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As The Birth of the Cool of 1949 and 1951 revealed how effective post-bop jazz and 20th Century classical sonorities could work together—and also how Miles and arranger Gil Evans were such an effective match—Miles Ahead was the album that allowed that fusion and that team to reach full maturity. As a follow-up to the concentrated punch of Miles’ ‘Round About Midnight, it was as surprising as it was successful.
Independent of the notion of a promise fulfilled, the album stands on its own merits: meticulous harmonies voiced by a generous woodwind-and-brass ensemble, a disarming emotional sophistication in the arrangements that sweeps from tune to tune (the tracks are laced together in a suite-like manner), and a delicate balance of light and shade that Miles achieved as the lone soloist on the album, playing only the flügelhorn throughout.
The choice of tunes reflect how widely attuned their ears were at the time: “New Rhumba” and “I Don’t Want To Be Kissed” sprung from Ahmad Jamal’s setlist (Miles’ favorite pianist at the time), John Carisi’s “Springville” (a contributor to The Birth of the Cool repertoire), Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke,” J.J. Johnson’s “Lament,” Kurt Weill’s “My Ship,” Gil Evans’ own “Blues For Pablo,” and an old melody born in France, “Maids of Cadiz”—the last two hinting at Iberian sounds that would later gestate as Sketches of Spain.
Miles Ahead—later retitled Miles Davis+19 after Miles expressed his displeasure at seeing a nameless white model on the original cover—is noted for being the most successful example of the then popular Third Stream movement, an attempt to synthesize modern jazz and classical music in a manner that remained true to the spirit of both genres—avoiding cliché or pastiche—while blending the two efficiently and naturally.
The idea for the collaboration had started with Avakian when he had first heard Miles’ The Birth of the Cool recordings. Having been a fan of the Claude Thornhill big band in the 1940s, he—like Miles—was already familiar with their arranger: Gil Evans.
I was very fond of the Miles Davis nonet recordings that he had made for Capitol Records. I said to Miles, “Let’s expand the idea. Somebody of course has to write the arrangements and conduct, because we’re going to go beyond nine pieces. There were only two people who could do it, and luckily they had been in the nonet recordings: Gunther Schuller and Gil Evans.
To Avakian’s delight, Davis chose Evans.