Recently I was at a café wrapping up a day by reading Edwardian ghost stories, bored by the music on the sound system and not expecting much, when Miles Davis’ “Summertime” from the Porgy and Bess album began to play. I had a single, immediate thought: “Other level.” It only takes a few notes, with a musician such as Davis, to know what you’re hearing isn’t like anything else you might hear. Different degree of command, authority, talent.
We’re sometimes more apt to notice something like this when we’re out and about in the presence of others. It’s the same as when you watch a movie with someone, and you think, “Hmmm, I hadn’t really discerned what they were doing in this scene before.” Senses sharpen.
So it went with those who were fortunate to see the Dark Magus live in concert, let alone the especially lucky ones who caught him in his prime, which stretched longer than that of any other jazz musician. That stretching involved phases that both contrasted and, paradoxically, interlocked, such that Davis is the rare artist who draws deep devotees of both his entire career and single eras within that career.
Miles would have happily told you he was the king of many things—influence and innovation foremost among them—but I wonder if his shifting styles, documented so capably on studio dates, have caused us to overlook his reign as the man with the finest clutch of live LPs in jazz history. Who else could it be? You could, if you were of a mind, disregard the studio output and care solely, and fervidly, about his in-person discography. Maybe take a year and say, “Okay, for these next 12 months, I will spin only the live material! It shall be my all-consuming deep dive!”
Trust me, I hear you. That’s not a bad idea. I’d suggest imagining that you’re at the venue in question, hearing Davis alongside others who are also hearing him. Again, those senses sharpen. But where to begin, right? Is the amount of material not overwhelming?
First, here’s a tip that has served me well, mostly because it’s true: You can’t go wrong with any of it. Even when it doesn’t outright “work” as art, it works as entertainment. Documentation of a genius in flux. Changing epochs. World-class playing. Top-tier bandleading. A noble experiment. Whatever it may be. A combo.
But for a primer, we’re going to hit you with a list. The blending of the entertainment, the innovation, the art, and that Miles-ian quality where you’re awed and think he can’t go any higher, any realer, before he does, in the next bar, and then higher and realer again. I think that this list of the 10 best live Miles Davis recordings—confining ourselves to whole records or dates—would cause the man himself to say, “Other level.”
Sacrilege! Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Dude has this remarkable—and it is remarkable—collection of March 1960 recordings from Europe in the 10 spot. Crazy. Not as crazy as it might seem at first blush. You’ll note a theme as we go along: the sonic integration of Davis’ bands. That speaks to his skills not just as a trumpeter, but as an artist who honed the sound design of his ensemble from the stage. Chops-wise, Davis and Coltrane are both in peak periods here. But Coltrane wanted to leave, and you can tell. He’s dynamic, but his version of dynamic knocks the unit out of kilter. To Davis’ credit, he lets the tenor saxophonist have his head, and these recordings become a celebration of individuality gone feral. This is the raw power of the Stooges, but with better technique. It’s the scream of the Munch figure. It’s a 1985 Jesus and Mary Chain concert without the feedback and at many times the length. I wouldn’t say the music is over-busy, but it flirts with it. Miles at his best controls sonic space. Here, via Trane, it gets the better of him, to a degree. But it’s a cool degree, and Davis was artfully accommodating.