Music

Top 10 Performances of American Standards from Miles Davis Records

While Miles will always be known for his original compositions and for genre-busting, innovative records like Kind of Blue, E.S.P., and Bitches Brew, it’s worthwhile to give another listen to the great performances of standards the trumpeter recorded during the earlier part of his career.

Jazz musicians have long been taking the popular tunes of their day and revamping them for their own purposes. The tradition of covering “standards” began near the dawn of jazz and continues to this day. Groups like the Bad Plus and the Vijay Iyer Trio shape the pop songs of the last couple generations (i.e. Nirvana, Michael Jackson, the Pixies, etc.) into their own improvisational mini-masterpieces

During the time of Miles Davis, the “standards” of the day consisted of mainly Broadway show tunes and songs from popular Hollywood movies. Many of today’s up-and-coming jazz musicians learn the same standards that cats like Davis were playing in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a sort of rite of passage, a method for learning the vocabulary and intricacies of the jazz tradition. While Miles will always be known for his original compositions and for genre-busting, innovative records like Kind of Blue, E.S.P., and Bitches Brew, it’s worthwhile to give another listen to the great performances of standards the trumpeter recorded during the earlier part of his career. The so-called “Prestige years” of the early and mid-1950s were especially fertile times for Davis' standards recordings.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy these tracks. The tunes, and Miles’ specific interpretation of them, have stood the test of time for a reason.

[SPOTIFY PLAYLIST]

 
10. “It Never Entered My Mind”
(Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet)

“It Never Entered My Mind”, the great Rodgers and Hart showtune, is notable for being a ballad that opens a jazz record. While it's not unheard of to have a slow number rather than a “barn-burner” opener, it is somewhat rare. It's not surprising that Davis was attracted to this tune. Its relatively simple, yet beautiful, melody leaves plenty of room for embellishment. Paul Chambers' pedal point on bass coupled with Red Garland's augmented chord sequence on piano give Miles an attractive backdrop over which to play. Both Davis' and Garland's solos are quite poignant in their spare, minimalist constructions. Davos' signature Harmon mute especially fits the heartfelt, at times heartbreaking, vibe of the song.

 
9. “But Not for Me”
(Bags' Groove)

This Gershwin standard has been covered so often by so many musicians that most people have probably heard it, rather they realize it or not. There's more to the tune than its memorable usage in Woody Allen's Manhattan and Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally..., though. Its relatively slow-moving chord progression makes it a popular one for young jazz musicians to hone their chops on. In the hands of Miles Davis, we get a medium-tempo-ed, hard-swinging tune that demonstrates both Miles' and saxophonist Sonny Rollins' abilities to construct sublime improvised melodies out of nothing more than a basic chord progression with the help of a killer rhythm section (in this case, Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums).

 
8. “I Fall in Love Too Easily”
(Seven Steps to Heaven)

Seven Steps to Heaven is notable as the last Miles Davis studio recording to feature any standards. Starting with E.S.P., Miles would record almost exclusively original compositions, written by both him and his band mates. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” originally performed by Frank Sinatra in the movie Anchors Aweigh, shows us a band in transition. Miles is joined by Victor Feldman (piano), Ron Carter (bass), and Frank Butler (drums). The harmonically experimental, melodically complex tendencies that would characterize the classic Miles Davis groups of the mid- to late-1960s are burgeoning on this track. While the tune's original structure is clearly recognizable, the group is embellishing the melody and substituting the chords far more liberally than in earlier Davis standards recordings.

 
7. “Bye Bye Blackbird”
('Round About Midnight)

This 1957 version of “Bye Bye Blackbird”, one of the most covered tunes in all of jazz, is great for a plethora of reasons. First and foremost, it's an amazing case study -- a compare and contrast, if you will -- of the late 1950s improvisational styles of Davis and John Coltrane. Miles' solo is a master class in poignant minimalism, whereas Trane is clearly honing his “sheets-of-sound” concept, although it would be a couple years before it came to full fruition. Philly Joe Jones dances on the drums, playing light, airy drag triplets on brushes during parts of the head and, inspired by Trane's fire-y improvisational style, switches to double time during the sax solo. Then there's Red Garland's infectiously tasteful blues-inflected piano solo.

 
6. “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”
(Steamin' With the Miles Davis Quintet)

Here Davis walks the difficult tightrope between “brilliant” and “cheesy” without falling off. Most people know the tune “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” from the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! If anyone can make a song associated with rural hokum seem hip, it's Miles Davis. After an intense, deliberately misleading introduction by the rhythm section (Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums), Davis plays the melody with the kind of easy, laid-back feeling that invokes actually riding through the country on a surrey with fringe on top. As always, Coltrane shakes up the proceedings with his caustic tone and melodic runs.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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