6 Miles Davis Albums That Changed Music

Mar 26, 2016
Originally published on March 28, 2016 1:37 pm

Miles Davis died in 1991, but his influence on music is still being felt. The new film Miles Ahead, produced, co-written, directed by and starring Don Cheadle, is giving a new audience a fresh take on one period in the musician's career.

Davis himself wasn't the most humble about his musical sway. At a White House dinner in 1987, the jazz musician was asked what he'd done to deserve to be there. Davis wrote in his autobiography that he replied, "Well, I've changed music five or six times."

Davis' career spanned more than 50 years and encompassed everything from bebop to avant-garde to hip-hop. Professor Sean Jones of the Berklee College of Music in Boston teaches a class on Miles Davis.

"It's kind of controversial," he tells NPR's Michel Martin about Davis' claim to have changed the face of music. "You can make the argument that he indeed did change music a few times, five or six times. But you could also state that he was at the forefront of the change, by putting together bands that were a part of the movements that were going on. And I tend to subscribe to that notion.

"He, having such a unique voice, he was able to superimpose his sound on that change, making it seem as if he were the change agent."

NPR asked Jones to compile some of his favorite Miles Davis songs and albums that showcase how Davis changed — or helped change — musical tastes.

This list is sure to be debated. If you think we missed something, let us know in the comments section.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Miles Davis famously told a story about being seated at a Washington, D.C., function next to a woman. And in kind of a testy exchange, she asked him what he'd done to deserve to be there. He responded with something along the lines of well, I've changed music five or six times. What have you done? And those of you who know that story know that we've given you the clean version. Now that might sound like a big boast - changing music five or six, so we decided to look into it. So let's start where he started.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "MILESTONES")

MARTIN: This is from Miles Davis's very first recording back in 1945 when he was just 18 years old. It's a bebop piece called "Milestones." Now, as for the changes, we asked Sean Jones to help us think about that. He teaches a class about Miles Davis at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He also plays trumpet. Hello, welcome, thanks for joining us.

SEAN JONES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Before we get started, do you think that Miles Davis changed music five or six times?

JONES: Well, it's kind of controversial. You can make the argument that he indeed did change music a few times. But you could also state that he was at the forefront of the change, and I tend to subscribe to that notion.

MARTIN: That he was kind of more the - what? - maybe the face of it or the sound of it?

JONES: Yeah, like, the face of it. Yeah, the face of it and he - having such a unique voice, he

was able to superimpose his sound on that change.

MARTIN: And it's a good thing he's not here to cuss us out for even having this debate, right? So...

JONES: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So let's get into some music here. Really, I think one of Miles Davis's first big, big albums, right, "Birth Of The Cool."

JONES: Yes, for sure. We're going to hear a cut off of that album called "Deception," and it's one of my favorite pieces on there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "DECEPTION")

MARTIN: What do you want us to hear in this piece?

JONES: You hear a departure from the language of bebop - still incorporating some bebop language, but you hear it smooth out. You hear the smooth sounds of the instrumentation, the various arrangers as well that wrote for the great band the the Claude Thornhill Band. And this would pave the way for those great collaborations with Gil Evans that we all know so well.

MARTIN: Now, your next choice was actually recorded about six years after the "Birth Of The Cool" sessions were, which were in 1950. This is about six years after that. The leadoff track - well, let's play that. It might be familiar to some.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "IF I WERE A BELL")

MARTIN: Sounds a little bit like the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED theme - little cooler - little cooler than that (laughter). Talk about this record, why you chose it.

JONES: This recording is very interesting, relaxing. The song we're listening to right now is called "If I Were A Bell." Many people argue that these are the first hard bop recordings ever done. What you hear is a relaxed style. You hear the rhythm section, very relaxed. You don't hear that up feel that you get with bebop. And you also hear the American popular songbook expressed magically by miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "IF I WERE A BELL")

MARTIN: We're speaking with Berklee College of Music professor Sean Jones. He teaches a course on Miles Davis. And we're talking about some of the times that Miles Davis changed music or was the face of the change in music. Where do you want to go next?

JONES: Next, we are going to visit one of my favorite Miles albums, "Miles Smiles." And we're going to play a recording of one of Wayne Shorter's compositions. This is "Orbits."

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "ORBITS")

JONES: What you're hearing here is the Second Great Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. They were a part of the scene - the avant-garde scene that was happening in the early to mid-'60s. And you hear the freedom there - you hear the freedom of rhythm, boundaries are being broken. And there's arguably no better band to represent what that period was all about than Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "ORBITS")

MARTIN: Now, for your next selection, we're getting into Miles Davis's fusion period. He started doing that - what? - around 1969, 1970.

JONES: This is "John McLaughlin" from "Bitches Brew." It's one of my favorite recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "JOHN MCLAUGHLIN")

JONES: You can tell that Miles was checking out what was going on on the radio. He was checking out Sly, and he was checking out what the young cats were listening to. And so he wanted to again be the face of that change. And he incorporated musicians that were making that change happen in their own music. And like a great leader, he put them in his band.

MARTIN: Finally, we've got this, where Miles goes synthpop. And...

JONES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...This is...

JONES: This is "Perfect Way" from the album "Tutu."

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "PERFECT WAY")

MARTIN: Tell me about this.

JONES: For those of you in the audience that know the original "Perfect Way" (laughter) that was being played on all radio stations seemingly all the time in the '80s...

MARTIN: Scritti Politti.

JONES: That's right. Miles again was taking the music of the day and putting it at the forefront of his own sounds and superimposing his sound on that.

MARTIN: How did fans react to this?

JONES: You know, I think a lot of - we call them jazz police - I think a lot of the jazz purists didn't like it. And the great thing about the "Tutu" album and the album "Amandla" that follows is he was smart enough to get Marcus Miller to produce both of those albums. And Marcus would say that man, people just beat him up. How could you do that to Miles? This isn't the Miles that we know. And Marcus would say this is what Miles wants to do. He's ahead of his time. He's presenting the music of today, and he'll always do that.

MARTIN: That's professor Sean Jones. He teaches a class on Miles Davis at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Those are just a few the times that Miles Davis was at the forefront of changing musical tastes - some of them appreciated, some of them less so, as we've just heard Professor Jones, thanks so much joining us.

JONES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And if you are a Miles Davis fan and you think we skipped an important moment in his career, look for the story at npr.org and tell us about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS SONG, "PERFECT WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.