Tag Archives: Miles Davis

Miles Davis – Pangaea


Miles DavisPangaea CBS/Sony SOPZ 96~97 (1976)

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.

Miles Davis – Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West

Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West

Miles DavisBlack Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West CBS/Sony SOPJ 39-40  (1973)

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.

Miles Davis – Dark Magus

Dark Magus

Miles DavisDark Magus CBS/Sony 40AP741-2 (1977)

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.

Miles Davis – The Cellar Door Sessions 1970

The Cellar Door Sessions 1970

Miles DavisThe Cellar Door Sessions 1970 Legacy C6K 93614 (2005)

I have some opinions on Miles’ electric period, and on his early 1970s electric period in particular (like what we have here), that might differ from the conventional wisdom.  I think the 1970s might have been Miles’ most consistently interesting period.  I think you can get more from a single song in this period that you get in entire albums the man put out in the 1950s.  There is an open-mindedness, a fluidity that I don’t think any other recording artist has ever really achieved on such a massive scale.  With this particular band, I think there a number of interesting developments that make this set stand out.  These are probably the best recordings Keith Jarrett has ever made.  I know that he talks trash about playing electric with Miles, but frankly, his later solo stuff is just plain boring.  Then there is Gary Bartz.  Compared to the next few saxophonists Miles used up through his silent period, I think Bartz was the most interesting.  He played these long, extended lines — I would even call them thin lines too.  I dig ’em.  The clarity of his lines doesn’t overwhelm the songs, but provide a constant thread throughout his solos despite the looseness of the accompaniments.  I don’t think anyone else really took that approach on a sax in an electric setting.  It adds a cohesiveness by making it difficult to focus on any little bit of the music for too long.  Bartz also could blast his way through a funky, rock-oriented setting without being drowned out better than Miles’ previous sax man Wayne Shorter.

Another area of disagreement with the conventional thinking for me is that I think Miles and Teo Macero did a good job of editing material for release.  People complain about the At Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East album being heavily edited, but I think the final results sound great, whereas some of the unedited material from roughly the same period (In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall) sounds terribly unfocused.  And I think this plays into my belief that Miles was actually fine tuning his approach through the 1970s.  He was more consistent just before his temporary retirement than when the 70s opened.  So, getting back to this Cellar Door set, I think it has a very loose, jammy sound to it.  Occasionally, the band muffs something or other.  Bassist Michael Henderson sometimes hasn’t fully integrated himself into the band until some of the later sets.  You also might not call this the strongest playing from Miles himself, at least not consistently.  But no matter.  I think this is very enjoyable and interesting stuff.  Lots of energy.  Perhaps the edited, reorganized presentation that ended up forming most of Live-Evil sounds just a bit better on the whole.  But this unedited presentation still sounds fine — actually better than just fine most of the time.  With adequate time to sit back and enjoy this whole damn collection on its own terms, with the occasional missteps and the more tentative early sets all included, the band still can cook.  That’s what it was always about.

Miles Davis – Bags Groove

Bags Groove

Miles DavisBags Groove Prestige PRLP 7109 (1957)

My early reaction to this album was “it’s good not great.”  Well, coming back to it years later my opinion has changed a bit.  While I still look at this and say Miles’ playing is nothing special, due to his general complacency and the fact that he hasn’t yet realized the full potential of his stemless Harmon mute, I have to give credit to the rest of the band for truly achieving something special.  The rhythm section steals the show.  Percy Heath gives amazing performances throughout, and, despite the fact that he never solos, he’s the still the album’s star in my mind.  People have long talked about Monk‘s solo on the title track (take 1), and that’s all well justified.  It smokes.  Unfortunately, he’s only heard on the title track.  But Horace Silver plays well when he’s substituting for Monk, and Sonny Rollins‘ style is well-suited to the music.  Milt Jackson also plays really well in his one appearance.  Kenny Clarke is solid as always, and, significantly, he doesn’t distract from the other performers–something not to be underestimated with a talented group like this.  Bag’s Groove is an excellent album to play in mixed company, even among people who have no specific knowledge of or appreciation for jazz.  It’s about as good as “straight” jazz ever got.

Miles Davis – It’s About That Time

Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It's About That Time

Miles DavisLive at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time Legacy C2K 85191 (2001)

What Dark Magus is to the tail end of Miles’ fusion period, It’s About That Time is to the early part of it.  Both represent versions of his electric band at their most wild and unhinged.  While this album is a good one, it probably is only essential for addicts of this period of the Miles Davis discography.  It actually is closely related to Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West, which was recorded about a month later at the other Fillmore, on the other coast.  The lineups on It’s About That Time and Black Beauty overlap substantially, but It’s About That Time represented the final performance of saxophonist Wayne Shorter with the group before leaving to form Weather Report.  Steve Grossman replaced Shorter, and that personnel change did have an effect on the group’s sound.  Grossman provided merely window dressing with Chick Corea taking command of most of the soloing, while on It’s About That Time Shorter and Corea, along with Miles, are jointly the workhorses of the group.  Because the Shorter lineup had only been documented on record once before this release (on the Japanese-only release 1969 Miles – Festiva de Juan Pins), It’s About That Time has taken on a certain amount of hype of the “holy grail” variety.  Don’t expect too many revelations though.  Shorter plays well, and he stretches about as far out as he ever did here, but he still sounds more or less like the same Wayne Shorter featured on Davis’ early fusion albums like Bitches Brew.  Critic Thom Jurek made the pointed observation that on Black Beauty Grossman “plays everything he knows in every solo.”  But because Grossman is only providing color, that’s not so bad.  The extra space allowed Corea, and the generally tighter sound from the band as a whole, to make Black Beauty the better of the two offerings, even if bassist Dave Holland is less audible in the mix.  Though, to repeat, if you are an addict of this period of Miles’ career–and if you like this period at all you probably are or will become an addict–then It’s About That Time is worth your attention at some point.

Miles Davis – We Want Miles

We Want Miles

Miles DavisWe Want Miles Columbia C2 38005 (1982)

Miles live on the comeback trail.  It’s easy to view this music as a continuation of what he was doing in the 1970s, but slicker, lighter and with a newly airy pop sensibility.  However, “Kix” and “Fast Track” are pretty weak and there seems to be no need for two versions of “Jean Pierre” here.  Miles struggles to find his footing some of the time.  Oh well.  This one’s a fair effort.  But it feels more like a victory lap than the race itself.

Miles Davis – Miles at the Fillmore: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3

Miles at the Fillmore: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3

Miles DavisMiles at the Fillmore: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 Legacy 88765433812 (2014)

Although Miles Davis released many highly popular albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the density of the creative energy of his bands during that period resulted in more recordings than albums.  His record label, too, didn’t quite know what to do with it all, though they did lend support — largely responsible for the commercial successes Davis did find.

This archival collection of live recordings comes primarily from June 1970 shows at Bill Graham‘s Fillmore East “rock palace” ballroom in New York City, with three “bonus tracks” recorded at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in April of the same year.  Material from the Fillmore East shows had previously been released in edited, medley form as At Fillmore, an album once well like that certain fans have increasingly criticized for its editing of the source material.

While most music, even to this day, has to pick one style and stick with it, Miles’ fusion bands found ways to present multitudes of styles, sometimes all at once and sometimes in serial progression.  At the Fillmore East shows, he had two keyboardists, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea.  We hear the speedy, busy runs of notes from Corea, sounding almost like electric guitar virtuosos in the Hendrix mold.  But at the same time we get large block and washes of sound, with bent, clipped and embellished edges from Jarrett almost like Sun Ra‘s afro-futurist experimentations.

This is a sleeker, more contemplative version of Miles’ fusion music, fluid and open, with lots of space and athletic energy.  The performers are separately identifiable in a way not unlike Miles’ bands back in the hard bop era.  Sure, they bleed over and surpass that paradigm, but it still represents a common reference point for the performers.  In the coming years, Miles’ music would grow more menacing and angrier even, certainly heavier and denser.  As time went on, the musicians worked more as a kind of monolithic unit, more actively coordinated — in the studio this was merely the impression given and not the reality of the recording process, which was quite the opposite in terms of literally isolating and separately recording individual performances.  But the moment in time captured on Miles at the Fillmore is one in which these bandmembers, all, are sort of the vanguard thinkers, sharing ideas, building off each others’ contributions, mapping out the field of the possible.

Bassist Dave Holland plays a key role in the sound of the band.  He is more like another soloist than a part of rhythm section.  Holland can (and does) play catchy lines on his electric bass, but he doesn’t always provide a syncopated rhythm in sync with drummer Jack DeJohnette (key examples: “Directions,” “Sanctuary”).  Holland is sometimes fairly far down in the mix, and his contributions can blend with the horns and the keyboards.  In that shadowy place of blurred lines, he shifts the momentum of the music, urging the other players one way or another.  Miles often gets credit for doing that.  But Holland did it too, often more in the sense of trying to herd cats at a full sprint.

There are now many recordings available of Miles’ period of transformation and growth as a live performer from 1969-1971.  Many of these documents are stunning in their own right.  Still, Miles at the Fillmore might be the very best of them.  The audio fidelity is undoubtedly superior to the others.  the band, too, sounds as alive and engaged as anywhere else.  Saxophonist Steve Grossman has definitely settled into the group, and makes more substantive, meaningful contributions than on recordings from earlier in the year (Black Beauty).  His playing is punchy, noisy and even a little greasy sounding.  None of the other saxophonists Miles played with in the 70s had a sound like that.  Most played in a more sustained way to blend into the sonic fabric.

Miles Davis – Agharta


Miles DavisAgharta CBS/Sony SOPJ 92-93 (1975)

Miles Davis’ fusion period came to a head on Agharta.  His music was still melding rock and jazz.  It had become a more dense, ominous melange over the course of the last five years or so.  This is one of those albums that really encapsulates something essential about the tenor of the times.  It represents the tipping point, doing away with what has gone as far as it can, making way for something, anything.  The most indelible quality of this music is that it presents something that must be confronted.  It makes a certain imposition on its listeners–strange, foreboding vibrations with a tightly controlled and disciplined form.  That’s the key to this album.

The times were tumultuous, and Davis’ music reflected them.  Politically and socially a number of crass moves made this apparent to the observant.  President Nixon–the crook–had (illegally) taken the country off the gold standard, just to snatch away the legitimate progress other nations had been making.  The freedom (civil rights) movement had concluded a decade ago, and its gains were proving to be rather paltry.  Jim Crow racial segregation wasn’t explicit anymore but was still quite prevalent.  Cities were still de facto segregated, and jobs were not opening up, blacks were still poor.  The courts did step in to halt lynchings and similar racial terrorism of the most brazen sort.  Black militancy was waning, and as it did few lasting, tangible results beyond those of the ostensibly peaceful freedom movement remained.  In the broader view, these were the mere beginnings of a new order orchestrated from behind the proverbial closed doors, with jobs going elsewhere (offshoring), increasing financialization and de-industrialization across the whole economy.  The political right had yet to begin mass incarceration to obscure the removal of domestic job openings to locations abroad, though.  Women were gaining a greater say in Western society.  What did it all mean?  Well, in Davis’ music, you get a little taste of it all, without any firm conclusions.  Some major things were on the table.  Follow-through wasn’t always there though.  What else could he do after this but go into retirement?  Davis’ seclusion in his home in the coming years would be society writ large (Davis effectively retired from music for six years beginning just a few months after this live recording was made).  It would be up to the punks (still called merely “new wave” at the time) to carry the torch the rest of the way.  Not that Davis had a connection to that directly, but his stepping away from music after this was a call to action, and a lot of punks responded.  The idea that Miles was going to hold hands and drag along followers is the absurdity that his retirement rejects.  It is up to the rest of us jokers to get up with it and do something.  So in that context the absolutely funky rhythms of this music are appropriate.  Listen to this, well get up offa that thing.  By the way, this album’s title references a mythical (?) city said to reside at the Earth’s core.  It’s sort of a gnostic, Valentian conception of esoteric, utopian, secret wisdom.

At the time, it would have been easy to say, “what is this shit?”  Yes, it’s still easy to say that.  But, the more difficult proposition is to go back to this, dig deep, and maybe come to terms with some real progress found here.  Pete Cosey‘s guitar maybe isn’t just transposed Hendrix flash, but something that floats on looser moorings, free to access the full power of noise, even if it didn’t stay in that territory long.   Take a long, hard listen to this, and find a bunch of musicians able to play so much stuff independently at the same time, with a riveting sense of common purpose to attune their varied interests with space-age precision.  What makes this different from the more playful and sparring qualities of the various early 70s fusion albums the man made, is the sense of weariness, the last-ditch effort this represents.  What next?  Indeed.