A huge leap forward in the evolution of what became known as jazz “fusion”. Really one of the finer albums of Miles Davis’ long and storied career. What made Filles de Kilimanjaro such an advance over Miles in the Sky was the way it subdued and extended the song structures while at the same time elevating the throb of the bass and the kick of the drumming, those seemingly contradictory impulses held together by punchier bursts of horn and keyboard playing that drifted somewhat away from the spotlight and integrated themselves into the songs. The vamps drive the songs but also leave room for modulation and shifts into improvisational flourishes. The bass, drums and keyboards trade off each other (see “Tout de suite”) to create tension and forward momentum. The wind instruments aren’t presented as prominent soloists like in the past, but more as the equals of the rhythm section, which gets to rise to the forefront on a shared basis rather than being relegated to a merely supportive role. This may resemble traditional jazz more than the next few albums, like In a Silent Way and the epochal Bitches Brew, etc, etc. There is still a clear purpose and distinctive sound achieved that refuses to step back from an increasingly militant — yet hopefully positive — mindset. Most significantly, this album decisively tipped the balance away from traditional jazz and toward fusion. This one is just (barely) a half step behind the very best of Davis’ records, which is saying a lot when it comes to arguably the single greatest recording artist of the 20th Century. This also makes a pretty good entry point to the fusion era.
Miles in the Sky gives the impression that it is pandering to psychedelic pop/rock audiences, or that it is just a tentative and transitional effort nestled between more effective recordings of markedly different styles. But such appearances are deceiving. Miles Davis and his “second great quintet” were clearly expanding their horizons, and certainly were incorporating more elements of rock (and soul jazz). Yet the results, however mellow the mood tends to be, are effective. The album is often categorized as the worst of the Miles Davis Quintet’s late-1960s albums. And it probably is. But that says very little, because that band was releasing one classic after another. This is still a very fine album. And if nothing else, this might be drummer Tony Williams‘ best performance on record (perhaps rivaled only by his efforts on Sorcerer). The entire album is a showcase for his relentlessly creative drumming, which never seems to stagnate or rest on repetitive structures yet somehow always seems engaging and connected to the flow of each song. Keyboardist Herbie Hancock is clearly enthusiastic about the push toward rock music, though saxophonist Wayne Shorter, while his playing is good, seems the most hesitant about shifting away from the style he used in prior years.
The title track here represents just about the peak of Miles’ second great quintet. With Miles and Wayne Shorter playing a weary melody at a rather slow tempo, Tony Williams punctuates the song with sudden, quick fills and accents that seem to transform the entire song into a sketch of something great and elusive, beyond the ennui suggested by the horns. Miles and Shorter mostly play the same melodic line over and over and over again, shifting registers and shifting harmonics in a way that tends toward the dissonant and existential. Herbie Hancock‘s accompaniment is perfectly spare, appearing as if out of nowhere to play exactly and only the right notes. Ron Carter on bass is active and unmoored from any sort of role as a mere timekeeper in the rhythm section. There is a looseness to the performance, clearly influenced by the free jazz movement, but still bounded and organized. Most significantly, the structure mediates the interactions of the players so that the lines between open (free) improvisation and pre-written composition blur, and all the players seem to have an equal — if still varied — role. It’s a magnificent recording. I have never completely warmed up to the album as a whole, mostly because of the songwriting featured in the latter part of the album, but I can’t deny this is a great offering. To get a complete picture of Miles and his many groups, you’ll need investigate Nefertiti at some point, but Miles Smiles and E.S.P. should perhaps be investigated first.
This is an album I never quite understood, at least until recently. Future Davis sideman Tony Williams loved it; I think he said it was a favorite. Others love it too. But why? For the most part, it’s fairly straightforward hard bop. I guess, in retrospect, the late 1950s weren’t exactly a fertile time for jazz music (other than for the likes of Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, that is, none of whom achieved any meaningful commercial success). It was generally a low point. Sure, there were some good albums that appeared at that time, but most players were still milking either hard bop or cool styles for all they were worth. The free players who hit big in the sixties either hadn’t fully developed their styles yet, or, more importantly, hadn’t found many recording or performance opportunities yet. Coltrane is here. Yet Coltrane was a good but unremarkable player in Davis’ first great quintet. He is starting to show signs of what he achieved on early albums like Giant Steps, but it was a few years after Milestones that Coltrane really became Coltrane.
What occurred to me recently was that this album represents and complacency and bourgeois aspirations of Miles and his associates. While the rollicking “Two Bass Hit” features a fun and playful riff, most of the material here relies on up-tempo rhythms to mask simplistic and thin ideas. Above all this music presents itself as the pinnacle of something — rather than, as history would later prove it to be, an anachronistic holdover from the be-bop era, sustained only by the suppression of the likes of Ornette Coleman. Put another way, this music presents a linear view of history as a straight march of progress in a particular direction, and obscures how it really is music that participates in a system of institutional/tribal power hierarchies. When Miles landed at Columbia Records, he was merely promoted within a fixed universe of possibilities. To put this criticism in a more substantive context, this is music still clinging to the model of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, in which a black man like Miles was trying to prove himself to be talented, within an established institutional framework (similar to the “Talented Tenth” theory), whereas in the future, after the legal end of the Jim Crow era in America, there would be a great recognition that individual accomplishment within the existing system wasn’t enough — the whole system needed to be changed. Of course, eventually Miles got bored with this, and his boredom led to much better things that did challenge the whole system.
Miles’ first album for Columbia Records is a winner. While not quite as inspired as his last recordings for Prestige, which included the excellent Cookin’, Relaxin’ and Workin’ discs that for contractual reasons were released only later, this is a mere step behind them, and benefits from more high fidelity recording technology. The great advantage of the Prestige sessions is that they sound like those of a band that has nothing to lose and everything to gain from superb, heartfelt performances that follow their own muse. By contrast, ‘Round About Midnight sound more like the work of a talented band seeking to prove that the performers are worthy of the “big time”, so they show more deference. Anyway, this remains a very worthy collection of hard bop jazz — and album jacket covers hardly get cooler than this one.
Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet is an unlikely candidate to be one of Davis’s best albums. But it ends up being precisely that. It was drawn from two 1956 recording sessions that spawned a total of four With the Miles Davis Quintet albums made to fulfill a recording contract as Davis jumped to a major label (and kicked off one of the most productive and inspired artist-label relationships, well, ever). There are a few people who rate Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet as the best. But, to put it bluntly, they are wrong! Cookin’ blasts through more up-tempo numbers, but lacks the all-star firepower of Bags Groove.
This album is rooted in the hard bop tradition, but with a more laid-back and sophisticated demeanor. Yet it doesn’t ever truly venture into “cool jazz” territory. Relaxin’ is basically a perfect title for it. This is just exceptionally cool (read: hip) music.
The record label Prestige had a somewhat ignoble history and shady reputation. Its publishing policies were unfavorable to musician songwriters, so most Prestige albums feature all standards. The label also did not pay for rehearsals, so their albums leaned toward a “live in the studio” approach. Davis’ 1956 Prestige sessions lack nothing despite the absence of rehearsals. They featured Davis’ working group and they played these songs with a familiarity and solid improvisational rapport.
This band became known as Miles’ “first great quintet”. The rhythm section of “Philly” Joe Jones (d), Paul Chambers (b), and Red Garland (p) was the very definition of “solid”. There is no egocentric showiness. They just show up and play these songs like motherfuckers. Notably, Garland had a distinctive style that pared back the chord blocking and focused on more minimal and melodic lines, closer to the wind instruments.
John Coltrane (ts) is here, and of his early recordings as a sideman this is one that more than most points toward what he achieved later in his solo career. That is to say that he has an unobtrusive confidence and sense of wonder in his playing that is wonderfully effective, even if he plays merely a tangential role here and those qualities are just starting to peek out.
Miles, for his part, plays decisively while retaining a sensitive touch. His Harmon (wah-wah) mute, played stemless, features prominently. Davis always had a fiery, stubborn attitude, subdued somewhat by an introverted personality. He channels all that raging energy into this batch of songs in a way that displays an absolute mastery of conventional devices and an impeccable sensitivity to tone/mood. Perhaps it was the context of recording songs in a large volume that gave Miles the chance to playing without having to prove anything to anybody — otherwise something that seemed like a major preoccupation of his in his early career.
Basically, if the opener “If I Were a Bell” grabs you, get ready for a whole album with much the same effect. Frankly, all but the album Steamin’ from these sessions are great albums — and even that lesser one is good enough. For what it is worth, this reviewer reaches for Relaxin’ far more than any other pre-1960s Davis album. Maybe you will too.
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.
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.
Dark Magus is another great entry into the series of live recordings from Miles’ 1970-75 period. This particular one comes from a Carnegie Hall concert on March 29, 1974. It’s an excellent performance, churning out an energized voodoo funk jazz that could only come from Miles. The band had enough control and skill at this point to produce a sound live that couldn’t really be improved on in the studio, no matter how many effects and cut-ups were employed. There are slightly better recordings from the same period available, but this one is still an excellent album with a lot to offer. I actually consider it one of my favorites from the period. I wish there were dozens more like it! This is some OUT shit.
Very good performances from Miles’ bop days, but these were recorded in “primitive” fashion from radio broadcasts. Casual listeners should avoid this in favor of something with better than bootleg quality sound. Committed Davis fans will really dig the performances though, and can probably look past the fidelity issues.