Many of my top 10 lists are patently absurd in the sense of having to narrow down to 10 of something. Though the reasons for my devotion to Miles Davis are not entirely the same as the reasons I love John Coltrane (who, inspired by my teaching a course this semester on Miles and ‘Trane, recently got his own similar Top 10 list – click here if you missed it), I have an equally hard time imagining what my own musical conception would be if not for the influence of his music. Because of the stunning level of stylistic diversity in his discography, it’s particularly hard to narrow things down to a coherent list of 10 songs, but that’s my job here. As with the Coltrane list this is a wide-ranging list of favorites constructed as a sort of “mixtape” that satisfies my appetites for various facets of Miles Davis.
1 ) “So What” (from Kind of Blue)
Such a clichéd choice, I realize. But this is the Miles that first turned my head around and it’s the first track many people (self included) think of as emblematic of what he accomplished and what he embodied musically. The rhythm section swings hard yet elegantly, Coltrane and Cannonball burn in very different ways, and few composers have ever penned a melody as lyrical and coherent as the solo that Miles improvises here.
2 ) “My Funny Valentine” (from My Funny Valentine: Live at Carnegie Hall)
If a single tune could be deemed a “signature” song for Miles, this might be it. On this stellar representation of the George Coleman-era Quintet, the depth of Miles’ relationship with the song provides both a historical point of reference for us listeners (whoa, this is not the 1950s anymore) and a deep grounded-ness amidst the ingenious variations. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams were only just beginning the exploration that would revolutionize aspects of jazz rhythm and interplay.
3 ) “If I Were A Bell” (from Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet)
From the amusing “candid” spoken introduction to the swinging ensemble work, this is quintessential 1950s Miles. Coltrane and the Red Garland/Paul Chambers/”Philly” Joe Jones rhythm section helped write the book on hard bop, and this is “Exhibit A” of their effortless-sounding work for the Prestige label. This group could easily get its own Top-10 list and choosing only 10 would still be agonizing . . .
4 ) “The Duke” (from Miles Ahead)
Hard bop? What about “cool jazz” and “third stream?” Whatever you call it, the softer side of acoustic jazz reached its zenith, some would say, in Miles’ collaborations with arranger Gil Evans. This working of a Dave Brubeck tune is my favorite among the dozens of great examples demonstrating how well Gil’s orchestrational textures fit Miles’ sound and melodic concept.
5 ) “Right Off” (from A Tribute to Jack Johnson)
This is NASTY. Miles offers up some of his most powerful soloing on record, while John McLaughlin, Michael Henderson and Billy Cobham lay down a groove worthy of James Brown or Sly Stone or any of the R&B giants who were increasingly becoming Miles’ rhythmic point of reference by this point.
6 ) “Love for Sale” (from ’58 Sessions)
It’s silly on one level to call anything by an artist as celebrated as Miles “underrated,” but the 1958 sextet (with Cannonball Adderley joining, and Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb replacing Garland and Jones) produced a small body of amazing work. As much as I love the Kind of Blue album, this is the music that I think best represents how Evans changed the group’s sound even before the repertoire followed suit – fittingly, this is some of his most hard-swinging work and he engages the soloists in new and exciting ways.
7 ) “Iris” (from E.S.P.)
I utterly adore Wayne Shorter, so it’s a little weird to have him unrepresented until this low on the list. It’s probably heresy, but for Wayne’s own writing and playing, I tend to go to his own Blue Note recordings of that era. But #7 on this list is still heady company, and this waltz/ballad has all of the moody beauty for which Wayne was known, and the band is at their best in taking chances while remaining faithful to this utterly gorgeous song.
8 ) “Pfrancing” (from Someday My Prince Will Come)
It really doesn’t get much harder-swingin’ than this, does it? Another comparatively short-lived but important version of Miles’ group is this early-60s quintet, with Wynton Kelly (practically the epitome of swing himself) in for Evans on piano and Hank Mobley taking over the saxophone chair. This is a straightforward, no-nonsense blues and it’s finger-poppin’ right from the first measure.
9 ) “Doxy” (from Bag’s Groove)
Miles’ small-group work from before his first “classic” ensemble is still important and enjoyable. This modified blues tune became a standard part of the jazz repertoire, and this recording is a great early representation of the soon-to-be major bandleaders Sonny Rollins (who composed the tune) and Horace Silver, whose piano playing oozes blues on this performance. It’s interesting that Miles’ other work became so well-known as to make this a comparatively marginalized session, though for most musicians it would represent an all-time highlight.
10 ) “Stuff” (from Miles in the Sky)
Shameful confession – while I know that historically Bitches Brew is the go-to Miles Davis fusion recording, I’ve got a bigger soft spot for the stuff that came after (see #5 above) and before, like this. Herbie Hancock became plenty well-known for using electric instruments, but Ron Carter on bass guitar? History aside, the classic 1960s quintet, in its recorded swan song, rocks out big-time here, yet without losing the essence of its approach.