5 minutes that will make you love Miles Davis' electric period

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5 minutes that will make you love Miles Davis' electric period
Navigate Miles Davis’s snaky, endless grooves with picks from Flying Lotus, Cindy Blackman Santana and Terence Blanchard, among other musicians, writers and critics. (Dante Zaballa/The New York Times)

by Giovanni Russonello



NEW YORK, NY.- For the past year, The New York Times has been asking musicians, writers and scholars to share the music they’d play for a friend to get them into jazz — one artist, instrument and subgenre at a time. We’ve covered Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, New Orleans music, jazz vocalists and much more.

Now, we’re 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 trumpeter’s shape-shifting career encompassed so many phases and styles, we’ve 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. “It’s 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 Hendrix’s 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 you’re dealing with Electric Miles, you aren’t going to get very far in five minutes. So we’ve got to beg a little forgiveness for the name of this piece. But if you’ve 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. We’re sure you’ll 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 that’s very inviting. It’s easy for people to feel where it’s 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 everybody’s 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 wasn’t 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 don’t 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”


“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. I’ve listened to this song countless times through many phases of my life and moods, and I still don’t know what kind of configuration it takes to create a moment like this. And to be honest, I kinda don’t want to know. To me, it’s magic.

I hadn’t thought of it until now — but this song really does sound like what it’s like to stare into a fire. For a moment, nothing else exists. There’s 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 Jackson’s “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 can’t 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 didn’t 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/It’s About That Time”


“In a Silent Way” is just magical. The song’s 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. There’s so much patience, it’s almost meditative, even though it’s so electric: three guitars, and then all these different layers of electricity on top of them. At many times, you wouldn’t even know how many people are on the song, but if you listen and break it down, it’s 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 he’s so intentional with everything. Every note and every change that’s happening with the rhythm section matters to how it feels collectively, with this simple slow groove that’s almost 30 minutes long. And then in the last section, you get a little more edge — that grittier, funkier side that comes out — and it’s just the most incredible evolution. For anyone that’s 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

“Yesternow”


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 Henderson’s head-nodding bass lines are classic funk. Also notable are John McLaughlin’s bluesy licks on guitar and the actor Brock Peters’ interpretation of Jack Johnson’s 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

“Hannibal”


Hear me out on this. With Davis’ 1980s stuff, there will always be things you need to get over. Let’s 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 Miller’s slap-happy bass, the strings-adjacent synth sound, the misfit steel pan), they also make the track’s 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 can’t miss how tightly plotted and produced this tune is — it’s far from his sprawling funk jams of the 1970s — but it still bristles and skulks mysteriously. You can’t 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 it’ll win you over.

Harmony Holiday, poet

“Two Faced”


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 sound’s 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 piano’s 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

“Lonely Fire”


I remember something Miles said in an interview, right around the time this piece was released: “Don’t write about the music. The music speaks for itself!” I’ve always agreed with this opinion, particularly with Miles’ music and particularly from this period. So, with that in mind, I’m hoping that Miles doesn’t 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

“Rated X”


It’s 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. (It’s the ’70s.) The drums sound more programmed than played — crisp and frantically precise, completely modern — and they’re 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-wah’d guitar, the track sets a mood that’s anxious and tense but exhilarating, an unsettling rush into the future.

Jlin, electronic musician

“Pharaoh’s Dance”


I have so many Miles Davis favorites, but one track that just does it for me every time is “Pharaoh’s Dance,” from his album “Bitches Brew,” which is insanely genius. “Pharaoh’s 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. It’s never the same; he never repeats a phrase or sequence.

Ibrahim Maalouf, trumpeter

“Turnaround”


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

“Sivad”


One of the vital revelations about music came to me as a teenager, sitting in a friend’s 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 wasn’t 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.










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