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.”
The best writers—I’m talking the prosesmiths, the storytellers—understand what it means to have something “in there” in a given work. That is, it’s not spelled out, but it isn’t merely implied; it’s present, and when the reader sees it without being told to do so, it pops and matters all the more. There must have been a magic in the air at Christmas beyond the festal variety for Davis. For here he is, in the season of the Yule, at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, December 22-23, 1965. The Second Great Quintet has fully arrived, fully jelled. Learn how to listen to the music spread across these seven sets, and you’ll discover that the bop years are in there. Ditto the modal years. The died-and-went-to-heaven riffology of the electric years burbles. The populist chamber music worthy of the blue-collar clubgoer as well as the intellectual courtier of high-minded ideas. There are faint tremors of the funkified days to come. The shifting tectonic plates—subtly rendered—of the sonic maximalism that will follow a decade later in Japan. It’s a half-truth that a band is only as strong as its drummer—we can all think of top combos with a less-than-elite percussionist—but if that was a point you had to make as though your life depended upon it, turn to Tony Williams on this box set. Davis was the polestar who needn’t assert his star-ness; his assertion was always the music. Williams is the clean-up hitter of his lineup, but the trumpeter set the tables for him—provided, we might say, the opportunity that is waiting to be taken within this complex, but always inclusive, music. In the end, it’s only fitting to do what Davis himself so often did, and recapitulate our theme: other level.Learn more about The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 on Amazon!