Feels like Sun Ra-lite. A blend of somewhat mainstream jazz with more abstract ethno-grooves and a rock-tinged beat. “Night Poem” is the centerpiece of the album, where they take the basic concept the furtherest. The album can be a bit uneven though because of the overly mannered playing (the bane of so much British music — to the extent you can call this “British”).
Various Artists – The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz Smithsonian A5 19477 (1997)
A fantastic overview of jazz from its birth through the early 1960s . There is probably no better introduction to the genre than this set (this remastered CD version tracks the “revised” edition that came out in 1987). Granted, at only five CDs (the original, unrevised edition was 6 LPs), it can still only briefly touch on many major periods, and so, for instance, things cut out at the appearance of “free jazz” and only a handful of tracks are from later than 1962. But there is not a single track on here that is less than fantastic. Probably one of the best box sets ever assembled, right up there alongside Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. As authoritative as a good dictionary.
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 on 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 plays with 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 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 at the time 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 Donald Byrd, 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 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.
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 it a great one, and particularly memorable thanks to Chick Corea.
Overlooked debut album from the German jazz fusion outfit Sunbirds. They take on the kind of early 1970s fusion pursued by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and — maybe the closest comparison — Donald Byrd. Nothing strikingly original here, but this is really well played stuff with a laid-back, almost psychedelic vibe. It can rub shoulders with all the better fusion recordings of the era.
Here is one of Anthony Braxton’s most accessible albums of the 1980s — at least, one of his most accessible albums from that era featuring all original compositions. The opener “Composition No. 114 (+ 108A)” is a misstep, but the boppish nature of much of the rest of the disc is sure to please many. This is one of the better places to start with Braxton’s 80s output.
In July of 1976 The Sun Ra Arkestra played the Montreux festival. Afterward, they lived in Paris for a couple months. During that time they recorded Cosmos for the obscure French label Cobra. The album has a laid-back, feel-good vibe. Yet it is never too easy. There are still some skronky horn solos, but they blend into mellow electric bass lines and leisurely accompaniment tempos. John Gilmore lends a really beautiful inside/outside solo on “Jazz From an Unknown Planet” toward the end too. The album also has that characteristically 1970s warm and round production aesthetic. The music might be viewed as a synthesis of a lot of typical Arkestra styles, going back to stuff from the 1950s up through the fusion era, blended together as opposed to alternating to and fro. Nothing here a Sun Ra fanatic hasn’t heard elsewhere, but the overall chilled-out ambiance is quite nice and this sustains itself well from start to finish. A really nice one — among the more pleasant Arkestra discs of the era.
According to an official Braxton web site, “In this ensemble, all the musicians wield iPods [portable electronic music players] in addition to their instruments, while navigating scores that combine cartography and evocative graphic notation, creating a musical tapestry combining live performance and sampled sound from Braxton’s extensive recorded discography.” He calls this his “Echo Echo Mirror House” (EEMH) musical system. Some of the digital recordings played back by the performers are easy to spot, because they include excerpts of vocalists from Braxton’s operas (none of the performers here sing) and include big band recordings that obviously include more than the septet currently performing.
Seem confusing? In the liner notes, Braxton says, “Don’t worry about it – have a fun listening experience in a music that more and more is like life itself”. But what life is that? If there is a comparison, it is like being in an apartment building or house in which people in different rooms are playing recordings and performing music, and the listener drifts around hearing bits of everything, which overlap in different ways most of the time.
This music bears some resemblance to the heyday of “free jazz” in the 1960s — one comparison might be The Marzette Watts Ensemble. But the zeitgeist of that era is long passed. So it says a lot about Braxton’s eccentric methods that they can so effectively recreate some of that same old feeling in a new way for a new time.
A live recording from the Jazz Showcase in Chicago in November of 1977. The first side of the original LP is a lot of odd stuff, meandering around and then ending with a space chant that blends typical Ra afro-futurism with bits of a gospel song (“I Got Shoes” AKA “Walk Over God’s Heaven” etc.). Side two has some horn charts that actually seem rehearsed or pre-written, in contrast to just about everything to that point, but then concludes with some fiery, shrieking sax playing from one or both of the altoists then Ra on keyboards. While this has an intimate feel of a casual live show, it is only on side two that it starts to seem really worthwhile. Not one for Ra newcomers.