Miles Davis released more than 80 albums during his lifetime, and countless compilations and box sets have been produced since his death in 1991. While the great majority of these would enhance any music collection, there are quite a few that don’t compare well with his best work. Here are the dozen Miles albums by which all those many other dozens are measured:
Birth Of The Cool (1949) The defining album of the ‘cool jazz’ movement was also the first time Miles rewrote the Jazz rulebook. Retaining elements of more frenetic ‘hot’ jazz, Miles and company (including Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, and Kai Winding) play incredibly virtuosic music, but at a relaxed pace that’s easy to follow and enjoy.
Volume 1 [Blue Note] (1952) This album brings together two sessions from 1952 that feature luminaries such as J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Jackie McLean. Volume 1 (and its follow-up, Volume 2) was as close as Miles would come to recording the standard “blowing session” that was so popularized in the 60’s by (drum roll please)… Blue Note.
Bags Groove (1954) This easy going session put Milt ‘Bags’ Jackson and his vibes up front with Miles, and the two take turns wowing throughout. The title track contains some of the best blowing of Miles’ career, and the star-studded supporting cast is as good as advertised.
Round About Midnight (1955) Davis’ debut album for Columbia Records featured one of the best bands he ever played with. Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers anchor the rhythm while Red Garland and John Coltrane follow Miles over, under, sideways and down in pursuit of mellow perfection.
Workin’ (1956) This, and the other albums that were recorded along with it (Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’) are the closest Miles came to replicating his live set in the studio. The material played on all four of these albums was honed in front of paying audiences and then recorded in two marathon studio sessions. It’s the sound of a group hard at play and swingin’ for the fences.
Milestones (1958) There are shades of Blue here, but overall this album is more challenging than those that came before or after it. The title track introduced ‘modal’ playing to Jazz, enabling musicians to play within scales instead of chord progressions, and providing soloists with a new platform on which to do their thing. And although Miles would perfect this formula on his next album, Milestones was the second time he revolutionized the genre.
Kind Of Blue (1959) A towering achievment. Kind Of Blue isn’t just the greatest Jazz album of all-time, it’s the single finest work of art of the 20th century. These songs refuse to lose even a bit of their lustre, no matter how many times you listen to them.
Seven Steps To Heaven (1963) The genesis of Miles’ famous mid-60’s Quintet (only Wayne Shorter is missing) can be found on this languid, airy gem. While not name-checked as often as more celebrated Miles albums, this nonetheless holds its own against his very best.
E.S.P. (1965) Perhaps the most slyly seductive album in Davis’ entire catalogue, E.S.P. finds his horn slithering and darting like a snake in the jungle. The look on Miles’ face in the cover photo says it all: this one’s a loaded gun baby, and you better handle it with care.
Nefertiti (1967) By now, Davis’ Quintet was a well-oiled machine, and nearly everything they turned out was of the highest quality. This is music balanced on the edge of a dream, and finds the group in a muted, hushed mood. One of the defining characteristics of Miles’ sound was his ability to lower the volume and tempo without losing urgency or power. Nefertiti is a prime example of that mastery.
Bitches Brew (1969) Barely even a Jazz album, this electrified pscyho-funk is expansive in ways that Fusion would never approach again. In one double-album masterwork, Miles started off and left behind a brand new genre. This was the third and final time that he radically altered the sound of Jazz.
Tribute To Jack Johnson (1970) Miles’ tribute to the ex-heavyweight champ spins out over two extended electro-funk jams. It’s hard not to think that at least a piece of this album is autobiographical in nature, as both Johnson and Davis were flamboyant, misunderstood black men who excelled at their crafts. At the very least, Davis had enough innate understanding of Johnson’s situation to provide this music with the driving pulse of anger and truth.