The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

May 30, 2006


I'm beginning to re-evaluate the image that I had of Miles Davs as an innovator in jazz music. The more stuff I hear that other musicians recorded at around the same time, I'm beginning to think that Miles may have reacted to what was going on around him rather than having been a driving force in the reshaping of jazz music during the 1960s and 70s, and that his relative importance may have more to do with the fact that he had the backing of a strong record label than with the music that he recorded; in other words, that he is simply better known than some of the more innovative musicians of the time.

Point 1: Clifford Brown. If you take what Miles recorded between 1953 and 56 and compare it to Clifford Brown's output, Miles looks remarkably poor. It's obvious that Clifford Brown was better, both in terms of composition/conception and execution. Unfortunately, Brown died in a car accident in 1956, so it's impossible to say just how he would have developed. On the other hand, in the same year, Miles made the groundbreaking recordings with his first Great Quintet, even though it can be (and probably should be) argued that the greatness of these recordings, just as was very obviously the case with his second Great Quintet in the mid-1960s, was really more the result of a group effort rather than of his own making.

Point 2: Grachan Moncur III. Who but the truly initiated have ever even heard of Grachan Moncur III? Yet on his 1964 album Evolution, Moncur has already developed a musical vocabulary that is very obviously taken up or at least referred to repeatedly by Miles on a couple of albums stretching from Nefertiti (1968) to Get Up With It (1975), and the fact that you find traces of Moncur's brilliant "Evolution" over ten years later in Davis's equally majestic "He Loved Him Madly" says a lot about the sheer power of Moncur's compositional prowess.

I could add more points; the one about John Coltrane eclipsing his former band leader being the most obvious one, but I think the point that Davis was perhaps more successful but not necessarily not more innovative than other musicians has been made.

That is not to say that Miles wasn't an innovator. He was, but the closer you look at what was going on around him, the more you begin to feel that this was more by chance than on purpose. Different musicians reacted differently to the Great Crisis of Jazz in the late 1960s. Chet Baker and Bud Shank, and even Wes Montgomery went commercial, and very shamelessly so. Grant Green went hopelessly astray until he found a footing in Soul again. Miles too tried to adapt to what was "hip" at the time, but apparently he needed the money less urgently, or he found different things to be "hip", but the chaos on some of his early 1970s albums may be loss of orientation after all, especially as over and over again you find single tracks that prove that from time to time he did indeed find musical spaces that he could identify with. But I now feel very strongly that is was more hit-and-miss than I originally thought.

Posted by Horst on May 30, 2006 10:01 PM to reviews | Tell-a-friend

dd said on May 31, 2006 05:32 AM:

and then listen to the soundworlds donald byrd created in early 1969 on his album "electric byrd" (with a little help from airto, hermeto pascoal and ron carter) and wonder where "bitches brew" was coming from. also, I think everything miloes did between "esp" and "filles de kilimanjaro" owes a LOT to what ornette coleman did from 1959 on. which is strange, considering how miles used to put ornette down at every occasion he got.....

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