In 1977, southern soul was definitely an anachronism. O.V. Wright didn’t have a voice like Otis or Aretha. He had a “preacher” style that was more of a sing-speak approach, with a crackly, nasal tone (Rev. Robert Crenshaw of The Swan Silvertone Singers might be a comparison). But none of that matters. This album has great arrangements and backing. It is southern soul, but it pays a lot of deference to Philly “sweet” soul with its orchestral treatments. This is the template for just about every latter day (male) retro soul singer — Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, etc. No, this isn’t some huge holy grail of soul music, but it’s a good one that really works to earn respect.
Otis Redding died in a plane crash at the height of his career. Though his record label released a number of posthumous albums, Otis’ premature death meant that he left behind a significant amount of recordings that would have been released anyway had he lived. The Immortal Otis Redding actually manages to be one of Redding’s very best studio albums. If The Soul Album was an attempt to modernize Otis’ sound, but was only partly successful at doing so, then The Immortal Otis Redding returns to that approach, but finds more success. There is a more rich and smooth sound here, with fewer elements of raucous 1950s rock n/ roll and R&B. Otis’ voice blends well with the backing music. Side one is nearly perfect. Side two has more to like. In hindsight, though, this relatively short album could have been his single best album if it included some additional songs recorded in 1967 that were released elsewhere, “I’m A Changed Man,” “Direct Me,” “Look at the Girl,” “(“Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “Tell the Truth,” and maybe even the magnificent 1966 outtake “You Left the Water Running.” (If need be, “Champagne and Wine” and “A Waste of Time” might be dropped, though really there was plenty of room for more tracks on the original LP).
Link to a report by Demos:
Selected quote: “This paper explores a number of these popular explanations for the racial wealth gap, looking at individual differences in education, family structure, full- or part-time employment, and consumption habits. In each case, we find that individual choices are not sufficient to erase a century of accumulated wealth: structural racism trumps personal responsibility.”
Yet another great album from Miles’ fusion period. Recorded on February 1, 1975 at Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan, this was the evening concert that followed the afternoon concert released as Agharta. Both albums were originally released only in Japan. Agharta was then released in the U.S. in 1976, but Pangea did not see a U.S. reissue until 1991. Another Japanese-only concert recording, Dark Magus, from a 1974 show, was released in 1977 and only reissued in the U.S. in 1997. None of these albums was particularly commercially successful.
“Zimbabwe” takes up the entire first LP. Early on the band plays with a quick, anxious tempo. Miles uses a slow kind of phrasing, in complete contrast to the rest of the band, like they are rushing to get the music across but somehow he has all the time in the world. Gary Bartz was probably the best and most effective saxophonist to play with Miles in his fusion years, but Sonny Fortune (featured here) might come second. This songs has a sleek feel. “Zimbabwe” is actually a suite or medley of shorter songs played together without interruption.
“Godwana” on the second LP starts with a kind of semi-ambient, long and slow approach with Fortune on flute and Miles playing atonal blocks of notes on a keyboard. Most of the band later drops out and Pete Cosey plays an African thumb piano. He almost certainly got the idea from having played with Phil Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Cohran had an amplified thumb piano he called a “Frankiphone”. The problem here (at least on the 1991 CD reissue) is that Cosey’s thumb piano is so far down in the mix it is barely audible, reduced to sounding like faint clicks in near silence. After bringing the entire concert practically to a standstill, the band builds back up gradually. Cosey rips into a psychedelic guitar solo, and Miles jumps over to keyboard. Al Foster keeps the brutally hard rhythms going. Foster was an under-appreciated force in the band. The song slows again when Miles plays almost solo — again this might be merely a mixing issue with the CD reissue. Towards the end there is a lot of electronic noodling, something that probably seemed odd back then but which simply seems ahead of its time now given the forms of electronic music that came later.
Agharta seems like Davis’ mid-70s band delivering in near flawless form a distillation of what they had worked toward in the prior years. Everything is in its place, the band able to seamlessly do whatever the situation called for, and there is an orderly sense about it. One quality that makes Pangaea one of the Miles Davis albums I return to most often is that it is sort of the next possible phase. The music is full of suspicion. Yet it also does not rely on any sense of a guaranteed audience reaction, or even all the same array of songs Miles’ bands had been performing live for the past five years. The ground had been cleared and the period of desperate action was in place. Sure, Miles seemed to be continuing along the way he had been, but at the same time this was sort of a new look at the the same tools and structures. This is precisely why there are the slow interludes of “world music” with a thumb piano, etc. If Miles’ music in the 1970s had drawn from the likes of Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, it is worth noting that all those artists had fallen away by 1975, no longer dominant forces. For that matter, the sort of black militancy that fueled this kind of music had been beaten back by the establishment, and in its place there was a growing accommodation to neoliberal tokenism. Instead of caving into that sense of decline, Miles’ music looked to encompass a more universal palette and to ally with other musics without diluting what it brought with. Critics hardly knew what to make of Miles in this era — just look at Lester Bangs‘ 1976 essay in Creem magazine “Kind of Grim: Unraveling the Miles Perplex.”
Miles’ band played a few more concerts in 1975, then he went into semi-retirement later that year, citing health problems. This is known as his silent period, when he barely left his house for years. He recorded only a few throwaway sessions until a comeback in 1980. The next live recording he released was We Want Miles in 1982. Some critics saw Miles’ entire fusion period as one of being a “sell-out”, and of pandering to commercial (rock) dictates. That position is somewhat astonishing. Perhaps it applies to Grover Washington, Jr. and others. But Miles? Bitches Brew was indeed a big hit. But everything that followed in the 1970s was not. What Miles did in the 1970s drew from European avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and stuck with a radically unprecedented musical approach far longer than seems possible, in hindsight. Miles’ retirement allowed him to preserve his integrity. When he made his comeback, he was all about accommodation, and his music reflected that. But pre-retirement, he just turned his back to the audience and kept on playing.
There are some who rate Pangaea much lower than Agharta, sometimes citing band fatigue due to being the later of two lengthy shows from the day (filling four LP sides). Another contingent places this ahead of Agharta, citing the more experimental, fluid and varied approach here. Either way, this is a great album that simply goes in a slightly different direction than Agharta. This album was influential on numerous punk rock figures, for instance. It remains an album of unique characteristics. It earns a place in the conversation for Miles’ (or anybody’s) best of the era.
Link to an article by Simon Davis-Cohen:
Link to machine translation of Robespierre‘s speech of April 24, 1793:
Superior in every way to the final version.
Camarón de la Isla – El Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía [AKA Al verte las flres lloran] Philips 5865 026 (1969)
This, the first of many collaborations between El Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía, documents an already fruitful partnership. de Lucía’s guitar is showy. It begs for attention always. Camarón sings in a way that cannot but help commanding attention. Together, those somewhat disparate approaches go together sublimely.
The duo’s take on flamenco music was as groundbreaking a thing as possible under the Franco dictatorship. The Wire magazine, in a feature entitled “100 Records That Set The World On Fire (While No One Was Listening)” (issue 175), said,
Flamenco had long been a vital genre. For instance, Niño Ricardo & La Niña de los Peines‘ “Alegrias” is a classic from just before the Great Depression — mentioned in Michael Denning‘s Noise Uprising for its radical connotations (though “alegrías” is a palos or cantes [style], not really a distinctive song title as such). The genre’s golden age ran up to about 1910-20, at which point the “opera flamenca” period began — brought on by preferential tax laws that gave “opera” performances in theaters a lower tax rate than other types of shows. This theatrical style is disliked by some and considered very commercial. Intellectuals tried to return the genre to its golden age roots from the early 20s, but the fascist Franco dictatorship changed all that.
Across the album there is a push-and-pull quality, as emphasis shifts subtle between de la Isla’s singing and de Lucía’s guitar playing. Camarón regularly calls out, “Paco!” This gets a bit tiresome, but it underscores the loose, “jam session” quality of the music — something entirely within the flamenco tradition. The duo’s later work, like their fourth self-titled collaboration and Castillo de arena, is even better, in that it integrated the two performer’s abilities into something more unified and greater than the mere sum of its parts. Still, this first meeting is great on its own terms, and, relatively speaking, perhaps one of the most “traditional”-sounding recordings they made together.
Good stuff. Most if not all of this ranks among Miles’ best of the era. Fans of Miles’ fusion period will find a lot to like here — though newcomers should perhaps proceed to Live-Evil and Agharta first. This set sounds a lot harder and funkier than Bitches Brew, which came out around the time this set was recorded, though Black Beauty has a little more space than the denser material Miles would gravitate toward into the mid-Seventies. Steve Grossman is the newbie in the band. He wants to play as far out there as he can. He is outclassed and in a bit over his head sometimes, but things still work out in the end. Chick Corea is really the star here. He’s a monster. His nimble, distorted keyboards light up the set with some pretty intense workouts. In many ways he fills out the group’s sound the way an electric guitarist like Pete Cosey would in later years. At times his noisy, distorted keyboard makes this practically sound like experimental punk rock, crossed with European avant garde electronic composition. Miles is relatively subdued by comparison. He is almost off in the background much of the time, content to just nudge things one way or another from time to time.
To hear essentially the same lineup on a lot of the same material approximately one month earlier, with Wayne Shorter instead of Grossman on sax, try Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time. And to hear more from the next day and roughly two months later, try the crushing box set Miles at the Fillmore: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 — which has some of the very best performances from a great period for Miles. It seems like every minute Miles played on stage or in a studio in the early 1970s will eventually be released, and the world will be better off for it. Black Beauty is a great one, and is particularly memorable thanks to Chick Corea.