Miles Davis was one of the undisputed geniuses of 20th century music, restlessly spanning genres throughout his career and never stopping to look back. Except once: in the late 70s he took an extended hiatus, quitting the spotlight and refusing to record any music for several years; it is in this period that Miles Ahead is set. Washed up and bummed out, addicted to drugs and creatively impotent, this was clearly a low point for the great man, which might seem a strange focal point for a film concerning his extraordinary life. But after several gun battles, car chases and punch-ups, it quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary biopic: the narrative is at times closer to blaxploitation classics like Super Fly than Miles’ real life. Instead of offering a straightforward factual analysis of Miles’ character, it riffs on elements of his personality, including his infamous short-fused temper and emotional repressiveness, in a largely fictional setting. This is in a manner akin to the improvisational nature of jazz, taking a theme (the biopic genre) and distorting it beyond recognition, as Miles frequently did with his trumpet solos. Hence, it is intended as a structural tribute to his creative genius rather than as a direct homage or representation of his life.
That’s a pretty neat idea, and Don Cheadle certainly deserves credit for it, but his handling of the concept is unfortunately pedestrian. As director, he fails to soar in the way Miles so often did, keeping both his filmmaking and his characterisations simple, with no great imaginative leaps. As actor, he excels at portraying the prickly side of Miles’ personality (which was indeed considerable), but offers little insight into his creative powers (which were very considerable indeed). The great music, which formed the core of Miles’ being, is disappointingly reduced to the point where it is literally a MacGuffin, in the form of stolen home recordings which instigate much of the action. Furthermore, the relationship with his wife is fatuously portrayed, never realising the full horror of his physically and mentally abusive regime against her.
So overall, it’s original in form but unoriginal in content: at least it comes half way to replicating the man’s genius.
As the film chooses not to celebrate Miles’ considerable musical contributions to our culture, I’ve decided to do so myself by listing my own Top 5 Miles Davis albums. The man recorded more worthwhile records than just about anyone else (by my count at least 30), so this is not such an easy task, but these are the ones I have cherished and returned to most often throughout my life.
1) In a Silent Way (1969)
Leading the way, ever so quietly, for the fusion of jazz and rock, this is a quite miraculous album. All who appeared on it, including Miles himself, would ride the fusion wave to greater glory and album sales throughout the 70s, however I have always had a soft spot for this earlier attempt. Obnoxious jazz purists at the time, fearing their beloved genre’s descent into the mainstream, criticised it for its electric instrumentation and producer Teo Macero’s method of splicing the tracks together, as opposed to recording the compositions live and in completion. But those are two of the reasons why people now love it.
Miles delighted throughout his career in breaking convention, a fact which can be felt in full force on this album. In a decidedly abstract move, the beginning and endings of each of the two tracks are exactly the same – copy and pasted, if you will. This sounds like mere laziness, but in fact it suits the tone of the album beautifully: the repetition is in keeping with the recurring motifs, played on ghostly trumpet and saxophone, which continuously appear and disappear into the low haze of the general mix. This repetitive structure, and of course the electric keyboards and guitar, signifies rock music – but only in a distant, dreamy sort of way, distorted by the jazzy presence of the double bass and Miles’ defiant insistence on keeping the proceedings oh so quiet. It lets loose in a vaguely rock n’ roll manner just once, towards the end of ‘It’s About Time’ where the bouncy, snaking riff suddenly erupts in volume and tempo, driven on by the insistent rhythm of Tony Williams, arguably the greatest drummer in recorded history. John McLaughlin, however, plays the electric guitar throughout not with the fury of rock but with a subtle grace, which not only sends shivers down the spine but eerily sounds like shivers going down the spine. This is still most definitely a jazz album: it swings rather than thrashes. But leading the way, ever so quietly, for the fusion of jazz and rock, this is a quite miraculous album.
2) Kind of Blue (1959)
An obvious choice for inclusion, perhaps. But so what? This is not a ‘historically important’ relic you dread to revisit, like Captain Beefheart or The Battleship Potemkin. This is an album which comes across as warm and inviting, like an old friend, which easily explains how it became the best-selling jazz album of all time. Not only best-selling, but most revered; it has a daunting reputation, due to the serious academic study that has been invested in it. Of course Kind of Blue stands up on a technical level to serious scrutiny, but this distracts from the true purpose for Miles’ experimental approach on the album: basing the improvisations of his group on scales rather than the restrictive chord progressions that dictated jazz solos at the time, his intention was simply to provide ‘a return to melody’, away from the prescriptive measures of hard bop. In this he succeeded admirably. What has inspired so many millions of listeners over the years, I would imagine, is this sense of melodic freedom, the way in which beauty is prioritised over the rigidity of structure. The stellar line-up consists of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, a veritable who’s-who of late 1950s jazz, and all of them rejoicing along with their captain in some of the most liberated live sessions in musical history. In a Silent Way is my Miles of choice, but I still love this very famous album to death.
3) Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1959)
The music on this album was exactly what Miles was rebelling against in Kind of Blue: the improvisations are restricted within the parameters of pre-ordained chord changes, in the style known as hard bop. But when the chords are as beautiful as on ‘It Never Entered My Mind’, this is easy to forget. A heartbreakingly gorgeous track, it gains its majestic poignancy from the gently descending chord sequence at its core, one which powerfully implies an emotional deterioration following the end of a great love affair. It’s a bold choice for opening the album, because after that it’s all fun and games: the jokey fake jingle ‘The Theme’ and the rushed celebration of ‘Half Nelson’ help to dictate the decidedly jubilant mood. Amidst this lively environment, the true appeal of Workin’ is hearing two of the undisputed geniuses of jazz playing off against each other. Miles is careful, considered, melodic, romantic and shy, avoiding grand gestures of virtuosity not because he can’t pull them off, but because he instinctively favours tonal variation over technical bravado. Coltrane, on the other hand, is all about the technique: his presence challenges Miles to up the tempo on several tracks, flurrying his notes and thrillingly pushing the boundaries of what the remarkable rhythm section can handle. It’s this contrast, and the way both of their solos seek to challenge and restrain the other, that provides much of the fascination of listening to this work. The group would later be dubbed Miles’ First Great Quintet, and this was their first great album.
4) Bitches Brew (1970)
The sequel to In a Silent Way is far more challenging and nearly as rewarding. The most remarkable thing about it is its density: two bassists and three drummers form a quintet of rhythmic propulsion, on top of which two electric pianos, an ominous bass clarinet played by Bennie Maupin, a jubilant soprano saxophone played by Wayne Shorter, and of course Miles’ own trumpet perform solos that are extended to an almost unnatural length. It’s an alarming orchestral collision of the electric and the acoustic, creating a cacophony of noise that a lazy listener could pass off as chaotic. Yet despite this density and also the epic track lengths (the title cut alone runs for 27 minutes), the music is actually incredibly focussed, far more so than later explorations into jazz fusion from bands such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, where aimless electronic noodling became the norm. Just listen to the catchy bass line on ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ holding the piece together, the clarity with which every performer responds to each other’s modulations on the central theme in ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’, and Miles’ husky voice entering the mix on occasion reminding them all to ‘Keep it tight’. It’s a team effort, but with a gripping creative clarity emanating from its auteur. Clearly inspired by the spirit of funk (James Brown) and rock (Jimi Hendrix), Miles takes his instrument to new heights and rips it up in a style that is without precedent in his career, squalling his way through ‘Bitches Brew’ and practically spitting out the aggressive notes in the thrilling climax to ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’. Taking the extended grooves of funk to new extremities, the end result is one of the master’s most compelling albums.
5) Miles Smiles (1967)
Yes, the famously moody maestro Miles Davis, normally seen scowling at the camera, really is smiling on this album’s cover. Unfortunately, he doesn’t look to be the epitome of cool, his expression seems forced and unnatural. The music contained within, however, is neither of these things. The album earns its title because Miles sounds like he was having a huge amount of fun; even the obligatory ballad, ‘Circle’, is done with a light touch and a profound sense of joy. The reason for Miles’ high spirits is clearly due to the sterling contributions of his collaborators. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter not only excels in his responsiveness to Miles’ cues, but also pens three of the album’s best tracks. Bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams form a rhythm section of such indomitable strength that pianist Herbie Hancock even dispenses with using his left hand altogether in order to focus on the speed and technical proficiency of his right hand improvisations. The youthful energy of the group (Hancock was 26 at the time of recording and, amazingly, Williams was only 21) clearly rubs off on Miles, whose solos contain more clarity and inventiveness than any of his previous 60s output, even daring to explore the free jazz terrain of Miles’ great rival and fellow genius Ornette Coleman in the explosive ‘Gingerbread Boy’. Overall, the anarchic sense of fun on this album is infectious and enormously endearing. The group would later be dubbed Miles’ Second Great Quintet, and this was their second great album (the first was E.S.P., also highly worth seeking out).
Runners-up: A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971), Nefertiti (1968), Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West (1973), Birth of the Cool (1957), Miles Ahead (1957).