Miles Davis: The Best of Miles Davis

[17 October 2002]

By Jason MacNeil

Last year some of the major players in the career of Miles Davis joined forces for a brief tour across North America. Featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and others, the tour paid homage to one of the biggest, if not the, biggest names in jazz history. But while the shows were well received, you could sense that the obvious was missing. Although his catalog has been vastly re-mastered, repackaged and released in an above average fashion, this newest collection is perhaps best described as “Miles Davis for Dummies”. Featuring everything from his earlier work with Bill Evans and John Coltrane to his ‘60s jazz funk fusion with the aforementioned Hancock, it’s an album that is a must for newcomers to the late trumpet and flugelhorn maestro.

The album begins with the title track from his 1961 Someday My Prince Will Come album, a nine-minute trek through a traditional pop standard. Featuring the deft and precision brush drumming from Jimmy Cobb, Davis takes the tune while allowing both Hank Mobley and John Coltrane to build on a splendid foundation. Equally important to the song is the confidence Davis showed in his supporting cast, allowing the sum to be far greater than its parts. “Round Midnight” follows this, a slower track that seems perfect music for a late-night walk through light fog or drizzle. Davis tends to dominate the song, but in perhaps the most subtle manner possible.

One great aspect of this album is that it’s not chronological or aligned in order of “importance” or “greatness”. Everyone has heard snippets of “So What” on “Made for TV” compilations, but more than 40 years after its recording, the song’s first minute still pulls the listener in. The magnetism oozing from Davis and equally important pianist Bill Evans allows for a wider sonic landscape that both musicians absorbed beautifully. Davis tends to go for it nearly two-thirds of the way through, with Evans ever the steadying rhythm portion. “Seven Steps to Heaven”, although written by pianist Victor Feldman, has Herbie Hancock tickling the ivories. Musically the song is one of the busier tracks here, far more up-tempo and swinging than the others included. Davis also allows Hancock more of a prominent role, doing a solo magnificently two-thirds of the way in.

Davis was never one to shy away from covers, especially those often considered off limits, such as “I Loves You, Porgy” from 1958’s Porgy And Bess. The ebb and flow of this number is memorable for its simplicity, but also how there is no conclusion to the track, seemingly fading away. “Milestones” has a lot in coming with “Seven Steps to Heaven”, but Philly Joe Jones has an awesome presence here. With a tick-tock tempo that falls in sync with the ascending and descending bass line of Paul Chambers, Miles goes off on a tangent but brings it all back together to the song’s core. “My Ship”, penned by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, is closer to a crooner’s tune in the vein of Tony Bennett or Sinatra, but Davis does the most by doing the least.

“E.S.P.” is another great choice for the album, the first finger-snapping and head-bopping tune the listener can immediately immerse him or herself in. The only track here that wasn’t recorded in New York City, the song has far more experimentation on it, whether it’s the intricate note and bravado of Davis or the strong drumming of Tony Williams. One has no clear indication when or if the tune will turn on a dime, but the fun is clearly heard in the journey. Another example of the style and expansiveness Davis was looking for can be heard in “In a Silent Way” with John McLaughlin on electric guitar. The first half of the song is given to electric instruments also with Hancock and Chick Corea on electric pianos. The trumpet is more of a layer or soft texture here, hence perhaps the song’s hidden meaning.

The epic Bitches Brew record isn’t forgotten about, with “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” the collection’s landmark. Over the course of some 14 minutes, Davis moves from the experimental psychedelic sounds of popular British rock to early ‘70s funk and disco years before its creation. Giving everyone a spot in the limelight, the tune begins to gel by the initial three minutes. Resembling everything from Little Feat to the current crop of “jam” bands like Phish, the song is a testament to the man’s genius. Few jazz purists couldn’t relate to his path at the time, but looking back it seemed only natural.

The album closes with one of Davis’ last recordings for Columbia. Covering Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” in 1984, Davis maintained a modern presence some 40 years after starting with Charlie Parker. Although the arrangement is identical to the original, Davis puts his mark on it with, downplaying the lyrical highpoints and rising the lower moments. The middle portion is his time to play and play he does. On the whole, it’s a fitting conclusion to an excellent yet difficult artist to condense on simply one disc.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/davismiles-bestofmilesdavis/