With apologies to Miles Davis (part 4).


Miles Davis’ great 1960’s quintet at Newport: (left to right) Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Miles, Tony Williams.

(continued from part 3) The advances made in vertical improvisation exemplified by John Coltrane’s 1960 recording Giant Steps, the modal innovations that dominated jazz in the early to mid-1960s, and the move to free, atonal improvisation that Coltrane helped foster after 1960 are three revolutions that Miles Davis’ late 1950’s quintets and sextets often get at least some credit for developing. The players within those bands, especially Coltrane and the pianist Bill Evans, deserve any credit they receive as innovators, and it’s tough to overstate their influence. Miles, on the other hand—and in similar fashion to his limited role in the development of cool jazz—really functioned as a facilitator at best, and a non-entity at worst, in creating any imprint on the jazz innovations of the 1960’s. Davis certainly had an ear for talent, and his solos in this era are nothing short of brilliant. The extent of his participation in creating anything like an ensemble “sound” or style, however, is tough to gauge, and we feel that players like Evans and Coltrane would have had a similar, if somewhat belated, impact on music absent Miles. Much like Count Basie did for many years, Miles provided a venue for creative innovation to take place, but left it to others to actually make those innovations. Unlike the post-1945 Basie, however, Miles’ band was often at the cutting edge of things.

As his great 1960’s quintets gave way to his fusion-oriented period that began in earnest with the album Bitches Brew, Miles’ role was still mainly that of soloist, as his musicians were the ones who created the music and the style upon which his playing flourished. First with the acoustic quintet’s Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and later with the electric innovations of John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Bennie Maupin and many others, Miles increasingly seemed to simply come along for the ride. As the 1970’s gave way to the 1980’s, Miles always looked to hire music directors who could create a contemporary-sounding cushion for his trumpet solos. Not unlike what Woody Herman did with his Young Herds in the late 1960’s, Miles seemed to be both inspired by, and at the same time confined by, the direction that his much-younger band members took him. That direction in the 1970’s and 80’s was increasingly stripped-down and pop-oriented, but yielded occasional gems, nonetheless.

If it seems as though we’re attempting to diminish Davis’ place in history, that’s simply not true. Conversely, we feel that Miles Davis the improvisor gets too little attention, and that while historians routinely celebrate those players who have combined great technique with very personal approaches, they never seem to hold Miles in that same regard. Unlike those writers, we hold Davis to be one of a handful of the best improvisors to ever work in jazz. A giant, really, but for reasons that elude most historians, as we’ve shown.

There’s a great quote attributed to Woodie Guthrie, allegedly uttered after the invalid folk singer had been taken to see a young Bob Dylan for the first time. Asked what he thought of Dylan, Guthrie replied, “that boy ain’t much of a songwriter, but he sure can sing”. Yes, exactly the opposite of what most critics and listeners supposed, but maybe Guthrie was on to something, at least as it applies to our subject. We feel that the Miles Davis who is heralded as style-maker, trendsetter, innovator and arbiter is an overrated—or at least overstated—entity, whereas Miles the soloist should be seen as one of the great improvisers of the 20th century.

It’s not coincidental that many of Miles’ most loved albums are those he recorded in concerto form, wherein he soloed—typically brilliantly—over the arrangements of Gil Evans. These projects were studio-only affairs, and occurred separately from, and concurrently with, those of his working band. Sketches of Spain and other projects, while occasionally drifting into the saccharine, and relying more on the safety of plush orchestrations than the challenge of newer concepts, manage to elevate Miles to something like the stature held by Louis Armstrong in the very early 1930’s, when he no longer innovated as he had just a few years previously, but instead soloed brilliantly and famously over less-than-challenging orchestrations.

Writer Evans, of course, was capable of brilliant work, but he wasn’t averse to drifting into the mundane and workmanlike, either. Like Bird’s playing on the Charlie Parker with Strings recordings, however, one can create some of one’s best work in the seemingly least challenging environments. Like Bird, Davis surely felt some vindication or at least a sense of validation by working with a large ensemble, performing works written especially for him. Bird, and others in similar situations, always talked about how working with strings or a large ensemble somehow made them feel “legitimate”, especially when compared to the more ad hoc framework of a typical jazz band. Critics have debated, and will continue to do so, the merits of both Bird’s work with strings and Miles work with Gil Evans. What can’t be debated by anyone with an open mind and open ears is Miles Davis’ place among a handful of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century, a status earned not with stylistic innovation or composition, but with his trumpet.

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Posted in: Iconoclasts, Jazz

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