“He Loved Him Madly” encapsulates one of my favorite things about Miles, which is that he’s so intentional with everything. Every note and every change that’s happening with the rhythm section matters to how it feels collectively, with this simple slow groove that’s almost 30 minutes long. And then in the last section, you get a little more edge — that grittier, funkier side that comes out — and it’s just the most incredible evolution. For anyone that’s not as familiar with Davis’s work, I think it would be rewarding to just sit with the evolution of this one song, sit with the intention and the patience that it takes to create something like this.
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Tony Bolden, Black Studies scholar
While listening recently to Maurice White playing drums on “The Mighty Quinn,” Ramsey Lewis’s 1968 cover of the Bob Dylan classic made popular by Manfred Mann, I heard inklings of jazz-funk. (Of course, White became better known as the founder and lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire.) However, Miles Davis’s 1971 album “Jack Johnson” is an early example of genuine jazz-funk. Recorded in 1970, “Jack Johnson” features Davis’s characteristically pensive sound on trumpet, while Michael Henderson’s head-nodding bass lines are classic funk. Also notable are John McLaughlin’s bluesy licks on guitar and the actor Brock Peters’s interpretation of Jack Johnson’s unreconstructed Blackness (heard in a voice-over at the end of the 25-minute “Yesternow”). The album foreshadows Davis’s increasing fascination with funk and its broader impact on Black music and culture in the 1970s.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
Hear me out on this. With Davis’s 1980s stuff, there will always be things you need to get over. Let’s call it the “Law & Order”-theme aesthetic, for short, and leave it at that. But if some of the choices on “Hannibal” can feel superficial (Marcus Miller’s slap-happy bass, the strings-adjacent synth sound, the misfit steel pan), they also make the track’s major achievement all the more impressive: It preserves the sense of darkness and danger that has always run just below the surface through Davis’s best work. You can’t miss how tightly plotted and produced this tune is — it’s far from his sprawling funk jams of the 1970s — but it still bristles and skulks mysteriously. You can’t pin it down. “Hannibal” comes from “Amandla,” a masterful 1989 LP whose name, meaning “power” in Zulu, expressed solidarity with the revolutionaries fighting apartheid in South Africa. Let your expectations go, and it’ll win you over.
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Harmony Holiday, poet
Miles Davis is the “hero with a thousand faces,” the one Joseph Campbell reveals as the muse of all myths and legends that arrive in his realm, beyond the West, beyond life and afterlife, beyond evil and virtue, what Ellington might call “beyond category.” On the sessions that would become his album “Water Babies” (1976), he gave us two of those faces, halved to the precision of divine union and returning as one. “Two Faced” as in Gemini, along with fellow heroes who attempt to pierce the electroacoustic farce like Kendrick Lamar, like Tupac, like Ye — like stars, like years, like numerals. At times they draw their own blood in search of sound’s life force. It makes logical sense that this album, composed of outtakes from “Nefertiti” and “In a Silent Way,” would also harbor what I believe is one of the only autobiographical moments in Miles’s catalog. He tells on himself for the 18-minute relay between ballad and blues, upbeat and adagio. He admits the excess of vision that he cannot help, retraces it slowly, retracts it with urgency, back and forth in perfect and signature ambivalence. He once said he played ballads so well he had to stop playing them, to get better, or to master himself. On “Two Faced,” recorded in 1968, he blurs a ballad so well you think he succeeded; he hides his restrained saunter in the piano’s frenetic sprint. He takes himself back. In a bit of humor, the album also has a song called “Capricorn.” He knows his foils. He knows himself.
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Graham Haynes, trumpeter
I remember something Miles said in an interview, right around the time this piece was released: “Don’t write about the music. The music speaks for itself!” I’ve always agreed with this opinion, particularly with Miles’s music and particularly from this period. So, with that in mind, I’m hoping that Miles doesn’t get too angry with me here, wherever he is. “Lonely Fire” is a beautiful piece of music. The performance is as fresh today as it was in 1974, when it was released. The orchestration is something that classes in conservatories need to make a part of their curriculums. The song is essentially a sketch. The melody is played by Miles several times, then Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, then Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, then back to Miles, who keeps embellishing more. There are no solos. In that way it is also like the Wayne Shorter piece “Nefertiti,” because there are no “solos,” only the melody, over and over with embellishments. The choice of colors with the rhythm section is stellar, with sitar, tamboura, Fender Rhodes piano, bass, drums and percussion. Miles’s sound here is hauntingly beautiful. In an interview Greg Tate did with Wayne Shorter several years ago, Wayne referred to Miles’s trumpet sound as “Excalibur.” Here we see why. This music is beyond any words I can think to give it. I would give it 10 stars!
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David Renard, Times senior editor
It’s a little perverse to choose a song where Miles Davis plays the organ, not the trumpet. That alone would set “Rated X” apart, even on an album (“Get Up With It”) brimming with experiments and stylistic shifts. But “Rated X” delivers a singular jolt, one of those “this was recorded in which decade?” moments. (It’s the ’70s.) The drums sound more programmed than played — crisp and frantically precise, completely modern — and they’re both a backbone and a destabilizing force, cutting off abruptly into silence and pulling the rug out from under the droning organ, only to drop back in just as quickly. Propelled by galloping bass and heavily wah-wah’d guitar, the track sets a mood that’s anxious and tense but exhilarating, an unsettling rush into the future.