It’s so difficult to pick our Top 5 Miles Davis Albums of all time… records from someone who has had such a great influence on jazz and music more broadly. Ranging in styles, sound and mood, Miles can be right for just about any occasion. He was a masterful musician, a complex personality and a genius composer – all of which can be seen and heard in his recordings.
5. Sketches of Spain, 1960
Let’s start with something a little bit different. Although still jazz, Miles shows us that he’s truly a musical virtuoso who can play just about any style. Miles worked on this with Gil Evans, who was a genius arranger and is responsible for a number of Mile’s masterpiece albums, some of which we talk about later on.
It’s hard to describe Sketches of Spain, but it’s somewhere between a jazz album and a symphony piece. The opening track takes up the majority of the record – the recognizable and ever powerful Concierto de Aranjuez by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. Davis plays trumpet and flugelhorn throughout the record, bringing together the various movements and melodies throughout. Again, to me this is just a testament of the man’s versatility and ability to make just about any piece he touches unique.
4. Birth of the Cool, 1957
We like to think of the 50s as the era of cool and this record is truly a testament to that. To me, this is likely to be the best album resulting from the collaboration Miles had with Gil Evans. Gil is a genius arranger and he truly transformed Miles’s music whenever they worked together. Although the project was originally meant to include Charlie Parker in it, Evans felt that he was too dedicated to his solo career and wouldn’t fit into the vision he had for this album.
Throughout the album, although always in the lead, Mile’s playing is never overpowering or seeking too much attention. You get the feeling that he’s almost shying away from the spotlight and being one with the rest of the ensemble. And although that’s quite unlike Miles on many of his other records, We think that’s a refreshing feature of this one. Boplicity and Jeru remain as our top picks from this album, both extremely uplifting yet complex tunes. The album took everything that was good about bebop, slowed it down and created a sound that to me is quite hard to match.
3. ‘Round about Midnight, 1957
This was Miles’s first record for Columbia, and the personnel on this are an all-star cast of jazz. With Coltrane on the tenor sax and Red Garland on piano, the result and the music speak for themselves. Playing the muted trumpet throughout the majority of the record, this one is a hell of record to play in the evening. The title track of the album is probably of the most recognizable tunes in jazz, written by the one and only Thelonious Monk – who Miles got to jam with at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.
The record features a mix of classic bebop style tunes such as Al-Leu-Cha and Tadd’s Delight but also touches on what later became known as modern jazz, with the much more moody and soothing All of You and the melancholic title track.
2. In a Silent Way, 1969
We like this record both for the music as well as the fact that it was a foundation for a new branch of jazz. You can think of this as early progressive jazz, or even the rockier jazz which Weather Report made a name for. In terms of timing, this was the late 60s – rock music was dominating the market place and Miles was looking for a new direction that carried forward his core values in a creative and relevant way. The record, unsurprisingly, was greeted by mixed reactions from critics at the time, but is today regarded as one of Mile’s most important works.
Throughout Miles’s life and even more so after his death there has been a lot of controversy around the creative ownership of his music. The legendary Columbia producer Teo Macero said in 1999 about his work on In a Silent Way – “Don’t think in terms of modern editing with computer software. Those albums were made with razor blades and the bad edits were simply covered up with something. As to whose music it is, I made the albums, what you actually hear, so I am co-composer to some degree at least”.
If we look at the line-up of musicians on this record it is nothing short of a who’s who of electronic jazz. You’ve got Wayne Shorter (later Weather Report) on saxophone, John McLaughlin on guitar, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on keys in addition to Joe Zawinul (later Weather Report and previously with Cannonball Adderley). These guys were seminal to the direction which jazz later took. The sound of this album has been described by reviews as a perfect marriage between music and technology. Personally, we hear something new in the album every time we hear it and that’s what we believe makes it so special.
1. Kind of Blue, 1959
There’s very little that needs to be said about Kind of Blue. Not only is it one of the greatest jazz records ever recorded, but Rolling Stone Magazine rated it Number 12 in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s the kind of record that appears in just about anyone’s record collection – jazz lover or not. It’s the kind of thing that might play in a clothing store or at a restaurant. There’s a certain universal appeal to this album which is hard to pinpoint and impossible to replicate.
The album features an all-star crew including both John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on sax, together with pianist Bill Evans, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Breaking away from conventional song form and chord progressions, Miles being the visionary that he is decided to employ the theories and song structures of his friend George Russel which later came to be known as modal jazz. In fact, the band were only given the sheet music to the pieces just a few days before the recording session and hadn’t even had an opportunity to practice prior to recording. That tells you everything you need to know about the caliber of these musicians and the leadership of Miles.
The album sets up one of the most unique moods that we have come across in music, it’s all about slowing everything down, creating space and an ambience like none other. Bill Evans build up tension through his masterful (yet never too obvious) playing of the piano, only to be resolved by a Miles or Trane solo which is equally understated and controlled. Funny enough, it was drummer Jimmy Cobb who later said “We didn’t think we were doing anything special on that record. It felt like another date – a good one, but I never recognized it from some of the things that are said about it now”.