Miles Davis Albums From Worst To Best
Miles Davis was one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century. How important? He’s one of the two or three jazz musicians non-jazz fans have heard of, and may even have heard something by.
Davis reshaped jazz in his own image multiple times. The ideas explored on his 1965-68 quintet albums, for example, cause many to still regard them as the pinnacle of acoustic jazz; his and his bandmates’ melodic, harmonic and rhythmic innovations are still being explored (not to say imitated) by present-day musicians. On the other hand, major portions of his catalog are as controversial today as they were the day of their release. Many jazz fans and jazz critics insist nothing he recorded after 1968 is actually jazz at all (a statement I happen to agree with; I just don’t think of that as a bad thing).
Davis got his start in the 1940s, moving from his native East St. Louis, IL to New York to study at Juilliard, and promptly heading for Harlem to play with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and other already established figures on the bebop scene. He first recorded as a leader in 1946, at the same time that he was a member of Parker’s band, and appearing on numerous recordings that are still regarded as landmarks in jazz history. His trumpet style was completely different than that of his predecessor, Dizzy Gillespie — he avoided rocketing high notes in favor of a more melodic approach that didn’t always mesh perfectly with what Parker and his bandmates were doing, but would ultimately become one of the most influential sounds in jazz.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Davis emerged as one of the most famous jazz players in the world, not just for his music but for his image as well. He was featured in magazines for his personal style, and interviewed by Playboy when that was extremely prestigious. And the music he made — whether with his first quintet, featuring John Coltrane, or his mid-’60s quintet with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, or with Gil Evans’ orchestra — always stretched boundaries, always challenged his contemporaries to keep up.
His 1959 album Kind Of Blue is a genuine musical landmark; artistically unimpeachable, it’s also one of the most commercially successful jazz records of all time. It’s so important in the genre’s history that this year, the fiercely talented but also somewhat pranksterish group Mostly Other People Do The Killing released Blue, a note-for-note (and sound-for-sound; they attempted to recreate the players’ styles and the vintage sound as well) re-recording of it, to widespread bafflement and outrage from jazz fans, most of whom are apparently unfamiliar with conceptual art.
In 1969, though, everything changed. Influenced by jazz’s diminishing sales and public profile, and his young second wife, Betty Davis, began the process of turning away from acoustic music and toward an entirely new sound. At first, on albums like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, it was called “fusion” or “jazz-rock,” but as the ’70s began, and he abandoned jazz clubs for rock festivals and theaters, it got more and more aggressive and funky. 1972’s On The Corner, noisy and chaotic, was a challenge to pretty much anyone who’d ever liked him — of course, it was also one of his most brilliant releases. And between 1973 and 1975, he almost abandoned the recording studio in favor of the stage, fronting a band that blended funk, metal, jazz, African music and sounds never before heard by anyone, assaulting audiences at top volume through amps painted red, black and green.
Between 1976 and 1980, Davis disappeared entirely, burrowing into a giant pile of drugs and groupies in his Manhattan apartment. When he re-emerged, his music was stripped down pop-funk. By 1985’s You’re Under Arrest, he was covering tunes like Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” … and making it work, giving them all the emotional weight of the jazz standards he’d recorded in his 1950s acoustic heyday. In the final year of his life, he turned his attention to hip-hop, working on Doo-Bop with producer Easy Mo Bee, who’d later create tracks for Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Wu-Tang Clan, and Alicia Keys. Davis died before the album could be completed.
Ranking a catalog the size of Miles Davis’ is an impossible task. There are so many lavish boxed sets, live releases, compilations issued during his hermit period, etc., that in order to make this article at all manageable, major cuts had to be made before it could even be begun. So here’s how this is going to work: I chose studio albums only. But to truly understand Davis’ catalog, there are a bunch of essential live releases, including Live-Evil, In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall, Dark Magus, Agharta, Pangaea, and The Bootleg Series Vol. 1: Live In Europe 1967. So consider the 30 albums below a starting point. There’s so much more.
It's not as bad as you've heard. Doo-Bop, Miles Davis' posthumous "hip-hop album," was mostly derided by critics upon its release (though it did win a Grammy in 1993 for Best R&B Instrumental Performance). But of its nine tracks, only three are truly terrible: "The Doo Bop Song," "Blow," and "Fantasy," which happen to be the ones on which producer Easy Mo Bee raps. Every Miles Davis song with a vocalist (and mercifully there weren't many) is to be avoided at all costs, those three definitely included. The other six are all instrumental, and they're pretty solid. Remember, 1991, when this album was made, was pretty much hip-hop's Golden Age, and Easy Mo Bee was a very prescient pick as producer; he'd already worked with Big Daddy Kane, and would soon work with Notorious B.I.G. on the majority of Ready to Die.
The six instrumental tracks -- one of which, "High Speed Chase," was assembled posthumously -- fall somewhere in the neighborhood of acid jazz, new jack swing and proto-trip-hop. The beats, built on samples of classic break-beats, lope and strut, and Davis' horn, mostly muted, bobs and weaves like the boxers he admired. Melodies are thin on the ground, but there's plenty of mood. So while Doo-Bop may be a footnote to Davis' career, it's not a shameful one by any means.
Blue Moods (1955)
Blue Moods was recorded in 1955, for bassist Charles Mingus' short-lived Debut label. It features Davis accompanied by trombonist Britt Woodman, Teddy Charles on vibes, Mingus on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. This was not a performing group; it was assembled just for this session, and features no original material from any of the members. It's also extremely short -- four tracks in 27 minutes. And in keeping with its title, it's a very subdued, mellow album.
The opening track, "Nature Boy," sets the tone for the rest; the melody drifts out of Davis' muted horn like vapor, as the trombone and vibes sway behind him. Mingus' bass sound is, as ever, huge (the original album liner notes claimed that the short running time was due to its being cut with super-wide grooves, in order to make room for more bass), and Elvin Jones creates an almost ominous mood with toms and cymbals. The next track, "Alone Together," is a little more uptempo, with a little bit of an exotic/lounge feel, and Woodman and Davis are on a more or less equal plane when the melody's being stated, though the trumpeter still gets the solo space. "There's No You," the longest and most uptempo track, almost lets Elvin Jones cut loose with one of his apocalyptic drum solos, but stops just short of the full explosion. And things wind down with "Easy Living," a foggy, melancholy ballad that mirrors "Nature Boy" in its simmering, blue-tinged beauty. There's not a lot of music here, but everything that is offered is stellar.
Miles Davis' final collaboration with Marcus Miller (begun on 1986's Tutu and continued on the soundtrack to the justly forgotten 1987 movie Siesta) is the most organic and live band-oriented of the three. It's also the least interesting, precisely for that reason. Tutu and Music from Siesta are electronic albums with a trumpeter up front, and they sound like nothing else in the Davis catalog -- ice cold, almost inhuman. Amandla is culled from actual studio sessions, with a broad range of guests. Some of the supporting cast (alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, bassist Foley McCreary) do interesting work, and Davis engages with them energetically, but the tunes aren't there, and the album never manages to set and sustain a cohesive mood the way his other releases always did.
The most rewarding parts of Amandla are the rhythms; Davis experiments with zouk, funk, and go-go beats. The music is very much like what his band sounded like live at the time -- popping bass, wire-thin guitar licks almost in the background, Davis and Garrett weaving lines around each other, keyboards doing their best to overwhelm every other sound. On the other hand, the last track on the album, "Mr. Pastorius," is this close to being a return to old-school jazz -- it's a slow, swinging ballad, featuring Al Foster on drums, and one of the synths is set to sound as much like a heavily reverbed piano as possible. It's a soft, heartfelt way to end an album that's otherwise preoccupied with '80s pop-funk.
Star People (1983)
Star People, released in 1983, is nearly forgotten in America. It's actually out of print here, only available as an import. And that's a shame, because it's an interesting experiment with some really strong moments. Recorded at five sessions between August 1982 and February 1983, it's mostly played by Davis' road band at the time -- saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Al Foster, and percussionist Mino Cinelu -- with second guitarist John Scofield showing up on two tracks, one of which also features substitute bassist Tom Barney. All the tracks are credited to Davis, save one that's a Scofield co-write, and they're all more blues-based than anything he'd done in decades. Indeed, the title track is basically a 20-minute blues jam.
Davis' playing is occasionally impressive on Star People. When he first re-emerged (as heard on the live We Want Miles, recorded in 1981), he was tentative, using the mute more as a shield than as a dramatic device the way he'd done in the 1950s. He stalked around the stage, looking straight down with the horn pointed at his feet, forcing out short, piercing bursts of notes and letting the band's slow, slinky funk grooves do most of the work. Sidemen like Evans and Stern got a lot of spotlight time, with the guitarist working in a zone closer to Eddie Van Halen than John McLaughlin. By the time this record was made, though, he'd gotten some of his power back, and was ready to take the spotlight again, to truly lead the band instead of relying on their strength. Indeed, Bill Evans barely gets any solo time on this album at all -- for much of it, Davis is the sole horn, and he's playing some of the deepest blues of his career. Is it a great album? No. But it's better than you might expect.
The trouble with Miles Davis' first few albums of the 1980s -- The Man With The Horn, Star People, and the live We Want Miles -- is that they're a little tentative. They lack the conviction, the willingness to say "fuck you, this is what I'm about now," of his 1970s work, the live albums (In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall, Dark Magus, Agharta, Pangaea) in particular. Decoy is different; it's the first one on which he really sounds like he's fully re-emerging. He's got some decent musicians here -- Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone, John Scofield on guitar, Darryl Jones on bass, Al Foster on drums -- and the music is primarily composed of fast funk themes that let everyone who wants to open up the throttle and tear up the road a little. Keyboardist Robert Irving III is the real bandleader, arranging most of the tunes and including two tracks that have no trumpet on them at all, the spacy "Freaky Deaky" and the minute-long interlude "Robot 415." Two other tracks, "What It Is" and "That's What Happened," are live recordings from the 1983 Festival International de Jazz in Montreal.
Davis began touring hard in 1983 -- he played the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland every year from 1984 to 1986, then again in 1988 and 1990. These concerts have all been archived in a massive 20-CD box, The Complete Miles Davis At Montreux, and they reveal that although his studio albums featured heavy-handed 80s pop production, onstage the bands were red-hot. His trumpet chops returned in a big way, and he was surrounding himself with players half his age who'd push him. Decoy isn't Davis' greatest album of the '80s, but it's not the worst, either, and the contrast between the studio and live tracks is sort of a microcosm of the whole decade.
By their third studio album together, the Second Miles Davis Quintet -- saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams -- had basically established their style: a fleet, mercurial blend of hard bop, intricate melodies, and at times almost avant-garde rhythmic deconstruction. Sorcerer doesn't break much ground, though, and as a result it's probably the band's most easily overlooked release. That doesn't make it inessential; any group operating on this high a level never takes a real dump on record. But this is more of a holding action than the miracle that its predecessor, Miles Smiles, was. Plus, there's one totally pointless track -- but we'll get to that.
The opening track, "Prince Of Darkness," has one of the most hummable/memorable themes this band ever played. The band does their best to take it apart, with Tony Williams chopping the beat into tiny cubes and Wayne Shorter tossing the blues into a blender when it's his turn at the microphone, but ultimately it's just too powerful a hook to be denied, and every time it comes back around, you'll find yourself wanting to sing the melody out loud. There are a couple of other really great pieces here -- "Masqualero" in particular -- but then there's the weird, tacked-on coda, "Nothing Like You," featuring a totally different band and vocalist Bob Dorough. This track was four years old, but for some reason Columbia thought it needed to be included on this record. It didn't. It sucks. Just pretend it doesn't exist.
The Musings Of Miles (1955)
The Musings Of Miles was the first Miles Davis album to be issued on 12" vinyl, following several 10" discs. It's a quartet date -- he's the only horn, so he plays a lot more than on most of his other albums (1963's Seven Steps To Heaven finds him in a similar situation), backed by pianist Red Garland, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Garland and Jones would remain with Davis for another year or two, as part of his quintet with John Coltrane and Paul Chambers.
Davis' albums of the early to mid-1950s (before he kicked heroin) don't have the same stark magic found in his recordings from just a few years later. His ability to imply, to let the listener fill in the gaps in his solos, hadn't yet developed; he was still a melodic bop trumpet player, still playing the blues and suffusing his ballads with a romantic glow. His trademark style of playing through a Harmon mute, very close to the microphone, is present here, though, particularly on "I See Your Face Before Me" and "A Gal In Calico." The track that carries the strongest indications of what Davis' work would become just a few years later is a version of "A Night In Tunisia," on which his statement of the melody, and his soloing, seem distant and dispassionate, exactly the opposite of the raucous manner in which the tune is usually performed. By contrast, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' version, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, sounds like a band that's literally been set on fire. Overall, The Musings Of Miles isn't essential, but it's far from a waste of time.
Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968)
Filles De Kilimanjaro is a transitional record. An artist like Miles Davis, constantly changing the terms of his art, is bound to wind up with a lot of weird in-between albums in their discography, and this is one of the most awkward. The Second Great Quintet was coming apart -- pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter were on the way out, being replaced by Chick Corea and Dave Holland respectively. So on the first and second-to-last tracks, "Frelon Brun" and "Mademoiselle Mabry" (named for Betty Mabry, the woman seen on the album cover, who would become the second Mrs. Miles Davis that same year and launch a solo career in 1973), the band is Davis, Shorter, Corea, Holland and Williams, while on the middle three ("Tout De Suite," "Petits Machins," and the title track), the classic quintet is heard, though Hancock is playing electric, rather than acoustic piano.
There's a lot of great playing on Filles De Kilimanjaro, obviously. But like Miles in the Sky, the album feels slightly adrift, like nobody involved had quite figured out where they were going before Davis whispered, "OK, let's go." It's got aggression, particularly from Tony Williams, who was already moving in the jazz-rock direction he'd pursue with his own Lifetime band beginning in 1969, and Wayne Shorter, whose phrases are as sharp as getting a metal splinter under your thumbnail. But the electric piano isn't as well suited to this kind of abstract, sliced-and-diced music as its acoustic equivalent, and the music atomizes and floats away, becoming the worst thing of all -- unmemorable.
Miles In The Sky (1968)
Miles in the Sky, released in July 1968, only four months after the simmering, beautiful Nefertiti, is another transitional album in almost every respect. The cover art is a psychedelic collage, unlike the moody portraits of Davis that had adorned pretty much every previous release. It also marked the first time electric instruments would appear on a Davis album: keyboardist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter both plugged in on the opening track, "Stuff," and guest George Benson played guitar on the second track, "Paraphernalia." Furthermore, the rhythms drummer Tony Williams plays are based on 4/4 rock beats, rather than the fragmented swing that had made him such a crucial element of the group's sound to that point.
The album contains only four tracks, but they're long: "Stuff" runs 17 minutes, "Paraphernalia" nearly 13, "Black Comedy" is a compact 7:31 and closer "Country Son" nudges the 14-minute mark. Davis was back to writing, something he'd avoided on Nefertiti, leaving Shorter, Hancock and Williams to contribute all six compositions; "Stuff" and "Country Son" are his, while "Paraphernalia" comes from the saxophonist and "Black Comedy" from the drummer. But across the board, the complicated melodies and structural challenges of earlier material are gone. These new pieces are built on simple riffs, over which the horn solos are hot and, in Shorter's case, verge on free jazz at times. But the band spends a lot of time basically vamping in place, something they'd never done before.
Porgy And Bess (1958)
Porgy And Bess is the second of Miles Davis and Gil Evans' orchestral collaborations, and in some important ways it's the weakest of the three, but a few of the tunes are strong enough that it's worth hearing nonetheless. It's based on a musical by George and Ira Gershwin that's basically a folk opera dealing with a stereotypical view of African-American street life, which might strike modern listeners as "problematic." But since this, obviously, is an instrumental version, which allows Davis to basically "sing" the songs with his horn, some of that can be overlooked. And given that the songs often take bluesy or modal forms, they're very much in his wheelhouse, so he pretty much knocks it out of the park. Behind him, the orchestra masses like a Greek chorus, providing both a foundation and a sounding board.
This isn't an album that's got to be heard all the way through. A lot of the material just sort of slides past. But its high points, "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now" (a tune Davis revisited in a 20-minute version on 1982's live We Want Miles), are definitely worth a listen.
Birth Of The Cool (1957)
This collection of material, recorded in 1949 and 1950, comes shortly after after Miles Davis had emerged from under Charlie Parker's wing. He can be heard on a lot of classic Parker tracks from 1947-48; the common point of view is that he hadn't developed enough as a player yet to hold his own in that context -- the truth is, his style and the saxophonist's were simply incompatible. Recorded with a nonet, the Birth Of The Cool music, as its title indicates, is often credited with kickstarting a whole style: "cool jazz," built for head-nodding and finger-snapping instead of stomping and cheering, better experienced in your living room rather than a smoky club. (Davis notably hated the whole "cool jazz" movement, because its practitioners -- many of them white -- made more money from the style than he had; the nonet recordings were a flop at the time.)
The group, whose membership fluctuated over the course of three recording sessions, included trumpet, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, trombone, French horn, tuba, piano, bass, and drums. Some seriously notable players including Lee Konitz (alto) and Gerry Mulligan (baritone), Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson (trombone) and Max Roach and Kenny Clarke (drums) took part, and the arrangements were mostly handled by Gil Evans, with whom Davis would work again and again all the way up to the 1980s. The horns are massed together, playing harmonies designed to sound like vocalists, and paired up according to timbre (trumpet and alto sax taking the lead, baritone sax and tuba offering a counterpoint, and trombone and French horn filling in the harmonies). While there's an orchestral feel to the music overall, the compositions still stick to jazz structure, with group members taking individual solos in turn.
These tracks are all short (under three minutes), because they were originally released on 78s. As a result, the album flies by -- a smooth and, yes, very cool way to spend just under 40 minutes.
Big Fun (1974)
Big Fun is about half great. Released in 1974, when Miles was spending a lot of time on the road with his funk-metal band, it's composed of four side-long tracks (emphasis on long; he and Teo Macero were really testing the limits of vinyl's capacity) recorded between 1969 and 1972. The first of these, "Great Expectations," is actually two pieces -- "Great Expectations" and "Orange Lady" -- Scotch-taped together; it dates back to the Bitches Brew era, when the studio band included soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, two keyboardists, electric guitar, sitar, an upright and an electric bassist, drums, and two percussionists, one playing tablas. It's sort of aimless, but with just enough exoticism to stay semi-interesting. The second piece, "Ife," is left over from the On The Corner sessions of June 1972; Davis' trumpet is fed through a wah-wah pedal, keyboards and electric sitar zing and zap in the mix, there are two drummers and two percussionists, and electric bassist Michael Henderson anchors it all with dubby precision.
Side Three is where Big Fun becomes indispensable. "Go Ahead John" is a total triumph, one of the greatest things Miles released in the 1970s. Primarily a showcase for John McLaughlin's most ferocious blues playing, it features some of the most elaborate production Teo Macero ever attempted. Not only are both McLaughlin and Davis heavily overdubbed (at one point, the trumpeter is heard playing two solos simultaneously, weaving around each other in an almost New Orleans-ish, polyphonic style), but the drums are sliced up and bounced from the left to the right speaker in a way that turns the rhythm into shards. And when McLaughlin solos at about the six-minute mark, it's absolutely terrifying, like a hornet the size of a car flying in angry loops around your head. The album concludes with "Lonely Fire," a track from 1970 that marks one of Wayne Shorter's final studio appearances with Davis. It's very atmospheric, somewhere between In A Silent Way and the early work of Weather Report, the group Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul would form after leaving Davis' orbit. Its general drifting feel makes it a good way to bring this long double album to a close.
Seven Steps To Heaven (1963)
This was the last of Davis' transitional albums between the demise of his late-'50s quintet/sextet (the band that recorded Kind Of Blue and Milestones) and the formation of his mid-'60s quintet (more about them later), and it's an under-recognized gem. Partly recorded on the West Coast, half the album features pianist Victor Feldman and drummer Frank Butler alongside Davis and bassist Ron Carter; the other half features Davis, Carter, George Coleman on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, and Tony Williams on drums. It's also the last Miles Davis album to feature standards, rather than new compositions -- of the six tracks, only the title track and closing number "Joshua" were new. Feldman and Davis co-wrote the former, and the latter came entirely from the pianist. Of the four standards, some dated back to jazz's earliest days ("Baby Won't You Please Come Home" was from 1919, while "Basin Street Blues" was first recorded in 1928).
Seven Steps To Heaven is a great album for two reasons. One, the material -- yes, these are old songs, but they're also blues-based, and Miles Davis was an incredible blues player, so hearing him work out atop these deceptively simple grooves is a genuine joy. "Basin Street Blues" and "Baby Won't You Please Come Home," the two longest tracks, are fantastic. The second reason the album is a must-hear for serious Davis fans is the instrumentation. Only half the record features a second horn; at the L.A. sessions, the trumpeter was fronting a quartet for one of the few times in his career. Consequently, he plays some of the longest solos to be found anywhere in his discography here, all of them beautifully structured and filled with a kind of artful melancholy.
Water Babies (1976)
A compilation of leftovers, issued while Miles Davis was holed up in his apartment from 1976 to 1980, Water Babies somehow manages to be one of the most compelling and beautiful releases by his mid '60s quintet. The full lineup of Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams only appears on the first three tracks), though ("Water Babies," "Capricorn" and "Sweet Pea," recorded in June 1967). On the album's second half ("Two Faced," "Dual Mr. Anthony Tillmon Williams Process" and the CD bonus track "Splash," all recorded in November 1968), Carter is replaced by Dave Holland and Chick Corea joins Hancock as a second electric pianist. When these two bands are contrasted in this way, an astonishing moment in Davis' career is captured.
The pure acoustic numbers are similar in mood to those on Nefertiti; they simmer, and never boil over. They're relatively concise, between five and eight minutes long. Shorter (who recorded much freer, more avant-garde versions of "Capricorn" and "Sweet Pea" on his 1969 album Super Nova) seems to solo more than Davis, and he's still playing tenor saxophone exclusively -- he'd later switch to soprano. The electric tracks, on the other hand, are long: "Two Faced" is 18 minutes of mood, again dominated by the saxophone, as the two electric pianos shimmer and waver in the background and Tony Williams keeps a steady beat. The 13-minute "Dual ... ," though, is a romping workout, with plenty of rippling horn from Davis and constantly shifting, but hard-driving drum work from Williams. Water Babies might be a compilation, but it's a hell of an album.
In its own way, 1986's Tutu, Davis' debut for Warner Bros. after 30 years on Columbia, was almost as radical as 1972's On The Corner, which we'll discuss later. Like that disc, it was a pure studio creation, impossible to replicate live. It should have been co-credited to bassist/composer Marcus Miller, who took a dominant role in its creation. He wrote every tune except "Backyard Ritual," which was by keyboardist George Duke, and "Perfect Way," a cover of a Scritti Politti song.
Musically, it's an '80s funk/R&B record, all crisp drum machines and sequenced melodic loops. Several live percussionists contribute to this or that track, but for the most part Davis simply solos, often through a mute, atop Miller's tracks. On "Backyard Ritual," the original Duke demo actually made it to the album. There is one guest who sticks out -- electric violinist Michal Urbaniak, who gets a searing, neon solo on "Don't Lose Your Mind." Tutu is a cold, almost inhuman album; it takes the idea of Miles Davis as "cool" icon so far, he becomes like a sculpture of himself. But the title track and a few other pieces are seriously catchy -- you'll find them burrowing around in your brain days, even weeks after hearing them.
You're Under Arrest (1985)
You're Under Arrest was Davis' glossiest album of the '80s, and his most successful; it spawned multiple radio hits. No surprise, since it contained covers of three pop tunes -- Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," and D-Train's "Something's On Your Mind." The first two became live staples, and the studio versions can still be heard on smooth jazz radio to this day. (Rumor has it, there was to be an entire album of contemporary pop and R&B songs, but that never panned out, and the lost tracks have never emerged.) As his final release for Columbia before signing with Warner Bros., it was a hell of a way to go out.
The rest of the pieces on You're Under Arrest have a slightly harder edge than the singles. The opening track is hilarious, as much for Davis' posturing as for the outrage it sparked in conservative jazz critics; it's a skit which Davis can be heard making loud sniffing noises and then engaging in caustic dialogue with a cop who's pulled him over. Ultimately, he's heard arguing with multiple cops in multiple languages -- one of them a French-speaking Sting. Behind him, the band plays a high-speed funk vamp. Other cuts, like "Ms. Morrisine" and "Katia," feature loud electric guitar (played by John McLaughlin, his first session with Davis since 1972). The album ends with a medley, "Jean Pierre/You're Under Arrest/Then There Were None," the latter part of which features samples intended to dramatize the end of the world through nuclear war. Between the police oppression of the album's intro to the global destruction of its conclusion, it's clear he was attempting to make a serious statement, while leavening it with tender ballads. It's this mix of gloss and grit that makes the album as good as it is.
The New Miles Davis Quintet (1955)
Miles Davis signed with Prestige Records in 1951, when he was 25. Four years later, he was ready to move on to Columbia, but he still owed Prestige several albums. So he booked three recording sessions over the course of a year, which ultimately yielded five and a half albums' worth of material. The first to be released, Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet, will stand in for all of them (the rest are Cookin' ... , Relaxin' ... , Steamin' ... and Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet, and Miles Davis And The Modern Jazz Giants, all released in 1956-57. The material is almost all pulled from the repertoire the band -- Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums -- was performing in clubs. So, a bunch of old Broadway show tunes transformed via substitute chord changes (aka "standards"), and a few basic variations on the blues.
Here's the thing, though: This was an amazing band. Coltrane wasn't yet the lightning-speed note-spewing machine he'd become in a few years, on his own 1960 album Giant Steps, but he had a thick, torso-vibrating tone that gave his solos more muscle than just about anybody else around. Garland was a swinging, bluesy pianist who brought a barroom energy to uptempo numbers and a romantic delicacy to ballads. Chambers' bass work was all power and energy (he was a teenager when he joined the band), but he could pick up the bow and create surprisingly dark-toned moods. And Jones was an absolute jackhammer on the drums, driving the band mercilessly but with a greater crispness than more explosive players like Art Blakey or Roy Haynes. And Davis led them all, playing some of his cleanest and most beautiful solos. His style at this time was all about restraint; he never erupted into screaming high notes like Dizzy Gillespie. Instead, he made simple, but emotionally powerful statements, knowing just when to step away, having said exactly enough. This material, recorded in big batches, is all of a piece, and it's all killer.
In A Silent Way (1969)
In A Silent Way was the first album on which Davis actively courted the attention of rock fans -- and got it. His 1969 quintet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette performed at the Fillmore East and West, opening for acts like the Steve Miller Band and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and they were well received. But that band never entered the recording studio, except as part of a larger ensemble. Instead, Davis released this two-track album with a looping structure and almost ambient feel, constructed as much by producer Teo Macero as by the musicians themselves. It broke all the rules of jazz, while never quite becoming rock, or "fusion" in the chops-obsessed, showoffy sense of that word.
The band included Shorter, Corea and Holland from the live unit, but Tony Williams was on drums, and there were two other keyboardists, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. The final addition to the band, and the biggest signal that something new was afoot, was guitarist John McLaughlin. From this point forward, every Miles Davis album would feature electric guitar as a co-lead voice. Still, In A Silent Way lives up to its title; it's not an album of screaming solos. Instead, the music surges and eddies, the three keyboardists burbling around each other like the surface of the ocean at midnight as Williams maintains the world's steadiest hi-hat rhythm. What solos there are -- from Davis, Shorter and McLaughlin -- have a subdued, bluesy quality ideally suited to the overall atmosphere. Only two-thirds of the way through the second track does Williams finally erupt into something close to a breakbeat. But what's most interesting about the album is the looping structure of each track. Side One, "Shhh/Peaceful," runs along, trancelike and beautiful, for 13 minutes, then just as it seems to be winding down, the first six minutes are repeated. Not like the band plays the head again and solos in a similar manner to what they did before -- no, this is a straight cut 'n' paste job. (And believe it, when jazz critics in 1969 heard it, they went berserk. "That's cheating!" was the general verdict.) Similarly, "In a Silent Way/It's About That Time" should really be called "In A Silent Way/It's About That Time/In A Silent Way," since it moves from one thing to another and back again. In A Silent Way is a mood piece, perfect for late evenings or crisp fall days. It's too active to be ambient music, but it lacks the cathartic explosiveness of jazz; it's all simmer.
Bitches Brew (1970)
Bitches Brew is Miles Davis' classic-rock album. Not in the sense that it has anything to do with rock on a musical level, really, but in the sense that this is the one Rolling Stone likes to gush over; this is the one Mojo and Classic Rock have written about; this is the one that got him inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. It's got a hard, forceful backbeat, it's got guitar, it's got psychedelic production and tricky tape edits ... it's tailor-made for music dorks to dork out over.
And a lot of it's great. The first two tracks, "Pharoah's Dance" and "Bitches Brew," are side-long journeys into a world of sound unlike anything that had existed before. The organic interactions between band members are subject to radical editing and reshaping by producer Teo Macero. On the album's second disc, he's less heavy-handed, letting pieces exist more or less as they were recorded (or creating the illusion that he's doing that).
Davis brought a sizable company of players into the studio, including two keyboardists, two bassists (one upright, one electric), two drummers, two percussionists, plus a saxophonist, a bass clarinetist, and a guitarist (John McLaughlin, so important to the sound that one of the tracks is named after him). All these guys jam off each other in halfway guided improvisation, creating an ocean of sound of which, every once in a while, an individual instrument will bob to the surface for a time, before being reabsorbed into the whole.
Davis' soloing is red-hot, full of bluesy smeared notes and screaming high runs; the "cool" for which he'd been known in the 1950s was long gone. Unfortunately, Wayne Shorter had mostly given up the tenor saxophone by this point, and was filling the air with the biting-on-foil sound of the soprano, but Bennie Maupin's bass clarinet was a welcome addition. And the double bass idea was brilliant; the low end is filled to overflowing, but in a way that lets you hear Dave Holland (acoustic) and Harvey Brooks (electric) with perfect clarity. Similarly, the two drummers, Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White, keep everything driving forward, while still playing around with intricacy and subtlety, not unlike the Allman Brothers Band's two drummers, Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks.
Bitches Brew takes a while to sink in; it's imposing at first, with its 90-minute running time and dense sound. But eventually, real beauty emerges from the swirl, and like so many other albums on this list, it becomes the kind of thing you can listen to a thousand times and continually discover new details.
The studio debut of what's now known as Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet came at the end of a two-year stretch during which he already had the rhythm section he wanted (pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams), but couldn't find the right saxophonist. He tried George Coleman, who was too staid and traditional, and Sam Rivers, who was too avant-garde, before bringing in Wayne Shorter. (If you want to hear the early versions of the band, check out the live albums In Europe, My Funny Valentine and Four & More, all of which feature Coleman, and Miles In Tokyo, with Rivers.) Davis was significantly older than his bandmates, especially Williams -- the drummer was 17 when he signed on in 1963.
Most of the music on E.S.P. was written by Wayne Shorter or Ron Carter, with Davis contributing "Agitation" and co-writing "Eighty-One" and "Mood" with the bassist. Herbie Hancock brought his piece "Little One," which he'd re-record for his own Maiden Voyage album on Blue Note a few weeks after these sessions. The group sound is still coming together; you can hear the ways they're going to move far beyond conventional hard bop, into realms of greater and greater abstraction (particularly live), but there's still plenty of melody and predictable swing to the rhythm. What's most obvious, when listening to this music, is how carefully all five of these guys are listening to each other, and challenging each other, at all times. There's not a moment where they coast, or settle into rote patterns that any other group could have played. Because of that, no matter how pretty the music gets, there's an underlying tension that never goes away, and which is present throughout all five of this band's albums.
Miles Ahead (1957)
This album was credited to "Miles Davis +19," and on it he's fronting a small jazz orchestra, arranged by Gil Evans. They'd first worked together on the Birth Of The Cool sessions in 1949, and after this would collaborate on two more major albums and one minor one (1962's Quiet Nights), then split until 1982, when Evans would help with arrangements for the bluesy, stripped-down Star People. Miles Ahead is the second-best of the Davis/Evans albums; it's not as rich, focused or emotionally potent as Sketches Of Spain, but few records are. At the same time, it's not lush wallpaper the way so many large ensemble records are. Gil Evans' orchestrations are active, with the horns frequently blasting high-speed bursts of melody behind Davis as he solos in a somewhat more subdued manner. The tempos are quite fast, too, and the pieces are mostly short -- the album packs 10 tracks into just 37 minutes. As a consequence, it never really lags or loses the listener's attention.
Unlike a small group jazz album (or even most big band albums), Davis is the only soloist here. In that way, he's almost serving the same function a vocalist might -- which is why some listeners might be reminded more of Frank Sinatra's 1950s albums made with conductor Nelson Riddle, like Come Fly With Me or In The Wee Small Hours, than of instrumental big band records. Miles Ahead may lack the starkness of Davis' small group work, but it's enough of a fascinating experiment (at the time it was recorded, big band music was seriously uncool, and he was still under contract to Prestige, meaning it sat in the can for an additional two years) to make it well worth exploring.
Miles Smiles (1966)
On the second album by Miles Davis' second great quintet, they started building upon the achievements of 1965's E.S.P. The music walked a tightrope between relatively structured modal grooves and melodic solos, and improvisations that nudged up against the avant-garde. The music frequently strips away familiar elements, even ones considered vitally necessary -- on three of the album's six tracks, pianist Herbie Hancock plays only with his right hand, entirely dispensing with the chords pianists typically delivered via the left hand. This leaves the rhythm and structure entirely up to bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, who seem to be rocketing in all directions at once. It's not all high-speed, high-tension adventure, though. The ballad "Circle" is gentle and beautiful, shifting slowly and organically while somehow still maintaining just enough of its essential structure to keep the listener from ever feeling lost.
Even more than on E.S.P., saxophonist Wayne Shorter was the dominant compositional voice within the group, bringing in three pieces, including one ("Footprints") he'd recorded on his own album, Adam's Apple, for Blue Note a year earlier. That track, and two others -- "Gingerbread Boy" and "Dolores" -- made it into the band's live sets, too. Recorded in only two days, Miles Smiles has a slightly rough feel that gives the music even more energy; the band sounds like they're ripping through the material in as few takes as possible, so they can get back on the road. And yet, as the album's title suggests, they still want to win people over. This isn't a dry, austere record aimed at documenting their artistic genius -- it's meant to entertain as many people as possible. It's one of the most open albums of Davis' career, and an ideal entry point into this group's catalog.
The fourth and moodiest album by the 1965-'68 Miles Davis Quintet, Nefertiti is one that takes a while to grow on you. The title track reverses the polarity of traditional jazz composition: The horns (Miles on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax) repeat a simple, moody melodic figure over and over again, with minimal variation, as behind them, the rhythm players (Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums) go through all kinds of elaborate twists, turns and eruptions. It's utterly compelling, relentless and almost hypnotic.
The album's five remaining tracks are more conventional in structure: melodic statement, solos, recapitulation, out. But they vary substantially in tempo, and degree of abstraction. Oh, and Davis didn't write any of them. Three ("Nefertiti," "Fall" and "Pinocchio") are by Shorter; two ("Madness" and "Riot") are by Hancock; and "Hand Jive" is by Tony Williams. Still, the album has a unified feel -- listening to it is like sitting in a room made entirely of highly polished, dark wood, looking out the window and watching the sun go down. It's an astonishingly subtle record, one totally dependent on group interplay. Even when one player is soloing, the others are chopping things up in the background in a way that keeps everything just slightly unsettled, and forces the listener to stay focused, particularly on Tony Williams, whose command of the drum kit is as breathtaking as ever, aggressive but utterly controlled.
Nefertiti, released in March 1968, was the last fully acoustic studio album of Davis' career. Beginning with Miles In The Sky, four months later, electric instruments (most prophetically, guitar) would begin to appear, signaling the start of what would be an inexorable change, and eventually a total abandonment of jazz, in favor of a much less classifiable sound. But Davis clearly hadn't lost interest in acoustic jazz just yet; the music on Nefertiti is some of the most beautiful of his career.
Get Up With It (1974)
A compilation of tracks recorded between 1972 and 1974, Get Up With It is a mixed bag, but a couple of the pieces are so astonishingly beautiful they make it a must-own. The best of those is the sprawling album opener, "He Loved Him Madly," a half-hour tribute to Duke Ellington, who'd died less than a month before it was recorded. An elegiac, effectively drumless piece where Davis' trumpet and Dave Liebman's flute keen and flutter, as guitars and keyboards hum and murmur, it's almost ambient music, never seeming to move from one point to another yet somehow building up a crushing emotional power over its extended running time. The quiet at its heart gives it more impact than any more aggressive piece ever could -- it's like Davis, famous for his devotion to the space between notes, was attempting to diagram the hole in the world left by Ellington's passing.
The rest of the album is a patchwork, with each track having its own unique mood. "Maiysha," turned into a raucous blowout on the live Agharta, is a mellow, almost Brazilian groove excursion until it shifts gears at the 10-minute mark (out of 15), becoming a thick blues-rock stew. "Rated X" is a potent exercise in shock, Davis leaning on the organ with his whole forearm at times and the band bouncing in and out like producer Teo Macero had been listening to Lee "Scratch" Perry. "Honky Tonk" and "Red China Blues" are the most out of place, even amongst this grab-bag; the former dates back to 1970, and has the same rock sound as A Tribute To Jack Johnson, while the latter sounds like Davis dubbed himself over a soul-jazz track he found lying around somewhere. There's one more side-long exploration, the pulsating and psychedelic "Calypso Frelimo," and two more funk jams, "Mtume" (named for the band's percussionist) and "Billy Preston" (named for the R&B singer), which are good, because nothing Davis was doing in this period was bad, but they're mostly there to get GUWI to double album length. Had he simply released the two side-long epics, "He Loved Him Madly" and "Calypso Frelimo," that would have been more than enough.
'Round About Midnight (1957)
'Round About Midnight, Miles Davis' debut for Columbia Records, was actually recorded before his contract with Prestige had expired. Thus, even though it wasn't released until 1957, one of its tracks (the Charlie Parker composition "Ah-Leu-Cha") is the first recording ever by his quintet with saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. A month later, he'd track The New Miles Davis Quintet for Prestige. The other two sessions that made up 'Round About Midnight were recorded more or less concurrently with the ones for Cookin' ... , Relaxin' ... , Steamin' ... and Workin' With The Miles Davis Quintet. And like those albums, the track listing is a mix of standards and tunes by peers; there are no Davis originals. But 'Round About Midnight has a few things that put it ahead of the Prestige albums: its title track, and Columbia's money.
The title track is a version of pianist Thelonious Monk's composition "'Round Midnight," originally composed way back in 1941. Davis' interpretation smooths out the composer's lurching rhythms, his muted elaborations on the melody turning it into a mist rising up from the ground, until suddenly, almost exactly at the halfway mark, he blows a shrill fanfare and Coltrane comes swaggering in for a rich, bluesy solo of his own. Overall, the album has a lush, glossy production that the Prestige albums don't; it feels like a real work of art, not a recording of five guys blowing through some tunes in a room. The uptempo songs have a crisp swing; Philly Joe Jones' drumming is less jackhammer-like than he could be at other times, and Paul Chambers' bass sound is full and human. Ultimately, there's not that much separating this from the other five albums by this band, but the small, subtle differences of degree turn out to be crucial. If you want to hear one album by the Miles Davis Quintet, this is the obvious choice.
Sketches Of Spain (1960)
Of the three major Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations, this is the keeper. Where 1957's Miles Ahead was a collection of discrete pieces, with only their orchestral accompaniment unifying them, and 1958's Porgy And Bess was an instrumental translation of an opera, Sketches Of Spain is a cohesive work of art, the equal of any of Davis' small group albums. There's not as much soloing from Davis as there would be on a more conventional jazz record, because this is about the ensemble, and about the larger sound. But hearing him play the flugelhorn -- larger than a trumpet, with a fuller, more expansive sound -- is the real draw here. It's like he's suddenly grown six inches, and his lungs have expanded to twice their normal size.
The epic opening track, "Concierto De Aranjuez," is the second movement of a piece written for classical guitar and orchestra by Joaquín Rodrigo. The melody unfolds slowly, with Davis playing it on flugelhorn before the orchestra swells around it into a cloud of sound that's not quite classical, not quite jazz; the term used in the 1950s and early 1960s was "Third Stream." It swells and recedes, occasionally swinging and sometimes speeding up, but mostly maintaining its mood. It's mirrored by the album's last track, "Solea," composed by Evans, which is set to a martial rhythm that sounds less like jazz than the soundtrack to a man being marched to the gallows.
In between, there are three short (4-5 minute) tracks, "Will O' The Wisp," "The Pan Piper," and "Saeta," which sustain the mood between the two big ones. Each maintains the same balance between jazz and Spanish folk themes as the longer pieces, but in a slightly more compressed, more conventionally melodic/songlike form.
A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1970)
A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the soundtrack to a movie nobody's seen since it was new, is one of the hottest albums in Miles Davis' discography. It's made up of two side-long epics, "Right Off" and "Yesternow." The former is the closest thing he ever recorded to straight-up rock; Billy Cobham's backbeat, bolstered by teenaged bassist Michael Henderson, a recent recruit from Stevie Wonder's touring band, is absolutely massive, and John McLaughlin's guitar is pure snarling fury. When Davis enters, after two and a half minutes of almost headbanging groove, he takes one of the longest and most over-the-top solos of his career, blowing through an open horn rather than the mute he frequently favored, and unleashing long streams of outrageous high notes. It's a display of pure macho power, totally unlike anything he'd ever done before. And that's the whole band -- no keyboardist, no saxophonist, just a three-piece rock 'n' roll trio and Davis taking the frontman's role. Until about the 11-minute mark, when it fades down, leaving a second Davis there, playing an atmospheric, unaccompanied solo for three minutes or so, before the band fades back in and soprano saxophonist Steve Grossman gets his turn in the spotlight. Producer Teo Macero has a major role in shaping the music; he drops everything but Grossman's sax and Henderson's bass out for a long stretch, only gradually bringing the drums and guitar back in. Oh, and around the 15-minute mark, there's an absolutely nerve-frying Farfisa organ attack courtesy of Herbie Hancock.
The album's second track/half, "Yesternow," is slower and more subdued, almost dubby. It, too, moves through multiple stages, and includes strings and a section of In a Silent Way. Its moodiness is the perfect counterpoint to the aggression of "Right Off." These two tracks are totally unique within the Davis catalog. He'd never work with as stripped-down a band again, or play the trumpet with this much fire and fury. Indeed, beginning on his very next studio album, 1972's On The Corner, he'd begin to use a wah-wah pedal like a mask, burrowing into the mix instead of playing a leader's role. In some ways, A Tribute To Jack Johnson is a short detour; in other ways, it's the end of a line. But however you characterize it, it's a fantastic, heart-stopping record.
Davis' follow-up to 'Round About Midnight finds him expanding his 1950s quintet to a sextet with the addition of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. The group works out on some seriously fierce hard bop tunes, including the title track, "Dr. Jekyll," and a version of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" that's like injecting rocket fuel straight into that big artery in your thigh. The blues feeling that's always at the heart of his acoustic work (and a surprising amount of his later electric music as well) is pretty dominant here; yes, the title track is a modal piece (see the writeup on Kind Of Blue for an explanation of modality), hovering in place rhythmically as the solos slowly rise, blossom and then recede. But beyond that, these tracks jump and strut. The opener, "Dr. Jekyll," is blindingly fast, a sprint that perfectly sets up the next piece, "Sid's Ahead." The longest track on the album at 13 minutes, it's a simmering, swaying blues that really lets John Coltrane dig in; he gets the first solo, and sets the tone for everyone who follows him.
This band -- Davis, Coltrane, Adderley, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones -- was one of the great assemblages of talent in jazz history. Each man had a unique voice on his instrument, and when they came together, "more than the sum of their parts" doesn't even begin to cover it. They were even able to elevate low-rent material; the fifth track on this album, "Billy Boy," is some hippety-skippety bullshit with a melody that sounds like something you'd teach kids in nursery school. But these guys tear into it like dogs on a meaty bone, and when they're done, the melody may not lose any of its innate corniness, but you don't mind as much because the solos in between are that ferocious. Milestones is a must-hear.
Kind Of Blue (1959)
Kind Of Blue is Miles Davis' (and jazz's) Thriller, the moment when a genuine artistic breakthrough was rewarded with unprecedented commercial success. In 2008, the RIAA certified itas quadruple platinum -- the best-selling jazz record of all time. It's also one of the most beautiful jazz records you'll ever hear. Completely unified, it plays like a suite rather than a collection of five discrete songs, and even when pianist Wynton Kelly replaces Bill Evans on the second track, "Freddie Freeloader," the simmering mood remains intact.
By 1959, when this album was made, Davis was growing weary of the increasingly complex chord changes dominating jazz composition. He decided to make an entire album based on modality, a type of composition that uses scales, not chords, as its foundation and is much more rhythmically stable -- almost trancelike at times. The five pieces on Kind Of Blue seem to drift in like mist; although they swing (if you don't tap your foot to "So What" once Paul Chambers' bass locks in with Jimmy Cobb's drums, you may be in a coma), they do so in such a cool and subdued manner, it's like they're challenging the entire orthodoxy of jazz, the idea that you had to sweat to get your point across. This is music that has an almost skipping, loping groove -- it's head-nodding jazz, and the solos have a lyricism that says much more than "look how fast I can run through the blues scales I know." Kind Of Blue is like a meditation; you can listen to it anytime, and it will always feel like just before or just after midnight. It's the only jazz record a lot of people own because, in some ways, it can be the only jazz record you need. It's so pure, so cohesive, that every time you listen to it is like you're hearing it for the first time.
On The Corner (1972)
A controversial flop at the time of its release, On The Corner has become one of Miles Davis' touchstone albums in the four decades since. A unique and unprecedented swirl of free jazz, funk, and electronic music (when that genre barely existed), wrapped in a bright yellow sleeve depicting blaxploitation cartoon characters, it's as assaultive as it is brilliant. And it was always meant to be a line in the sand. When it was originally released, it didn't have any personnel listed -- a total affront to jazz fans, who valorized individual expression and would buy albums based on who played on them. Not this time. With On The Corner, Davis was attempting to create a collective sound that would not only draw in young black listeners at a time when jazz's audience was already becoming old and white, but would also reflect the New York City he saw when he looked out his window.
It's an immediately alienating listen, starting with a harsh, serrated guitar riff and blatting trumpet atop about three different keyboards and as many percussionists, with a drummer beating out a looplike funk rhythm on a clattering, junkyardish kit. The first solo is by soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, who recorded without headphones -- he remembers being in the studio just playing blindly, and hearing what sounded like a roomful of typists all around him. The rhythm stays monotonous just long enough to get you almost used to it, then it shifts to something more assaultive, then back again; On The Corner is constantly trying to wrong-foot you, and most of the time, it succeeds. But once it gets its hooks in you, it'll never let go. You can listen to it a hundred times and hear something new every time. It's got funk guitars, Indian percussion, dub production techniques, loops that predict hip-hop -- it's like walking down the street in New York and hearing six languages in three blocks, amid car horns and jackhammers and the rattle and crash of teeming human life. It's not a jazz album. It's not an anything album. It's one of the greatest records of the 20th Century, and easily one of Miles Davis' most astonishing achievements. It's a masterpiece.