Sketches of Acoustic Miles

Miles Davis hooked me into jazz and then pushed me beyond jazz. Miles’s ever-changing direction disoriented me when I first learned about his music. At that time, I did not pay attention to the release date of his albums. I just listened to whatever records I could get my hands on. I loved Kind of Blue and admired the Spanish tone on Sketches of Spain. I liked the spacious sound on Bitches Brew even though I didn’t get it. Then the Indian flavor of On the Corner and the dated programming on Tutu lost me. As a hip-hop fan, I couldn’t take the lyrics on Doo-Bop seriously. At that point, Miles was all over the map for me, but I always loved the way he played no matter where he was heading. His choices of notes and phrasings were thoughtful and meaningful. He understood that the notes he left out were as essential as the notes he played.

My appreciation for Miles escalated after I bought The Complete Columbia Album Collection. The day the box set arrived on my front door, I ate, worked, drove, and slept with Miles’s music for two months straight. My goal was to get through at least one album a day. I even started Sketches of Miles, a project to experiment with web design techniques and to jot down my thoughts on the albums I loved. For each album I selected, I reused its cover art and played with typography to convey my message. Listened to his albums in chronological order allowed to me see both the progression he made as well as the road he took to refine and reinvent his music.

From the start, Miles was determined to take music on his own path. At eighteen, Miles had the opportunity to play with Charlie Parker, the father of bebop and the alto saxophone virtuoso, but the high and fast style of playing didn’t impress him. Burnt out by the hot temper of bebop, Miles Davis gave birth to the cool. By slowing down the tempo, Miles focused on the lyricism in his phrasings.

Miles made a breakthrough and signed onto the Columbia roster after the Prince of Darkness cast his haunted, muted spell ’Round About Midnight. At Columbia Miles met and collaborated with the master of orchestration, Gil Evans, on three classics: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain.

Milestones entered the world of modal jazz and prepared for the laid-back and relaxing Kind of Blue that eases its way into the heart and soul of millions. I could listen to Kind of Blue in whatever mood I was in. The power of the album was in its ability to blend itself into whatever state of mind I was in at the time. Kind of Blue also featured one of the finest sextets in the world with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophones, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

The group fell apart not too long after Kind of Blue. Miles missed Coltrane because the saxophonist’s sheets of sound was a perfect complement to Mile’s economical trumpet. Someday My Prince Will Come was a great illustration of their collaboration . In contrast to Mile’s slow-burning, trapped tone, Coltrane blazed lines of fire. In trying to rebuild his band with not much success, Miles went into depression. He expressed, “[T]he music wasn’t happening and that was fucking me up.”

Indeed Miles remained unproductive until he formed his new quintet. When the young drummers Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock joined him in the studio to record Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles was excited again because he “knew right away that this was going to be a motherfucker of a group.” When Wayne Shorter came on board, Miles headed toward a new direction starting with E.S.P. Miles Smiles made a strong case for the post bop movement, but then Nefertiti marked the last great acoustic Miles.