Celebrate the Catalog: Miles Davis

selected Miles Davis albums ranked

Miles Davis discography SorcererSorcerer
(1967, Columbia)

The mid- to late-’60s run that Davis had with his second quintet is one that found the five musicians time and time again hitting a sweet spot, showing off a kind of mesmerizing improvisational language that translated in a series of great albums. Sorcerer, released in 1967, is certainly another worthy inclusion in the series, though compared to an album like Miles Smiles, it pales a bit. Sorcerer is a good album, definitely, and the amazing “Prince of Darkness” starts the record off on a very high note, its melodic swing, to my ears, an even greater achievement than most of the other songs the quintet recorded during the half-decade. But the remaining six tracks don’t approach such heights, rather maintaining a steady cool that’s enjoyable, if not one that leaves much of an impact. It does, however, have an odd, brief closing vocal jazz track, “Nothing Like You.” Though the thought of its inclusion seems nice in theory, cleansing the palate after a long jam session with a nod toward pop, it’s a little too goofy for my tastes. Good effort, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Still, Sorcerer provides an entertaining listen, if not a groundbreaking one, and even if most of the material doesn’t live up to his best, it’s worth a listen.

Rating: 8.2 out of 10.

Miles Davis discography Filles de KilimanjaroFilles de Kilimanjaro
(1969, Columbia)

It doesn’t seem quite right to use the word “underrated” when discussing a Miles Davis album, as a pretty massive chunk of the man’s discography has been celebrated for decades. And yet, I can’t help but lob such a word at Filles De Kilimanjaro, an album that stands as an important transition between his work with his second quintet and his electric fusion period, which would begin later that same year with In a Silent Way. Bearing one of Davis’ coolest cover images (which depicts a psychedelic vision of Davis’ funk-queen wife Betty), Filles does not quite stretch out into the bold and sprawling electric sounds that In a Silent Way pioneered, but it does begin to incorporate some of the elements that made that album such an eye-opener. Keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea each play electric piano, for starters, which lends the album a warmer groove. And Ron Carter plays electric bass during the portions on which he is featured. Additionally, Davis subtly introduces elements of rock, which hadn’t been a major part of his work before, particularly on “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)“, which is, very loosely speaking, based on the melody to Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” That and the title track, which comes immediately before it in sequence, are the two true stunners on the album, each lengthy and gorgeous, but the album as a whole works beautifully, showing off some more experimental elements while retaining a kind of grace that marked many of Davis’ great records of years prior. This is essential, and highly underrated listening, and I’m sticking to that.

Rating: 9.2 out of 10

Miles Davis Discography In a Silent WayIn a Silent Way
(1969, Columbia)

I saved In a Silent Way to be one of the final Davis albums I personally evaluated, even though it’s squarely in the middle of his career, time-wise. Historically speaking, it’s a massive milestone for Miles Davis, sounding the opening bell for what would be a fruitful period of electric jazz-fusion. Where, previously, Davis had been playing a complex style of hard bop that was primarily rooted in acoustic instruments, In a Silent Way took a big step forward by incorporating effects-laden electric guitars, keyboards, bass and studio techniques that pushed the sounds on the album outside the more familiar characteristics of jazz and into something much more psychedelic and weird. Further adding the album’s importance was producer Teo Macero’s editing techniques, which found him re-editing the album’s two lengthy tracks, “Shhh/Peaceful” and “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” to create a unique musical narrative. This, at the time, was unheard of in jazz recordings, but Davis would only grow to become an even greater provocateur with time. On a personal note, In a Silent Way, for me, stands as Davis’ greatest triumph. It’s not his weirdest, nor his most melodic, nor his most commercially successful album. But it is the moment at which his experimental side and his more melodic tendencies converged into a work of sublime harmony. Hearing this for the first time was eye opening, to say the least. I didn’t know that music could be so nebulous and dense, yet also so beautiful. Everyone has their opinion about which of Davis’ albums is the most important, the most interesting, or simply the best. In a Silent Way manages to check off all three.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Miles Davis discography Bitches BrewBitches Brew
(1970, Columbia)

Miles Davis’ first album to be released in the 1970s, Bitches Brew, is not coincidentally also an album that marked a clear separation from everything released prior, save for In A Silent Way, in which Davis planted the seeds for the bold, noisy and alien sounds that he would create on a series of groundbreaking albums soon thereafter. Bitches Brew is the most notable of his ’70s output, and, in my opinion, one of his best three albums, ever. The first time I heard it, a switch went off in my head. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure why. This was bizarre music, which at times seemed chaotic and overwhelming, but by no means directionless. Over 94 minutes, Davis and a huge cast of musicians set forth on a musical journey that changed music forever. And that’s no exaggeration. Bitches Brew was not just a huge leap forward for jazz music, but for rock `n’ roll as well. During his “Electric” period, Davis took many cues from rock music, and the rough, abrasive nature of rock shows in many of the pieces he recorded in this timeframe. While On the Corner ultimately stands as Davis’ most controversial record, this one isn’t far behind. Tracks like “Pharaoh’s Dance” don’t seem grounded in any earthly music I know, while “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Spanish Key” take that space age freakout and make it funky. The album’s overflowing personnel count was recently the subject of a particularly hilarious edition of Christopher Weingarten’s “Are You Smarter Than a Rock Critic” in the Village Voice, in which one respondent answered that Weingarten’s mother played the skin-flute. But the cast on Bitches Brew is as strong a cast of musicians as you’ll hear on any jazz recording: Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, Joe Zawinul, and Bennie Maupin, whose ominous bass clarinet casts its own interesting shade of dark over the album. Davis aimed his raygun at the conventions of jazz on Bitches Brew, and the genre hasn’t been the same since.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Miles Davis discography Jack JohnsonA Tribute to Jack Johnson
(1971, Columbia)

Miles Davis once promised to form the “greatest rock band you ever heard.” It’s important to note that his definition of rock is probably different than most people’s, but for most of the ’70s, rock ‘n’ roll played a huge part in the direction he took. With A Tribute to Jack Johnson, named for the famous boxer, Davis and a wide cast of supporting musicians (including John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Jack deJohnette, Dave Holland and Sonny Sharrock) came closest to fulfilling that promise with a set of two 25-plus minute epics that take dense, rocking grooves into brave and exploratory territories. And the dirtier, crunchier of the two, “Right Off,” was born essentially of a jam that started while the group was waiting for Miles. McLaughlin started playing a dirty, funky riff, and within two minutes, Davis rushed in and joined the session, playing one humdinger of a solo, a passage of music that stands as one of his most transcendent. That this wasn’t so explicitly planned, at least if the stories are to be believed, goes to show just what kind of magic was possible in the studio at any given time. Flipside “Yesternow,” meanwhile, is a bit more all over the map, in a good way, of course. It starts off with a funky, James Brown-inspired bassline before incorporating a section of Davis’ “Shhh/Peaceful” from In a Silent Way as well as a few other of Davis’ past compositions (even a sliver of “Right Off” as a matter of fact), and ultimately into a dense ambience, closed out with the sound of Jack Johnson, as voiced by actor Brock Peters. This is a rock album and it isn’t a rock album. And even among Davis’ fusion albums that were so prevalent at the time, Jack Johnson occupies kind of a weird space. Yet that merely makes it stand out that much more, an incredible lightning bolt of spontaneity and inspiration, and the kind of album that changes the way we hear music.

Rating: 9.2 out of 10

Miles Davis discography Live EvilLive-Evil
(1971, Columbia)

The general rule with `Celebrate the Catalog’ is to evaluate studio albums only, so including Live-Evil here breaks that rule, but only in part. It’s an album, much like its title would suggest, that contains a hefty amount of live material. But it’s also broken up by a few shorter studio-recorded pieces, which represent a different side of Davis’ musical direction at the time. And, in fact, Davis even conceptually packaged the album with opposing front and back album art depicting a pregnant woman on one side to represent life and birth, and a gross-looking creature on the other side to represent evil. From there, however, the two sides seem to blur a bit, because there are a good many live moments that sound more `evil’ than the studio tracks. In fact, the studio pieces, like “Little Church” and “Selim” (Miles spelled backward) are actually quite pretty ambient pieces that show off an ethereal complement to the nastier fusion funk of the longer live pieces. But boy, those live jams sure do cook. “Sivad” (Davis spelled backward; you see a theme developing here) wastes no time getting to a groove, laying down 15 minutes of dirty rhythms that breeze by surprisingly quickly. Bear in mind, 15 minutes on this release is relatively short, particularly when held up against “Inamorata and Narration,” which pushes well past 26. That track in particular, however, is the true stunner, capped with a super cool, trippy narration at the end. Reportedly, during the time these recordings were made, Davis was in extremely good shape, spending a lot of time working out and avoiding drugs, despite how fucked up some of these sounds are. And he’d have to be in good shape to manage some of the performances he does here. The thought of it makes my lungs hurt. Though Davis adds filter effects to his trumpet as well, treating his instrument in much the same way Hendrix did his guitar (save for the fire). Still, guitar is actually the most prevalent instrument here, so despite Miles’ helming of the proceedings, this is almost as much John McLaughlin’s album as it is Davis’.

Rating: 9.2 out of 10

Miles Davis discography On the CornerOn the Corner
(1972, Columbia)

Google “Miles Davis controversial album” and this is what comes up, over and over and over again. It seems kind of odd, in retrospect, that On the Corner, and not any of his numerous prior forays into fusion, rock, jazz or other experimental realms, is the album of his that pissed off fans most. But here’s why it did: On the Corner is a funk album. It’s not a funk album like The Meters, or like Funkadelic even, though they’re a much closer analogue. It’s Miles’ own dirty, nasty and raw take on funk, and even among his wilder fusion records, it’s in a category of its own. Despite how fucked up it may have seemed at the time, however, On the Corner has gone down in history as a classic. Here, Miles teams up with five drummers, legendary keyboardists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, guitarist John McLaughlin and a cast of other chaotic co-conspirators and just goes wild. And for the first half of the album, track separation is entirely irrelevant; the whole of the “On the Corner” suite is one long piece of music that flows and grinds and squeals as one beastly organism. That it’s noisy, discordant and confrontational certainly adds to the mythology about it being offensive to the sensibilities of more refined listeners, but it’s also what makes it an essential. On the Corner is Miles & Co. not giving one-tenth of a shit, and it grooves that much harder because of it.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Miles Davis discography Get Up with itGet Up With It
(1974, Columbia)

Get Up With It, released in 1974, stood as the last complete album Davis would release before taking a six-year hiatus. The time away from music not only served as a means of artistic breather, but recuperation as well, with a variety of health problems afflicting the jazz legend. He did, however, close out his fusion era with a massive statement, however, this two-LP beast of a thing that was not just long for an album, but bordering on triple-album length. And, as this was a closing bookend to his fusion period, Davis filled these two-plus hours with weird, truly space-age alien funk that was simultaneously more commercial than On the Corner and a lot more bizarre. Where that album was full of gritty, grimy, greasy, down `n’ dirty funk, this album is off in another galaxy. However, it is quite stunning in parts. The opening, 30+ minute masterpiece, “He Loves Him Madly,” is the most intriguing and beautiful piece, a tribute to Duke Ellington, who had died shortly before the track’s recording. It’s much more spacious and atmospheric than much of Davis’ other fusion-funk recordings, and actually served as a huge inspiration for Brian Eno’s ambient works. On the other side of the spectrum, “Red China Blues” is a surprisingly straightforward blues track, spanning only four minutes, with a full brass section and harmonica. It’s a bit of an odd selection among much more freaky pieces, but a lot of fun all the same. The remainder of the album delves into accessible yet disorienting funk jams that maintain a cool, interesting sound, and, on “Rated X,” even sound a bit terrifying. But none of them quite live up to the massive achievement of “He Loves Him Madly,” and how could they? Still, exhausting as this is, it’s a worthy selection and a solid ending to Davis’ fusion era.

Rating: 8.8 out of 10

Miles Davis discography under arrestYou’re Under Arrest
(1985, Columbia)

For a pretty big chunk of the ’70s, Davis shied away from recording and performing in public due to his deteriorating health. Among his various ailments were ulcers, arthritis (for which he underwent hip surgery) and cocaine addiction, so, needless to say, Miles was in pretty bad shape. But following several years of recovery, Davis got back into the game, and ended up delving into a variety of new directions in his final decade on earth. Unfortunately, not all of his instincts were worth following, and as a result, You’re Under Arrest stands as one of his most ill-advised releases, at least from an artistic standpoint. Certainly, it proved commercially successful, and the fact that the album contained some glossy covers of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” undoubtedly contributed to that. But whatever commercial success it enjoyed doesn’t erase the fact that it’s a portrait of Miles with all the innovation and soul removed. It’s an album steeped in dated, glossy ’80s production values and lite-jazz fluff. Only the opening track’s new wave funk and the closing medley’s ambiance provide any redemption from the marshmallow goo that permeates this album’s every corner, and even those tracks are pretty forgettable. This may very well be Davis’ worst album (some would argue Decoy is worse), but considering the sheer number of highly influential, groundbreaking and just plain amazing recordings he put out in his time (look at all those 9s and 10s), this sore spot doesn’t sully his legacy all that much.

Rating: 3.5 out of 10.

Miles Davis discography AuraAura
(1989, Columbia)

I chose to close this edition of Celebrate the Catalog not with Davis’ last album, and I thought it a bit too harsh to leave on a disappointing note (but it is important to note that even geniuses make mistakes). Rather, the most logical place to close out Miles Davis’ most memorable works is with Aura, the final album he recorded for Columbia before heading to Warner Bros. Recorded earlier in the decade, Aura didn’t see release until 1989, as Columbia wasn’t sure what to do with it. Taking into account how many weird and “difficult” records Davis released in his lifetime, it’s no small feat to give the label something they were hesitant to put out. But, even among some of Davis’ more out there material, Aura is an odd one. The story goes as follows: the album is essentially a ten-part suite composed by Danish flugelhornist Palle Mikkelborg, with its titles taken from the color spectrum, and based around a series of notes taken from the letters in Miles’ name. The music itself, meanwhile, is not so much jazz but a combination of varied sounds, from modern classical to ambient and rock. The works of Gil Evans play a major influence on this album, and it can be heard in the brassy bursts of tracks like “Yellow,” which turns from eerie to ominous by its fifth minute. Yet, meanwhile, “White” is spacious and minimal, revealing an elegantly oblique side of Davis’ musical persona. Some of it, most notably “Intro,” is a little off-putting, and a little dated. But by and large, the minor bits of fusion that don’t quite work aren’t enough to overshadow the prettier avant garde pieces.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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