Miles Davis
Painting by Marie Fikry (Mariefize009) / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Miles Davis’ ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’ Makes a Jazz Noise

Miles Davis was a shapeshifter, and in his restlessness, he urged and created the groundwork for protean music that reflected shapes and shifts.

Filles de Kilimanjaro
Miles Davis
December 1968

Frank Zappa, a rock musician who drew from and ventured into other genres, titled a 1991 live album Make a Jazz Noise Here. Zappa was referring to his own music, not to Miles Davis‘, though some of Zappa’s jazz noises on various recordings make clear that he had listened to Davis. Zappa’s resonant phrase could apply to so much of Davis’ post-bop music, including his studio album Filles de Kilimanjaro, recorded in 1968 and released in 1968-1969.

We call the boundary-blurring music of Filles de Kilimanjaro jazz because we don’t know what else to call it. We also call it jazz because Miles Davis put his name on it. He and his band members were considered jazz musicians, so the sounds they made were jazz. When they made Filles de Kilimanjaro, jazz-rock, or the fusion of the two genres, hadn’t fully developed. Besides, the album doesn’t include any rock, in sound or spirit, unless you take rock in an extremely loose sense, as the freedom to do what you please with sound and not necessarily aim to please anyone else.

In 1970, Miles Davis and a mostly different and decidedly larger group would capitalize on various musicians’ mid-to-late-1960s experiments of making jazz-like music with rock instruments and rhythms. The result was Davis’ cosmic fusion, Frankensteinian monster, or jazz from hell (another Zappa title) on Bitches Brew. Before reaching that milestone, Davis and company (companies, really) took steps in its direction. Most immediately, they made Filles de Kilimanjaro and 1969’s In a Silent Way.

We call those two gems transitional because they led in a direction. “Directions in Music by Miles Davis” reads a line atop the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro, and Davis was leading his musicians somewhere over the rainbow. If Bitches Brew hadn’t taken Davis off into a new world of electronic backdrops, strums, bangs, squeaks, and squawks—if instead he’d returned to a recognizable hard bop or soft groove or acoustic swing—Filles de Kilimanjaro and Silent Way would instead constitute experiments, deviations, fascinating dead ends. 

These albums are classics to Miles Davis fans, listeners to the far edges of jazz, and appreciators of avant-garde/experimental sound assemblages. To open ears, both collections remain freshly challenging.

To jazz traditionalists, these records and Davis’ subsequent output are mistakes. Wynton Marsalis, for example, has said this music isn’t jazz. Imagine that: Davis, whose name and trumpet playing are so famous as to be inseparable from jazz for most people, took his work in a direction so far from the music’s roots as to have abandoned the form potentially. That kind of hardheaded move made Davis the force that he was. He also became a force because his playing spoke to people; sometimes, the appeal of his work is that simple. He might have turned his back on audiences and exhibited antisocial tendencies—he might have been mean and difficult—but his playing made him sound like someone worth knowing, knowing about, respecting, trying to understand, and maybe loving.

Davis’ playing on Filles de Kilimanjaro sounds like the search for love. As rhythms drawn from R&B meet free expression—that is, the kind of noisy improvisation that some people call “out”—Davis seems uniformly inspired, never playing by rote, never just issuing notes to see where they’d lead. He knows exactly where he wants to go, even when the music is going somewhere unexpected. Perhaps most surprisingly, he seems to want you to go along, to agree that these musicians—so seasoned, so intuitive—have hit on something exciting and good for the soul.

If you know only one Miles Davis album, it’s probably 1959’s Kind of Blue. If you’re going to know only one more, you’d be lucky if that one were Filles de Kilimanjaro.

Kind of Blue derived from the achievements of Davis’ so-called first great quintet, which existed in 1955‒1958, increased to a sextet in 1959, and subsequently disbanded. Filles de Kilimanjaro came from Davis’ so-called second great quintet, which existed from 1964 to 1968 and was entirely different from the first quintet. Here, the band consists of its leader on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on electric Fender/Rhodes piano, Ron Carter on electric bass guitar, and Tony Williams on drums. Just typing those names leaves a mere mortal in awe. It’s impossible in the space of this brief tribute to encapsulate the talents and achievements represented by these individuals. 

Filles de Kilimanjaro brought them together in the studio for the last time. Indeed, on some of the record, pianist Chick Corea replaced Hancock and bassist Dave Holland replaced Carter. By the recording of In a Silent Way, the second quintet no longer existed; all of these players apart from Carter appeared, though, as did additional musicians.

In keeping with the French album title, all the song titles on Filles de Kilimanjaro are in French. Side One opens with “Frelon Brun”, meaning “Brown Hornet”, though I’m not sure the meaning matters. This one is the shortest and most straightforward of the album’s five pieces. At the opening, bass and drums play a downright catchy R&B groove, just a bit of it, before the horns deliver a theme. Then, the trumpet and piano work variations until the sax takes off from where the trumpet started. Drums go off on their own rhythmic plane, increasingly busy. The piano solos over bass and drums, which assert themselves, return to that opening groove and introductory theme.

If “Frelon Brun” appears to operate according to standard jazz principles, “Tout de Suite” may leave you wondering what holds its parts together. It begins with piano in space, then joined by bass and drums in a funky few moments, not the “right away” the title promises. The trumpet delivers a melody, but then the bass and piano provide a contrasting melody. Trumpet and sax play off one another. Piano notes appear in stuttering isolation, oddly punctuated by arrhythmic drums and bass, then assertive trumpet over the top.

As the musicians toy with the very idea of cohesion, they work together, so clearly feeling the rightness of this 14-minute exploration. When they take apart the initial melodic fragment, they keep it in mind for future reference. When the horns lay out, leaving bits of bass and drums to be covered by untethered piano runs, it’s easy to imagine tradition-minded listeners wanting blues-based jazz and tuning out.

All of a sudden, the rhythm section shifts into a funk groove, which just as quickly slows to a crawl. Trumpet, sax, and piano play in beautiful harmony, but it’s as though they’re tying together loose melodic strands. Another breakdown leads to disconnected drums, bass, piano—and the end.

“Petits Machins”, or “Little Stuff”, starts out big, with a strong theme on piano and trumpet, which bend and twist that theme in many directions. Sax then takes their movements further. Drums tap and rumble, bass keeps a kind of time, which you might call tentative if it weren’t so confident, as piano and sax trade fragments, creating moments that can happen again only because they’re being recorded. The trumpet returns to the melody, ending Side One.

Side Two opens with the title track, or “Girls of Kilimanjaro”, and a beautiful, soft combination of trumpet, piano, and bass. Bass becomes key, with a repeating pattern that could be the basis of not just a pop song but a hit record. The piano responds to this insistent bass, and then the drums take a stab, and then the trumpet and piano return to the blue sky of that opening melody. This is some of the most joyous music Miles Davis ever made, skeletal yet rich with meaning and generous in spirit. The bass keeps the pulse going yet isn’t limited to repetition. The sax plays a version of the melody, and then the trumpet reiterates the opening, turning it into a celebration and a cerebration as the band keep cooking.

“Mademoiselle Mabry” unexpectedly opens with a bluesy vamp. Piano slinking around the corner, it’s Sunday morning in the city. The key to the rest of the album may be here, in the understated interplay of tapped drums, deeply felt bass, gentle piano, and trumpet delivering yet another delicious melody—connective tissue between different periods of Davis—never leaving that tune alone because it keeps suggesting other possibilities.

This 16-minute piece repeatedly threatens to charge its battery and rise up into a Mardi Gras march, but the relaxed mood proves irresistible. Yet the sax is at its most impassioned here, gliding and flitting and fluttering. Delicate piano stretches over the rhythm section, which keeps the vamp going but also lets intensity build ever so subtly. When the trumpet returns, the landscape has changed, as though a wall has moved to reveal a movie set. The end.

Miles Davis was a shapeshifter, and in his restlessness, he urged and created the groundwork for protean music that reflected shapes and shifts. We can interpret those forms as aspects of personality, elements of consciousness, fragments of experience, or simply moods. We can also appreciate them as treats for the ears. Jazz noise never sounded as sweet as it does on Filles de Kilimanjaro.