Written by bassist Marcus Miller, this title cut from this 1986 album is Miles Davis' final great song. The production and arrangement -- like much of the rest of Davis' '80s material -- sounds like an advanced version of Michael Jackson's music. But Miller wrote a beautiful and elegant song -- and no amount of cheesy synthesizer and drum programming can overshadow that. Davis riffs on mute throughout, playing more horn than we are used to. While this Miles Davis song dominated the jazz charts, it actually cracked the pop and R&B charts as well.
Recorded in 1972 and released on the 1973 album 'On the Corner,' 'Black Satin' is one of Davis' most haunting tunes from one of his funkiest albums. The rock-fusion from a few years earlier gave away to dirty brand funk, a style Davis acquired in attempt to reconnect with a young black audience. At first people didn't get it, but the album has gone on to be re-evaluated as a classic that has influenced a generation of jazz, electronic, funk and groove musicians. Relatively concise at a mere five minutes, 'Black Satin' sums all this up while giving the album its most lyrical moments.
Universally regarded as the album where Miles Davis went electric, 1970's 'Bitches Brew' is a landmark that is one of the first and greatest jazz-rock fusion albums ever -- mainly due to the unending funky pulse of 'Spanish Key.' Featuring Davis as well as Herbie Hancock, guitarist John McLaughlin and other soon to be stars, the 17-and-a-half-minute song is a richly detailed piece that ebbs and flows around the songs angular hook and funky groove. Davis' playing is the most energetic we'll ever hear from the man who personified cool; plus we get a career-making performance from McLaughlin.
'Seven Steps to Heaven'
Recorded in Davis' transitional period between his first great quintet/sextet with John Coltrane and his second quintet with Wayne Shorter, 1963's 'Seven Steps to Heaven' was written by Davis and pianist Victor Feldman (who, ironically, was replaced by Herbie Hancock by the time the classic version of this Miles Davis song was recorded). The clipped seven-note melody is an instantly recognizable classic and one of the trumpeter's most loved songs, often recorded by other musicians. This is song belongs on any jazz lover's shortlist.
Recorded in 1958, 'Milestones' and its title track were a breakthrough for Miles Davis and his sextet. It's here that the group first embraces the modal approach that would be perfected by the time they went in to record 'Kind of Blue' the following year. The band is pushing outward too on the melody, moving from short clipped notes to a smear of them, different players pulling different directions simultaneously. John Coltrane is particularly brilliant here, moving from the bluesy bebop style of his '50s work into the searching sound that marked nearly all of his material from the '60s.
Composed by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, 'Footprints' finds the second great quintet at the height of its powers. Davis is full-throated in this beautiful song (enough energy to light a city block), which is propelled by drummer Tony Williams (and his fiery, unbeatable rhythm section) bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock. Although Coltrane had crossed over to the avant-garde at this point, this group was playing a wide-open brand of jazz that was sonically aligned with modal and bop, but there were no rules beyond serving the song. Shorter also never sounded better here, as he parries with Hancock.
Miles Davis was always known for his sidemen, but he nonetheless outdoes himself here on this 1954 recording that includes the Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk or Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins. Composed by Rollins, this tune has a slow walking groove that is steeped in the blues thanks to the wonderful rhythm section. Listen as Silver provides light harmonic accompaniment on the piano as Rollins and Davis work through the melody as if they were of one mind. A lot of attention could be paid to the title track of this album, with Monk on piano, but 'Doxy' is Davis at his peak as he moved from bebop into modal jazz.
There is a bit of mystery on why it took Capitol six years to issue 'Birth of the Cool,' which was recorded in two sessions in 1949 and one in 1950. Regardless, the album shows Davis breaking away from the energetic bebop of his mentor Charlie Parker and attempting to do something more evocative and mellow -- using a nonet with tuba and French horn. Arranged by the great Gil Evans -- who would work with Davis on and off in the coming years -- 'Boplicity' features beautiful but brief solos from Davis and baritone player Gerry Mulligan. This Miles Davis song is the stand out track from this landmark album.
Not many people have improved on Thelonious Monk's oft-covered classic 'Round Midnight,' but Miles Davis certainly argues his case on this version. Here Davis debuts the horn mute, a signature tool he would use for the rest of his life, letting the softer and melancholy tone of the horn add a whole new level of subtlety to the song. John Coltrane also contributed on this track, building a long angular solo that was perfectly antithetical to Davis' melodic and understated playing. The highlight to what many regard as Davis' second greatest album, this song is beyond essential.
The opening track to the landmark 'Kind of Blue,' 'So What' is one of those jazz tunes that one need only hear the first few impressionistic notes from pianist Bill Evans to chime in -- either whistling or snapping your fingers -- on cue with Paul Chambers' bluesy bass line. At an all-too-quick nine minutes in length, the song is a keynote moment of jazz's greatest and most popular album. This Miles Davis song casts a magical spell over the listener, where Davis and Evans' laid back groove belies a simmering fire, and blazes up when Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley come in for their solos. Say the word jazz, and this is the sound most people hear in their head.