Miles Smiles Upon You and Everything Around You
by Mateo Rispoli
A peculiar melody bursts from the free-flowing time signatures and Miles Davis’s digits dance on the valve stem of his trumpet. Tony Williams’ right arm keeps an unsteady meter on the ride cymbal while his left drops bombs, almost as to leave craters on the track. Bassist Ron Carter has been walking at a brisk enough pace to circle the block two times over. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter waits in silence, but his patience is not enough to hold him back from sporadic interjections. There is an ever-present unrest that lies in wake between the staves of Miles Smiles, the second studio recording from a 41-year-old Miles Davis, and his new quintet of young faces. Davis hired Williams when he was only 17, Shorter at 21, Hancock at 23, and Carter at 24, taking a gamble on some perhaps less jaded ears. While their journeys were just starting, Miles was in a completely different place. The exuberance bursting from the fresh minds of the new band in amalgam with Miles’ sharply honed and august level of compositional and improvisational prowess would result in one of the most jagged yet exhilarating albums in the Prince of Darkness’s career.
The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant is known among the group’s fans for dubbing the period after their peak their “Imperial Phase.” Critic Tom Ewing expanded upon this in a 2010 dissection of the concept for Pitchfork. His main assertion is that “you need three things for an imperial phase: command, permission, and self-definition;” Miles had the former and latter in droves. Coming off of what is considered to be his magnum opus (and the best selling jazz record of all time to this day) Kind of Blue (1959) as well as his first trio of albums that placed outside of the jazz charts, there was no doubt of his prestigious stature in the scene. His sound had already been completely altered twice before, transitioning from swing to bebop, bebop to cool, cool to hard bop, and now hard bop to something a little freer. His permission, while among his fervent acolytes was at an all time high, the general public’s interest was waning, demonstrated via soft sales for 1965’s “E.S.P.,” the album that followed those which charted and a notably less adventurous effort. Miles was aging out of what would be considered his prime years. This was the end of his imperial phase. He knew it was time to embark on yet another sonic journey to the boundaries of the genre.
Miles Smiles was constructed at a time of great trouble in Miles’ life. Closely following a failed hip replacement, liver infection, continued struggles with alcoholism, and the death of his parents, the project paints a veneer of jest over the name of the album as well as its accompanying cropped photo of Miles’, well, smile. It’s hard to not see the influence of such events in the often sardonic tones found in some of these recordings. The setting which the stage is on also undoubtedly left a mark on the DNA of Miles Smiles. Rock is no longer just a teen fad, and jazz isn't the hip dance music it once was. Swing is dead, and Duke Ellington is playing at high school dances. The last remaining jazz club on 52nd Street was only a year from closing, and the rest had either been turned into strip clubs or scrubbed from their marquees forever. Jazz now found its niches chicken-pocked throughout Manhattan, and the mainstream appeal it once had would never return.
Miles, having taken control of the ship with his innovations in modal jazz, presents himself as captain on Miles Smiles. “Circle,” a ballad penned by Davis, is a showcase of his signature lyrical solo stylings, performing with both subtlety and command. Miles takes first blood, playing over the minor ramblings of Carter before what is one of the most terrible, disgusting and beautiful chord changes on the record as Shorter emerges. It’s also here that you can hear Williams latently take Shorter’s lead, switching from the more subdued brushed snare to a swing on the ride cymbal. The ease with which Williams takes on such a task is a testament to the incredible chemistry this line-up had, and it remains one of the most charming moments on the album. The relationship between the rhythm section and the soloist is complex with neither taking total command, yet there is never a directionless moment. This emphasis on feeling rather than structure allows for a distinctly uneven ride that manages to lean into the cracks and bumps enough to illuminate just how beautiful imperfection can be.
It was around this time that Miles also opted for an uninterrupted, free-flowing live show as well, with the melody being the only indication of a change in song. These performances are every bit as spontaneous and winding as they are measured. Soloists breeze in and out of the pocket with ease, and the band is bursting at the seams with chops and guts.
“Footprints” remains the most significant of the tracks on this album. Written by Wayne Shorter and only recorded once before on his 1966 album Adam’s Apple, this is the interpretation that made it a standard. Williams and Carter each switch between 12/8 and 4/4, creating a cross-beat, in which a polyrhythm is the basis for the piece. This means that while playing different rhythms, Williams is accenting the same notes on drums as Carter is on the bass. One could think of those notes as the Gorilla glue that keeps this shoddily built model from falling apart. Speaking on the cultural roots of this particular kind of beat in his book The Clave Matrix, Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins, David Peñalosa states “from the philosophical perspective of the African musician, cross-beats can symbolize the challenging moments or emotional stress we all encounter. Playing cross-beats while fully grounded in the main beats, prepares one for maintaining a life-purpose while dealing with life’s challenges.” And it shows in the recording: for a song called “Footprints,” it sounds like its more about a relentless chase than a cool walk through the snow.
“Freedom Jazz Dance,” written by Eddie Harris in early jazz-rock tradition, is completely turned inside out in Miles’ vision, and it's perhaps the best reflection of the innovations that Miles Smiles embodies in the Miles Dewey Davis III mythology. It’s almost as if Miles wanted to be in even more control. It’s a one chord track; riding Bb7 from Tony Williams’ introductory triplets on the ride and snare until all five separate entities come together to rubber band through a dissonantly jubilant angular melody one last time. This allows for an incredible amount of freedom for each of the soloists to venture forth chromatically or modally, extracting some of the most off-the-wall and disorienting instrumental verses on the album.
52 years later, the creative ebullience on display in every corner of Miles Smiles shines through brighter than ever. It’s a portrait of turbulence, and one that's never afraid to allow the beauty of such a mess take center stage. Miles made music that harnesses emotions and sentimentality that is foreign to written language. Kicking on Miles Smiles while walking down the street is enough to romanticize even the most mundane of metropolitan happenings. It’s an album that aims to highlight just how loud everything that surrounds us is, while never distracting from who stands at center stage. Miles Smiles is the view from the top of the world, an album that accepts each listener as insular, and their surroundings as unwieldy yet impressionable.
Miles Smiles is an album meant to embody the restlessness of everyday life, in all its mysterious and divergent ways.