Listening to the History of Jazz: Miles Davis, Pre-Electric (1958-67)

By KMHD Radio’s Mark Montesano

Last month’s column ended with Miles Davis’ “first great quintet” (John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and “Philly Joe” Jones). The next step was to add Cannonball Adderley for some powerful sextet sides like this one here…“Milestones” (1958):

Bill Evans soon collaborated with this group to produce one of the most popular jazz albums of all-time: Kind of Blue. Here’s a link to that entire landmark recording:

Aside from his cutting-edge small group sessions, Miles made a number of orchestral albums with Gil Evans who wrote the arrangements for his haunting horn solos. Here’s “Concierto De Aranjuez (Adagio),” one of the more famous recordings from the album Sketches of Spain

Though most of Davis’ most influential albums were made in the studio, to understand the depth and power of his music one had to see him in person. Here are two great live recordings from two of his less celebrated groups. The first is “If Were a Bell” from 1961’s “Live at the Blackhawk” (Hank Mobley, tenor sax; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Jimmy Cobb, drums). The excitement and sensitive interchange among the group members puts you right there where the creativity is happening. The solos are longer and the interplay more dynamic. This is ‘live’ jazz. Especially pay attention to the call and response between Miles and his pianist, Wynton Kelly; one of the great piano accompanists in jazz history:

Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter.

Three years later with a wholly new group (George Coleman, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; and Tony Williams, drums) he recorded this benefit concert, Live 1964. His group reached new heights of creative interaction on a song he’d played many times, “My Funny Valentine”:

The missing piece for Miles’ “Second Great Quintet” was Wayne Shorter. When Wayne finally joined the group he brought his adventurous spirit to playing saxophone and composition. Miles wanted to abandon playing standards and focus more on cutting edge innovations that his new, young group of musicians were exploring. “E.S.P.” was the first studio recording recorded documenting this new direction. Here’s that album’s title track:

With this group, Davis took a new interest in exploring rhythm. He once claimed that his young drummer, Tony Williams—one of the most innovative drummers of his generation—was the real leader of his group. Eventually Miles would steer his groups into rock and R&B rhythms and abandon ‘’straight ahead’ jazz.  This particular piece, “Freedom Jazz Dance” from the Miles Smiles opus, however, is a harbinger of things to come rhythmically. Listen to how Tony Williams inserts a hint of a backbeat on this otherwise jazz sounding composition by Eddie Harris (also known for his use of rhythm and blues influence into jazz):

On one of his last traditional jazz albums before the rock-influenced “In a Silent Way” (1969) was Neferititi (1967).  The title song, cuts Tony Williams loose to improvise continually while the horns played the melody over and over as if to announce how rhythm had now become central:

After this album Miles would insist that his groups delve deeper and deeper into electronics and dance rhythms to greater and greater criticism by those who felt that he had abandoned them and jazz. He didn’t care. Throughout his career, the urge to continually create something new was all that mattered.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.