I was recently asked by the French journalist Franck Médioni to answer some questions for a book he is putting together featuring musicians’ thoughts on Miles Davis. (He did something similar for a John Coltrane book a few years ago, hopefully an English translation of both will come along some day.) With all the writing I’ve done on this blog about various brass folks, it surprised me to realize I haven’t written much about Miles. Of course, it’s hard to find anything new to say about one of the most discussed figures in modern music, but it’s equally hard to ignore how profound his influence was on me (and most other trumpet or cornet players I can think of). So with Franck’s permission, I’ve decided to post our Q&A here, along with a tasty Miles youtube treat (where he’s playing a very cornet-looking flugelhorn!).
When and how did you discover Miles’ music?
As a young trumpet player, I was always aware of Miles as the most “famous” person on the instrument, but I didn’t really discover his music until I was 14 or 15. I remember the moment very distinctly…I was walking home from school one evening on a snowy winter night. I had bought a copy of In a Silent Way and was listening to it on my walkman, and I became totally entranced. That night, gliding through the snow, hearing the music in a deeper way than I had ever heard music before, was the moment I knew I wanted to become a musician. I walked around my neighborhood for hours, just turning the cassette over and over. From then on I was hooked.
Your favorite albums by Miles?
Almost an impossible question! Partly for the story above, and partly because it’s a perfect record, In a Silent Way is at the top of my list.
For early Miles, And the Modern Jazz Giants. The tension between Miles and Monk is palpable but it makes some incredible music.
I have to pick one of the Gil Evans recordings, and I’d say Sketches of Spain. The other ones probably have hipper music and arrangements, but Miles’ sound on this one is so naked and powerful.
For the Coltrane period, as great as the studio albums are, my favorites are some of the bootlegs from their 1960 tour (Copenhagen and Stockholm). The rhythm section is burning, Coltrane is stretching so far, and Miles is so confident on top of everything.
For the classic 60s quintet, again I love the studio albums but I’m going to pick a live one: The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965. I love it almost because Miles’ chops weren’t at their best. I think he had just recovered from an illness, and his sound is really raw, almost like Don Cherry at times, but the way he strategically uses what he has was a real lesson for me. And this is some of my favorite Wayne Shorter playing on record.
Then for the electric music, I’d say Bitches Brew and Agharta, bookending his 70s output. Bitches Brew is the ultimate studio product of the era, while Agharta is wonderfully messy and live, but both have tremendous intensity.
What about his sound?
For me personally, sound (the actual quality of sound and timbre) is the element of music I most prioritize and play with the most as an improviser, and Miles was a huge influence in that for me. While obviously rhythm, melody, harmony are all important, none of it matters if the sound you’re creating isn’t beautiful. The way Miles could make a statement with just one note was one of the things that taught me that. His entrance in Saeta, on Sketches of Spain, for instance; he tells a whole story in that first note.
Miles and the flugelhorn…
As far as I know, Miles only played flugel on those Gil Evans recordings, and I think he played it with a trumpet mouthpiece. But that was an inspired choice for those recordings, and illustrates how much both Gil and Miles thought about timbre…the combination of Miles on the flugelhorn and the orchestra with tuba and woodwinds and such really created a unique blend.
Miles the leader…
Miles proved bandleading was a compositional device. Whether or not he was writing the tunes, his personality dominated the music. Every choice, from who’s in the band, to what song to play, to who solos first, becomes a compositional choice, and Miles exploited that as well as anybody. Miles and Ellington are two of the masters of that, shaping the context of the sound through their leadership.
What kind of relationship do you have with Miles’ legacy?
Since the music I make (which is more on the experimental end of the spectrum) is somewhat removed from the majority of Miles’ work, I don’t feel any particular weight from his legacy. In some ways, knowing how complex a person he could be, I’m glad I never met him in person, so I can just draw inspiration from his music without any baggage. (Sometimes it is much better to have some distance from one’s heroes.) And I know I’m never going to be a fraction as cool or well-dressed as him, so I don’t have to worry about that either!
Was it difficult for you, after Miles, to find your own voice?
I’m a pretty terrible mimic, so I’ve never had to work “not” to sound like anybody. In fact, I remember one time when I was still in college; I was playing with an electric band, and without telling anyone, one night I decided to let myself play as much like 70s Miles as possible, try and use his licks, attacks, etc. After the gig, the keyboardist came up to me and said, “Man, one of the things I like about your playing, is you’re the only trumpet player I know who doesn’t sound anything like Miles!” So I guess I failed so spectacularly at imitation, I came up with my own sound.
How did he influence you?
As I explain above, his influence is more on how I conceive of sound, and how I want to lead a band, than any specific musical structures. In addition, the fact that he kept reinventing his music for over forty years, always pushing for something new, is a huge inspiration. And in making the switch from trumpet to cornet; even though Miles never played cornet, on that instrument I felt I could get closer the vocal kind of sound Miles perfected.
According to you, what does Miles represent in the history of jazz music? (Miles as the Picasso of jazz, in perpetual movement…)
One of the issues I have with the standard histories of jazz is they too often portray the music as a series of great individuals, rather than a collection of communities that collaborated and exchanged ideas in moving the music forward. Because Miles had such an exceptionally strong personality, he becomes the poster-boy for this misleading “great man” theory of jazz, when in fact, I think one of his geniuses was in collaboration, in taking the pulse of a musical climate and producing something definitive. For me, he is the ultimate example of how much creative music you can make by having open ears, responding the new ideas in any genre of music, inviting in new partners, avoiding becoming too attached to “style”. While he is similar to Picasso in having so many artistic evolutions in a long career (and similar in gaining an unprecedented amount of celebrity for artists in any field), where Picasso painted his canvasses by himself, Miles knew how to incorporate others to help him create the work.
What does Miles represent for you?
For me, the core principles of jazz and creative music are the balance of composition and improvisation, the focus on developing an individual voice in a collaborative setting, the quest for new forms and structural innovations, and the practice of compositional inspiration emerging from personal instrumental investigation. Miles is someone who defined these principles, and represents their potential when explored on the highest level.
Do you think often about him?
He’s someone I think about almost every time I put my horn to my face. He’s one of the primary reasons I got into music and is probably the person I’ve listened to the most in my lifetime, especially in my formative years. He’s one of those musicians that is part of my DNA…even when the music I make sounds nothing like him (in fact, when much of the time he’d probably hate it).
When you think about him, what kind of image do you have in mind?
Miles was a photogenic and fashionable guy, and there are so many classic images of him in action. I have a great blue on black poster of the cover of Round About Midnight that’s been hanging on my walls since I was a teenager. But honestly, when I think about him, I don’t see him so much as hear him. That sound: naked, expressive, and so beautifully human.