Weighing in on Frank Sinatra, critic Gary Giddins concluded: "The generosity he wasn't always able to summon in life is the very marrow of his gift to music."
The same appraisal could be tacked onto the legacy of Miles Davis. Davis' public persona and self-made image always hinged on the enormous chip he wore firmly on his shoulder. By some accounts, he was an angry, aloof racist. His street-tough posturing -- which was the worst part of his popular autobiography Miles -- flew in the face of his privileged upbringing. And when committed to the page it sounded as hollow as Ziggy Marley's phony Rasta patois.
Make no mistake, Davis' book was revealing, but in all the unintentional ways. The legendary trumpet player came off as shallow, paranoid and petty. Worst of all, his unapologetic recitals of the abuse he dished to the women in his life -- particularly his long-suffering wife, Francis -- confirmed his stature as a misogynistic bully.
Indeed the nicest thing Davis ever did for Francis was to retool an old nursery rhyme into a lovely tribute titled "Fran Dance." Like Sinatra -- another prick of the first order -- Davis was at his best in his music and he was at his very best musically when playing the role of self-deprecating romantic, reworking ballads as if they were his very own private valentines.
Those are the moments that shine the brightest in a slew of recordings being reissued this year by Columbia Legacy in a nod to what would have been Davis' 75th birthday.
Witness two long-absent Davis albums that are once again available in their original formats: Jazz at the Plaza and At Newport. Both are from 1958 and document Davis fronting his most highly regarded band, the ensemble of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chamber and Jimmy Cobb.
The discs are dominated by muscular hard bop workouts. The sextet attacks "Ah-Leu-Cha," Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" and two takes of "Straight, No Chaser" with no quarter. But it's the tranquil ballads -- Plaza's "My Funny Valentine" and Newport's "Fran Dance" -- that steal the shows. Adderly's throaty reed work digs a deep groove around Davis' delicate solos on the latter. And on the former, both sax stars sit out while Davis and Evans transform the standard into a moody, uneasy piece of aural noir.
Two more rereleases, 'Round About Midnight and Milestones, mark Davis' first albums for the label, and both are rightly considered classics. Midnight made for a particularly solid debut for the label, sans Adderley and with Red Garland at the piano. A murky, introverted feel hangs over the session, even darkening the upbeat numbers. The mood matches the disc's famed cover shot of a withdrawn Davis bathed in harsh red stage light. Newly included on the CD is a bang-up rendition of Jackie McLean's "Little Melonae."
Milestones' reputation looms large among Davis fans, perhaps a bit too large. The album deserves high marks for the sinister vein Davis uncovers in Richard Carpenter's "Walkin'" and on the 13-minute "Sid's Ahead," but "Billy Boy" still sounds showy and out of place.
Columbia-Legacy deserves points for its ambitious The Essential Miles Davis. In what could have been a case of biting off more than it could chew, Essential manages to fit into a two-CD package a pretty respectable summary of 40 years' worth of dynamic music.
The collection draws on work Davis did for seven labels in all. It opens with a glimpse of his awkward support of Charlie Parker on 1945's "Now's the Time," and then seamlessly glides through Davis' years as a band leader. It touches on his Prestige and Blue Note days, as well as his famed Coltrane collaborations. It also samples from his efforts with Gil Evans. One welcome and unexpected inclusion is "Generique" from the soundtrack to L'Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud, a rare 1957 recording that certainly deserves a wider audience.
Disc Two opens with another rendition of "My Funny Valentine." This one, from 1964, is even more searching than the 1958 take. Davis fronts a skeleton crew of the talent that would surround him throughout the 1960s. The disc weaves through the many changes Davis would undergo during the decade, and even when it finally reaches the menacing, electronic "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," it still makes perfect sense.
Included are choice cuts from Live-Evil and We Want Miles, as well as Davis' version of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" -- which may have been the trumpeter's last great cover.
Of course there are fans who will never get that far on the disc. When Davis made the move to Sly Stone-influenced funk in the late 1960s, he nearly turned his back on sentimental ballads entirely, and it was more than many could stand. Forty years later, little has changed. Even the recent PBS opus Jazz gave up on Davis at that point in his career. Other giants in the series -- Armstrong, Holiday, Ellington -- were given sentimental send-offs by the filmmakers when they finally slept the Big Sleep. Not Davis. He plugged in and disappeared from sight, cast out of the documentary like a prodigal son.
It's unfortunate, because as Live at the Fillmore East demonstrates, Davis knew exactly what he was doing when he made his controversial move to so-called fusion jazz. Fillmore captures him leading one of his finest electric bands, namely Chick Corea on piano, Wayne Shorter on reeds and Jack DeJohnette at the drums.
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Previously unreleased, the two-disc set sparks with ragged intensity. Davis was opening for rockers Steve Miller and Neil Young at the famed New York venue, and no doubt the kids in the audience knew nothing of him except, perhaps, their parents' copies of Sketches of Spain. Davis must have known what he was up against, because he comes out charging and never lets up.
The live take of "Spanish Key" delivers diabolical funk, and the two unrefined versions of "It's About That Time," which close both sets, bear little resemblance to the tranquil reading the song was given at the end of In a Silent Way. Tranquillity, it seemed, along with moody romanticism, was gone forever at this point. From here on out, Davis played his Prince of Darkness role to the hilt.
Now and then, though, the old Davis slipped through. Keith Jarrett recalled a story in which an early-1970s Davis quietly slid into "Stella by Starlight" on a bandstand one night while he was fronting one of his Motown-powered fusion bands. Jarrett told how the musicians were dumbfounded and had no idea what the trumpeter was up to. The moment of confusion quickly passed. Later, with tears in his eyes, Davis told Jarrett he couldn't play standards anymore because he loved to play them too much.
Thankfully, on this batch of releases, the tender Miles Davis -- along with the more strident latter-day musician -- is not given such short shrift.