Album Reviews

Issue 2013-024: Miles Davis Special

Reviews in this issue:


Miles Davis Special

In this very special update we bring you a detailed discussion of the 71-disc boxset of Miles Davis' complete works for Columbia Records.

A jazz legend and one of the true greats of music, Davis' influence has been felt far and wide and his move to electric music not only helped forge the whole genre of jazz fusion but also influenced countless prog artists.

We hope you enjoy Basil Francis' mammoth review of The Complete Columbia Album Collection detailing over 30 years of one artist's dazzling contribution to modern music.

Miles Davis - The Complete Columbia Album Collection

Miles Davis - The Complete Columbia Album Collection
Country of Origin:U.S.A.
Format:70 CD/1 DVD
Record Label:Columbia Legacy
Catalogue #:88697524922
Year of Release:1957-2001/2009
Info:Miles Davis
Samples:Click Here
Miles Davis - The Complete Columbia Album Collection

1. Prologue

On 19th March, 2013, Classic Rock Presents Prog asked their Facebook fans "How prog, between 1968 and 1975, was Miles Davis?" A commendable inquiry indeed, yet I can't help feeling that there's a better question lurking beneath this rather tame one.

Over time, I've become wary of the use of that overexploited term 'prog'. I am positive that I'm not the only reviewer on this website that makes a distinction between the all-encompassing adjective 'progressive', meaning to push boundaries and think outside the box; and the now-rather-backward epithet 'prog', denoting a style of music that was quite popular in the '70s, but countless attempts to resuscitate it have all but failed to keep it alive. Miles Davis himself loathed labelling his music and would probably be disgusted to know that his music was being compared to the songs of mainly overly pretentious middle-class white men. Prog? Barely.

The years that CRPP mention denote a very important era for Davis, and one that I'm sure DPRP readers would be interested in - more on that later. However, it seems silly just to focus on eight years of the man's life when the artist in question had a career spanning six decades.

With this in mind, I propose a simple expansion and contraction of the original question, resulting in something entirely different: "How progressive was Miles Davis?"

If you read on, you might just find out.

2. Getting Interested

I was just six months old when Miles Dewey Davis III passed away on 28th September, 1991. For this reason and others, my exposure to the jazz musician was limited during my upbringing; I probably wouldn't have even been able to tell you he played the trumpet two years ago. Nevertheless, as sure as progressive rock is my chosen genre of interest, Miles' music was bound to intersect with my life.

While Davis may object to music classification, it's pretty safe to say that his music fell mainly under the jazz category, if only because he pioneered the genre. In other words, Davis' music isn't defined as jazz, it defined jazz. It's also impossible to deny that prog and jazz go hand in hand; bands such as Soft Machine, Nucleus and the Mahavishnu Orchestra have been influenced by Miles' music, some more directly than others. It's for this reason that I found myself becoming more interested in albums such as Bitches Brew, with its astonishingly proggy cover art and tracks upwards of twenty minutes in length. I needed to discover the man behind all this.

However, purchasing the albums I needed turned out to be a bit of a conundrum. There is not one but several versions of Bitches Brew on CD. The same goes for Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way and many other classic Davis albums. The Complete On The Corner Sessions consists of 6 CDs; far too many for the newcomer. As always, I was looking for original LP artwork, including inner gatefolds, and that might just be how I stumbled across the 71-disc The Complete Columbia Album Collection boxset.

In fact, this set does have a smaller sibling: The Perfect Miles Davis Collection, a 22-disc treasure trove, featuring 20 original albums in CD-sized slipcases which mirror the original LP artwork, including miniature liner notes. At under £30, this seems like a bargain, and judging by the albums this set includes, you'd be hard-pressed to find better value jazz. However, the completist in me would not have been satisfied with this offering; suppose I liked what I heard and found I had to upgrade? Furthermore, I had become entranced by the imagery and allure of the albums that weren't in The Perfect Collection. What made albums like Water Babies and Get Up With It 'imperfect'? I just had to find out.

Of course, I wasn't foolish enough to chuck money at it right off the bat. I teased myself most of last summer with the idea of owning this 71-disc, 52 album behemoth, weighing up the pros and cons. It was only when plans to visit a friend in the U.S. fell through that I decided I could afford this Brobdingnagian set.

3. The Boxset Arriveth

Miles Davis - The Complete Columbia Album Collection

Love stories are never perfect; when this particular boxset arrived, I was dismayed to find that it was missing album #37 Black Beauty. The problem with buying any set of this size is that you're bound to be missing something or other. While Amazon couldn't replace the album or the set, they did give me a 10% refund, and I used that money to purchase a replacement Black Beauty. Fortunately nothing else was missing.

I sat in total bewilderment, staring at the three-kilogram, 63-hour volume of music in front of me; a document containing every album the great man ever recorded for Columbia. How exactly was I supposed to approach such a set? I set about listening to those famous albums I'd heard of, Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, etc., but this didn't seem to do the boxset justice at all. It was only when a fellow DPRP reviewer mentioned that he would never purchase such a set, saying that most of the CDs would sit untouched, that I knew what I had to do. He had unwittingly set me a challenge; I had to listen to all of the music in this set. Fortunately the CCAC gives each of the albums a numeral, so I had an order to follow.

4. Early Recordings (1949-1958)

The collection starts far off in the murky past, before the young Miles Davis ever signed to Columbia. We experience Davis' first trip abroad, as he plays at the Paris Festival International de Jazz in May 1949. The record itself was released in 1977, which gives us an inkling of how the 52 albums are ordered; by (earliest) recording date, not release date. While Davis bebops away under direction from Tadd Dameron, the listener is acutely aware of the poor sound quality of this recording, making it a less-than-perfect beginning to this collection. However, as the CCAC - by definition - has to include everything, it's clear why this album had to start the journey. One interesting point to make is that this is the only CD in the collection where we can hear Davis' voice before it was permanently scarred; in 1957, Miles chose to disobey his doctor's orders when he raised his voice post-throat surgery to someone who, he once proclaimed, "tried to convince me to go into a deal I didn't want."

The set then skips ahead seven years, past Birth of the Cool and Walkin' (on Capitol and Prestige respectively), to the release of 'Round About Midnight, Davis' first release for Columbia. The album opens with the serene 'Round Midnight, Miles' interpretation of a tune written by Thelonius Monk, the famous jazz pianist that Miles had played with previously. In fact, the two had gotten into a fierce argument a couple of years prior to this album, but the inclusion of this piece makes it clear that any grudge had been erased from Miles' mind. A piece in two parts, Miles coolly plays the melody in the quiet opening half, while John Coltrane improvises smoothly over the louder second half. It's the distinctive theme at 2:40 that separates the two sections that will make any prog listener sit up. Those loud and irregular blasts are a very early precursor to many segments in progressive rock, such as Genesis' The Knife or Jimmy Webb's MacArthur Park. If it hadn't been for the May 1949 concert, this would have been a perfect start to the collection.

The listener has just started to get into 1950s Miles when something peculiar happens: the CCAC throws its first compilation album in your face, the double disc Circle in the Round. It's evident that Columbia released many Miles Davis records during his five-year hiatus, impatient for his return, and aware that his records were still selling. This particular collection covers 15 years of music, from 1955 to 1970, including the stunning track Two Bass Hit, a piece which we've already heard an alternate version of as a bonus track on #2 'Round About Midnight. Suddenly, we're catapulted far into Miles's future, past Miles Davis' Second Quintet, to his first experimentations with an electric guitar. This is all too much; a newcomer such as myself simply cannot appreciate what they're hearing. A better solution might have been to place this with the albums from the year 1970, so that the listener could understand this music in the context of everything they're hearing. Miles might not have agreed; it was never his place to wallow in nostalgia and repeat, but to always look forward to the future. Nevertheless, this compilation seems like a sneak peek too far; I certainly couldn't digest it at the time.

After Circle in the Round, the CCAC presents a brace of diverse albums, including live albums (#7 At Newport 1958, #9 Jazz at the Plaza), collaborations with composer Gil Evans (#4 Miles Ahead, #8 Porgy and Bess) and more regular studio work (#5 Milestones, #6 1958 Miles). The live albums contain a lot of older material and are thus confusing; the Gil Evans collaborations are just a little too dry for my taste; it's the studio albums that I admire. The cleverly titled Milestones contains the kosher version of Two Bass Hit, a shimmering track with the kind of complex structure and virtuosity that prog bands would be attempting to master many years later. 1958 Miles is a bit more confusing; the music on the album was originally released in 1959 as Jazz Track, but the rights are no longer with Sony but Columbia. The music was originally released as 1958 Miles in Japan in 1974, with the track Little Melonae that was in fact recorded in 1955, which now appears as a bonus track on 'Round About Midnight. Still with me? Technicalities aside, this is a beautiful album with a very relaxed atmosphere; On Green Dolphin Street and Fran-Dance are particular favourites.

5. A Kind of Blue (1959-1963)

The next album in the set is anything but boastful; instead cool and smooth. As that unforgettable riff begins thirty seconds in, it's clear that we're listening to a very different kind of jazz record. The album is Kind of Blue, and it has gone down in history as one of the most revered jazz albums ever. Rooting around the web, I could not find one serious review that did not fall under its spell. Heck, as I write this review, it's at #26 in ProgArchives' Top Prog Albums of All Time, even better than Relayer, Yes' most jazz-inflected album. However, from my definitions above, prog is not the right adjective; this album is incredibly progressive, marking a new era for so-called 'modal' jazz, based on subtly changing chords rather than pre-written melodies. In fact, the entire album is improvised from start to finish. Miles simply walked in with a handful of themes and the band members played whatever came to them. Some of the tracks are being played for the first time on the record; a risky manoeuvre but an incredibly successful one. The result is simply immaculate, an immeasurably relaxing album whose lustre never diminishes after repeated plays.

The post-Kind of Blue era is also somewhat fruitful. Miles and Gil would collaborate together again on Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights, the former showcasing two epic compositions in Concierto de Aranjuez and Solea. The South-American-inspired Quiet Nights, by contrast, is a waif of an album, clocking in at under 27 minutes, shorter than the two afore-mentioned tracks combined. Indeed, the project had stopped dead, and Davis' stalwart producer Teo Macero decided to release what Miles saw as an 'unfinished project'. Furious, Davis wouldn't speak to him again for three years. To beef up the tracklist a little, this album is extended through bonus tracks selected from around this era, including the Miles Davis/Bob Dorough collaboration Blue Xmas, the first track in this set to contain lyrics. With Dorough's sarcastic look at the holiday underpinned by Miles' phenomenal sextet, this has fast become one of my favourite Christmas songs. For the reader's information, exactly half of the albums in this set, i.e. 26 out of 52, are presented with bonus tracks, making the purchase of this boxset all the more worthwhile for hardcore Davis fans.

Simultaneously, we are presented with Directions, another confusing 2CD compilation covering the years 1960-70, and Someday My Prince Will Come featuring a surprise visit from John Coltrane, his last appearance in this collection. The cover features Miles' then-wife Frances Taylor, starting a trend whereby his partners would appear on the covers of his albums. All of his non-Gil Evans material is crystallised in the fine live collection Miles Davis In Person at The Blackhawk, San Francisco. Recorded over two nights, and initially presented as two LPs, the playtime is nearly tripled after being expanded to four CDs. All the old favourites are here: So What, On Green Dolphin Street, Fran-Dance, Walkin', 'Round Midnight, Two Bass Hit and many more. This four hour collection is a sumptuous look back at the early Miles Davis repertoire. Alongside At Carnegie Hall, whose setlist contains the celebrated Concierto de Aranjuez as a bonus track, these live sets form a cohesive retrospective on everything Miles Davis had done until now. Time to look forward.

6. The Post-Blue Period and the Second Great Quintet (1963-1967)

When folks discuss the great Miles Davis, they'll generally be talking about the Kind of Blue period or the so-called 'electric' period that began in 1968. Yet here we are, in between those eras with five years worth of music separating us from alleged sonic nirvana. What can possibly be found along the way? In fact, the very first item is rather delightful: Seven Steps to Heaven is a marvellous and perhaps underrated album, featuring brisk pieces, e.g. the title track - with yet another 'proggy' intro - alongside serene ballads, such as I Fall in Love Too Easily, which would appear in Miles' repertoire well into his electric era. I've found myself returning to this perfectly balanced album multiple times whilst ploughing through the rest of the material in this collection.

We are then presented with five live albums: in order, these are In Europe, My Funny Valentine, 'Four' & More, In Tokyo and In Berlin. Five, I say! From a superficial point of view, these works all seem very similar, as though they could be conjoined into one live omnibus. Indeed, My Funny Valentine and 'Four' & More, originally released a year apart, actually represent two halves of the same concert in New York City, February 1964. However, there is something much more subtle going on here, something the casual listener will not pick up on. Careful attention whilst eyeing the line-up will reveal that the band's tenor saxophone position is in turbulence; George Coleman, who had played on Seven Steps to Heaven is replaced briefly by Sam Rivers on In Tokyo, who is in turn replaced by Miles' original choice, Wayne Shorter, for In Berlin. Rather like Yes - in recent times more than ever - it seems that Davis' fierce revolving door policy meant that only the crème de la crème could ever be allowed in his quintet.

However, the revolving door had temporarily stopped turning; Miles was finally happy with the current line-up:

  • Miles Davis - trumpet
  • Wayne Shorter - tenor sax
  • Tony Williams - drums
  • Ron Carter - bass
  • Herbie Hancock - piano

This group would become fondly known as Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet. Impressed by the magic the group could create on stage, Davis eagerly entered the studio to record E.S.P., whose title celebrates the extra-sensory perception that each band member seemed to display. The album cover is the last to feature Frances Taylor, who would leave him a week later.

The music had changed dramatically too. The music was no longer simple, elegant and, dare I say it, beautiful. With each piece, Davis sought to travel into an unexplored dimension in jazz, one where speed and dexterity were the key, with each band member playing an integral role. Sound familiar, progheads? While classics such as Walkin', So What and All Blues were still performed live - as they are on the stellar double disc At Plugged Nickel, Chicago - they were sped up and extended so that they were barely recognisable from the originals. A piece like So What now consisted of the main theme played for under thirty seconds, followed by a furious jam, unrelated to the original song, and containing none of the original feel, and then closed off once again by the main theme. Beautiful songs had been reduced to simple themes, a vehicle for Miles' intense jamming on stage.

Still, what incredible jamming it was. The songs had become irrelevant. A live album from this era was equivalent to a 45-minute jam. At one time, each band member would be playing their own thing, and yet together it worked as a whole; Carter's impressive fingering boosting the arithmetic progressions that Williams would sound out on the ride cymbal, while Hancock kept those chords in check. The contrast between Davis' screechy horn and Shorter's comparatively dulcet sax also has to be admired.

Suddenly the studio albums began to roll out. Miles Smiles represents the artist's positive attitude about the era; his health problems were clearing up, he had met the actress Cicely Tyson and, most importantly, the music was phenomenal. He had even gotten back on speaking terms with producer Teo Macero. The music came freely, with the whole album recorded over two days with one take per track. Mistakes were made, but Davis was a carefree man; one can even hear him chatting to Teo over the end of the final track, Gingerbread Boy. Sorcerer and Nefertiti follow in a similar vein, the former album oddly featuring another Miles Davis/Bob Dorough collaboration that had been recorded five years previously, on the same day Blue Xmas had been committed to tape.

At about this point, I began to realise that the CCAC was more than just a collection of jazz records documenting a man's career; it was a musical journey, full of direction and character, and possibly the most meaningful musical excursion I'd ever been taken on. I began to rigorously read the album comments written by Franck Bergerot in the 250-page hardback colour booklet supplied with the boxset. I also watched the solitary DVD, titled Live In Europe '67, and it was a remarkable coincidence that I played it shortly after hearing Miles Smiles, which had been recorded prior to this tour. While it is one thing to hear the quintet, it is quite another thing to see them. Never a smile, the five jazzmen remain resolutely deadpan, as if they are conducting an important experiment. The group don't say a word, yet instinctively know what to play and how. This is improvisation on a new plane altogether. Miles himself shows great restraint, often walking offstage to leave the other four frantically jamming. Though recorded in black and white, the picture is perfectly crisp, and the band's movements appear fluid. As a drummer, I found Williams' hypnotic rhythms to be utterly spellbinding. My only query: why are two concerts out of chronological order? The German concert, recorded in November, is placed before the Swedish concert, which was recorded one week previously in October. Peculiar.

7. The Electric Era (1968-1975)

Nefertiti was released on 17th January, 1968. Why is that year 1968 so important for Miles Davis? The new head of Columbia, Clive Davis, had noticed the rise of rock and pop and advised the quintet to either evolve or leave. While I can readily picture an enraged Miles, this talk with the new boss awakened something within the trumpeter. He dreaded the idea of falling into a rut, and challenged himself to try making his music a little more 'electric'. When heard directly after Nefertiti, the following studio endeavour Miles in the Sky comes as a bit of a shock, but the CCAC does something I actually find rather clever. It turns out that some unreleased material recorded either side of the Miles in the Sky sessions was issued in 1976 as Water Babies, which appears before Miles in the Sky in this collection. It seems that I was lucky to have been interested in this particular album in the first place! The first side of the album is devoted to out-takes from the Nefertiti sessions, while the second side showcases two exploratory works with keyboardist Chick Corea, later to form the seminal jazz-fusion group Return to Forever. The track Dual Mr. Anthony Tillmon Williams Process - whose lengthy title differs on the original sleeve - is one of the most enjoyable in this whole set, with the sextet improvising around a complex yet thoroughly satisfying theme. Such excursions would be mirrored in prog rock years later, e.g. Matching Mole's Nan True's Hole and Soft Machine's Tarabos. Water Babies eases the listener into this new era in Miles Davis' music, equivalently, in jazz itself.

Miles in the Sky still comes as a shock however. While the quintet's style hasn't changed greatly, the presence of the electric piano alters the sound dramatically. Further experimentation can be heard on Paraphernalia, where George Benson guests on guitar, the first time the dreaded instrument appears in this collection. The next album, Filles de Kilimanjaro, is more or less the same, although with Chick Corea replacing Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland replacing Ron Carter on two of the album's tracks. The sound of change has arrived, it's about that time!

The final nail in the coffin of the previous era comes in one of the most subtle transitional records I've ever heard. In a Silent Way, true to its title, is a quiet revolution, a hesitant hint at the future of Miles' music. The relatively short album is divided between two tracks, and if it were not for the fantastic reputation of this album, I may have skimmed over it without a second glance. As the title suggests, this album is mainly reserved; there are no magnificent flourishes, no impressive solos, nothing flashy. To use an old saying, 'less is more'! We focus on Tony Williams; how is it that the drummer has been reduced to merely keeping time, when he once lived to count out impossible arithmetic progressions, and belt out impressive drum solos? While it may seem like a gross waste of talent, it just makes his flashier drumming seven minutes from the end of the album more enjoyable. This record will keep you in the dark; you don't know where it's going, and frankly I'm not even sure if it knows where it's going. John McLaughlin also joins the line-up, and it's his guitar that keeps the music fresh and interesting. Nothing like this had ever been heard before.

Bitches Brew follows, Davis' first double album of many, adorned with striking cover art by Mati Klarwein. Unfortunately, in this reissue, the artwork for this particular album has a fault in the centre of the gatefold image. The music is utterly bonkers, with chaos pervading most of the album's six tracks. I won't lie, I didn't enjoy it the first time round. However, the slew of live albums that follow - #36 Live at The Fillmore East, #37 Black Beauty: Live at The Fillmore West, #38 Live at Fillmore, #39 Isle of Wight - did manage to invoke in me a healthy respect for the album, and in particular the title track, whose menacing main riff sounds better and better with each listen.

Bitches Brew is followed by Big Fun, the longest album in the CCAC at over two hours and 20 minutes. This gargantuan set collects the many unused outtakes and themes from around this era. Unfortunately, I found Big Fun to be a huge drag, largely unexciting, except for the 28-minute Go Ahead John, an opportunity for McLaughlin to show his chops while Jack DeJohnette's drums are continually and abrasively switched between the two stereo channels. This must have taken hours for Macero to manually edit.

Next up is the more famous A Tribute to Jack Johnson, not the Hawaiian singer-songwriter, but the heavyweight boxing champ. This album served as the soundtrack for the accompanying documentary by Bill Cayton. John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham, both of whom would go on to form the inimitable Mahavishnu Orchestra, begin a tremendous funky groove with Michael Henderson on bass at the beginning of the first side, Right Off. It takes Davis a full two minutes and nineteen seconds to get out of the control room, enter the studio, pick up his trumpet and join the fray. By pure coincidence, Herbie Hancock happened to be passing through that day and decided to join in, playing on a cheap keyboard that a sound engineer had to wire up during the recording. The result is spectacular; a fully improvised, light-hearted jam that appeals to rock and jazz fans alike. Side two, Yesternow, is more orchestrated. The first half is underpinned by an ominous bass riff, which gives way to some inventive jamming. The second half would later become known as Willie Nelson, and features a sample from In a Silent Way, before venturing wildly into unknown jazz territory. Brock Peters narrates the ending, pretending to be Jack Johnson himself: "I'm black alright; I never let them forget it!"

It's rather difficult to describe Live-Evil, the second Miles Davis album to feature Mati Klarwein artwork. It's a hybrid live/studio album, which manages to be even more chaotic than its predecessors. Live pieces such as Sivad, What I Say and Funky Tonk are aggressive and long, good if you're in an angry mood. Studio pieces like Little Church and Nem Um Talvez are conversely shorter, more subdued and perversely experimental. What on earth's going on here? Pass the bong would you?

The year was 1972, and although albums such as Bitches Brew and ...Jack Johnson had given him fame and fortune, he was more determined than ever to change his sound continually, progressing as it were from strength to strength. On the Corner represents another dark shift in Miles' music. The pieces were no longer based on themes, and soloing had been strictly outlawed; this music is entirely based on rhythm. The music is incredibly avant-garde, like a powerful animal trying to escape a cage, but tied in by Davis' restrictions. Nevertheless, the hypnotic polyrhythms actually make for surprisingly satisfying listening. This style is showcased on the live album In Concert, but critics were beginning to shake their heads, saying Davis had taken things a step too far. Miles then retaliates with Dark Magus, a hundred-minute tour de force, a veritable wall of sound, a truly fierce live album.

Perhaps the strangest studio album in the CCAC is the last before Davis' hiatus, the double disc Get Up With It. Pushing the limits of vinyl, each LP featured over an hour of music, and two of the album's eight tracks clock in at over 32 minutes. In fact, this is another compilation album of sorts, containing music recorded between 1970 and 1974; it appears the CCAC breaks its usual rule of 'ordering by earliest recording date'. However, gone is the intense wall of sound; the opening half-hour gambit He Loved Him Madly is actually rather calm, almost funereal, a requiem for the recently deceased Duke Ellington, whom Miles had admired from an early age. At other times, we find Miles in a more 'traditional' mood, such as on Red China Blues, which shockingly features a harmonica and, even more shockingly, a 12-bar blues scale! However, the strangest and most intriguing aspect of this record has to be Davis' sudden fondness of the organ. The eeriest example is Rated X, where Miles holds down dissonant, jarring chords over a furious beat that pauses intermittently to incredible effect. Miles Davis is effectively creating drum and bass music twenty years before the genre was even invented. One wonders what might have happened if Miles had picked up the organ earlier. This is a stunning, diverse two-hour collection, and one I can see myself returning to frequently.

Davis' final recordings of the '70s are the pair of live albums Agharta and Pangaea, which both cover a single concert in Osaka on 1st February, 1975. The CD editions combine the Side Ones and Side Twos to form the longest tracks in the set; Interlude/Theme from Jack Johnson is 51:56 in length. Stylistically, this is similar to Get Up With It, with Davis bringing his organ on stage to the bewilderment of his Japanese fans. Health problems mixed with drug abuse would prevent Miles Davis from playing shortly after this gig, and he would not be seen in the public eye again...

8. Miles Davis Returns! (1981-1985)

...until 1981. During his hiatus, many of his fellow musicians and friends came to see him, but it would be his nephew who persuaded him to get back on the horse. Having not touched the trumpet for half a decade, Miles had lost his famed embouchure, and plays tentatively on his first comeback album, the lamentably titled The Man With The Horn. While the title track, a collaboration between Davis and his nephew's Chicago-based band, contains truly awful lyrics and is certainly the first cringeworthy track in the collection, the rest of the music ain't that bad. The funky opener, Fat Time, is excellent, containing a remarkable guitar solo from Mike Stern. Compared to Davis' '70s material, this album, and the 80s in general, would see Davis take on a more accessible and consequently, to Columbia's delight, more commercial route. The material from this album is reprised in the double live album We Want Miles, recorded the same year.

Star People, Decoy and You're Under Arrest follow in ...The Horn's wake, each adorned in a striking sleeve featuring artwork by Miles Davis. Star People is consistent and enjoyable, but I can't help feeling that the cracks begin to show on Decoy, especially with the track Code M.D. which credits Robert Irving III for the 'electric drum programming', a phrase I detest about as much as what it implies. However, You're Under Arrest is an utterly baffling release, an album of many contrasts, confused in its very conception, with a silly picture of Miles with an automatic weapon on the cover. We hear cheesy instrumental renditions of Human Nature by Michael Jackson and Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper - muzak essentially - alongside funky half-jazz, sound clips including a phone call, children's voices and a nuclear explosion, the return of John McLaughlin and Miles ending on an ambiguous monologue. The ambiguity lies in whether he was addressing his sound engineer Ron Lorman or the President, Ronald Reagan. Far too much to process on one listen, but I'm not entirely convinced I want to return to this sprawling mess.

You're Under Arrest was Miles' final proper album for Columbia, a weak note for sure. However the CCAC does have a final trick up its sleeve. It turns out that Miles Davis had visited Denmark at the end of 1984 to receive a prize from the foundation of Carl Johann Sonning, where he performed Violet, composed by Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. In January, he would return to complete the recording of the suite entitled Aura, which Mikkelborg had written as a tribute to Davis. The result is spectacular, a last hurrah for Davis in this collection. Miraculously, John McLaughlin was passing through Copenhagen and recorded the guitar parts for this album in a matter of days, giving an authentic feel to the album. In the opening track Intro, he introduces the basic ten-note theme M-I-L-E-S D-A-V-I-S on the guitar, before the drums and keyboards stir up the action in aggressive 7/8. The result is undeniably prog, and the 7/8 theme is repeated later in Red. The track titles are colours of the rainbow, and the microscopic liner notes give a detailed description of each track. Notably, each track is of a different musical style, and so the album never grows monotonous. For example, Green is a tribute to Gil Evans, Violet salutes Stravinsky and Messiaen, and Indigo recalls the music played by the Davis' Second Great Quintet. Miles does not play on the latter track as he felt compelled that he should never return to the past, not even for one song. This is a shame, as Indigo is perhaps the most enjoyable track on the album, yet it doesn't feel complete without him. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful, diverse album and a fitting close to the collection. Initially, Columbia wasn't interested in releasing this album, and as a result, Miles Davis chose to sign to the Warner Bros. label instead, ending nearly three decades of loyalty. Columbia eventually realised their mistake and released Aura in 1989.

9. Conclusion

Thus ends the musical legacy that Miles Davis gave to Columbia, and all of it is immaculately presented in this magical boxset. The booklet, presented in French as well as English, contains a concise 50-page biography of the man penned by Frédéric Goaty, filling in the blanks, and crucially letting us know what happened before and after his tenure with Columbia. I entered the collection with very little knowledge or understanding of Davis' music and returned something of an expert. Should you buy this collection? I'll leave you with this analogy: purchasing separate albums such as Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew is like visiting a foreign country on a two-week holiday and seeing the touristic highlights. The Complete Columbia Album Collection is more like taking a gap year, embracing the culture and getting to experience the country as a whole. In this way, the significance of those highlights can be more fully understood and appreciated. It's a lot more than 63 hours of perennial jazz; it's Miles' life, and experiencing this collection in full is about as close as you'll ever get to living it in one purchase.

10. Epilogue

But what of our original question: "How progressive was Miles Davis?" For a substantial part of his career, it's undeniable that he was incredibly progressive; more than any other individual I can think of. His ability to bend the genre that is jazz was uncanny, inventing musical styles - and even genres - way ahead of their time. With a few notable examples in mind, one could even say that he was quite 'prog' at times too! While the records don't really tickle me in the same way that Yes and King Crimson do, there's a strong feeling on many of these albums that Miles is breaking new ground and that is something that any prog fan can admire.

Conclusion: UNRATED. A simple mark out of ten cannot possibly summarise four decades of work from one of the world's greatest jazz artists.


Appendix - The Albums

Disc #AlbumRecordedReleasedTimeTracksType
1In Paris Festival International de Jazz,
May 1949
2'Round About Midnight1955-1956195700:58:1510Studio
3Circle in the Round1955-1970197901:39:2710Compilation (2CD)
4Miles Ahead1957195700:52:0414Studio
61958 Miles1958197400:38:055Studio
7At Newport 19581958200100:40:157Live
8Porgy and Bess1958195900:58:4815Studio
9Jazz at the Plaza1958197300:40:244Live
10Kind of Blue1959195900:55:246Studio
11Sketches of Spain1959-1960196001:00:428Studio
12Directions1960-1970198101:34:5412Compilation (2CD)
13Someday My Prince Will Come1961196100:54:578Studio
14Friday Night - Miles Davis in Person at
The Blackhawk, San Francisco
1961196101:57:2513Live (2CD)
15Saturday Night - Miles Davis in Person at
The Blackhawk, San Francisco
1961196102:03:4616Live (2CD)
16At Carnegie Hall1961196201:26:2111Live (2CD)
17Quiet Nights1962-1963196300:45:5410Studio
18Seven Steps to Heaven1963196300:57:228Studio
19In Europe1963196401:20:087Live
20My Funny Valentine1964196501:03:125Live
21'Four' & More1964196600:53:558Live
22Miles In Tokyo1964196900:54:295Live
23Miles In Berlin1964196500:57:206Live
25At Plugged Nickel, Chicago1965197601:46:4910Live (2CD)
26Miles Smiles1966196700:41:446Studio
29Water Babies1967-1968197601:03:086Compilation
30Miles in the Sky1968196801:12:166Studio
31Filles de Kilimanjaro1968196901:11:166Studio
32In a Silent Way1969196900:38:082Studio
33Bitches Brew1969-1970197001:45:427Studio (2CD)
34Big Fun1969-1972197402:22:318Compilation (2CD)
35A Tribute to Jack Johnson1970197100:52:272Studio
36Live at The Fillmore East - It's About That Time1970200101:30:089Live (2CD)
37Black Beauty - Miles Davis at Fillmore West1970197301:19:169Live (2CD)
38At Fillmore1970197001:41:0317Live (2CD)
39Isle of Wight1970200900:35:326Live
40Live-Evil1970197201:41:568Live/Studio (2CD)
41On the Corner1972197200:54:458Studio
42In Concert1972197301:24:236Live (2CD)
43Dark Magus1974197701:40:598Live (2CD)
44Get Up With It1970-1974197402:04:178Studio (2CD)
45Agharta1975197501:36:253Live (2CD)
46Pangaea1975197501:31:272Live (2CD)
47The Man with the Horn1980-1981198100:52:396Studio
48We Want Miles1981198201:45:049Live (2CD)
49Star People1982-1983198300:58:446Studio
51You're Under Arrest1984-1985198500:42:599Studio
53Live in Europe '671967200901:14:4611DVD

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