Miles Ahead, the Miles Davis biopic starring and directed by Don Cheadle, arrives in theaters this Friday. Attempting to become familiar with the music of an artist as prolific as Davis can be a daunting task. To make it a little bit easier, I’ve constructed a quick introduction to the jazz legend’s music, a sort of Miles Davis sampler platter consisting of four albums, a song or two from each, and a suggested approach to the music—a way to listen encapsulated by a single word.
The Album: Kind of Blue (1959)
The Songs: “So What” | “Freddie Freeloader” | “All Blues”
The Word: Cliché
Let’s face it. Kind of Blue is the Miles Davis album for people who don’t know anything about Miles Davis. You might encounter it in an intro-to-jazz course, as background music at a cocktail party, or even (gasp!) piped through the speakers in an elevator. The fame and ubiquity of Kind of Blue, though, are but side effects of the more salient truth. Make no mistake: Kind of Blue is famous and ubiquitous because it is great.
As often happens to iconic works of art, the content of Kind of Blue—not its renown or its place in history, but its music—may actually be underrated. In the case of Kind of Blue, this may be a result of the album’s relatively simple songs, which cannot rival Davis’ later music in terms of intricacy of construction. “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” and “All Blues,” for example, were staples of my middle-school jazz combo’s repertoire because their straightforward chord changes make them accessible to novice performers. But it is the singular performances of Davis and his bandmates, rather than compositional complexities, that makes these songs’ appearances on Kind of Blue so memorable. Look no further than Davis’ solo on “So What,” the album’s opening track, to see what I mean. Is it a cliché to like Kind of Blue? Maybe, but with performances like these it is one cliché I don’t mind embodying.
The Album: Circle in the Round (1979)
The Song: “Circle in the Round”
The Word: Obsession
Circle in the Round is a weird album. Released in 1979, it consists of previously unreleased recordings from 1955 to 1970 that are predictably diverse in terms of style and quality. But Circle in the Round features at least one bona fide masterpiece. The title track, recorded in 1967 and performed by Davis’ second quintet plus guitarist Joe Beck, is undoubtedly the highlight of the album, a swirling and hypnotic affair that clocks in at over twenty-six minutes.
The rhythm section’s undulating groove is unlike anything else in Davis’ oeuvre. Ron Carter’s bass line thumps indefatigably along, Tony Williams makes a case for the drumset as virtuoso instrument, and Herbie Hancock fills in the gaps on an eerie, jangling celeste. Every now and then the texture shifts. Listen, for example, to the beautifully sparse texture at the 3:38 mark or the way in which Williams plays on the rim of the snare drum at 5:48, producing mind-bending rhythms with the simplest of instrumental resources. Davis and saxophonist Wayne Shorter turn in equally memorable performances. At 0:52, the two play the same melodic contour at the same time but at different pitch levels, evoking (whether purposefully or not) organum, the chant-based polyphony of medieval cathedrals. At 3:49, by contrast, they play in unison, trumpet and saxophone blending so seamlessly that it almost sounds as if someone had invented a new hybrid instrument.
One might expect a track this long to lag in spots, but “Circle in the Round” is remarkable for its unceasing forward drive. There are no moments of respite and barely any chances to catch your breath. “Circle in the Round” pushes ahead with an insistence so edgy and anxious that it borders on obsessive, as if moving forward not to get somewhere but simply to keep moving. All of this is powered by arguably the most inconspicuous member of the band, Joe Beck. Beck’s guitar ostinato is the engine of “Circle in the Round,” standing at the center of the groove and holding it all together, thereby freeing the other members of the rhythm section, Williams in particular, to freelance in fruitful ways. “Circle in the Round” is the earliest of Davis’s recordings to feature the guitar and employs it to such powerful effect that it is not difficult to understand why the guitar became a staple of Davis’s late 1960s and 1970s sound.
The Album: Filles de Kilimanjaro (1969)
The Song: “Filles de Kilimanjaro”
The Word: Transcendence
Like “Circle in the Round,” “Filles de Kilimanjaro” is second quintet-era extended take on a single groove. Aside from those basic commonalities, however, “Circle in the Round” and “Filles de Kilimanjaro” could not be more different. Indeed “Filles de Kilimanjaro” is everything the earlier track is not: relaxed, loose, and easy. For the first four minutes or so nothing much happens—in the most pleasant way possible. Energy builds only to subside just as the track seems to be getting somewhere. For a while, “Filles de Kilimanjaro” almost sounds stuck, a song in search of its purpose.
Spoiler alert: “Filles de Kilimanjaro” doesn’t stay stuck. At 9:21, Herbie Hancock plays an energetic motive that circles in on itself, like a much happier cousin of the guitar figure from “Circle in the Round.” Shortly thereafter, at 9:42, Davis joins in the fun with a buoyant, sunny tune, and we are (finally) off to the races. This time, energy builds and just keeps building. From 10:45 to 10:51, Hancock plays a single note in three different octaves, a tiny prelude to the big finish. In the phrase beginning at 10:52, Davis repeats the sunny tune, Hancock contributes a jubilant, ejaculatory accompaniment, and Ron Carter gets funky beneath it all. For a few moments, through some kind of alchemical process, these disparate components come together to achieve a sort of blissful transcendence. Mere seconds later the track ends, as if, having found its purpose, it need not continue. That the most charming music of “Filles de Kilimanjaro” is so fleeting only makes it that much more special. After all, isn’t transcendence almost always ephemeral?
The Album: Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)
The Songs: “Someday My Prince Will Come” | “Old Folks” | “Drad Dog” | “I Thought About You”
The Word: Harmon
“Harmon?” That would be the harmon mute, a type of metal trumpet mute that Davis employed frequently and famously. The harmon mute takes center stage on Someday My Prince Will Come, featuring on four of the album’s seven tracks (five of eight if you include the alternate take of the title track). On the ballads—“Old Folks,” “Drad Dog” and “I Thought About You”—the muted trumpet sounds like a raspy and weathered human voice, lending a pained, weary quality to songs already redolent with wistfulness (Kind of Blue’s “Blue in Green” does something similar). On “Somebody My Prince Will Come,” meanwhile, Davis’s muted playing is classically cool and even a bit sweet.
Muting the trumpet, or any instrument, modifies its sound. The sound of a trumpet with a harmon mute is not the standard trumpet sound. It seems appropriate, then, that this sound, a non-standard sound, has become so strongly associated with the music of Miles Davis. There are many words to describe the fiercely unique artist that was Miles Davis, but “standard” has never been one of them.