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JazzTimes 10: Miles Davis’ Live Albums

Ranking the Dark Prince’s finest recorded moments on stage

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Miles Davis in 1973
Miles Davis in 1973 (photo: Urve Kuusik/Sony Music Archives)

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.”

9. Birdland 1951 (Blue Note, 2004)

9. <i>Birdland 1951</i> (Blue Note, 2004)

Ah, what might have been. I find myself saying that often with Davis, before realizing that what might have been actually was, only fleetingly, before this musical shape-shifter seized upon something new. These mid-century airshots posit Davis as a tight bopper, both concise and fast. Nimble, clean. He’s playing with guys you wouldn’t associate him with: Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and J.J. Johnson, and he makes it work with each. Shades of his ability—at this early date—to pull ostensibly disparate musicians together to fit his vision.

Learn more about Birdland 1951 on Amazon!

JazzTimes 10: Fusion After Bitches Brew

Originally Published

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature, current events—for a wide range of publications, and talks regularly on radio and podcasts. His most recent books are an entry in the 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, a volume about the 1951 film Scrooge as the ultimate work of cinematic terror, and the story collection, If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. Find him on the web at (where he maintains the unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.