If you want to trace the evolution of recorded music from 1950 to the turn of the millennium, you’re best off inspecting the wardrobe of Miles Davis. After blowing his horn with an array of bebop outfits in the late ’40s, the jazz pioneer embraced the intellectual seriousness of Igor Stravinsky, adopting the composer’s emphasis on rhythm and dissonance as well as his penchant for well-tailored black suits. By the late ’60s, and with the release of Bitches Brew, however, Davis was performing alongside rock guitarists, sporting silk shirts and wearing his hair long. His incessant musical evolution was all-encompassing, altering every aspect of his craft – right down to the shoes on his feet.
“I have to change; it’s like a curse,” Davis once said. This restlessness, this insatiable hunger, is irresistible to musicians looking to push the boundaries. Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave, John Lydon, Joni Mitchell, Damon Albarn, Paul Weller, Patti Smith, Mike Patton, Wayne Coyne, Jason Pierce, Jerry Garcia, The Band, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Santana, Steppenwolf, Brian Eno, Portishead, Credence Clearwater Revival, Prince, David Byrne, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, and Nina Simone: all have discussed their love of Davis and his work, with many finding inspiration in the murky depths of his chameleonic discography.
Iggy Pop is especially fond of Davis, which comes as something of a surprise considering his legacy. Speaking to The Quietus, Pop recalled discovering his work when he was still spongy enough to appreciate it, dissect it and weave it into his own practice. “25 years ago, more or less, I found Sketches Of Spain and Jack Johnson on vinyl in a no-frills used record shop in NYC. I paid less than $5 for the two. They have been my inspiring companions ever since. The one tears me apart, and the other puts me back together.”
Recorded between 1960 and 1971, Sketches of Spain and A Tribute to Jack Johnson capture Davis in a moment of transformation. His hunger for new pastures is abundantly apparent in the globe-trotting explorations of Sketches, the creation of which came shortly after Davis’ attended a performance by Flamenco dancer Roberto Iglesias. A few days later, the trumpeter travelled to Colony Records in New York and bought every single flamenco record he could find.
Recorded only a couple of years later, A Tribute to Jack Johnson offers something vastly different. Released in 1971, just a year after Bitches Brew hit the shelves, it opens with jabs of electrified blues guitar, over which layers of bebop trumpet and psych-tinged organ are slowly added, giving birth to a swirling churn of sonic influences. Sketches and Jack Johnson are great choices for anyone unfamiliar with Davis’ career. Far more accessible than the impenetrable modal jazz on The Birth of the Cool, they remind us just how rapid Davis’ musical evolution was.
Listen to the magic of Miles Davis below.