The rarest of jazz artists, and a master of the recording studio, Miles Davis left a legacy of LPs spanning 46 years. The secret of his astonishing longevity lies in his majestically individual responses to changing times. He heard, he reacted, he conquered and not once or twice, but at least four times, altering the entire musical world, not just jazz, in the bargain. Listeners pursuing Davis for the first time might begin with the most famous, seminal records, but they would miss out on some masterpieces that, while not cataclysmic, best capture Davis' crafty lyricism and brooding charm and a few quirky records that show him groping toward yet another breakthrough. Here is a selective guide to Miles Davis' many musical masks. Each deserves an A or A+.
Birth of the Cool
In 1949, the 23-year-old Davis assembled some of the best jazz composers and players in New York, almost all of them older and more experienced than he was, for the first of three nine-piece sessions that ushered in the lapidary abstractions of cool jazz. The 12 selections were beautifully mastered for this reissue.
Miles Davis Cronicle
But how cool can you get? In 1954, Davis led another all-star band in a performance of a blues, ''Walkin','' that was so earthy and dramatic it helped codify a countermovement known as hard bop. ''Walkin''' is just one of the peaks among these 94 selections from Davis' Prestige years, 1951-56. Much of the development of modern jazz is imprinted in these eight CDs, including the marathon debut of Davis' greatest quintet, with John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones.
Porgy and Bess
All of the collaborations by Davis and the great composer-arranger Gil Evans are landmarks. Miles Ahead, the album that made him famous in 1957 (presently available only in a montage of alternate takes), is the most serene, Sketches of Spain the most starkly expressive and erotic. But Porgy and Bess, Davis and Evans' favorite, runs the widest gamut of emotions, and ends euphorically with the stunningly swinging ''There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York.''
Kind of Blue
Possibly the most celebrated jazz LP ever issued, this was the 1959 session that popularized modal jazz, with musicians improvising melodic variations on scales rather than chords. But you didn't have to know that to find such selections as ''So What'' and ''All Blues'' irresistibly seductive. All seven musicians involved including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans would later expand on the lessons heard here, as would two generations of musicians in jazz and rock. Scandalously, Columbia has ravaged the sound with its digital reprocessing.