Though it is now widely regarded as a classic, On the Corner won Miles Davis a fair amount of critical derision from jazz purists upon its 1972 release. Though Miles had laid the groundwork for On the Corner’s windswept, inhospitable funk with the release of 1970’s A Tribute To Jack Johnson, On the Corner’s disorienting textures and hyper-repetitive rhythmic assaults initially took many listeners by surprise. Davis takes pleasure in revisiting the staccato, fleet-footed R&B rhythms of Jack Johnson, but On the Corner’s take-no-prisoners attitude, thinly veiled political subtext, and bracingly alien electronic interjections distinguish it from its younger, slightly more well-mannered cousin. On the Corner was a fully-fledged statement of purpose, possessed of an uncompromising will for sonic confrontation. When attempting to explain the radical stylistic turnaround he enacted with On the Corner, many Davis fans point to his growing infatuation with the futuristic funk of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix and his burgeoning romance with the hip young scenester Betty Mabry. Influences aside, On the Corner is an album of trailblazing, genre-defying music.
Whatever you call Miles Davis’ music on Bitches Brew (billed as “Directions in Music by Miles Davis”), it was not exactly a subtle shift in course: the wild, surreal cover art, the menacing title, the marathon explorations, the prominent doses of psychedelic rock and heavy soul. Drawn to the primal expressiveness of rock and soul, Davis created his own sound of great ferocity and chaos, of quiet beauty and deep grooves, and when he went into the studio for three days in August of 1969 — in the immediate fallout of Woodstock — he was fortunate enough to have a slew of first-class musicians help him execute his vision: his core band of Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, augmented by the likes of John McLaughlin, Bennie Maupin, Joe Zawinul, and Larry Young. The two side-length tracks, “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew,” are winding jams with shifting moods and tempos; the many musicians dance gingerly around each other at times, then stomp and flail with abandon. “Spanish Key” offers intense, impenetrable funky rhythms and showcases McLaughlin’s rough-edged guitar and some rather aggressive trumpet from the leader. “Miles Runs Down the Voodoo” is a filthy, snaking, late-night R&B vamp while “Sanctuary” mixes introspective passages with a few dense bursts of activity.
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 centerpiece 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 splendor, 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, smoldering 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 colors, 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 colors 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.
Birth of the Cool was the start of many things. Recorded in three sessions from 1949 to 1950, it was the beginning of Miles Davis’s recording career, as well as his storied collaboration with arranger Gil Evans. In a broader sense, the album also was the first shot in what was soon called the “cool jazz” or West Coast sound of the ‘50s, which ran contrary to the hot bebop and Latin jazz happening in New York City. As would be the case for decades to come, Davis had excellent taste in sidemen: pianist John Lewis and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (who both contributed material and arrangements), as well as drummers Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, saxophonist Lee Konitz, French horn player Gunther Schuller, trombonists JJ Johnson and Kai Winding, and others. The sound on classics like “Jeru,” "Israel,” “Move,” and “Moon Dreams” is relaxed and elegant, while maintaining bebop’s emotional focus whenever Davis or one of the other soloists rose above the lush polyphonal shadings. Originally released incrementally on 10” discs, the tunes here didn’t appear as this knowingly titled LP until 1957.