What does it sound like?:
How can you sum up a gargantuan career like Miles Davis’s in a single documentary or compilation of recordings? There are so many phases, all rich with depth and complexity, over a period of well over four decades. It starts in his teens with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (Be-Bop), then moves through his work with the nonet (Cool), the first quintent with Coltrane (Hard Bop), the Kind Of Blue era (Modal), concerto-style pieces with Gil Evans (Orchestral), the second great quintet with Herbie Hancock (Post-Bop), the conversion to electric instruments (Fusion), prolonged unstructured pieces (Free), the commercially successful return in the eighties (Pop) and touching on Flamenco, Soundtracks, Funk, Rock and Hip Hop in between, not forgetting The Blues, which is arguably at the heart of all his music. His constant, restless quest for inspiration and reinvention, plus his defiance of expectation and convention, drive most observers to give up and tackle the enormous elephant that is Miles Davis by focussing on one phase at a time.
Stanley Nelson’s documentary film features a large number of talking heads: musicians who worked with Miles ranging from Jimmy Heath through to Marcus Miller, including all three surviving members of the second quintet, two ex wives and one longstanding mistress, esteemed academics expert in his music and Carl Lumby narrating sections of Miles’s autobiography. The net result is a lot of talking over the music itself, almost pushing it into the background.
The soundtrack corrects that fault. Apart from brief snippets of conversation from the interviewees in the documentary, the music is given the room to speak for itself and it’s impossible not to be awestruck by its beauty and dynamism and its breadth and depth. Eight of the fourteen tracks were recorded between 1956 and 1961, bridging the two great quintets, probably his most fertile period artistically and from which he emerged as a Jazz megastar. The earliest is 1947’s Donna Lee, a tune Miles claims he wrote though it’s credited to Charlie Parker, followed by 1949’s nonet piece, Moon Dreams, involving Gil Evans, beginning a collaboration that lasted a lifetime. There are two more orchestral jazz pieces, New Rhumba from Miles Ahead and The Pan Piper off Sketches Of Spain. The first quintet is well represented by It Never Entered My Mind, ‘Round Midnight and Milestones, the latter supplemented with Cannonball Adderley. Generique is probably the best track on Louis Malle’s movie Elevator To The Scaffold. The obligatory selection from Kind Of Blue is So What and Someday My Prince Will Come, with essentially the same band, is a fitting lap of honour for Coltrane. After that, there is a leap to Footprints off Miles Smiles in 1967 and Miles Plays The Voodoo Down, a single version of the brooding monster on 1970’s Bitches Brew. Tutu gets a nod and the finale is a new track put together with some unreleased Miles trumpet playing, called Hail To The Real Chief. It’s written by Lenny White, who first appeared on Bitches Brew, and features other Miles acolytes: Marcus Miller, Vince Wilburn Jr., Emilio Modeste, Jeremy Pelt, John Scofield, Antoinette Roney, Bernard Wright and Quinton Zoto. It’s funky, doesn’t overstay its welcome and the trumpet sound could easily fit on The Man With The Horn.
It’s impossible to dispute the quality of the music on display. Many of these performances are high art, amongst the finest known to man. However, the collection is an ungainly skip through the highlights. There’s nothing from the early fifties, especially the game changer, Walkin’, or Bag’s Groove with Milt Jackson and Theolonious Monk. The second quintet is under-representated and electric Miles doesn’t get much of a look in. One or two tasty morsels from those periods would liven things up nicely, say something from The Plugged Nickel, Black Satin plus or minus Back Seat Betty or, perhaps, Come Get It.
It can be done. 2001’s The Essential Miles Davis captures his multi-faceted, ever-changing legacy by treating it as a story with a beginning, an end and twists and turns in between. That’s a physical 2CD set, later expanded to three. Birth Of The Cool sits more comfortably as a sanitised streaming list, the easiest Miles to digest, much more suited for an audience that might only have been born after Miles Davis died in 1991. Nevertheless, it’s a far better way to experience the actual music than the documentary and if it succeeds in attracting new listeners to the best musical catalogue of any kind in the Twentieth Century all will be forgiven. After all, even a sanitised Miles is jaw-dropping.
What does it all *mean*?
After six listens, the title gnawed away at my soul. Cool is a style of Jazz Miles invented with Gil Evans in the forties, its gentle melodies contrasting with the frantic Be-Bop Miles had played with Bird. Stanley Nelson clearly feels Miles was the epitome of cool throughout his life and focuses on examples of Miles at his most elegant. Sadly, there were times when he was far from cool, notably when he beat women, when he was hopelessly addicted to drugs and when he lived in absolute squalor. This is the man who shredded his vocal chords in a rage and whose death was precipitated by a brain haemorrhage brought on by violent anger. Nelson addresses these issues, to a degree, in the documentary but not this soundtrack. Miles’s music was also wild and untamed. All of Davis’s groups, especially the second quintet and electric Miles, were strong enough to uproot trees. Birth Of The Cool perpetuates the myth of Miles soloing lyrically while a rhythm section swings quietly behind him.
Goes well with…
Fire in the belly. Most of these selections display Miles at his most sophisticated but beneath those beautifully melodic lines there is a disturbing turbulence.
21st February 2020
Might suit people who like…
Jazz. Rock. Music of the highest quality.