Special Guest: John McLaughlin: McLaughlin started his career off as a 19 year old trailblazing guitar master, blowing away audiences just as the British blues was exploding on the scene. Bands like Cream and the Yardbirds were just starting to take shape, and guitarists like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimi Hendrix were just starting out and hoping to cut their teeth. My next guest had a different calling, going on a different tangent and taking his sound away from the blues-rock world of guitar hooks and classic rock solos and instead schooling himself on some of the most beautiful but also technically challenging music styles known in music. He delved into playing styles like flamenco guitar with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia; world music with people like Carlos Santana and Trilok Gurtu, and straight ahead jazz with too many jazz legends to mention. John McLaughlin was a major player in helping take jazz on one of most extreme and interesting rides ever with the sub-genre ‘jazz fusion.’ He is so highly respected that Miles Davis immortalized him in two songs, one of them on his landmark album, Bitches Brew, with the honorarily titled “John McLaughlin.” Currently, McLaughlin and his band, The 4th Dimension, have a brand new album out called “Now Here This” an album about which McLaughlin has been quoted as saying “It’s the best thing I ever did, from the beginning until today.” In this podcast we talk about the elder blues statesman Alexis Korner and his effect on the British Blues world, John McLaughlin’s days with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce previous to the formation of their band Cream, we also get into anecdotes with Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, the album Emergency!, Tony Williams, Larry Young, Joey DeFrancesco, Elvin Jones, John Mayall and finish off with the story of how Miles Davis came to write the song titled “John McLaughlin.”
Going Thru a Miles Davis collection
Getting into Miles Davis’ music for the first time can be a daunting undertaking. First off, he released many records, and many of them groundbreaking. He also changed his style quite dramatically at different time periods in his career, so where to start, and what to look for can be a little overwhelming. Of course, there are the albums that must be in the collection which are well known and loved by everyone and need to be there to say that they’re into Miles Davis, according to aficionados. Then there are albums that are not necessarily must-haves but come down to being just as good, or very close to just as good, and ones that the neophyte would do better to try after they’ve gained some familiarity into his music. Of course, it can all come down to a matter of opinion, but take the advice from those who have gone through it and are willing to impart what they’ve found.
For those who get it in their blood, rich appreciation takes hold, it gets to be a hunger, and later, after having spent hours upon hours savouring every nuance and note, the albums get to be second nature and fans couldn’t imagine being without the albums in their collection. For the music fan, it truly becomes a thing of beauty. But for the beginner, all these different albums and musical periods can be hard to sort through. The good news is, that for those starting out, Davis may be the most accessible jazz artist – easier to get into than later period John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy or say Ornette Coleman.
For myself, I have never come across a Miles Davis record that I didn’t like.
Here is a small sample of Davis albums. Though most fans categorize Davis’ collection according to time periods; I personally separate Davis’ playing into tempos to put on according to my mood. I have sorted this list with both categorizations in mind. If you’re new to it, try it out; I hope it broadens your horizon.
Generally Davis’ playing during this period tends to be of a quick and agile straight ahead jazz. All of it is pretty accessible and sound like “Jazz” in a traditional sense.
Birth of Cool (Released in 1957) (Tempo : Mid-slow)
This is Miles Davis in a big band setting and is notable for among other things, one being the first time he worked with arranger Gil Evans. Though released in 1957, the recordings themselves actually date from 1949 and 1950. This pivotal album was Miles Davis’ first big change to the jazz world – ushering in the switch from Bebop Jazz, playing with Charlie Parker in these years, to what became to be known as “cool jazz” (in no small part because of this monumental album.) In short, a great album that goes well with any occasion.
‘Round About Midnight (Released in 1957) (Tempo: mixed – Slow and Quick tracks)
A phenomenal record. After recording for smaller labels like Prestige, Davis decided to move to Columbia Records to record ‘Round About Midnight (his first album in a long career with the label). Considered his first great quintet, the album has John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. They really clicked on this album.
Bags Groove (1957) (Tempo: Mid to Quick)
Although this it a lot of people’s favourite record; I personally just put this record on when I feel like changing it up and listen to a Miles Davis record I haven’t heard in a while. The players on this album are an all-star roster playing at their best.
Milestones (1958) (Tempo: Quick)
Another straight ahead jazz style record and one that I reach for more often than any other of this time period; in short one of his best.
Ascenseur Pour L’echafaud (1958) (Tempo: Very slow)
This has to be one of Davis’ easiest records to listen to, and one that gets frequent play. While touring Europe, Davis decided to record a soundtrack (Ascenseur Pour L’echafaud) – it doesn’t have any star players on it apart from Davis himself, but it’s a great album. It has a cool minimalist quality to it. The only problem with this record is that it’s hard to find. Get it if you see it.
Generally marked by his work with Gil Evans; these are some of his most loved and sought after records.
Kind of Blue (1959) (Tempo: Mid)
Maybe the most loved Jazz record of all time. For me what differentiates this from his other records is the inclusion of Bill Evans. Not to say that Evans was the star, but I just think that he mixed really well with Davis, John Coltrane and the rest of the band.
Sketches of Spain (1960) (Tempo: Low to Mid)
A great collaboration between Gil Evans and Miles Davis that is set to Spanish folk tunes; a much loved Miles Davis record. Although I rarely put it on myself.
At Carnegie Hall (1961) (Tempo: Quick)
Having heard Kind of Blue so often, it took me a while to get into the rendition of “So What” and the other classic tunes that Davis plays with orchestration. If you find you have the same difficulty, my advice is to not give up on it; you will most likely fall in love with it after some time.
This album rings in his second great quintet and consists of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Each member of this band have gone on to change jazz in their own unique way.
Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965) (Tempo: Quick and Agile)
Recorded at a club called Plugged Nickel in Chicago 1965; this stuff is legendary. I play this a lot.
For some, this was where jazz stopped being jazz and turned into a free-for-all with musicians focused only onto what they were doing individually. I think less people hold this opinion in general these days; that said, this stuff isn’t for everyone. Miles Davis was one of the first to plug in and has some of the most extreme examples of “Jazz-Fusion.”
In a Silent Way (1969) (Tempo: Ultra slow)
Albums don`t come any better than this one. The first record that John McLaughlin played on – this record is one of the most relaxing and awe-inspiring records in my collection.
Bitches Brew (1970) (Tempo: Slow to Mid)
This is where the rubber hits the road as far as electric instruments and jazz being combined. This is a record that I didn’t originally warm up to but is now one of my favorite albums of all time. If I had one complaint it would be that the `Complete Bitches Brew` needs to be easier to find and cost much less on vinyl.
Post Retirement Period
After releasing “On the Corner,” Davis called it quits (for five years). After reading his autobiography, I think this wasn’t the healthiest move on his part. Luckily, he released some stuff from the vaults during this time period and eventually came out of retirement. Though he didn’t bring out any career changing albums, for me, he still brought out some good stuff.
Agharta (1975) (Tempo: Funky/Crazy)
Recorded February 1, 1975 in Japan, Agharta (the afternoon set) was part of a two part live release (the evening set was also released; called Pangaea). Davis has never been more crazy, wild or unapologetically funky than he was here. In fact, he was so wild that critics at the time were accusing him of not acting his age and borrowing too much from Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown. What do critics know. On this album, the band is absolutely stellar and the music is totally moving. Although it’s definitely not the album to start with. Not for a gentle immersion anyway.
Tutu (1986) (Tempo: Mellow/Smooth with an 80’s flair)
Once you get past the dated 80’s drum machines and synthesizers sounds and settle into what’s being played, you will realize that this is a great record. No, this is not as good as “In a Silent Way” or “Kind of Blue,” but it’s still a great Miles Davis record.
— Jason Hoffer
Next week: Steve Albini
Plus a bonus interview with Brett Anderson (of the Stripminers and the Donnas)