NEW YORK, NY.-
For the past year, The New York Times has been asking musicians, writers and scholars to share the music theyd play for a friend to get them into jazz one artist, instrument and subgenre at a time. Weve covered Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, New Orleans music, jazz vocalists and much more.
Now, were turning to the man known as the Prince of Darkness, who gave us the Birth of the Cool and never stopped redefining it: Miles Davis. Since the trumpeters shape-shifting career encompassed so many phases and styles, weve decided to focus on just one: the era known as Electric Miles, starting in 1968 and continuing for more than 20 years, when he embraced electric instruments and stubborn, snaky grooves, in the process basically drawing up a blueprint for the genre now known as jazz-rock fusion.
I have to change, Davis once said. Its like a curse. And as he changed, so did American music. For much of the 1950s and basically all of the 60s, any time Davis released an album, the center of gravity in jazz shifted a bit.
In the late 1960s, urged on by his young wife, singer Betty (Mabry) Davis, and impressed by funk and rock musicians like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, the trumpeter disbanded his acoustic quintet and put aside his tailored business suits. (It bears noting that his marriage to Betty was part of a toxic pattern: He frequently drew creative inspiration from the women in his life, but he was often physically abusive and ruthlessly controlling, as he was toward her.) With Betty as a kind of creative adviser, he bought a psychedelic wardrobe, started running his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal like Hendrixs guitar and convened enormously long jam sessions with hordes of musicians: With multiple guitarists, keyboardists, drummers, bassists and percussionists playing together, he would build collective improvisations that took on lives of their own.
About that: When youre dealing with Electric Miles, you arent going to get very far in five minutes. So weve got to beg a little forgiveness for the name of this piece. But if youve got a little more than five, read on to see the picks of musicians, critics and writers who share a deep love for Davis electric period. Were sure youll find yourself happily immersed in Davis brew.
Kalamu Ya Salaam, poet
Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)
And the music cried Miles. So much was going on. Many of us turned significant corners during the decade after MLK was murdered, April 1968. Filles de Kilimanjaro was the gone song. Nothing would any longer be the same. Miles went electric. Clothes and all. The concept was new directions. Miles responding to the killing fields. Post-funeral drug. After this, he had no more memorable bands. (Most of us could not even name the new members only one great musician, Kenny Garrett, would graduate from that post-60s academy de Miles.) But, oh my, Miss Mabry had us enraptured. This was a way to meditate, to think about what was unthinkable, a new era, a realm most of us did not see coming. Miles knew the music had to change because the times they were a-changing, and the sound of the Filles album in 1968 was a lonely goodbye. If you listen to this late at night with the lights out, you will be able to deal with both the death of what was and the birth of things to come.
Cindy Blackman Santana, drummer
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down, from Bitches Brew (1970), has got a really slinky, cool, funky groove thats very inviting. Its easy for people to feel where its at. I love the way the song progresses and starts to fill in, with the guitar and the keyboards. And as Miles develops into playing inside of that groove, you hear that big, gorgeous trumpet sound that everybodys used to. All of the phrasing is just so meaningful and so heartfelt. When Miles first heard Tony Williams Lifetime, he wanted to make that band his band but that wasnt going to fly with Tony, so Miles took the guitarist, John McLaughlin, and the organist, Larry Young, and he recorded with them. A lot of people dont give Tony the credit he deserves for that beginning. But at the end of the day, Miles had the openness of mind and the foresight to see how incredible that was, and to take his version of that and keep progressing with his ideas.
Flying Lotus, electronic musician
Lonely Fire happens to be my favorite Miles Davis tune. People always describe Miles as sounding like the voice of the outsider or the loner, and this track breathes life into those labels, a testament to his unparalleled spirit. Ive listened to this song countless times through many phases of my life and moods, and I still dont know what kind of configuration it takes to create a moment like this. And to be honest, I kinda dont want to know. To me, its magic.
I hadnt thought of it until now but this song really does sound like what its like to stare into a fire. For a moment, nothing else exists. Theres that same feeling of being lost and suspended in time, mesmerized by some destructive beauty.
Wadada Leo Smith, trumpeter and composer
Prelude, Pt. 1
My favorite pieces from Miles electric era are the live recordings he made in Japan in 1975 for the Agharta and Pangaea albums. The band develops a certain kind of tapestry that allows each performer to have individuality, but measured by the whole: Everything is equal. And the only thing that really stands out from that tapestry are the comments that Miles Davis makes on his horn. In this era, he chose to make shorter phrases than he had in his acoustical music not disconnected from each other, but just shorter phrases with more space in between them and he blurred the palette that dealt with tone or pitch. With the guitars and electric keyboards and all those extra components in play, he would shape whatever was coming out of the band based off what I would call his unspoken philosophy of what the music should be. It would all depend on whether he looked at somebody, or he played something, or he changed the mute on his trumpet, or he went over to the keyboards. All of those things were the components of his composition.
Lakecia Benjamin, saxophonist
Human Nature (live)
This cover of Michael Jacksons Human Nature was actually the first music of Miles Davis that I heard. I had a teacher who was like, You guys like Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson and jazz are the same. And we were like, yeah right. But then they played us Miles version of Human Nature. Because of the time period, I knew that song really well, and to hear somebody so famous playing that melody on a trumpet was really inspiring. I cant tell you how motivational it was. I started exploring videos online and saw all the different ways he might solo on that song; this also was the first time I saw how Miles dressed and how he looked, how he interacted with his band, how the audience interacted with him. An instrumentalist operating at a rock-star level was something that I had never seen before in my life.
On live performances, like this one from 1991, there would be a huge Kenny Garrett solo at the end of the tune, and that helped me understand the role that the alto saxophone was playing in a modern era, too. We all know Kenny Garrett is kind of like the god of the alto, and this was my first experience of knowing who he is: completely ripping Human Nature.
Terence Blanchard, trumpeter
Filles de Kilimanjaro
Filles de Kilimanjaro, to me, marks the start of the fusion period in Miles career. His moment in time was filled with experimentation, so his being open to new sounds and approaches was not a shock. Using those electric elements seems to come from a need to find new sounds and colors. I think what made it so useful is how their use didnt result in him watering down his musical approach, it only enhanced it. Which reminded all of us how the music was always the most important thing, not just the use of those elements. Miles Davis entire career was based on a pursuit for truth and discovery. With his electric period, this constant pursuit of new ideas and sounds brought us an entire genre of music.
Teebs, electronic musician
In a Silent Way/Its About That Time
In a Silent Way is just magical. The songs beginning gives me a sense of sustained stillness within the air before moving into a full groove and returning back again into a still space. I find a lot of value in spacing and timing in music, and Miles seems to capture these sensibilities with purpose. This record, from 1969, was around the beginning of his step into more electric sounds, and I enjoy how confidently it was made. I am forever grateful for this song and the records that followed.
Elena Pinderhughes, flutist
He Loved Him Madly
On He Loved Him Madly, a tribute to Duke Ellington from 1974, you can hear every musician really searching: taking their time, searching for the collective sound and vision. Theres so much patience, its almost meditative, even though its so electric: three guitars, and then all these different layers of electricity on top of them. At many times, you wouldnt even know how many people are on the song, but if you listen and break it down, its amazing. It grows into this groove; you start getting this beautiful alto flute moment with the guitars, and then around halfway which is 16 minutes in! Miles comes in with his perfect trumpet voice and opens it up again completely.
He Loved Him Madly encapsulates one of my favorite things about Miles, which is that hes so intentional with everything. Every note and every change thats happening with the rhythm section matters to how it feels collectively, with this simple slow groove thats almost 30 minutes long. And then in the last section, you get a little more edge that grittier, funkier side that comes out and its just the most incredible evolution. For anyone thats not as familiar with Davis work, I think it would be rewarding to just sit with the evolution of this one song, sit with the intention and the patience that it takes to create something like this.
Tony Bolden, Black Studies scholar
While listening recently to Maurice White playing drums on The Mighty Quinn, Ramsey Lewis 1968 cover of the Bob Dylan classic made popular by Manfred Mann, I heard inklings of jazz-funk. (Of course, White became better known as the founder and lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire.) However, Miles Davis 1971 album Jack Johnson is an early example of genuine jazz-funk. Recorded in 1970, Jack Johnson features Davis characteristically pensive sound on trumpet, while Michael Hendersons head-nodding bass lines are classic funk. Also notable are John McLaughlins bluesy licks on guitar and the actor Brock Peters interpretation of Jack Johnsons unreconstructed Blackness (heard in a voice-over at the end of the 25-minute Yesternow). The album foreshadows Davis increasing fascination with funk and its broader impact on Black music and culture in the 1970s.
Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
Hear me out on this. With Davis 1980s stuff, there will always be things you need to get over. Lets call it the Law & Order-theme aesthetic, for short, and leave it at that. But if some of the choices on Hannibal can feel superficial (Marcus Millers slap-happy bass, the strings-adjacent synth sound, the misfit steel pan), they also make the tracks major achievement all the more impressive: It preserves the sense of darkness and danger that has always run just below the surface through Davis best work. You cant miss how tightly plotted and produced this tune is its far from his sprawling funk jams of the 1970s but it still bristles and skulks mysteriously. You cant pin it down. Hannibal comes from Amandla, a masterful 1989 LP whose name, meaning power in Zulu, expressed solidarity with the revolutionaries fighting apartheid in South Africa. Let your expectations go, and itll win you over.
Harmony Holiday, poet
Miles Davis is the hero with a thousand faces, the one Joseph Campbell reveals as the muse of all myths and legends that arrive in his realm, beyond the West, beyond life and afterlife, beyond evil and virtue, what Ellington might call beyond category. On the sessions that would become his album Water Babies (1976), he gave us two of those faces, halved to the precision of divine union and returning as one. Two Faced as in Gemini, along with fellow heroes who attempt to pierce the electroacoustic farce like Kendrick Lamar, like Tupac, like Ye like stars, like years, like numerals. At times they draw their own blood in search of sounds life force. It makes logical sense that this album, composed of outtakes from Nefertiti and In a Silent Way, would also harbor what I believe is one of the only autobiographical moments in Miles catalog. He tells on himself for the 18-minute relay between ballad and blues, upbeat and adagio. He admits the excess of vision that he cannot help, retraces it slowly, retracts it with urgency, back and forth in perfect and signature ambivalence. He once said he played ballads so well he had to stop playing them, to get better, or to master himself. On Two Faced, recorded in 1968, he blurs a ballad so well you think he succeeded; he hides his restrained saunter in the pianos frenetic sprint. He takes himself back. In a bit of humor, the album also has a song called Capricorn. He knows his foils. He knows himself.
Graham Haynes, trumpeter
I remember something Miles said in an interview, right around the time this piece was released: Dont write about the music. The music speaks for itself! Ive always agreed with this opinion, particularly with Miles music and particularly from this period. So, with that in mind, Im hoping that Miles doesnt get too angry with me here, wherever he is. Lonely Fire is a beautiful piece of music. The performance is as fresh today as it was in 1974, when it was released. The orchestration is something that classes in conservatories need to make a part of their curriculums. The song is essentially a sketch. The melody is played by Miles several times, then Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, then Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, then back to Miles, who keeps embellishing more. There are no solos. In that way it is also like the Wayne Shorter piece Nefertiti, because there are no solos, only the melody, over and over with embellishments. The choice of colors with the rhythm section is stellar, with sitar, tamboura, Fender Rhodes piano, bass, drums and percussion. Miles sound here is hauntingly beautiful. In an interview Greg Tate did with Wayne Shorter several years ago, Wayne referred to Miles trumpet sound as Excalibur. Here we see why. This music is beyond any words I can think to give it. I would give it 10 stars!
David Renard, Times senior editor
Its a little perverse to choose a song where Miles Davis plays the organ, not the trumpet. That alone would set Rated X apart, even on an album (Get Up With It) brimming with experiments and stylistic shifts. But Rated X delivers a singular jolt, one of those this was recorded in which decade? moments. (Its the 70s.) The drums sound more programmed than played crisp and frantically precise, completely modern and theyre both a backbone and a destabilizing force, cutting off abruptly into silence and pulling the rug out from under the droning organ, only to drop back in just as quickly. Propelled by galloping bass and heavily wah-wahd guitar, the track sets a mood thats anxious and tense but exhilarating, an unsettling rush into the future.
Jlin, electronic musician
I have so many Miles Davis favorites, but one track that just does it for me every time is Pharaohs Dance, from his album Bitches Brew, which is insanely genius. Pharaohs Dance for me just screams the word fulfilled. I can hear how in tune Miles is with himself each time I play this. He never misses a chance to play, but also never overplays his chance, either. Miles has this striking beauty of balance he creates with his eclectic approach each time he decides to pop in and out of the track. Its never the same; he never repeats a phrase or sequence.
Ibrahim Maalouf, trumpeter
The first time I listened to this box set, The Complete On the Corner Sessions, I was in my 30s. I had just played with Marcus Miller on the French Riviera, and I felt the urge to revisit all of Miles Davis work. I realized that the entire electric part had eluded me. It was On the Corner and specifically Turnaround that helped me understand his approach. His desire never to be bound by the norms that often turn success in jazz into a curse. He embraced his history while resonating with the evolution of his time. This album, for me, is the pursuit of that sound. And on Turnaround, he found it.
George Grella Jr., music critic
One of the vital revelations about music came to me as a teenager, sitting in a friends basement, listening to his parents LPs. The move from Miles quintet albums to Live-Evil (1971) was drastic; the reward was understanding that groove and details of space, placement and articulation were profound and masterful. Even more, during the heyday of album-rock radio and the singer-songwriter stars, it was thrilling to feel music that wasnt about anything but its own sound, saying so much more than words could. And that the sensuality of music in the body could carry Miles rich, complex intellect.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times