A classic by Miles’ first great quintet, this is one of a series of similarly-titled mid-‘50s albums that made Miles the leading name in jazz, and launched John Coltrane’s career. The solos are brilliant on all these albums, but this one has the best tunes; the highlight is the relaxed and wistful rendering of ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top’.
And the Modern Jazz Giants
Miles hooked up with Thelonious Monk and Milt Jackson to really stretch out on five superior numbers. Miles appreciated Monk’s genius, but he was a fan of the composer rather than the pianist, and Monk’s eccentric accompaniments soon stretched his short temper past breaking point. This was a tense session, then, but the result is one of the most atmospheric and satisfying albums in the straight-ahead jazz idiom; vibraphone player Milt Jackson doesn’t seem to care much, and just swings hard as usual.
One of the celebrated collaborations with Gil Evans; Evan’s revolutionary big-band charts, which show the influence of classical music, provide a fascinating foil for Miles, but the music still swings and sounds natural. One highlight is Miles’ version of Dave Brubeck’s ‘The Duke’; this composition proves that Brubeck could write, regardless of what you might think of his piano-playing. But best of all is the sentimental ‘I Don’t Wanna be Kissed’, which brings out the very best in Miles’ trumpet playing.
The highlight album from Miles’ second great quintet, this one is the critic’s choice. And it does achieve a certain unfussy perfection: Miles sounds tough and works harder than usual, Wayne Shorter tumbles along, his playing deliberately sloppy-sounding but full of tricks, Herbie Hancock provides much of the intellectual weight with complex and incisive single-note lines, Ron Carter steers the ship, and Tony Williams frames everything with his virtuosic polyrhythmic style, that brings the intensity up and down as required. Art music with attitude, and it swings too.
On the Corner
Overall, this is my favourite Miles Davis album. Jazz-funk pure and simple, it is all about groove rather than solos. It is best listened to, I imagine, in a large car with the darkened-glass windows wound slightly down and the volume high, while driving down a bustling street on a summer’s day. Check out the ditty of a melody Miles obsessively repeats on ‘Black Satin’.