Wow. Just wow. This is Miles Davis at that stratospheric peak he seems to ride every few albums, the ones with mountains of praise written about them over the decades. For some reason it’s far less revered than the likes of Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, and On The Corner, but it’s just as important to his development as an artist and just as incredible of a listen for jazz fans today.
I’ve been a Miles Davis fan for nearly half my life, but I only got around to Miles Smiles sometime last year. The reason I was so tardy is the fact that the album sits in an uneasy space between his ultra-popular earlier work and his epochal fusion era, buried in a transitional period without a catchy name. It just is. Appropriately for this nameless space, the style here shrugs off easy labeling, reaching deep into a freshly exploratory bag of tricks that hints at the big bang soon to come. There are flashes of experimental colors that preview the radical shifts of the fusion era, yet the band stays locked into recognizable grooves and playful melodies for the most part.
Footprints, from the middle of the album, is a perfect example of the magic happening here.
This adventurous tone was made possible by the practiced interplay of the second great quintet, at this point a couple years into recording together. The band, including Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on keys, Ron Carter on bass, and the brilliant Tony Williams on percussion, was somehow even more future-star-packed than its precursor. They comprised one of the most legendary jazz lineups in the history of the medium and at this point, they were burning their very brightest.
The explosive talent interlocked perfectly, allowing the band to express free jazz ideas without ever giving fully into the burgeoning style. Instead, they dip into the weirdness like a hawk skimming over a lake, plucking only the freshest catches at perfect moments. It makes for thrilling listening, especially for those used to the more approachable material Davis had been releasing up to the mid-1960s.
This era, which also produced E.S.P., Nefertiti, and Sorcerer, absolutely peaked with Miles Smiles for a number of reasons. For me, the most important is that this is the exact point where Davis’ earlier pop-friendly bop sound meshed best with his newfound desire to spin out into the fringes of jazz as it was known at the time. It’s the perfect balance of catchy warmth and nervy exploration, inviting new listeners in with instant hooks, leading them deep over their heads before they know what’s happening.
Soon after this album, Miles Davis made a quantum leap with In A Silent Way (one of the 32 best ambient albums of all time in my opinion), signifying a revolutionary change in sound that would lead forever down a one way road. From my perch in the year 2017, I can peer back down that road and see these hot moments, weird flashes, seeds sprinkled throughout Miles Smiles – the seeds that would grow into fusion, funk, and even primordial hip-hop in the coming decade. It’s all there, wrapped in an unassuming package.
I dedicate this post to my newborn son, Miles. He wasn’t specifically named after Davis, but my love for the mercurial artist no doubt played a part. This album has been on my mind ever since, because his mother keeps saying that Miles smiles. He might be too young to do it on purpose, but it sure is happening. I couldn’t ask for more pleasant inspiration to listen to a favorite album. I hope you give it a try. It’s on Spotify and all the other services, and there’s a nice, recent vinyl reissue out there, too.