A Masterful Discography: Miles Davis (Complete - 1951-1992)
There is a case to be made that Miles Davis is the greatest artist in music. As well as gifting the music world with one of the most versatile and expansive catalogues in jazz, he reinvented the art of composition through his modal experimentation in the late ‘50s. Dipping his toes into bebop at the start of his career, Miles soon found his footing through his cool jazz era, and from there established himself not only as an icon in jazz, but a pillar of music history.
In this article, I will explore every studio album by the musical titan from The New Sounds in 1951 to Doo-Bop in 1992. Only a handful of live albums and compilations have been included, with bootlegs, EPs, and most posthumous releases left out. Also excluded are records I simply could not find, such as the early projects Miles Davis Vol. 2 & 3. Since every source I used for research had conflicting details, the chronology of albums may be slightly out of their original order.
This article will be a long one, but rightfully so, because the greatness of Miles Davis cannot be condensed into a few short paragraphs. Taking it back to the very beginning, in 1951, the greatest discography in music history began with The New Sounds.
This is the full-length article, where I discuss 57 different Miles Davis albums from 1951-1992. If you would prefer to read about Miles in smaller, bitesize articles rather than the complete piece, the articles below are divided into each decade of his career. Otherwise, enjoy the read.
The ‘50s: Birth of the Cool
The New Sounds (1951)
Nothing spectacular and nothing offensive, The New Sounds is a charming, albeit unremarkable start to Miles Davis’s studio album career. The record is comprised of four songs, only one of which being an original composition. This lack of original material makes The New Sounds even less noteworthy, with Davis and his bandmates doing little to rearrange the compositions in any engaging or meaningful way. Each musician plays their part effectively, but they feel creatively restrained, afraid to reinvent or experiment. The aforementioned original composition, “Dig”, is undoubtedly the best song on the entire album, with a lively trumpet solo from Davis, some spiralling sax work, and an energetic thunder of drums to keep the momentum going. It pales in comparison to Miles’s greatest works, but for The New Sounds, it stands out as a fantastic highlight.
Young Man with a Horn (1952)
Drug addiction, unfortunately, would plague Miles his whole career, and already he was suffering during the creation of Young Man with a Horn. For the most part, his daily struggles don’t affect the music: the album is full of energetic bebop cuts and relaxed transitional moments. Many tracks blend together, rarely unique in isolation but satisfying in the smooth experience of the complete LP. The only standout I found was “Donna”, where bombastic horns clash and the bassline meanders over a sizzle of hi-hats. Clocking in at just 21 minutes, Young Man with a Horn is a light and accessible taste of bebop Miles.
Miles Davis Plays the Compositions of Al Cohn (1953)
Just a year later, Miles returned with an album entirely written by composer Al Cohn. Three of its songs were made specially for Miles, while the fourth was rearranged to fit the record. Overall, Compositions is a great improvement upon its predecessor. The band feel so much more lively and in sync, complementing one another to help build the project’s warm, often moody atmosphere. Compositions opens up with “Tasty Pudding”, where a harmony of sinister horns ease the listener in. The glum opener is then followed up by “Floppy”, a triumphant exercise in bebop with lightning-fast bass and a powerful chorus of horns which erupt over the chattering drum-work.
Blue Period (1953)
Comprised of three songs, Blue Period is Davis’s strongest effort yet. The album starts with “Bluing”, a ten-minute extravaganza showcasing Miles at his most laidback and effortless. He performs an everchanging trumpet solo over a harmony of moody saxophones looping in the background, giving the whole song an ominous edge. Since Blue Period is a mere 19 minute project, “Bluing” hogs most of the runtime, but thankfully it justifies every second. “The Blue Room” is the only song Miles did not compose: a sombre duet of piano and trumpet that serves more as an interlude into the energetic “Out of the Blue”. From the hypnotic descending horns to the bombastic chorus to the frantic solos, “Out of the Blue” is the perfect bebop track, closing off Blue Period on an electric high.
Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins (1954)
Even better than Blue Period, this album is a four-track collaboration with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Sonny and Miles both have such a distinct presence, with their theatrical solos glued together by a blend of groovy basslines and upbeat piano melodies. Each song transitions seamlessly into the next, making the LP feel like one larger song, constantly switching tempo as the pair of jazz legends go back and forth. All four tracks would later end up on Bags’ Groove, a brilliant compilation record from ’57.
Miles Davis All Star Sextet (1954)
A two-track LP, the All Star Sextet sees Miles teaming up with a host of talents, with Horace Silver on piano and J. J. Johnson on trombone, among others. Taking the bebop sound of his earliest work and injecting some funky rhythms and upbeat improvisation, the group’s talents combine into an energetic project full of fast-paced solos and unpredictable back and forth. The musicians trade the spotlight time and time again, each having their own chance to shine in the electric atmosphere. The horn-driven chorus of “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” is simply addictive, and the 13 minute mammoth of “Walkin’” is even more impressive. Both tracks would later be added to Walkin’ in ’57, an essential compilation for any Miles fan.
Blue Haze (1955)
Blue Haze is a compilation of all-stars, featuring a range of tracks recorded between ’53 and ’54. Bringing on jazz greats like drummer Art Blakey and pianist Charles Mingus, the compilation is brimming with talent, but the end-product is nothing spectacular. Many songs have summery, upbeat arrangements, but the players themselves sound sleepy and uninterested. A great example of this is “Four”, a brilliant song on paper whose chirpy melodies come off as underwhelming and unenergetic. The song would later be reworked and brought to life for Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. Overall, Blue Haze is a perfectly fine compilation, but a disappointment considering the talents involved.
Blue Moods (1955 / 1956)
A full-length crossover between jazz titans Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, Blue Moods is a magical, albeit brief, dive into cool jazz. With Mingus on bass, Britt Woodman on trombone, and Teddy Charles on the vibraphone, the entire album embodies a languid atmosphere, with ominous undertones whenever the droning trombone comes in for a blaring solo. Lasting just over 25 minutes, I wish the two legends had more time to bounce off each other, but the four tracks offered are fantastic.
Miles Davis All Stars Vol. 1 & 2 (1955)
Seeing as the All Stars LPs are both brief, two-track projects, I saw no reason to list them separately. The first volume contains an early recording of “Bags’ Groove”, a classic jazz composition from the legendary Milt Jackson. The song is a phenomenal adventure into cool jazz, with a slick vibraphone solo from Jackson, some solid trumpet work from Davis, and an unforgettable piano solo from Thelonious Monk. The same lineup tackles Volume 2, with the swirling piano of “Bemsha Swing” and the mellow trumpet-work of “The Man I Love” making for some incredible highlights. Stunning arrangements performed by supremely talented musicians, the All Stars LPs are well worth your time.
The Musings of Miles (1955)
The first 12” LP from Miles Davis, The Musings of Miles is another solid set of hard bop tracks, but nothing revolutionary for the musician. Going for a more laidback, patient sound than the fast-paced rhythms of his other ’55 releases, the album sounds distinct, but few of its compositions stand strong on their own. The only major highlight is “A Night In Tunisia”, an enchanting piece featuring some glittering percussion as bells were fastened to Jones’s drumsticks. With some smooth trumpet solos and a tight 35 minute runtime, The Musings of Miles is a sharp, consistent effort from Davis, but it doesn’t leave much of an impact.
Since 10” LPs had been discontinued, much of Miles’s earliest work was repackaged for Dig, a compilation of highlights from his early career. Taking content from The New Sounds and Blue Period, the LP takes the strongest aspects of those records and allows them to bloom, making for a timeless album of bop greatness. While Davis’s earliest albums were too brief to feel whole, Dig fixes that problem, combining his early work into a larger, cohesive package showcasing the upbeat brilliance of his oldest material.
Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet (1956)
Although the music itself is nothing extraordinary, this record marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Davis’s career. The LP was the first project by the Miles Davis Quintet (otherwise known as the First Great Quintet): a legendary jazz outfit consisting of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and a young John Coltrane on sax. The group would create better music together, but the chemistry between the quintet is obvious from their first outing. Trading triumphant solos in the bustling hard bop soundscape, The New Miles Davis Quintet is just scratching the surface of the group’s phenomenal material.
Quintet / Sextet (1956)
Another collaboration with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, on Quintet / Sextet, Miles and Milt brought together an all-star cast of bebop greats to deliver an upbeat selection of highlights. None of the Miles Davis Quintet appear, with names like pianist Ray Bryant and bassist Percy Heath taking their places. The LP starts strong with “Dr Jackle”, a chirpy back and forth between Miles and Milt, with Jackie McLean coming in for a timeless sax solo at the back end. With Milt’s vibraphone prominent throughout the whole album, the songs blend together with the same whimsical sound, making for a tight and cohesive listen. For those who aren’t fans of the vibraphone, this is one of the last Miles albums you should try.
Collector’s Items holds a strange place in Miles’s catalogue, having been recorded in two separate sessions three years apart. The first half of the LP comes from the sessions back in ’53, with “The Serpent’s Tooth” being the highlight of the album. It’s a triumphant exercise in bop with some flashy horn-work, colourful bass, punching percussion, and enough energy to make the seven-minute track fly by. After this, however, the album loses steam. The other compositions from ’53 are solid enough, but once the LP transitions into the tracks from ’56, it loses all colour and personality. Songs like “No Line” and “Vierd Blues” are inoffensive and plain, with passionless performances and lukewarm compositions without any standout moments. To call the tracks bad would be an exaggeration, but after the powerful opener, Collector’s Items falls flat.
Birth of the Cool (1957)
Rivalling some of his best albums, Birth of the Cool is a phenomenal compilation LP from Davis, boasting material from as far back as 1949. In stark contrast to the fast-paced, upbeat bebop of some of his earliest work, Birth of the Cool was when Miles found his footing in cool jazz, offering some of the most densely layered and precisely composed songs in the genre. Sometimes, the horns harmonise, and other times, they contrast, moving with the fluidity and prominence of singing voices. Adopting techniques from classical music such as polyphony, Birth of the Cool was as innovative as it is excellent, remaining one of Miles’s strongest releases of the ‘50s.
‘Round About Midnight (1957)
Kicking off his legendary album run for Columbia Records, on ‘Round About Midnight, Miles brought together his quintet to deliver an undeniable classic. Miles introduces the album with a stunning trumpet solo on “’Round Midnight”, but it’s Coltrane’s explosive sax on the back end that makes the song an all-time great. “All of You” is a more relaxed cut where the horn-players shine even more, thriving over the cool blend of soft bass and flickering piano notes. Bonus tracks like “Dear Old Stockholm” and “Budo” are just as brilliant, with each member of the quintet having their moment to shine. “Bye Bye Blackbird” is a gorgeous cut where Red Garland steals the show with a shimmering piano solo, outshining his bandmates with one of the finest performances on the whole LP. With explosive highlights and mellow interludes, ‘Round About Midnight is the Miles Davis Quintet at their most confident, complementary, and unforgettable. Few albums in Miles’s catalogue capture as vivid an atmosphere as this one, with the laidback horn-work and ever-changing percussion building a rich atmosphere for the musicians to thrive.
Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1957)
Cookin’ is the first of four records with the quintet recorded during a quick session in ’56, in an effort to fulfil Miles’s obligations to Prestige before he switched over to Columbia Records. In just a few hours, the quintet crafted four certified classics. As the first instalment, Cookin’ is a masterpiece. Each member of the quintet sounds confident and comfortable, passing the spotlight back and forth from musician to musician with an array of incredible solos. On “My Funny Valentine”, Red Garland provides a stunning performance on the piano, whose magical melodies bounce nicely off the deep throb of the bass. “Blues By Five” is up there with the best Miles songs of the ‘50s, with a showstopping sax solo from Coltrane, some thundering drum-work from Jones, and a mesmerising double bass solo from Paul Chambers. Track after track, every musician has their moment on Cookin’, making this one of the most dynamic and impressive albums in Davis’s catalogue. Front to back, it is simply impeccable.
Miles Ahead (1957)
The first of four legendary collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, Miles Ahead sees the musician try his hand at the third stream, a blaring style of jazz music laced with elements of European classical music. Despite being his first attempt at the genre, the results are unsurprisingly fantastic. As always, Miles kicks off the album on a high note, with the bombastic brass ensemble adding a cinematic flair to his ever-flowing solo on “Springsville”. Things take a mellow turn after that, with a series of laidback tracks where Miles’s soothing solos are given prominence by the wave of brass and woodwind supporting him. There are flashes of big band here and there – like the triumphant “New Rhumba” and the smooth closer “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone But You)” – but for the most part, Miles Ahead is a sombre record with an army of horn-players, all working together to create one of the most detailed and hard-hitting soundscapes Miles would ever tackle.
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958)
One of Miles’s most iconic soundtracks, the LP doesn’t have the same effect on me as his other work. Crafted as the score for a film, few songs are given much room to breathe, with many cutting off after just a few minutes. Miles offers a few moody solos, with the sinister tone strengthened by the backing band, but rarely does a track stick out to me as a highlight. As a soundtrack, this is the perfect accompaniment, but as a standalone piece, it feels incomplete in parts. The most impressive aspect of the album was the musician’s process: watching the film for the first time, he stood with his horn, improvising from scene to scene to match his tone to what he saw. For that talent alone, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud demands a listen.
Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958)
If you enjoyed Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin’ is equally brilliant. From Coltrane’s saxophone to Chambers’s piano, every musician has their shining moment, bouncing off one another with infectious chemistry. Listening as the bandmates perform a chorus, exchange solos, then come back together again for the final chorus, each song is a masterclass in teamwork. Every musician provides a stunning performance, with many of the best tracks in Miles’s catalogue present on Relaxin’.
Milestones is as historically significant as it is brilliant. Though he didn’t pioneer the style, Miles popularised modal jazz with the titular composition, “Milestones”. The term ‘modal’ refers to playing music in modes – scale patterns which deviate from traditional major and minor chords, allowing for more flexible improvisation and seamless exploration of different tones. Besides the technical jargon surrounding the album, as a basic listening experience, Milestones is incredible. The quintet sound more alive than ever, joined by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley whose distinct style offers a nice contrast to the cinematic solos from Coltrane. “Sid’s Ahead” is a 13 minute behemoth full of exciting solos and sizzling percussion from Jones, justifying every minute as each bandmate gets their turn to thrive. The aforementioned “Milestones” is up there with the greatest jazz songs of the ‘50s, where Coltrane, Adderley, and Miles share some impeccable solos. “Billy Boy” is another phenomenal highlight where drummer Jones and pianist Garland take centre stage, going back and forth as they bask in the hyperactive energy of the composition.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
The second collaboration between Miles and Gil Evans is not as captivating as the first. There are brilliant moments where Miles’s solos are made twice as powerful by the backing band, but other parts drag, with long sections of sluggish instrumentation bringing the experience down. Ebbing and flowing from big band explosions to ambient interludes, Porgy and Bess either enthrals or bores me. On the album, Davis continues to experiment with modal jazz, blending his new methods in with the grand, third stream style of the orchestra. It’s an interesting listen, and at times a despairing one, but overall, it doesn’t reach the heights of Miles Ahead.
Kind of Blue (1959)
Kind of Blue is the quintessential Miles Davis album. Taking the ambitious sound of “Milestones” and combining it with the varied talents of his legendary quintet, the LP is a flawless run of modal jazz. While Milestones marked his first use of modes, on Kind of Blue, every track is built on them, revolutionising jazz forever and reinventing how music could be made. Besides its enormous impact, on a simple musical level, the record is phenomenal. It kicks off with “So What”, where a patter of piano notes introduce an iconic bassline, over which Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley present grand solos. “Freddie Freeloader” keeps up the momentum with some stunning piano-work by Bill Evans, along with some laidback horn-playing which adds to the peaceful atmosphere. The beautiful “Blue In Green” comes in the middle of the album, with a sombre performance from Davis made twice as evocative thanks to the stunning piano backing by Evans. Start to finish, Kind of Blue is simply perfect.
Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1959)
Workin’ has all the same magic as Cookin’ and Relaxin’, but neither of the previous records have a song as gorgeous as “It Never Entered My Mind”. The hypnotic piano melody from Garland acts as the backbone for the composition, creating a melancholic backdrop for Davis to deliver one of his most emotional solos ever. The rest of the album is equally brilliant, though Miles would never top the beauty of the opener. From the groovy back and forth of “Four” to the ever-evolving performance from Coltrane on “Trane’s Blues”, no track disappoints. The last Miles album in the 1950s, he ended the decade with yet another classic.
From as early as 1949 with the Birth of the Cool sessions, it was clear that Miles Davis would be the next force in jazz, and by 1959, he had conquered the genre. Forming one of the greatest bands in music history with the First Great Quintet, reinventing jazz with his modal approach to composition, and delivering a plethora of classics in the process, the ‘50s was his most prolific and iconic era.
The ‘60s: An Era of Constant Change
Sketches of Spain (1960)
The third collaboration between Miles and Gil Evans is, in my opinion, their weakest. The fusion of jazz, classical, Spanish folk, and flamenco music makes for an exciting first listen, since the distinctly Spanish flair of the record is such a departure from his typical sound. However, with subsequent listens, I have found myself more engaged by the idea of Miles doing Spanish music than the actual compositions presented. There are long stretches of silence and bare instrumentation, using the lack of sound like an instrument itself to add impact when the ensemble swells with noise. The intent is clear, but the sparse, often uneventful arrangements left me wanting more. The opening movement, “Concierto de Aranjuez: Adagio”, suffers the most from this – stretching for 16 minutes, there are flashes of brilliance here and there, but overall, the song cannot justify its length. The entire album sounds like something that would be incredible live, but the recordings cannot do it justice. The mesmerising trumpet solo on “The Pan Piper” is one of my favourite moments, and the densely layered closer “Solea” gives the album an impactful finish, but as a whole, I seldom return to Sketches of Spain.
Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1961)
The final album by the First Great Quintet, Steamin’ is their weakest effort, but it still has extraordinary moments. The LP takes a more laidback approach than the other three, with the relaxed improvisation making for a cool, ambient experience. No track stands out as a highlight aside from “Salt Peanuts”, a lightning-fast composition where Jones dominates with a thundering, three-minute drum solo. Prioritising atmosphere over show-stealing solos and danceable choruses, Steamin’ lacks the punch of the other quintet records, but it makes up for it with one of the most cohesive soundscapes of any Miles album.
Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)
This record is far from bad, but it’s easily forgotten. As the legendary Miles Davis Quintet split apart, this LP features a range of musicians. From longtime friends like Coltrane to new faces like Jimmy Cobb, the lineup is never consistent, and that may be part of the reason why Someday My Prince Will Come sounds so unpassionate. Each musician plays well, but rarely is there a stunning solo, an expert showcase of chemistry, or even an ear-catching melody. The album is a light, easily digestible experience, but lacks the punch Miles brought to projects like Milestones, Cookin’, or any other LP made by the quintet. Coltrane’s solo on “Teo” is my favourite moment on the album, making me wish he played more of a prominent role.
Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)
Like Someday My Prince Will Come before it, Seven Steps to Heaven has glimmers of brilliance buried beneath stretches of unremarkable music. No song is bad, but as a complete package, the record lacks identity and colour. “So Near, So Far” and the title track are definite highlights, but the 10 minute slog of “Basin Street Blues” and the passable ambience of “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” bring down the experience. As of 1963, every member of the First Great Quintet had left, with bassist Paul Chambers being the last to depart. Even newcomers who appeared on Someday My Prince Will Come such as drummer Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly were quick to leave, forcing Miles to find fresh faces to fill up the empty seats. Thus, Seven Steps to Heaven marked the first appearances of pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams on a Miles album – musicians who would become core members of the Second Great Quintet.
Quiet Nights (1963)
Over a decade after Miles and Gil Evans first met, 1963’s Quiet Nights marks their final collaboration. Overall, it’s a great record, but not as ambitious as what came before. Not as grand as Miles Ahead, nor as cinematic as Porgy and Bess or as unique as Sketches of Spain, Quiet Nights feels like another safe ‘60s record from Davis, but the music is fantastic, nonetheless. The album captures such a soft, warm, languid atmosphere unlike any other album the duo had worked on, with gentle percussion and swaying horns to add to the peaceful tone. Behind the scenes, however, the process behind Quiet Nights was not so smooth. With pressure from Columbia to make bossa nova music, many fruitless sessions, and a dissatisfied Evans, the project was shelved for months before release. It was only after producer Teo Macero added an outtake of “Summer Night” from Seven Steps to Heaven to the tracklist that Quiet Nights was long enough to put out. Not as focussed or remarkable as their previous efforts, Quiet Nights is a smooth listen, but not the best work from either party involved.
With E.S.P., Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet had officially formed. Consisting of pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Ron Carter, the four musicians gel perfectly, each bringing a ferocious performance. Hancock’s piano-work stuns across the project, with Shorter’s slick solos rivalling some of Coltrane’s finest. Williams and Carter mix seamlessly, forming a tight rhythm section that swells in the free-for-all atmosphere of the LP. Some tracks sound like the musicians are challenging one another, with songs like “Agitation” sounding as if every bandmate is performing a solo simultaneously. Instead of the irresistibly smooth sound of the First Great Quintet, the new group has an avant-garde, almost sinister sound. Each musician goes in their own direction, lost in the chaotic buzz of the session while simultaneously supporting one another. E.S.P. is the first of many phenomenal records by the Second Great Quintet, and another classic in Miles’s endless catalogue.
Miles Smiles (1967)
Diving further into the avant-garde, Miles Smiles takes all the strangest aspects of E.S.P. and amplifies them. While Davis and Shorter offer digestible solos with their respective horns, on the rhythm section, the record is pure chaos. With Hancock’s unpredictable piano, Carter’s swirling bass, and especially Williams’s chattering drum-work, the LP is built upon a foundation of messy improvisation and sudden tonal changes. Embracing the freedom and creativity of modal jazz, this is Miles reaching new heights of strangeness, capturing the musical anarchy of free jazz without fully committing to the structureless form.
Another ‘60s masterpiece, Sorcerer is further proof that the Second Great Quintet is just as masterful as the first. Williams absolutely dominates on “Limbo”, a chaotic storm of percussion with a rain of hi-hats and sudden strikes of the snare. On “Masqualero”, Hancock proves his worth with a mesmerising passage of staccato notes and glimmering melodies. Carter, Davis, and Shorter all offer incredible performances, but Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock assert themselves as jazz greats with Sorcerer. It is an even wilder experience than Miles Smiles, with uncompromisingly messy improv and enchanting chemistry between each bandmate. My only issue is the closer, “Nothing Like You” – a jarring two-minute song recorded years before any other track, with a tame sound and some irritating vocals from Bob Dorough. As the only track thus far in Miles’s catalogue to feature singing, it feels so out of place, especially after the avant-garde madness of the rest of the album.
Nefertiti sounds like a direct sequel to Sorcerer, with the same manic rhythm section and hypnotic horn-work. All six songs have their merits, but the standout is the titular intro. Traditionally, the rhythm section acts as the foundation for a composition, with drums, piano, and bass laying the groundwork for the trumpet and sax to perform elaborate solos. “Nefertiti” flips the tradition on its head – while Davis and Shorter repeat the same hypnotic melody, the rhythm section perform solos of their own, making for a jazz track unlike any other. Full of experimentation, ominous melodies, and unpredictable solos, Nefertiti is among Davis’s strongest efforts.
Miles in the Sky (1968)
Just a few months after Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky marked the end of Miles’s acoustic era. With use of electric piano and bass guitar on “Stuff”, and some electric guitar from George Benson on “Paraphernalia”, this was the first time Davis dipped his toes into jazz-fusion, and the results are fantastic. Every track is a long stretch of intricate solos and gradually building instrumentation – each one slowly evolves into its own sonic world, stripping back the danceable rhythms of his older work for a more spacious, immersive, and otherworldly sound. Miles in the Sky lies between the avant-garde modal jazz of Davis’s ‘60s work and the funk-laced vibrance of his ‘70s output, taking elements from both phases of his career to craft an album incomparable to his other work. The last LP recorded by the Second Great Quintet, the band ended their run on a high note.
Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968)
A transitional album for Davis, on Filles de Kilimanjaro, he commits to the electronic sound he tested on Miles in the Sky. With dense, throbbing basslines on almost every song, the record has a distinctly sinister and artificial tone, but the compositions themselves leave much to be desired. There are wonderful trumpet solos throughout, but when it comes to the rhythm section, Kilimanjaro is lacking. Tony Williams is superb as usual on drums, but the piano from Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea doesn’t impress nearly as much. Neither do the stiff basslines, with the monotonous loops from Carter leaving little impact. Overall, Filles de Kilimanjaro is a fine listen, but it sits in an awkward place between two of Miles’s most iconic eras, failing to capture the strengths of either period. “Mademoiselle Mabry” remains my favourite tune – a laidback closer with a simple bassline and manic drum-work, creating a tense backdrop for Davis and Shorter to flex their alien talents.
In a Silent Way (1969)
In a Silent Way is a strong contender for the best album Miles ever made. Comprised of just two tracks, each one is a 20 minute odyssey into jazz-fusion, with Davis fully embracing his electric period. Without much of a conventional structure, each song consists of a meticulous, repeating bassline, acting as the only constant while blaring horns, shimmering pianos, and screeching guitars dance over the music. “Shhh / Peaceful” is an intricate masterclass in chemistry, with Miles’s horn ebbing in and out of earshot while blasts of glimmering piano notes fill the void. “In a Silent Way” might be the best Miles Davis song of all time. It starts and ends with a melancholic guitar passage from John McLaughlin, and sandwiched between the acoustic ends of the song is a manic ride of electronic glory. The thudding piano melody looping from start to finish gives the track a constant air of tension, within which Davis and Shorter offer some of the wildest solos of their careers. The organ motif which acts as the song’s chorus adds so much power to the musicians’ presence, bringing the track to its climax when Zawinul’s hypnotic organ harmonises with the abrasive drums from Williams. In a Silent Way is the perfect example of controlled chaos, allowing every musician to thrive on their own while a pulsing bassline keeps them unified. It is the quintessential ‘60s Miles album, and one of the greatest records in music history.
What started out as a slow decade for Davis quickly evolved into one of his most creatively ambitious periods. With the breakup of the First Great Quintet, projects like Seven Steps to Heaven and Someday My Prince Will Come came off as unfocussed and unremarkable, but once Miles got in contact with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, he was back in prime form. From In a Silent Way to Nefertiti, so many of his finest records released during the ‘60s.
The ‘70s: Transcending Jazz
Bitches Brew (1970)
Words can barely describe the brilliance of Bitches Brew. The record is an uncompromisingly bold expression of jazz-fusion, blending the avant-garde style of the Second Great Quintet and the electronic mania of In a Silent Way with the funk-rock vibrance dominating the mainstream. “Pharaoh’s Dance” is a musical muddle, but an extraordinary mess – each musician plays like they are intentionally interrupting one another, forming a sonic tsunami of jazz, funk, and rock which is as long as it is inaccessible. “Bitches Brew” is musical insanity led by a pounding bassline, over which are layers of ear-shattering drums, screeching trumpet, and meandering electric piano. The entire LP is a never-ending adventure of untamed improvisation, with all conventions of jazz forgotten in favour of delivering an unapologetically manic experience. Running for over 90 minutes, Bitches Brew justifies every minute with the boundless creativity from Miles and limitless passion from every name involved.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
There were elements of rock all over Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, but Jack Johnson is the only time Miles prioritised the rock over the jazz. From the very first moment, you are introduced to a revving guitar and groovy electric bassline, stretching for minutes before Miles even appears. Up there with “In a Silent Way” and “So What”, “Right Off” is one of his best songs ever. It’s a 27 minute colossus of jazz-rock perfection, filled with gritty guitar play from McLaughlin and a showstopping solo from Hancock on the organ. Most impressive is Miles himself, playing the trumpet like a machine-gun, shooting out rapid-fire notes as he dominates the waves of bass. If “Right Off” were the entire album, Jack Johnson would easily be a contender for his best work, but unfortunately, “Yesternow” brings down the experience. It’s an aimless compilation of ambient vignettes taken from the In a Silent Way sessions, with a strange outtake of “Shhh / Peaceful” in the middle of the track. After the meticulous build of rock and jazz through the first song, “Yesternow” disrupts all momentum the LP had. It’s far from a bad tune, but it pales in comparison to that masterful opening track.
The ‘70s was an era full of incredible live albums from Miles, and Live-Evil stands as his finest. With lightning-fast arrangements and rapid improvisation, the record sounds like a sped-up sequel to Bitches Brew, filled with energetic guitar solos and screaming horns. Live-Evil has the energy of Jack Johnson but the density of Bitches Brew, with 25 minute tracks such as “Funky Tonk” and “What I Say” boasting an unfathomable level of detail. Running for a lengthy 104 minutes, the time flies by thanks to the unbridled energy from each player and the constant switch-ups in tempo, tone, and instrument.
On the Corner (1972)
On the Corner has its moments, but as a complete body of work, it’s his weakest since Filles de Kilimanjaro. The thick, funky bass gives the record a distinct, danceable sound akin to James Brown, but unlike the funk acts Miles was borrowing from, On the Corner feels uneventful. The 18 minute opener overstays its welcome, though the intricate layers of guitar, bass, trumpet, tabla, sitar, and clarinet are too mesmerising to deny. “Black Satin” is the definite standout, where the slow build of horns, bass, keyboard, and percussion lead to a satisfying finish. The bassline from “Black Satin” persists through the rest of the record, making much of On the Corner feel samey and underdeveloped. The album is undeniably catchy, but that is its sole appeal. Ambitious compositions and stunning solos are nowhere to be found here. It suffices as funky background noise, but lacks the nuance and versatility of his best efforts.
Big Fun (1974)
Big Fun kicks off with its worst track. “Great Expectations” is an ambitious composition from Miles, clocking in at almost 30 minutes. The song is a dense, spacious realm of hypnotic sitar and whirling tambura, with flickers of trumpet and piano flowing in and out of the veil of Indian instruments. For a five minute ambient piece, it would be brilliant, but the half hour runtime makes it almost unpalatable. Without any consistent rhythm section, the composition lacks focus, which is an issue not even an album as chaotic as Bitches Brew suffered from. Thankfully, things pick up after the monotonous opener. “Ife” is a tremendous jazz-fusion highlight with a funky bassline that runs for the whole song, permeating through chaotic passages of squealing clarinet and keyboard. Of all eight tracks, “Ife” is the only one whose length feels justified. The rest of the album follows a similar formula: longwinded jazz-fusion compositions that sound excellent for a time, but rarely warrant their enormous lengths.
Get Up With It (1974)
After the uneventful one-two punch of On the Corner and Big Fun, Get Up With It is a refreshing return to form for Miles. Every track is its own realm of jazz-fusion greatness, with highlights like “Honky Tonk” leaning into funk while abrasive deep cuts such as “Mtume” take a harsher, more avant-garde approach. Though every song is a standout, the two 30 minute tracks are what make the LP so special. It opens up with “He Loved Him Madly”, an enthralling masterwork in atmosphere, where a chorus of electric guitars echo in and out of earshot while a droning organ passage guides the listener through the runtime. “Calypso Frelimo” is equally genius – it kicks off with an explosive passage of guitar and electric trumpet, with spurts of bass and flute erupting in the soundscape. Then, 10 minutes in, everything is stripped away aside from the ominous bassline. Elements are slowly eased back into the track, relapsing into the chaos of its opening, twice as explosive as before. Get Up With It is chaotic, but unlike Big Fun, it feels focussed. With some of the most richly textured and dynamic compositions in Miles’s career, it stands out as one of his strongest projects.
Back in February 1975, Miles performed twice in the Festival Hall of Osaka, Japan. The afternoon performance was released as Agharta, whereas the evening session was later released as Pangaea. These live albums marked some of his final performances before going into a sudden retirement, since constant health issues and an increasing drug problem made any performance a challenge for Miles. Despite his poor health, Agharta turned out another masterwork. From the very start, the LP is a masterclass in jazz-rock. The performance ebbs and flows from intense guitar solos to relaxed funk passages, combining the atmospheric density of Get Up With It with the tight grooves of Jack Johnson. Full of stunning guitar solos and a number of manic moments from Miles, Agharta is engaging for the full 96 minutes.
Just hours after Miles and the band performed Agharta, they reunited that evening for Pangaea. As a whole, this live record is fantastic. Divided into two halves – the erratic jazz-rock thunder of “Zimbabwe” and the laidback fusion of “Gondwana” – the latter track engaged me far more. Although “Zimbabwe” was excellently performed, full of sporadic guitar solos and colourful horn passages, I found the unstructured improvisation overwhelmingly messy at points. On “Gondwana”, however, things are far more focussed. A calming guitar rhythm opens up the track with a warm, summery tone, with the soft patter of a water drum adding to the languid atmosphere. As the song progresses, the hi-hats hiss, the organ screams, and Miles’s trumpet dominates, but the gentle tone from the beginning remains. Despite the constant switch-ups and instrumental changes, the peaceful atmosphere of “Gondwana” keeps the performance feeling cohesive, making for one of his finest live recordings ever.
Water Babies (1976)
Far from his best album, Water Babies is nowhere near his worst either. It’s comprised of tracks from the late ‘60s, back when the Second Great Quintet were inseparable. It’s brilliant to hear Miles back with his band, but the music itself pales in comparison to classics like Nefertiti and Miles Smiles. The chemistry is there, and the compositions are sound, but rarely is there a showstopping solo or an iconic melody. Williams flexes his effortless talents as a drummer on “Splash”, and the whimsical rhythms of “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” make it a carefree highlight, but otherwise, there isn’t much to note about Water Babies.
Dark Magus (1977)
A thundering performance at Carnegie Hall, Dark Magus is another brilliant live album from Miles. Unlike Pangaea and Agharta, where it was obvious which compositions he was pulling from, everything sounds fresh on Dark Magus. With brutal drum-work throughout and a relentless choir of revving guitars, the soundscape is too harsh and abrasive to recognise any arrangements from previous Miles efforts. More than anything else, what makes Dark Magus stand out is the sheer density of the instrumentation. Skip to any moment and the guitars, horns, and rhythm section will be screaming in unison, delivering a performance intricate and chaotic enough to rival the most intense forms of noise rock.
In the 1970s, Miles proved he was more than just a jazz artist; he was a musical revolutionary. Despite critics calling his new style a mess, and jazz purists labelling him a traitor to the genre, Miles never flinched, delivering forward-thinking classic after classic. From his lengthy studio sessions to his phenomenal live performances, everything Davis touched in the ‘70s is worth a dozen listens. The creative peak of his career, he would never reach such heights again.
The ’80s & ‘90s: Playing It Safe
The Man with the Horn (1981)
It would be an exaggeration to label this bad, but by the same token, it would be a stretch to call it interesting. The Man with the Horn is Miles’s first attempt at pop jazz, going for a smoother sound than ever before. With slick, groovy basslines and a simple, repeating rhythm section, each track is catchy enough, but rarely do they evolve or change. “Fat Time” is, by far, the greatest song on the LP, with a thrilling guitar solo and some truly explosive work from Miles. The album never reaches those heights again, playing it safe with a mix of soulful and pop-centric textures. Unlike his previous work in which his bandmates were just as vital as Miles himself, on this record, the other musicians feel secondary. There is no stunning performance from the drummer, and rarely a memorable solo from someone other than Davis. The Man with the Horn is perfectly fine on its own, but it’s a far cry from the genre-twisting classics Miles had become famous for.
Star People (1983)
Star People is a major improvement upon The Man with the Horn. The compositions are still accessible and smooth, but not so derivative. With compelling trumpet solos, frantic drum-work, and plenty of irresistible basslines, Star People captures the groove of Jack Johnson without the harshness attached. It feels much more in line with Miles’s usual sound, especially on highlights like “Come Get It” and “Speak” – lightning-fast fusions of rock, pop, and jazz, where every musician is given room to breathe and excel. The title track might be my favourite: an 18 minute stretch of languid instrumentation and relaxed playing from Davis, with an infectious bassline that never gets tiring. It’s not any complex masterpiece, but for ‘80s Miles, it stands out as a gem.
After the success of Herbie Hancock’s electro-jazz hit “Rockit”, Miles decided to dedicate an entire album to the synth-heavy style, and the results are underwhelming. Monotonous basslines, mundane solos, and uninspired arrangements are the flesh and blood of Decoy. The synths are poorly utilised, shoehorned in here and there to give the LP a futuristic feel without doing anything interesting with the instrument. The album picks up near the end with the one-two punch of “That’s Right” and “That’s What Happened”, but otherwise, Decoy is bland and unremarkable.
You’re Under Arrest (1985)
This was the last album Miles created for Columbia Records before switching over to Warner Bros. Records. Symbolising a major step in his professional career, by contrast, the music itself is inconsequential. You’re Under Arrest isn’t the insulting mess that Decoy was, but it still feels lacking. Aside from a few select tracks, the LP is comprised of covers, putting a smooth jazz twist on some of the biggest pop songs of the time. The covers are nothing terrible, but Miles does nothing interesting with them. Simply matching his trumpet to the movement of the original singer’s voice, you can imagine the cover in your head and it’s just about as compelling as really hearing it. Only the intro captured me – a fast-paced funk track incorporating motifs from previous Davis tunes, like “Right Off” from Jack Johnson and “Speak” from Star People. With weak highlights and inoffensive low points, You’re Under Arrest is about as average as Miles Davis can get.
Tutu is a strange album. It’s catchy throughout, and there isn’t a dull moment, but likewise, there aren’t any memorable points either. The first of three collaborations between Miles and Marcus Miller, this is easily the strongest. An ‘80s twist on jazz-fusion, the LP is filled with prominent basslines and blaring synths, with Miles screaming through his horn across all nine songs. Davis himself works well; it’s the instrumentation around him that brings Tutu down. From the backing horns to the bass, everything loops almost mathematically, rarely evolving as each song progresses. Perhaps these tracks would be impressive for a rookie making beats on GarageBand, but for a jazz veteran over forty years into his career, it comes off as basic. Tutu is far from bad, but it’s far too simplistic to impress.
Music from Siesta (1987)
Music from Siesta is about as interesting to write about as it is to listen to. It’s a serviceable soundtrack, and a welcome departure from the synth-laden pop jazz of ‘80s Miles, but the more Latin touch added by Marcus Miller doesn’t complement him much. Davis’s solos on the horn are strong and emotive, but buried under dreary layers of strings, it almost sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it’s worth a listen on a deep dive through his catalogue, but otherwise, there is no reason to listen to Music from Siesta.
Frustrating at times and mundane at others, Amandla is predictably mediocre. Returning to his messy fusion of jazz, funk, and pop, this LP is a monotonous slog of half-baked ideas, with the occasional standout solo tainted by the lifeless instrumentation around it. It carries over the same problems as Tutu but leaves behind the strengths of that project, embracing monotony and aimlessness without the catchiness to make up for it. Most of the record passes by inoffensively, but “Hannibal” is easily the weakest offering. The obnoxious steel drums that loop throughout the composition make for one of the weakest moments in Miles’s entire catalogue.
The last album released during Miles’s lifetime, AURA acts as a powerful conclusion to his immense discography. The record was created for Davis by Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg, made as a tribute to the legendary trumpeter. What follows is a celebration of Miles Davis – an hour-long odyssey into fusion, funk, electronica, and ambient, summing up the vibrance and versatility of the legend in just 10 tracks. A disjointed intro opens up the LP, with punching synths, ominous guitar, and scattered drum-work forming a spacious atmosphere for the trumpeter to thrive. Each song thereafter is named after a colour, each of which was chosen by Mikkelborg to represent a part of Davis’s aura. “White” is a frigid ambient cut where Miles plays as if he’s floating out in space, surrounded by naught but silence. “Orange” is a fantastic fusion of jazz-rock and electronica, with a pulsing bassline and cinematic guitar-work bouncing nicely off Davis’s lively solos. AURA closes with “Violet”, the beautiful nine-minute finale in which the drums, guitar, and synths slowly fade away, leaving Miles alone to end his legacy with one last performance.
Two years after AURA, Miles passed away at age 65, having suffered a stroke and long periods of pneumonia. The following two projects were the last he ever worked on, with Dingo being the first. As a complete body of work, it flows nicely, but there’s little here worth returning to. Full of simple arrangements and inoffensive performances, no musician falters, but rarely do any of them thrive. It suffices as a film soundtrack, but on its own, Dingo is easily forgotten.
Teaming up with producer Easy Mo Bee, on the final Miles Davis album, the trumpeter tried his hand at hip hop. Critics at the time tore apart the record as a half-baked attempt at jazz rap, but looking back, it’s a great album. Miles isn’t playing at his best, but he fits surprisingly well over the jazzy instrumentals he’s given, zigzagging over the head-bopping boom bap supplied by Bee. Tracks like “High Speed Chase” and “Blow” are reminiscent of early De La Soul or KMD, sandwiching together groovy samples with an explosive beat and driving bassline to make them hit hard. Most of the songs are instrumental, but Easy Mo Bee and a few friends show up here and there, delivering slick verses with flows smooth enough to make up for their vapid bars. Half the time, Miles doesn’t seem like the focus of the music, but that’s to be expected, given the fact he passed away before the project could be completed. It may not touch the classics, and it’s a far cry from anything other rap groups were offering at the time, but Doo-Bop is far from awful. More importantly, it’s evidence that, over forty years after The New Sounds, Miles Davis was still eager to reinvent himself.
All the way from The New Sounds to Doo-Bop, Miles Davis proved time and time again that no other artist was on his level. Even before his debut, in ’49, his worth as a musician was obvious, crafting the iconic nonet Birth of the Cool. Through the ‘50s, he rarely put down the horn, delivering dozens of timeless bop essentials until he grew tired of the sound and decided to reinvent jazz with Kind of Blue. Whether it be his classic run with the First Great Quintet or his avant-garde masterpieces with the Second Great Quintet, no matter who Miles worked with, greatness was guaranteed. Working with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Art Blakey, and many more, he gathered an army of jazz greats together, delivering classic after classic until he could no more. Transcending jazz with his electric period, the trumpeter earned his title as a music legend, laying the foundations for music to come, from ambient electronica to noise rock. Miles had his rough patches, but the sheer quality of his output is undeniable. Among the greatest musicians of all time, the discography of Miles Davis is irrefutably masterful.