Some Orchestral Miles Davis

|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. 


Electricity, Miles and Byrd

Electricity was in the air when trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd heard a buzz. Miles was first to noticeably respond to the stimulus with his 1968 release, In A Silent Way. Though George Benson had appeared on one cut from Miles previous album, Miles in the Sky (“Paraphernalia”), it was on In A Silent Way that the electric guitar of John McLaughlin made Miles’ jazz start to rock. The impact of McLaughlin being turned loose on Bitches Brew – along with three electric keyboards, and one electric bass – reverberates among jazz aficionados even today. No need to run down that voodoo here since the story of Bitches Brew and its aftermath is an oft-told tale.

Donald Byrd was also moving away from hard bop at this time, recording some exciting music equally as controversial if less remarked upon. With the 1970 release of Fancy Free (recorded in the spring of 1969), Byrd uses an electric piano (played by Duke Pearson) for the first time. Subsequently, it is often suggested that Byrd was mostly emulating what he heard on Bitches Brew with his exploratory album Electric Byrd in 1970. I disagree.

Miles Davis and Donald Byrd’s Drawn Influences

Donald Byrd Electric Byrd Album CoverThat many of Byrd’s sounds from the addition of electric instrumentation reflect some influences from Miles at this time is certainly correct. Yet Byrd was moving in a very different direction than Miles, as a critical listening of their music reflects clearly. Not only was the composition of the band’s instruments distinct, more important is the way each went with their subsequent output. And the case can be made it was In A Silent Way that Byrd referenced while recording Electric Byrd. Bitches Brew was released less than a month before Byrd recorded Electric Byrd, hardly enough time to have been an influence.  

Much is made, especially by Miles himself, of the impact musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone had on Miles’ music of this period. Yet for a guy who was reputed to have fired band members for “practicing” between gigs, Miles’ music doesn’t really reflect the sound of a Sly Stone or James Brown number, just their attitude. Byrd on the other hand, actually plays the groove, rhythm and funk heard on Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Which, it should be noted, came out in 1971.


A quick look at “who played what instrument” on the two albums, Bitches Brew and Electric Byrd, make comparisons difficult to support. Byrd credits nine musicians, with one flute player appearing on a single song. Again, Duke Pearson on electric piano is the only electric sound. Though it could be argued that Airto, an artist appearing on many Miles recordings, brought a certain sensibility influenced by Miles. Yet it only takes a couple of minutes to get past the space-rock to find a funky jazz groove in Estavancio”, Electric Byrd’s opening cut. Then along comes two flutes, reverb notwithstanding, to fully ground a jazz fan and later provide a Latin tinge. “Essence” plays with some of the Bitches Brew tropes, but without ever getting lost in them. The closer, “The Dude” speaks to what comes next in Byrd’s output.

The title cut of Bitches Brew has an entirely different sensibility. Nearly three times longer than “Estavancio”, “Bitches Brew” covers an extreme range of velocity and timing without ever finding a groove. Uncomfortable at times, the song glorifies an improvisational method that verges on cacophony as each musician blazes his own trail. Three electric pianos and a bass with McLaughlin again on electric guitar drive this crowd of thirteen. Oh yeah, and two drummers. The music on this album is magical, maddening, often incomprehensible and cannot be hummed.  The biggest difference between these two pivotal albums is what happened next.

A variance in approach

Miles Davis Jack Johnson iTunesMiles chased his electric bunny down a hole most people had a hard time fitting into. His next recording, Jack Johnson, remains a personal favorite and is a more listener-friendly effort likely for being a movie soundtrack. As for Live-Evil and On the Corner, 1972 and 1973 respectively, history has not been so kind. I listen to a lot of jazz with a lot of jazz enthusiasts far more sophisticated than me, and I cannot ever recall somebody playing either of these two albums, even during Miles music marathons. Frankly, these albums don’t sound so good today, just harsh. This was not music for the hoi polloi, an audience Miles sought, but instead suitable mostly for the jazz cognoscenti and die-hard fans.

In contrast, Byrd next released Ethiopian Knights, where groove and funk moved back into the forefront. The addition of Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land helping to move the dial back toward a more approachable jazz sound. In 1972 Byrd managed to find a sound that would drive his next musical phase with the release of Black Byrd. This album, panned in the community of traditionally minded jazz fans, went on to become for decades the biggest selling album in the Blue Note catalog. With help from the Mizell brothers, Byrd started playing a music everyone seemingly wanted to hear – except hardcore jazz-heads.

Interestingly, a look at the time demonstrates that the 1969 album In A Silent Way was also a likely influence for other terrific musicians like Freddie Hubbard and Carlos Santana. Hubbard’s 1970 Red Clay is widely considered one of his stand-out efforts and features Herbie Hancock on electric organ and Ron Carter on electric bass. Santana’s 1972 release Caravanserai is considered a turning point in his career, jazz sensibilities clearly on display. In 1973 Santana recorded an album with John McLaughlin (famous for his edgy work on Bitches Brew) called Love, Devotion, Surrender that couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the electric guitar McLaughlin played while with Miles.

Donald Byrd understood that it was incumbent upon musicians – whether jazz, rock, or pop – to create pathways to their music using every means possible. Miles made music for his muse, ultimately at the expense of many fans. As he stated on the cover of Bitches Brew, his was new “Directions in Music.” For Byrd, this period was about bringing future jazz enthusiasts into the club, with a kind of music that’s inclusive, not exclusive.


Lots of Miles Between Us

Finding myself home alone for a long weekend, I was determined to play as much of Miles Davis albums from my collection as time would permit. There was not enough time to hear all 42 titles. Which was fine since many of these albums are played frequently, with Jack Johnson, Seven Steps to Heaven and Miles Ahead at the top of my usual playlists. This allowed me to focus on CDs that had not been heard in a long time. For the half-dozen albums that contain two, or more, CD’s I just played the first disc. That list included Circle in the Round, Agharta, Big Fun and the Bootleg Sessions.

The experiment was a raging success and there will be some changes to the usual suspects that end up in my car and office over the next few months. For today’s Jazz-Notes I’m going to make some observations, many likely to be inflammatory for hardcore fans.

A Journey into the Miles Davis Albums

Miles Davis albums - Modern Jazz GiantsThe best surprises were two of Miles Davis albums separated by thirty years; Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants that included recording sessions from 1954 and 1956, and Tutu from 1986. We’ll start with Jazz Giants since it needs some context. There are, in fact, two albums with this name, both released by Prestige and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder. The first was recorded during two separate sessions in 1954 and ultimately titled Bags Groove (though the actual song title is Bags’ Groove) with Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. A reissue in 1987 included multiple takes of Bags’ Groove and But Not For Me. A terrific album, but less impressive than the album released in 1956 with cuts from one of the 1954 sessions and another from 1956. It was remastered in 2008 by Rudy Van Gelder.

Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants provided an unexpected jolt. As happened often over the weekend, a song would pop out and send me to the liner notes. Here the line-up on a single tune, ‘Round Midnight, was John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones. The difference between the sound of the earlier session in December of 1954 and the ‘Round Midnight session of 1956 was incredible. If there was ever a question regarding Miles ability to evolve intelligently, it is answered by this album. The journey to Kind of Blue seems inevitable.