Bitches Brew was only the beginning of Miles Davis’ fusion-era adventurism. After indulging in some rock-out sessions for A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Davis looked to the era’s progressive funk, adding new ingredients to create an original stew: electric guitar, tribal drums, and even sitar, as well as post-production tape editing. Chaotic percussion threatens to obscure the groove of the 20-minute opening suite, but the center holds, as the ensemble adds polyrhythms, electric piano squeals, and, in Miles’ case, wah-wah trumpet.
Miles Davis took a turn away from hard bop with Bitches Brew, and its mysterious fusion vibes still reverberate throughout jazz music. Psychedelic guitar lines cavort with funky percussion on “Pharaoh’s Dance,” while the title track manifests the album’s surreal atmospheres with stark trumpet blasts, bobbing bass, and wild bursts of percussion. And despite its abrasiveness, a chilled-out character emerges on opus “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” Arguably Davis’ most intense work, this masterpiece firmly cements his name in the jazz-rock pantheon.
Miles Davis had been experimenting with electric instruments since 1967, but In a Silent Way truly kicks off his fusion period. One of the first jazz albums to feature extensive overdubbing and tape manipulation, it features two side-long suites created by producer Teo Macero, which layer various improvisations by Davis and his sidemen. "Shhh/Peaceful" gives organist Joe Zawinul and electric guitarist John McLaughlin plenty of room to stretch out over heartbeat bass and shimmering hi-hat, while the title track coalesces into a sultry Latinesque groove.
Between May of 1957 and March of 1960, Miles Davis collaborated with the composer and arranger Gil Evans to create a trilogy of masterpieces for large jazz ensemble. Sketches of Spain, the last of the three, is a dazzling work, not only for the glowing, magisterial orchestrations, but for the stunning solo work by Davis, among his most expressive and affecting. The centrepiece of the album is a November 1959 recording of the adagio from “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a 20th century Spanish composition by Joaquin Rodrigo. The band plays with beauty and splendour, content to stick closely to the score. The remaining tracks were recorded in March of the following year. “Will O’ the Wisp” comes from a Manuel de Falla ballet while “The Pan Piper” is based on a mystical Peruvian Indian folk melody. The final two tracks are adaptations of old Andalusian flamenco. “Saeta” is a religious march tune that quiets in the middle to allow Davis’ mournful, wailing horn the spotlight. “Solea” builds slowly atop the lightly prancing percussion of Jimmy Cobb, Elvin Jones and crew, a blend of Latin polyrhythms and modal jazz. Davis’ inspired improvisations on these two tracks are on another plane, smouldering with emotion.
In the years between the dissolution of Miles Davis’ first great quintet and the formation of his second, the trumpet master ventured into something new in 1959—not knowing it would become one of jazz's biggest albums ever. Bassist Paul Chambers from the first quintet remained on board, as did John Coltrane, whom Davis had fired, then rehired after the tenor giant kicked his drug addiction and experienced a spiritual and creative rebirth.
But Davis also added a third horn, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, making for richer group voicings and a bluesy, bebop-oriented soloing style that balanced Davis’ spare melodic approach and Coltrane’s restless, exploratory “sheets of sound” (coined by critic Ira Gitler). Pianist Bill Evans played close-voiced chords derived from modes, or specific types of scales—an approach that gave rise to the term “modal jazz”.
The fast-moving progressions of bebop and much post-bop required improvisers to jump hurdles—something Davis knew all about as Dizzy Gillespie’s successor in the Charlie Parker Quintet. On Kind of Blue, there were longer durations between chords, opening up space in the music. The soloist had the option of taking a breath. But even as Miles brought the temperature down, he introduced new textures and tonal colours, drawing on the harmonic thinking of Gil Evans and George Russell, or even Debussy and Satie. In that sense the album was a continuation of Birth of the Cool, recorded 10 years earlier, and perhaps a harbinger of the ethereal In a Silent Way 10 years later.
Pianist Wynton Kelly subbed in for Evans on “Freddie Freeloader”, and drummer Jimmy Cobb kept the music at a low-simmering boil throughout. Two years later, on Davis’ In Person at the Blackhawk recordings, however, one can hear Cobb, Chambers and Kelly taking “So What” at a much brighter tempo, heightening the impact of that hypnotic two-chord song. On “Four” & More from 1964, with Tony Williams on drums, “So What” is faster still. What started out slow and meditative helped form the basis of the more aggressive and abstract playing of the second quintet.
Two striking ballads, “Blue in Green” and “Flamenco Sketches”, bear the compositional imprint of Bill Evans, though they’re co-credited to Davis. Both are key examples of Davis’ work with the Harmon mute, yielding a metallic and intimate sound that jazz trumpeters have emulated ever since. “Flamenco Sketches”, a modal chord cycle that shifts in mood like colours of the rainbow, took initial inspiration from Evans’ drone-like “Peace Piece”, heard on Everybody Digs Bill Evans (released in 1959 as well). Miles could pick pianists: Evans would soon be followed by Herbie Hancock, and Davis’ musical direction shifted yet again. But even though the Kind of Blue sextet was short-lived, it yielded what is now the most universally known example of Davis’ work.
The year 1955 was significant for Miles Davis. His memorable performance at that year's Newport Jazz Festival heralded his return to form. He also formed his legendary first quintet,with John Coltrane (tenor), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums), one of the great working bands in jazz annals. Davis's star was in ascendance, so his celebrated contract with giant Columbia, catalyzed by his Newport performance, came as no surprise, a coup for both artist and label. However, Davis had already signed to the independent Prestige label, and the quintet would record a series of five acclaimed albums for the smaller outfit. While fulfilling his obligation to Prestige, Davis and company also waxed a pair of sessions for Columbia - one in October of 1955, the other in June of '56 - the glorious results of which emerged in 1957 on Round About Midnight, his renowned label debut. It was Davis's smoky, muted take on Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" that so delighted the Newport crowd in '55, and the stunning studio version found here is worthy of a time capsule. The luminous "Bye Bye Blackbird" displays the band's deft touch with midtempo ballads- their signature - while Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha" returns them to burning bop territory.
Many of these innovative tunes were initially released as singles on 78s, but the achievements of the trumpeter and his collaborators—including arranger Gil Evans and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz—begged to be grouped together as an album. Miles’ concept is concrete: cool jazz played by a midsize group and heavy on low-register brass, including trombone and French horn. Effervescent, bebop-influenced solos (“Move“) collide with contemporary classical harmony (“Moon Dreams”), but thanks to the ensemble's skill, the whole set sounds unified and gorgeous.