though the sessions were part of a marathon sequence of recording, nothing feels forced or overworked. They’re just… relaxin’. And while overall Davis would far surpass this release with more than a dozen of his Columbia releases, this is a solid release, and not a bad addition for anyone planning on starting a jazz collection.
Rating: 8.4 out of 10
Porgy and Bess
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Miles Davis recorded a series of albums with noted arranger and conductor Gil Evans, who previously worked with Davis on the sessions that made up Birth of the Cool, and the most interesting thing about them, aside from the lush and massive production, is just how diverse these collaborations proved to be. They covered Brazilian and Spanish styles as well as showtunes, which provided the source material for Porgy and Bess. A reimagined jazz version of George Gershwin’s classic opera, Porgy and Bess is both a testament to the strength of the original songs as well as that of the musicians’ incredible performances. Intended to be heard as a whole, Porgy and Bess nonetheless works best when heard from start to finish, the flow and the drama of the album so carefully and brilliantly executed that, even with the words removed, the album remains strongly emotional and evocative. But, as with most of Davis’ classic jazz recordings, there are certainly some hefty standouts, chief among them “Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)”, “I Loves You, Porgy” and, of course, “Summertime.” Porgy and Bess is a very rich and detailed recording and it can take a few listens to fully absorb it all, but this is by no means an obstacle to enjoying it. It’s one of Davis’ most accessible releases, in addition to being an early highlight.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Kind of Blue
Kind of Blue is easily the hardest album to write about in Davis’ discography, simply because it’s the kind of record that likely is already in the libraries of anyone reading this feature, a vaunted institution not only in jazz, but in the history of popular music. It’s Davis’ best-selling album, having been certified quadruple platinum in 2008, and ranked number 12 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. So it’s a big deal. And there’s a good reason for that. For starters, Davis’ choice to pursue “modal” improvisation, based around a series of scales rather than chord progressions, freed up the musicians to pursue more adventurous, and for that matter melodic, avenues through which to explore. This method, though not the first time Davis used it, set a new high standard for the genre, massively influencing much of what came afterward. And then, there’s the cast of musicians, all of whom give knockout performances, from pianist Bill Evans to saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, to the great John Coltrane, whose solo in “So What” is a work of awe-inspiring majesty unto itself. And part of what’s unique about Davis as a bandleader is that he’s never an overbearing presence; he gives his musicians room to breathe, but when he does take his own solos, they’re always powerful and elegant, which hold true throughout Kind of Blue. Most importantly, Kind of Blue contains five perfect pieces, each of which is simultaneously expertly executed and extremely beautiful. It’s a perfect album, which is not something just any musician can achieve (let alone numerous times), and the kind of recording that can open someone’s eyes to a whole new world of music. As Q-Tip once said in an interview, “It’s like the Bible – you just have one in your house.”
Rating: 10 out of 10
Sketches of Spain
To fully grasp the importance of Davis’ collaborative works with Gil Evans, one needs to understand what “third stream” is. Essentially, the term “third stream” signifies a kind of music that exists somewhere between jazz and classical, and to a certain extent, this is the direction the two took for part of their prolific period of work together. In particular, Sketches of Spain marks their most beautifully ambitious work to combine familiar jazz tropes with the dramatic elegance and orchestral arrangements of classical music. On Sketches of Spain, Davis and Evans took inspiration from the Spanish folk tradition to create a big and triumphant album that is more jazz in aesthetic than practice. Improvisation is minimal on Sketches, its careful, compositional nature making it something of a unique selection in Davis’ catalog. It is, on one hand, a subdued record, one that soothes more than many of Davis’ albums up to this point. And yet it’s also a highly dramatic album, with punctuated bursts that keep it from ever being so politely pleasant as to fade into the background. The nuanced arrangements from Evans, not to mention the size of the orchestra, ultimately make Sketches of Spain the kind of album that, while great for atmosphere, asks a certain amount of attention from the listener. Each detail seems to draw you in closer, as each subtle movement reveals something new and captivating. Though Sketches of Spain does not have quite the reputation that Kind of Blue has in terms of introducing many to jazz or changing how they hear it, it’s nearly as well regarded and just as much of an artistic treasure.
Rating: 9.4 out of 10
The last of Davis’ albums with arranger and conductor Gil Evans, Quiet Nights is largely considered the worst of their collaborative works, and a noble failure in general. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is a bad album. In fact, it’s quite pretty, but it’s incredibly short, and feels unfinished. There’s a good reason for this: in three recording sessions over the course of four months, Evans and Davis only rounded up about 20 minutes of usable material, and in order to pay for the large studio costs, producer Teo Macero added an extra track from an entirely separate session and handed over the product to Columbia to show their investment wasn’t for naught. Davis did not approve of the decision to release an unfinished project, and didn’t work with Macero again for another few years. Given all of this information, it’s easy to see why the album takes up an awkward place in Davis’ catalog, and for that matter, why it’s viewed as a disappointment. That said, it’s pretty enjoyable, and despite its shortcomings, has a handful of great tracks, most notably Davis’ take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” (from which the album gets its title). The decision to take on Brazilian sounds like bossa nova was probably a record company trend chase, given its popularity at the time, and it’s understandable why Davis might not have been nearly as enthusiastic about that. But at its strongest moments, he knocks it out of the park. And at its worst, it’s merely pleasant. This is by no means a disaster, just a missed opportunity.
Rating: 8.0 out of 10
Miles Davis made some remarkable contributions to jazz in the ’50s with his first classic quintet, but his second provided a new gateway to exploration and experimentation. In 1965, Davis’ first album with this second group (featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and a 19-year-old Tony Williams) bridges his early ’60s hard bop output with the more avant garde direction he’d take later on in the decade. However, E.S.P., being the first outing with this quintet, is only a taste of what’s to come. That said, it’s a solid album. It runs the gamut from more avant pieces like “Eighty-One,” which blends melodicism with sharp, punctuated rhythmic complexity, and more laid-back cool pieces such as “Mood.” Things would certainly get much weirder from here on out, but E.S.P., named possibly for Davis’ uncanny ability to pick up a piece of music without having to practice, is a fine chapter in his discography.
Rating: 8.9 out of 10
In 1963, Davis and Teo Macero had a bit of a falling out after the Quiet Nights fiasco, Macero having gone against Davis’ wishes and gave Columbia masters to an unfinished album to release as-is. Though the album was actually halfway decent, it wasn’t what Davis wanted, and in retrospect left lots of room for improvement, or at the very least some fleshing out. By 1967, however, Davis and Macero had patched up their professional relationship and worked together again on Miles Smiles. The album continues the vibrant path laid forth on E.S.P. but to slightly more successful effect. The dynamic between the quintet’s musicians is awesome, and there’s an undeniable energy to the sessions that’s infectious, though it’s certainly a step away from some of the more melody-heavy material from earlier in Davis’ career. A couple of numbers stand out in particular. First, opening track “Orbits,” penned by Wayne Shorter, takes the listener on the aural equivalent of a roller-coaster ride, with the quintet launching into one of the most invigorating tracks of their tenure. And the other major highlight, to my ears, is “Footprints,” another Shorter composition and the longest track on the album. It takes a good minute or so before the quintet begins to construct the groove that carries the song, but once they hit it there’s no turning back. It’s incredible.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.