Miles Ahead

IN THE '50s, Miles Davis played it straight in a double-breasted suit, his crisp collar whitened by a silk tie. By the cool, brooding '60s, he'd slipped into pleated pants, open collars, and loose loafers. Pastel platform shoes, handkerchiefs, headbands, and rawhide vests decorated the Nixon era.

Just check out the threads; Miles was terrified of being cast in the past tense. Which is what makes the hype surrounding Columbia's five-title, 10-CD re-release, Miles Davis Live & Electric, so ironic. Featuring music recorded from 1970 to 1974, the collection is being pumped up as a pre-cursor to contemporary funk, hip hop and electronica; a kind of antiquated basement tape for everyone from Tricky to Medeski, Martin and Wood.

Evaluating this period through the rear-view mirror makes some sense. In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the Davis studio projects that provided the impetus for much of Live & Electric, are accepted by many to be the beginning of jazz fusion, a historically vilified style. Recorded in 1969, both records achieve a hypnotic effect by utilizing a collage of prerecorded jam sessions, looped together by moody producer and DJ Teo Macero. To the narrow-minded, this technique was a symptom of Davis's laziness. To others, the technique paved a way toward blending disparate genres.

Today, jazz-meets-hip-hop soundscapes and jungle breakbeats bubble up from the underground, busting boundaries erected by purists in the mid-'80s. It's not only acceptable for '90s improvisationalists to plug-in and get funky--it's expected. Consequently, Davis's groove-laden electric period is a relevant reference point, both culturally and aesthetically. But to appreciate this work only as a prologue to the present or a postscript to In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew is a mistake. Not only would it send Davis spinning in the grave, but it also glosses over the real depth and dazzle of his most tumultuous years. These CDs are a growth chart, no less informative or entertaining than Bird's days with Dizzy or Coltrane's mind-bending free-fall with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones.

For proof, one need only consider the critical tumult and commercial indifference spurred by Black Beauty: Live at Fillmore West (April, 1970) and Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East (June, 1970). Featuring Wayne Shorter replacement Steve Grossman on soprano, Chick Corea on piano, Dave Holland on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Airto Moreira on percussion, the first date is as frustrating as it is fascinating. The rhythm section struggles with pace, soloists get lost in the changes, and Macero's seamless studio cuts on tunes such as "It's About That Time" are replaced with clumsy conclusions and shaky introductions. Still, Davis lurks from mic to mic, a beacon blowing through the fog. Fillmore East is more of the same, with Keith Jarrett joining the band on organ. Recorded over four nights in San Francisco, the music comes across loose and laid back, though structurally it's anything but. Even the perpetually self-assured Jarrett sounds uneasy.

Live-Evil (1970) functions as a bridge between the ethereal naïveté of the West Coast sets and the in-your-face East Coast funk of Miles Davis in Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall (1972) and Dark Magus: Live at Carnegie Hall (1974). "Evil is the reverse of 'live,' and some of the recordings were live, at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C.," Davis reveals in his 1989 autobiography, Miles. "But that reversal was the concept of the album: good and bad, light and dark, funky and abstract, birth and death." A host of players, including pianist Joe Zawinul, guitarist John McLaughlin, acoustic bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Cobham, help navigate the contradictions. There is a harder edge to these proceedings, and fans of Davis's sound will lap up the long-running, high-pitched solos. The overall effect, however, is still akin to a dream that inexplicably shifts from the shadowy to the surreal.

Live at Philharmonic Hall, on the other hand, takes its cue from "Theme From Jack Johnson," a tune Miles wrote for the soundtrack to a movie about the boxer's life. When you hear saxist Carlos Garnett or synth player Cedric Lawson take quick licks over drummer Al Foster's and bassist Michael Henderson's dirty groove, you can see Miles dancing around the ring at Gleason's Gym in New York, a bloody sneer accenting his jabs. It's Santana on speed, Hendrix burning down the stacks. The sounds coming from Davis's wah-wah pedal are almost pornographic.

The rematch is played out on Dark Magus. This time, though, there's no fancy footwork. Foster, Davis, and percussionist Mtume (backed by two saxes, three guitars, and a bass) are engaged in an all-out brawl. Their heads down, they bang out an impenetrable wall of sound, Davis's unmistakable tone barely perceptible over the fray.

Right after this rumble in the jungle, Davis hung up his horn for five years, citing physical exhaustion and creative burnout. It's hard to blame him.

 
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