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Miles Davis: 15 Essential Albums

Highlights from the jazz great's discography


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Miles Davis. Photo: Tom Palumbo. CC by 2.0/Wikimedia Commons.

Miles Davis. Photo: Tom Palumbo. CC by 2.0/Wikimedia Commons.

1. BIRTH OF COOL (Capitol)

The first of Davis’ radical revisions of jazz. Pulling back the reins on bop’s freneticism, Davis loosens the music with lyricism and spaciousness. (Recorded 1949-50)

2. WALKIN’ (Prestige)

Davis turns around and ushers in the hard-bop era with bruising workouts that celebrate the music’s blues roots. The epochal title track kicks and shouts, yet Davis loses none of his affecting style in the process. (Recorded 1954)

3. WORKIN’ (Prestige)

Features Davis’ classic quintet of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers. This is hard bop informed by personal touches: Davis’s tonal sensitivity, Coltrane’s probing attack and a relentless, telepathic rhythm section. (Recorded 1956)

4. ‘ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT (Columbia)

The quintet at its most sophisticated. Davis’ penetrating ballad readings, relaxed uptempo intensity and bandleading ability mark a midcareer high point. (Recorded 1955-56)

5. MILES AHEAD (Columbia)

Davis’ collaboration with arranger and friend Gil Evans helped refashion the jazz big band. Evans’s magisterial textures are matched by Davis’s searingly impressive blowing. (Recorded 1957)

6. KIND OF BLUE (Columbia)

Davis’ masterpiece. With help from Coltrane, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, Davis introduced modal forms to the language of jazz. (Recorded 1959)

7. SKETCHES OF SPAIN (Columbia)

On their most personal work together, Gil Evans’ writing pulsates with Iberian mystery and drama, while Davis’ solos sound torn straight from his gut. (Recorded 1959-60)

8. LIVE AT PLUGGED NICKEL (Columbia)

Davis was once again ready for a change, and a new young blood band (Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock) helped him jettison any bop vestiges and envision the future. (Recorded 1965)

9. MILES SMILES (Columbia)

The mid-Sixties quintet balanced coiled intensity with compositional smarts. For today’s young players, this is Davis’ most influential period. (Recorded 1966)

10. IN A SILENT WAY (Columbia)

This spacey epic, thickened by extra keyboards (Joe Zawinul) and guitar (John McLaughlin), reflects Davis’ new fascination with pop music. (Recorded 1969)

11. BITCHES BREW (Columbia)

Fusion becomes fact. The visionary edge that infused this exploratory music eluded the many bands it influenced. (Recorded 1969)

12. ON THE CORNER (Columbia)

Davis’ attempt to compete in the same market as Sly Stone and others he admired brought forth deep street funk cut with African and Indian textures. (Recorded 1972)

13. DARK MAGUS (CBS/Sony, Japan)

By the mid-Seventies, Davis was redefining jazz as pure sound, concocting dense thickets of terrifying sonic funk. Influencing only the most daring musicians of the Eighties, this is still Davis’ most enigmatic, disturbing period. (Recorded 1974)

14. STAR PEOPLE (Columbia)

This recording of brisk jazz rock is among the more convincing of Davis’ later works. With John Scofield by his side, Davis gets off some chilling blues. (Recorded 1982)

15. AURA (Columbia)

This self-conscious but satisfying reworking of Davis’ early-Seventies sound by Danish big-band composer-arranger Palle Mikkelborg used Davis as featured soloist. At its best, the album suggested Davis-Gil Evans projects that never took place. (Recorded 1984)

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