Miles Davis in the '60s: An Era of Constant Change
This is the second in a four-part series diving through the vast and innovative catalogue of trumpeter Miles Davis. To read about his other eras, or for the complete article, click the links below.
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.