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A Few Feet of Miles: A Beginner's Guide to Miles Davis

Miles Davis photographed in 1959.
Bill Spilka/Getty Images

Miles Davis photographed in 1959.

Even for the seasoned jazz fan, Miles Davis’ catalog can still be daunting -- he’s undoubtedly the genre’s most iconic figure, whose wide-ranging output continues to foster contentious debate more than 20 years after his death. Critical heft aside, his volume of releases (which only continues to mount with the fans’ appetite for live bootlegs and outtakes) is enormous: this is a man who started recording at 19 and basically didn’t stop (his one hiatus -- from 1975 to 1979 -- frames new biopic Miles Ahead, out April 1) until his death at 65.

But newcomers needn’t be intimidated. Miles was actually one of jazz’s most approachable voices -- yes, even during late career forays into fusion and pop -- which is one reason for his enduring popularity. Because of his gift for bringing together talented musicians, Miles’s work is actually a worthy introduction to jazz itself: in the albums below, you’ll hear John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock -- just a few of the icons who cut their teeth as Davis’ sidemen.

Below are six albums in an approximate order for first-time listeners, so any jazz novice can get to know the sound of one of the 20th century’s most important artists.

Cookin’/Relaxin’/Workin’/Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (released between 1957 and 1961)

These four albums, all recorded during just two 1956 sessions, make for the perfect introduction to Davis’ music. The trumpet player was joined by what would later become known as his “first great quintet”: John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). Reprising some of the era’s most beloved standards in a now-traditional hard bop style (when most people think of jazz, they likely imagine music that sounds like this), the all-star ensemble succeeds almost in spite of themselves.

These are not high concept albums or moments of exceptional formal innovation from Davis and Coltrane (who both have plenty to offer in those categories) -- they’re off-the-cuff recordings Davis made to wrap up his Prestige contract so he could sign with Columbia. But luckily for listeners, off-the-cuff from Davis and Coltrane is instantly about a million times better than off-the-cuff from basically anyone else. Mostly recorded in one or two takes, the records are thoughtful, swinging, and considerably more evocative than they might seem at first (toe-tapping) listen.

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud soundtrack (1958)

It was a dark and stormy night” is the unspoken first line of this understated, abbreviated gem. Just under half an hour in its original form, the soundtrack for the Louis Malle film is the product of one of Davis' more mythical sessions -- an assistant on the movie (or his then-paramour Juliette Greco, depending on who you believe) suggested to the director they commission original music from him. While he was in Paris for a run of shows in November 1957, it was done: one session, with a band of mostly French musicians, who allegedly had just the most minimal of harmonic directives from Miles himself. The spontaneous session perfectly matched the ambience of the moody noir, but more importantly it set the stage for the looser, modal improvisations that would eventually define this point in Miles’ career.

Kind Of Blue (1959)

Q-Tip compared it to the Bible ("There's one in every house") and Quincy Jones to orange juice ("I play it everyday"), but just because it's your favorite producer's favorite record doesn't mean that what's essential about it is immediately apparent. After all, in 2016, this record and this sound are part of everyday life, whether over the speakers at your local Starbucks or on your Spotify "Jazz for Work" playlist. We're so used to it as mood music that it's easy to forget it was once revolutionary -- in other words, it's highly unlikely that Miles Davis went into Columbia's 30th Street Studio on March 2, 1959 saying, "I want to make a record that sounds like a sophisticated coffee shop."

Instead, the album was a conscious reaction to the blistering, chaotic sounds of bebop and hard bop. Simmering just under its smooth surface are hints of how the soloists would change the music, each in their own way: Cannonball with his inimitable combination of jubilation and blues, Bill Evans with his strung-out but romantic strings of chords, Coltrane with hints at the otherworldly sheets of sound -- mind-bending runs through all corners of each song's modally-oriented, open structure -- that would become his signature. And, of course, Miles himself with his gut-wrenching melodies and perfect timing (finding a jazz musician who can't hum his first chorus on "So What" would be like finding a Taylor Swift fan who doesn't know the words to "You Belong With Me"). Its polish and ease make it tempting to write off as background music -- but you'll get so much more than a dinner party soundtrack if you don't.

The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel - 1965 (1995)

Here, the listener finds Miles revisiting some of the same standards he tackled on the Cookin'/Relaxin'/etc. sets -- but they could hardly sound more different. He's joined by what would eventually be canonized as his "second great quintet," which is often called one of the best ensembles in jazz history. All younger than Davis, Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums) first came together in late 1964; at the time of this recording, Williams was a mere 19 years old.

On this recording, made December 22 and 23 of 1965, the quintet was at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel, reportedly reacting to Tony's dictate that they should make “anti-music.” Despite the fact that the repertoire was more or less expected (Davis classics like "'Round About Midnight," "So What," "Milestones," and "Four" were all on the set list), the band already seems well on its way to the fluid, abstract sounds that would define the fusion era. Take both versions of "If I Were A Bell," for example: up several notches on the metronome from the 1956 recording, Miles barely spits out the opening line before transfiguring it five different ways -- though seeming initially contemptuous of the standard, he still leaves the lightest sketch of its melody audible throughout. His protégés are more ruthless, seamlessly taking each tune through whole galaxies of harmonies and rhythms omitted from earlier recordings. You can even hear it in the bewildered audience, who barely know when to clap. Deconstructed, the tunes turn from simply swinging to searching, showing Davis' absolute refusal to rest on his laurels.

In A Silent Way (1969)

Not rock, but not jazz” was the critical consensus around this, the album generally recognized as Davis’ first fusion offering. With electric guitar (from John McLaughlin) and keyboard (Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea), it could easily resemble the extended jams of the era’s legendary rock bands. Instead, Miles offers a sort of meditation -- calm and thoughtful as the title would suggest, but heavily edited (in ways that scandalized jazz fans then and now) by Columbia’s Teo Macero. It’s collective improvisation at its most approachable, relying on Dave Holland’s (and to some extent, Miles’s) reliable pedal tones to ground the large ensemble’s melodic flights. “It was loose and tight at the same time,” as Miles put it in his autobiography, “casual but alert.” Described by K. Leander Williams as “proto-ambient,” it’s probably best consumed with (at the very least) incense burning.

Bitches Brew (1970)

His first gold record, the instantly iconic Bitches Brew was yet another revolutionary result of Miles’s favorite formula: gather all his favorite musicians in the studio, and make them play things they’d never played (or heard) before. Expanding on In A Silent Way’s fusion aesthetic, Davis embraces the chaos, letting the ensemble stretch into new dissonances and less-intuitive rhythms (there are two bassists and as many as three drummers with a percussionist at any one time).

Within all the layers, though -- which were, once again, heavily edited by Davis and Macero, in a pioneering move for the genre -- Davis’ flair for melody and timing still shines, giving the most overwhelmed listener something to grab onto, though at some point it’s just a matter of letting Miles throw you to the musical wolves. Don’t worry -- you’ll thoroughly enjoy the process of his inexplicably still-modern sounds ripping your ears/brain to shreds.

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