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Reassessing the man with the horn

The music in a modern context

Miles Davis in 1959, during a recording session for the album "Kind of Blue" in Manhattan. (Don Hunstein/Sony Legacy)

It's About That Time: Miles Davis on and off Record
By Richard Cook
Oxford University , 373 pp., illustrated, $27

Miles Davis has no secrets. His abuse of drugs and mistreatment of women have been fully documented. The last thing the world needs is another biography of the late trumpeter and bandleader. What we can use is Richard Cook's new book, "It's About That Time," which considers the man in light of his albums and serves as essential criticism for Milesophiles.

It's hard to imagine a more ideal writer for this project. Cook is the co author of the indispensable "Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD," with an eighth edition published last fall , and the editor of the esteemed British magazine Jazz Review.

Cook forgoes the details of Davis's bringing-up and private life (it's all been done before) and summarizes what we need to know in order to understand his music. Cook's mission is to hear the oeuvre of Miles Davis in a 21st-century context. Each chapter focuses on a particular album while bringing into the fold just about every other recording he ever did.

Davis's struggle against the norm was apparent as early as 1949, when he recorded the nonet sessions that would become known as " Birth of the Cool." Twice Cook describes Miles as an "uneasy fit" with bebop, which was the prevailing style of jazz at the time. Davis never pretended to possess the agility of Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, and so he created music on his terms. In the 1950s, he helped popularize hard-bop, which emphasized rhythm and melody over technical facility. "On the ballad 'It Never Entered My Mind,' which Davis plays with a cup mute, one can witness the first appearance of the ballad player who could silence noisy rooms and provoke tears," Cook writes.

But it wasn't enough for Davis , whose restlessness was perhaps his defining characteristic. His 1959 masterpiece, "Kind of Blue," its compositions based on scales rather than chord changes or melodies, was a landmark moment in jazz, but it was followed within the year by another shift, "Sketches of Spain," an ostensibly flamenco-flavored album of which Cook isn't entirely enamored: "If [arranger Gil] Evans and Davis felt they were securing a genuine truce between an American improviser's approach and the Spanish roots of the composer's inspiration, they failed."

The transience of Davis's band members is a recurring theme, one that can be seen as either a cause or an effect (but probably both) of his constant need to change his music. The quintet that produced some of his finest work -- the 1960s group that includes saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams -- is seen in a new light under Cook's astute observations. Williams, just 17 when he joined the band, gets much of the credit for propelling it toward the universal acclaim given sessions such as "The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel" and "E.S.P.": " Williams's ease at any tempo was making the music faster, more driving, more open to rhythmical complexity."

Davis's journey toward electric music marked the most exciting -- and controversial -- time in his career. Some of the recording sessions confused even his own musicians, who didn't recognize their work on the cut-and-paste pastiche of "Bitches Brew" when it was released. The trumpeter's own playing adjusted as his allegiance to jazz-rock intensified and his use of electric guitars and electric keyboards compounded. The romantic, low-register whispers were replaced with piercing, upper-register stabs. "Whatever else he had gained in the way his music had turned, some of the long-form elegance of his acoustic days has been traded for thinking in sharp sentences rather than finely turned paragraphs," Cook writes. "It might be right for what he was doing, but one could understand the dismay of many long-term Miles admirers."

Cook smartly places the dark, brooding "Agharta" -- recorded live in Osaka, Japan, in 1975 -- among the highest points of Davis's career, and he is right to dampen the irrational effusion that critics have accorded comparatively lousy records. "Some of the plaudits given to it by commentators then and since make the dispassionate observer wonder if they are listening to the same record," he writes of "Tutu." He dismisses "Doo-Bop" as "a rote hip hop record which Davis often seems to have wandered into by accident."

All this adds up to intelligent, trustworthy criticism. Cook is clearly a fan of Miles Davis, but he's far from a cheerleader. "It's About That Time" brings fresh insight to a lifetime of music and can help even a longtime connoisseur hear it in a whole new way.

Steve Greenlee , the Globe's Living editor, can be reached at