Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Miles Davis Redux

Timothy Sandefur has written a brief reply to my post on Miles Davis, in which he states:

I canít imagine Miles Davis being on someoneís second tier. If Miles is on your second tier, your tiers are broken.

I suppose it depends on what we’re talking about. As a composer, I would certainly place Miles in the first rank. Strictly as a musician, I put him in the second tier, but I fully recognize that this is only because, as Timothy noted, I don’t prefer the Harmon mute sound that Miles was so fond of. So that means that while I fully recognize his genius, there are others whose music I generally prefer to listen to.

The other reason I typically place Miles in my second tier is because he had long stretches of his career when his music was virtually unlistenable to me. His experimental jazz recordings were simply horrid, though I recognize that I think that only because I tend to regard the entire genre as horrid. The same is true of John Coltrane, another undeniably brilliant jazz musician whose catalogue contains a sizable portion that is downright awful. Every musician is going to have some recordings that are better than others, of course, but with the others I place in the first tier, even their weaker recordings could be listened to without causing one to cringe.

Perhaps my designation of him as second tier is unfair. Like Coltrane, Davis’ best work absolutely puts him in the first tier of jazz musicians. It was groundbreaking and era-defining work, and I share Mr. Sandefur’s love of Miles’ ballads in particular. Even when he was playing with a mute, despite my lack of preference for it, he could throw out riffs that absolutely ached, that just dripped with emotion.

As far as Wynton Marsalis is concerned, I would certainly encourage Timothy to explore his catalog further. Standard Time Volume 1, the only Wynton recording he has listened to, was recorded in 1987, one of his earliest recordings. Not only was Wynton very young, so was his band. Marcus Roberts (piano) and Jeff (Tain) Watts (drums) were then just at the beginning of their careers, which now finds them among the premier instrumentalists in the world. Standard Time is also almost entirely made up of music written by others, as the title makes obvious. Black Codes From the Underground, though earlier than Standard Time, provided a glimpse of Wynton’s strength as a composer. Wynton’s career has essentially followed the whole history of jazz, exploring every idiom one by one, from his earlier recordings with a Be-bop flavor, to his exploration of standards in the Standard Time series, to his series on the blues idiom with the wonderful Soul Gestures in Southern Blue series. With Blue Interlude, he began to explore more complex arrangements, following in the footsteps of Ellington as a composer and arranger. There are moments on Blue Interlude that continue to take my breath away after over a decade of listening to it.

Comments

  1. #1 mallarme
    May 27, 2004

    I would say that anyone capable of “Kind of Blue”, one of the greatest all-time albums in any genre, should definitely be in your top tier, regardless of what crazy fusion noise they made later. I completely ignore anything Miles did after “Bitches Brew” (which is itself hard to listen, but worth it when you’re in the mood) and concentrate on works like “Porgy & Bess”, “Sketches of Spain”, “Walkin” (the whole __in’ series, really) and other such works. As for Coltrane, I think just about everything he recorded before his late experimental work like “Stellar Regions” was just as excellent. “Lush Life” is one of my favorite jazz albums and even though I’ve memorized almost every note of “Giant Steps” and “Blue Train” I can still hear new things every time I listen. That sort of durability is the hallmark of true genius.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    May 27, 2004

    I would say that anyone capable of “Kind of Blue”, one of the greatest all-time albums in any genre, should definitely be in your top tier, regardless of what crazy fusion noise they made later. I completely ignore anything Miles did after “Bitches Brew” (which is itself hard to listen, but worth it when you’re in the mood) and concentrate on works like “Porgy & Bess”, “Sketches of Spain”, “Walkin” (the whole __in’ series, really) and other such works. As for Coltrane, I think just about everything he recorded before his late experimental work like “Stellar Regions” was just as excellent. “Lush Life” is one of my favorite jazz albums and even though I’ve memorized almost every note of “Giant Steps” and “Blue Train” I can still hear new things every time I listen. That sort of durability is the hallmark of true genius.

    Yeah, I kind of reached the same conclusion as I wrote that post. Yes, they both put out a lot of crap later, but you’ve certainly got a point that they are both responsible for several of the best jazz albums ever made. It’s pretty hard to keep them out of the pantheon given those accomplishments. Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue and Porgy and Bess alone would be a great career for a musician. That he did so many other great recordings beyond those should be enough to make me just ignore the drek and look at what he did outside of that.

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