|The assertion that Miles Davis was a “musical chameleon” might best be demonstrated by listening to albums, Porgy and Bess and Aura, back-to-back. They are similar without being anything alike.|
Recently grazing along a shelf with 41 CDs by Miles Davis (double-sets and boxed collections counting as one, and only part of my Davis collection) the 1959 release Porgy and Bess caught my eye. Primarily because I could not recall ever having played the album. It is noted for being both the second collaboration between Davis and Gil Evans as well as one of his best-selling and most critically acclaimed recordings. The composer, George Gershwin had commented over twenty years earlier that jazz, “…is in the blood and feeling of the American people.” I am now listening to it a lot.
Another album catching my attention recently was a 1984 recording, Aura.
This album I have listened to (and written about) but not in a long time. The reissue from 2000 offers slightly different content from the original as well as one of the most unflattering photos of Davis I’ve ever seen. While visiting Copenhagen to accept a music award Davis agreed to record a European serial style of compositions by Palle Mikkelborg. Like, Porgy and Bess, it also features a longtime collaborator, guitarist John McLaughlin. The opening is harsh, likely why it hadn’t been on my playlist in a while, but is very seductive in its entirety. It is playing as I type this note.
I have commented previously on the generally unappreciated yet brilliant efforts of composers and arrangers like Duke Ellington and Oliver Nelson for their contributions in creating American orchestral music. In these two releases, we hear Davis’s contribution as an interpreter of compositions clearly belonging to the American canon. Granted, Aura was composed by and recorded using mostly Danish players. But Mikkelborg states that after hearing “When Lights Are Low” from the 1952 vinyl Blue Haze the music of Davis had been, “…very important in my life.” During rehearsals, Davis comments to Mikkelborg, “You must have been following [me].” This music is about Miles Davis, and he is as American as it is possible to be.
The four recording sessions for Porgy and Bess took place during the summer of 1958 and included a lot of musicians, but a couple of names are worth highlighting in light of subsequent Davis recordings that ended up overshadowing this album. Paul Chambers’ bass features in all the tunes, as does Cannonball Adderley’s saxophone. Jimmy Cobb and Philly Joe Jones split sessions on the drums. It took a 1997 rerelease for this recording to fully engage critics. That is likely when the CD entered my collection.
Evans’ arrangements offer a sublime version of Porgy and Bess that just doesn’t sound like any other interpretation of Gershwin’s classic musical.
The often recorded and understandably loved “Summertime” remained, for me, unrecognized until it was halfway finished. Even now it is easy to forget how well-known this music is as Davis works his magic. Curiously, this too opens with a harsh sound followed by a lyrical trumpet line over light orchestration. Then it settles into a thoughtful meditation by Davis on Evans orchestration. Gershwin was long dead by the time this album was produced. Still, it would be hard to accept that he would not have enjoyed this music.
Aura, on the other end of the Miles musical spectrum, offers moments that sound like Davis compositions and then veers off into uncharted waters.
Mikkelborg’s classical roots bubble up through the flow of this music offering surprising and quite enjoyable contrasts to the familiar Davis sounds. The liner notes explain in a sort of goofy way how the compositions were composed using a combination of reflections on Davis’ paintings and the ten letters of his name. Neither of which offers much insight into why this music is so interesting. A longtime fan of classical music, Davis is very comfortable with these songs. As he commented in a 1958 interview with Nat Hentoff, classical music set the foundation for Davis’ move toward modal jazz. Frankly, since Aura includes more segments reminiscent of the later electronic albums it will likely not be as enjoyable to fans of the earlier modal Miles heard on the 1950s recordings with Evans as an arranger.
And yet, this is why Miles Davis mattered sixty years ago and remains relevant, and mostly loved, even today. In the final analysis, the assertion that Davis was a “musical chameleon” might best be demonstrated by listening to these two albums back-to-back. They are similar without being anything alike.