The album is a transitional work for Davis, who was shifting stylistically from acoustic recordings with his second "great" quintet to his subsequent "electric" period. Filles de Kilimanjaro was well received by contemporary music critics, who viewed it as a significant release in modern jazz.
The June sessions featured Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on the electric Rhodes piano, Ron Carter on electric bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The September sessions replaced Hancock with Chick Corea, and Carter with Dave Holland, making Filles de Kilimanjaro the last Miles album to feature his Second Great Quintet, although all except Carter would play on his next album, In A Silent Way. During the September sessions, Holland played acoustic bass and Corea played an RMI Electra-piano in addition to acoustic piano. These are Holland and Corea's first known recordings with Davis. The album was produced by Teo Macero and engineered by Frank Laico and Arthur Kendy.
The album title refers, in part, to Kilimanjaro African Coffee, a company in which Davis had made a financial investment. Davis decided to list all the song titles in French to give the album an exotic touch. Davis married Betty O. Mabry Davis in September 1968, and named "Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)" for her. The song itself was recorded during the same month as Davis's wedding and Betty appears on the album cover.
The album can be seen as a transitional work between Davis's mainly acoustic recordings with the Second Quintet and his later electric period (for example, Bitches Brew). It is suffused in the heady abstraction of the 1960s, but attentive to blues tonalities, electronic textures, and dancing rhythms of later jazz fusion. Davis apparently saw it as a transitional work for him, as the album was the first in what would become a series of his releases to bear the subtitle "Directions in music by Miles Davis". However, author Paul Tingen points out that while Carter and Hancock played electric instruments at the first recording session, the later session was a bit of a throwback, in which Holland played only acoustic bass and Corea played both acoustic and electric piano. Stanley Crouch, a staunch critic of Davis's use of electric instruments, has described the album as "the trumpeter's last important jazz record". Noted linguist and Miles Davis-biographer Jack Chambers later wrote that the band sought to expand beyond their usual minimal structure and find a common mood, wanting listeners to "discover the unity of the pieces instead of just locating it, as viewers must discover the unity in a painting with several simultaneous perspectives".
The melodic complexity of "Petits Machins (Little Stuff)" highlights Davis's interest in departing from post-bop structure towards the sounds and textures of his subsequent fusion work. Music writer Marcus Singletary commented on its complexity, "True to the general concept of Filles de Kilimanjaro, a mosaic of controlled chaos becomes the defining sound of 'Little Stuff'". On the recording, the quintet expresses an 11/4 meter with a repeating riff and chromatically ascending dominant harmonies in the recording first section. Section two moves to a contrasting 10-bar section in 4/4 meter, with the opening six bars relying on an F pedal point in the bass, above which occur shifting harmonies each measure. The static F pedal section yields to a syncopated progression with meters seven to eight and a change of bass in meters nine to 10, as the quintet makes an alteration to section two during the improvisations. Music theorist Keith Waters cites this as an example of "Davis's—by now—well-worn practice of metric deletion", in which throughout the trumpet solo, the quintet maintains a repeated nine-bar cycle, rather than the 10 bars of section two heard during the first section. The quintet omits meter 10 of section two during the solos and maintains the harmonic progression of meters one through nine. As in the first section, the syncopated progression occurs in meter seven, but Carter does not participate in playing the syncopation of meters seven to eight during the improvisations, while Hancock interprets this progression more freely. Singletary said of its musical significance:
The fact that these musicians mostly follow each other instinctively into such undefined territory is jolting. Absent of any form of actual standardization, these rare glimpses into the thought processes of geniuses validates their singular language as impossible to replicate in any way that would do this original recording justice. Though relatively brief, this track is the highlight of the album, and its significance to jazz remains tantamount. Through it, an apex of creativity in Miles's career was reached, and the track also shows why each musician here is considered an A-list innovator.
As with the album's title track, the quintet does not return to the first section and the recording concludes with a second Davis improvisation. Gil Evans, with whom Davis had previously collaborated, helped compose, arrange, and produce the album, though he is not mentioned in the credits. Evans co-composed "Petits Machins", which he later recorded as "Eleven" with himself and Davis listed as co-composers. The song "Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)", while credited to Davis, is actually Gil Evans' reworking of "The Wind Cries Mary" by Jimi Hendrix (Davis and Evans had met with Hendrix several times to exchange ideas). At the same time, some portions of the song resemble Mann, Weil, Leiber and Stoller's "On Broadway"
In a contemporary review, Rolling Stone claimed that "no amount of track-by-track description here can begin to convey the beauty and intensity. There are five songs, but really they fit together as five expressions of the same basic piece, one sustained work". In a retrospective review of the album, Uncut called it "a masterpiece of tropical exoticism". Sputnikmusic staff writer Tyler Fisher commented that the rhythm section-players "sound entirely innovative and fresh" and "The whole band, in both quintets, has an extreme awareness about each other and knows exactly where each soloist is going". He attributed its "more avant-garde feel" to a "lack of form and the constant outlook of many measures ahead", while calling it "a full out enjoyable listen, showcasing enough variety and virtuosity to not make the 70-minute album a tiring listen". AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine called its music "unpretentiously adventurous, grounded in driving, mildly funky rhythms and bluesy growls from Miles, graced with weird, colorful flourishes from the band [...] Where Miles in the Sky meandered a bit, this is considerably more focused", dubbing it as "the swan song for his second classic quintet, arguably the finest collective of musicians he ever worked with". Erlewine also cited the album as "the beginning of a new phase for Miles, the place that he begins to dive headfirst into jazz-rock fusion", and commented on its significance in Davis's catalogue:
What makes this album so fascinating is that it's possible to hear the breaking point — though his quintet all followed him into fusion (three of his supporting players were on In a Silent Way), it's possible to hear them all break with the conventional notions of what constituted even adventurous jazz, turning into something new [...] [C]ertainly the music that would spring full bloom on In a Silent Way was still in the gestation phase, and despite the rock-blues-n-funk touches here, the music doesn't fly and search the way that Nefertiti did. But that's not a bad thing — this middle ground between the adventurous bop of the mid-'60s and the fusion of the late '60s is rewarding in its own right, since it's possible to hear great musicians find the foundation of a new form.Down Beat critic John Ephland called Filles de Kilimanjaro "the stylistic precursor to the ever-popular In a Silent Way of 1969", writing that "Filles is performed (and edited) like a suite, with a sense of flow unlike anything Davis had recorded up to that point. That flow is enhanced by a music played all in one key (F), with only five 'tunes,' and with a mood and rhythms that change gradually from start to finish". Ephland concluded in his review, "In passing, Filles de Kilimanjaro is a turning-point album unlike any other for Davis: For the first time, his bebop roots were essentially severed, rockier rhythms, electricity and ostinato-driven bass lines now holding sway". Jim Santella from All About Jazz wrote that the album's music "flows with a lyricism that remains highly regarded in today’s format", concluding in his review that "Filles De Kilimanjaro remains one of the classic albums from their collaboration, and represents a high point in modern jazz".
Since it's billed as "Directions in Music by Miles Davis," it should come as little surprise that Filles de Kilimanjaro is the beginning of a new phase for Miles, the place that he begins to dive headfirst into jazz-rock fusion. It also happens to be the swan song for his second classic quintet, arguably the finest collective of musicians he ever worked with, and what makes this album so fascinating is that it's possible to hear the breaking point -- though his quintet all followed him into fusion (three of his supporting players were on In a Silent Way), it's possible to hear them all break with the conventional notions of what constituted even adventurous jazz, turning into something new. According to Miles, the change in "direction" was as much inspired by a desire to return to something earthy and bluesy as it was to find new musical territory, and Filles de Kilimanjaro bears him out. Though the album sports inexplicable, rather ridiculous French song titles, this is music that is unpretentiously adventurous, grounded in driving, mildly funky rhythms and bluesy growls from Miles, graced with weird, colorful flourishes from the band. Where Miles in the Sky meandered a bit, this is considerably more focused, even on the three songs that run over ten minutes, yet it still feels transitional. Not tentative (which In the Sky was), but certainly the music that would spring full bloom on In a Silent Way was still in the gestation phase, and despite the rock-blues-n-funk touches here, the music doesn't fly and search the way that Nefertiti did. But that's not a bad thing -- this middle ground between the adventurous bop of the mid-'60s and the fusion of the late '60s is rewarding in its own right, since it's possible to hear great musicians find the foundation of a new form. For that alone, Filles de Kilimanjaro is necessary listening.
All songs were credited to Miles Davis.
"Frelon brun" (Brown Hornet) – 5:39
"Tout de suite" (Right Away) – 14:07
"Petits machins" (Little Stuff) – 8:07
"Filles de Kilimanjaro" (Girls of Kilimanjaro) – 12:03
"Mademoiselle Mabry" (Miss Mabry) – 16:32
The first and last tracks were recorded in September 1968, the others in June. The CD reissue includes a sixth track, an alternate take of "Tout de suite".
Miles Davis – trumpet
Wayne Shorter – tenor saxophone
Herbie Hancock – Fender Rhodes electric piano on tracks 2, 3, 4 & 6
Chick Corea – piano, RMI Electra-piano on tracks 1 & 5
Ron Carter – electric bass on tracks 2, 3, 4 & 6
Dave Holland – double bass on tracks 1 & 5
Tony Williams – drums