5 Essential Miles Davis Albums

Miles Davis Albums

Photo: Peter Buitelaar / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Miles Davis (1926-91) ranks in the top five as one of the most important jazz artists of all time. Unlike nearly every musician, he not only continued to evolve throughout his career but pioneered at least five different styles: Cool jazz, Hard Bop, Modal music, the Avant-Garde, and Fusion. While his sound on the trumpet and general approach remained consistent, he was a masterful talent scout who continually updated his surroundings by playing with younger innovators, always pointing the way towards the future.

Davis began to play professionally at a time in the mid-1940s when modern jazz was rapidly changing from swing to bebop. While he admired the virtuoso playing of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, Davis knew that he did not have their phenomenal technique and he devised a different way of getting his musical message across. He emphasized the middle register of his horn, made creative use of space in dramatic fashion (making every note count), and developed a very individual sound, particularly when playing muted while standing close to a microphone. Beyond his anti-hero image, Davis became a very influential musical force in whatever style he was played.

Miles Davis and Duke Ellington are among the most difficult to restrict to just five essential albums. The trumpeter made at least 25 (some would say 50) significant records. The five in this article, which are listed in chronological order, are among his most influential and renowned.

# 1 – The Complete Birth Of The Cool (Capitol)

Miles Davis was a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet during 1947-48, where his relaxed style offered a contrast to the altoist’s barrage of innovative ideas. Shortly before he left Parker to go out on his own, he organized a nine-piece group that reflected a preference for cooler tones from the horns, tight modern arrangements, and a quiet rhythm section. His nonet only had one gig, playing at the Royal Roost for two weeks as the intermission band for Count Basie, but during 1949-50 it recorded a dozen songs for the Capitol label. When they were released, the band was dubbed “The Birth Of The Cool.” The Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis arrangements for the group (which also featured altoist Lee Konitz and baritonist Mulligan) set the standard for West Coast jazz of the 1950s and Davis’ trumpet playing was very much in its element. All of the studio recordings plus two radio broadcasts from the nonet’s live radio broadcasts are on this set.

# 2 – Round About Midnight (Columbia)

Miles Davis’ 1952-53 recordings for Blue Note (which featured such future bandleaders as Art Blakey and Horace Silver) helped to found hard bop, the modern mainstream music of the next 15 years. In 1955 he formed what became known as his first classic quintet, a group with the up-and-coming tenor-saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones.  While they recorded several excellent jam session-flavored recordings for Prestige, their 1956 Columbia album Round About Midnight was on a different level. The six selections on the original Lp are all gems with a definitive arrangement of “’Round Midnight,” the heated “Ah-Leu-Cha,” and a classic version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” (which perfectly showcased Davis’ cool sound) being among the high points.

# 3 – Kind Of Blue (Columbia)

Miles Davis was considered a jazz superstar by 1957. He was showcased on three classic orchestra albums featuring Gil Evans’ arrangements (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches Of Spain) and in 1958 put together what was considered his super sextet. At first it was his earlier quintet plus altoist Cannonball Adderley but later in the year pianist Bill Evans and drummer Jimmy Cobb were in the rhythm section with Paul Chambers. In two sessions in 1959, the group recorded the five titles of Kind Of Blue, an atmospheric set of music considered a bit revolutionary due to the emphasis on scales rather than chords. It introduced the standards “So What” and “All Blues” and contrasted Davis’ melancholy playing with the explorative flights of Coltrane and the joyful exuberance of Adderley.

# 4 – Miles Smiles (Columbia)

The group with Coltrane lasted until 1960. In 1963 Miles Davis put together a new quintet comprised of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams, and tenor-saxophonist George Coleman; their recording Four & More is considered a classic. By late-1964 Wayne Shorter was not only on tenor but contributing innovative new music for what became known as Davis’ second classic quintet. No longer closely tied to straight ahead jazz (even when playing standards), this group played much freer and was influenced by the explorative music of Ornette Coleman, relying on a bit of mental telepathy and youthful enthusiasm to keep the music both coherent and original. Of the five albums recorded by this quintet, 1966’s Miles Smiles has the strongest compositions (including “Freedom Jazz Dance,” “Footprints” and “Gingerbread Boy”), most inventive solos, and the definitive realization of the group’s concept.

# 5 – Bitches Brew (Columbia)

This double album changed everything for Miles Davis. By 1968 he was becoming interested in utilizing electric keyboards, soul and r&b rhythms, and rhythmic vamps. From the time he recorded 1969’s moody In A Silent Way until the end of his life, he was involved in fusion, blending together the rhythms and sound of rock with jazz improvisation. Bitches Brew features such greats as keyboardist Chick Corea (who soon founded Return To Forever), Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul (the co-leaders of Weather Report), and John McLaughlin (the Mahavishnu Orchestra). When the recently departed Herbie Hancock (the Headhunters) and Tony Williams (Lifetime) are added in, one can see what a major impact Davis had on the new electric music.

Bitches Brew, which benefits from the utilization of bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, has lengthy explorations of catchy rhythmic riffs, with “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” being a highpoint. It may not have satisfied Miles Davis’ earlier fans but it kept the trumpeter (who continued to evolve until the end) stimulated and relevant, and a major force on the contemporary music scene.


Written by Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of eleven books including…………

Trumpet Kings

The Great Jazz Guitarists

Jazz On Film

Add Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Johnny Marr Albums
Complete List Of Johnny Marr Albums And Discography
Classic Rock Christmas Songs
Our 10 Favorite Classic Rock Christmas Songs
A Thousand Horses Albums
Complete List Of A Thousand Horses Albums And Songs
Blackmore's Night Albums
Complete List Of Blackmore’s Night Albums And Discography
Can Albums
Top 10 Can Albums
Kiss Bootlegs
KISSteria on Vinyl: Ten’ 70s-era Bootlegs for Records Collectors
10 Essential Metal Albums Released Between 1970 and 1995
10 Essential Metal Albums Released Between 1970 and 1995
The River Album Bruce Springsteen Should Have Released
The River Album Bruce Springsteen Should Have Released
Mick Jagger and Sammy Hagar
Will Sammy Hagar or Mick Jagger Be The First 100 Year Old Rockers?
Comic Con 2023
Comic Con 2023 Rocks New York City
The Misunderstanding Of The Way AI Was Used In Now And Then
The Misunderstanding Of The Way AI Was Used In Now And Then
Beatles Song Now And Then
Just Saying “New Beatles Song Released Today” Is Breathtaking
Tim Lefebvre Interview
Tim Lefebvre: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview
Liberty DeVitto: 10 Albums That Changed My Life
Liberty DeVitto: 10 Albums That Changed My Life
Rob De Luca of Spread Eagle, Sebastian Bach & UFO: 10 Albums That Changed My Life From humble East Coast origins to grandest stages worldwide, veteran bassist Rob De Luca has seen and done it all. De Luca first hit the local Boston rock and metal scene in the late 80s after meeting guitarist Paul DiBartolo, bonding over Van Halen before forming Bang. Regional success came quickly, but eventually, the members of Bang went their separate ways, with De Luca and drummer Tommi Gallo heading to NYC and hooking up with Ray West and, later, DiBartolo to form Spread Eagle. By 1990, Spread Eagle was on the fast track, with a contract through MCA Records and a self-titled debut album poised to crush skulls. But poor timing and MCA's sad indifference left Spead Eagle out in the cold despite being a hard-boiled answer to Guns N' Roses's West Coast sleaze. Spread Eagle's first chapter came to an end in '95. As for Rob De Luca, his nimble fingers and gift for melody and songwriting kept him moving forward. Soon, he found a gig with former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach and the legendary outfit UFO. And in 2010, after coupling up with Ray West and his cousin Rik De Luca, Spread Eagle retook flight. During a break from Spread Eagle's increasingly busy touring schedule, Rob De Luca dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to run through the ten albums that changed his life. But only after adding, "I made a playlist of these songs, including some I've written or co-written. Do you hear any of these albums' influence on me?" Listen here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3LWJuhDrE8JmzhsmTeIDUq 10) Gentlemen by Afghan Whigs (1993) Here's an entry that was so important to me. This may be the darkest break-up album of all time. Greg Dulli has been in many projects, but I feel Gentlemen is his zenith. Somewhat undefinable at times but always profound and honest. Listen to "Gentlemen," "Fountain and Fairfax," and "What Jail Is Like." 9) In on the Kill Taker by Fugazi (1993) By this time, I had been sucked in and spit out by the major-label record industry. Glam came and went; grunge was history, too. I was searching for new sounds. When I heard Fugazi's twin guitar approach, I knew this was what was missing. Fugazi may be considered a less polished sound than the albums above; however, once you "get it," it hits you like a ton of bricks, and there's no going back. From the moment I heard Fugazi, I went to every NYC show after. It's easily some of the best concerts of my life, and possibly my favorite bassist in Joe Lally. And their DIY ethics refused to charge us more than $5 a show! In on the Kill Taker is a powerful album demonstrated in songs such as "Smallpox Champion," "Great Cop," and "Public Witness Program." 8) Appetite for Destruction by Guns N' Roses (1987) I discovered many of these albums (sometimes long) after they were released. However, I was at the right place at the right time for this one. Steve Ostromogilsky had a Berklee College of Music lunch card and used to sneak out sandwiches for me. One day, he invited me to hang out at his place and listen to music. As we got off the train, he put Sony Walkman headphones on my ears and said, "Hey, check out this brand-new group." A song like "It's So Easy" was so different from the popular Sunset Strip sound at that time. Me and about 499 other informed rockers were lucky enough to see them on their first East Coast tour at the sold-out Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (the same street Aerosmith started on). I saw Gn'R every tour after until I took a break when Buckethead joined. Gn'R is the band I've been lucky enough to see the most times live, almost 100! Everyone on this album is just stellar. Axl [Rose] had the tones, power, melodic sensibilities, and foresight to do what no other singer did then. Slash's playing was beyond memorable. Duff [McKagan] is one of the most underrated bassists in rock history, and learning his Appetite basslines is a masterclass. Steven [Adler] had the natural swing, and Izzy [Stradlin] was the secret weapon songwriter. Everything that's been heralded about this gem is deserved and true. Check out "It's So Easy," "Out Ta Get Me," and "Mr. Brownstone.' 7) Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd (1975) Another contender for my favorite album and band of all time. Using The Beatles machine (same recording studio, engineer, record label), Pink Floyd made what I feel is their strongest, most cohesive album (my second favorite of theirs would be Animals). This list mainly consists of bands with an instantly recognizable sound. Floyd is certainly no exception to that! This album included a solid handful of undeniable rock radio classics, bookended by two halves of the mind-blowing song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond.' That song was written about former band member and founder Syd Barrett. It would be hard to live in a world without this album. Check out "Welcome to The Machine," "Shine on You Crazy Diamond (parts 6-9),' or even better yet, listen to the whole thing in one sitting! 6) Decade by Neil Young (1977) About this time, I started playing guitar. As a beginner, it was comfortable jamming to this album because the chord changes were simple—a great "first ten years" retrospective of Neil's stunning, unique songwriting. Neil is a treasure who always writes from the heart and stands up for what's right. Check out "Southern Man," "A Man Needs a Maid," "Down by The River," and "After the Goldrush." 5) Highway to Hell by AC/DC (1979) When I heard this album, I was firmly "me." My life would be 100% focused on hard rock music forever. AC/DC are like air; they're ubiquitous. Everyone knows them and their incredible songs. However, as a young teen in Wilmington, Delaware, I only had WMMR 93.3 FM Philadelphia and a few friends to inform me about the world of Rock outside my bedroom. AC/DC had not gone mainstream, and their albums were available primarily in the USA as imports. To put things more in perspective, I only knew two people in the world who had heard of AC/DC. A friend had an import that we played in Steve Buckley's basement, which sounded ripping. When Highway to Hell was released, WMMR started spinning the title track, and I immediately bought the album, listening to it every single day after school. Then WMMR announced AC/DC was coming to the Spectrum in Philly, supporting Ted Nugent! I liked Ted but loved AC/DC, so my good friend Mick Cummins and I bought tickets, and he drove us up to the Spectrum (where we saw most of our concerts). Bon Scott was in fine form, and the band went over great. Although the crowd knew Ted better, Angus [Young] wouldn't let anyone upstage him. I'll never forget it! Unfortunately, Bon would be gone in 6 months. Check out "Walk All Over You," "Touch Too Much," "Shot Down in Flames," and "If You Want Blood (You Got It)." 4) Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith (1975) By the time I heard this, I was now in my teens. I had a childhood friend up the street, Jim Linberg (we're still good buddies). His older sister had a great album collection, including Toys in The Attic. Once I heard that groove, my taste changed. I lost interest in rock music that didn't have some sort of "swing" feel to it. I think Rocks is a slightly better Aerosmith album (and possibly my favorite album of all time), but both are perfect or very close. Check out "Uncle Salty," "Adam's Apple," "No More No More," "Round and Round," and "You See Me Crying." 3) Alive! by Kiss (1975) When I was still a little kid, I asked for Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke album for Christmas. The entire family came over for an enormous feast, and I dropped the needle. When my mother heard the content, she turned off the album and said I had to exchange it. My mom was cool, but I was young and knew much more about life than she suspected. Anyway, the next day, she drove me back to the store. In the music section, promoted on an "endcap" was a Kiss Alive! display. I had never heard of Kiss, but that cover picture told me I had to have it! My first foray into hard rock. Check out “Strutter.” I went through my Kiss phase very quickly, I believe in a matter of months because I discovered the previous entry, Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic. 2) Honky Chateau by Elton John (1972) When I was a wee lad, my parents bought a used Volkswagen camper van from my uncle Ozzie. My favorite Elton John album is Yellow Brick Road, but Honky Chateau is great and easily one of his best. It sent me down a lifelong rabbit hole of loving everything about the 1970s partnership between Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin. The simple beauty of voice, the master songwriting, the perfect backing band, the clear, unobtrusive recordings, and always Bernie's incredible lyrics. The day this album was released, Elton became an unstoppable force that conquered the music industry. Check out "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" and "Rocket Man." 1) Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (1967) Another tape that was included in the VW Camper. The van had a bunch of music tapes, and one was Sgt Pepper. I was too young to understand the sophistication of the music, but that was one of the many skills of The Beatles. They attracted listeners at every level, even little kids. I still feel that immediate connection to Sgt Pepper; now, I hear so much more. It's an album that changed the world and the world of music. Check out "Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds," "A Day In The Life," and "Fixing a Hole."
Rob De Luca of Spread Eagle, Sebastian Bach & UFO: 10 Albums That Changed My Life
Jim Suhler Interview
Jim Suhler: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview
Jon Anderson Albums
Complete List Of Jon Anderson Solo Albums And Songs
Bonnie Tyler Albums
Complete List Of Bonnie Tyler Albums And Discography
Samantha Fish Albums
Complete List Of Samantha Fish Albums And Discography
Blue October Albums
Complete List Of Blue October Albums And Discography
Classic Rock Bands Still Together But Overdue For A New Album
Classic Rock Bands Still Together But Overdue For A New Album
When Glam Bands Went Grunge In The 1990s
When Glam Bands Went Grunge In The 1990s
25 Most Famous Female American Singers Now!
25 Most Famous Female American Singers Now!
The Grateful Dead's Keyboard Players
A Look Back At The Grateful Dead’s Keyboard Players
The Chick Corea Elektric Band The Future Is Now' Album Review
The Chick Corea Elektric Band ‘The Future Is Now’ Album Review
In Harmony albums
A Look Back At Both ‘In Harmony’ Rock Star Children’s Albums
John Miles Rebel Albums Review
John Miles ‘Rebel’ Album Review
Aimee Mann’s Solo Debut Album "Whatever."
30 Year Look Back At Aimee Mann’s Solo Debut Album ‘Whatever’