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 liked 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.

Miles Davis – Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess

Miles DavisPorgy and Bess Columbia CL 1274 (1959)

Bold and uncategorizable, outside the scope of translation, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a visionary’s upheaval of the rule of the mundane and stagnant. Any cursory look to American music must include it. Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ rendition is among the most enduring. For use as a film treatment’s soundtrack, Miles collaborated here with his alter ego Evans who conducts the orchestra, handles all arrangements, and contributes a song of his own. There are volumes written on Gershwin’s masterwork and this rendition (because this is an instrumental rendition, excluding all singing, it is fair to exclude Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s contributions to Porgy and Bess), but no outpouring of words captures the impulsiveness of the performance.

Many believe that 20th Century composition began shackled by Euro-classical conventions. The important things had already been done, leaving little of interest. The odds of success were certainly slimmer than before. This prompted many to follow the lead of Arnold Schönberg or those developing various just intonation and conceptual systems of music. However, George Gershwin–and subsequently others like Eric Dolphy–shows that it never had to be strictly about systems and rules but could be about divining the poetry of exceptional circumstance. If the vision fit in simple forms, so be it. Porgy and Bess conveys the common things of life in a most uncommon way.

Gershwin was a wild card among American composers. His firm belief in the value folk music opened untold avenues. He stirred up wonderful human traditions in colorful sounds. Steve Reich has said, “the human construct we call music is merely a convention–something we’ve all evolved together, and which rests on no final or ultimate laws. And it sails, in my mind, like a ship of light down an endlessly dark corridor, preserving itself as long as it can.” (“Steve Reich In Conversation with Jonathan Scott,” New York City 1985; from the liner notes to The Desert Music). Reich’s own views on music make plain Gershwin’s insight, even though, on the surface, Gershwin doesn’t appear particularly serious. He was popular after all. Well, Erik Satie wrote cabaret songs–great ones. Gershwin may not have fashioned his own language, but he found, as expressed in the heart of his works, unspoken beauties. His respect and humanity shine through every note. Academics are simply irrelevant.

As for the Miles/Evans recording, it is a success on every level. Miles plays a little trumpet and a little flugelhorn. His Harmon mute often appears to lend biting sincerity to his solos. His touch is soft and remarkably smooth. A particularly memorable rendition of “Summertime” is a favorite with Miles’ dry, swaggering sense of rhythm.

The centerpiece truly is “Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)”. Gershwin, Evans, Miles and the orchestra all communicate as one. Miles’ horn raises a soaring angelic voice above the churning rumble swelling about him. Pleading and sincere, Miles plays his brightest. At the dénouement, he draws back into a husky state of exhaustion.

After such a vigorous song, the challenge to follow it is immense. Gershwin builds slowly with “Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab.” The subtleties in the flow of Porgy and Bess seem effortless.

Miles later recalled (in his autobiography Miles) the two of the most challenging songs he had played were “I Loves You, Porgy” here, and “KoKo” back with Charlie Parker (reputedly, Dizzy Gillespie took over on trumpet for at least part of that recording). “I Loves You Porgy” makes a touching expansion of the emotional range of the record.

Evans manages to maintain the intimacy of a small combo with the larger orchestra. He uses tubas, flutes, French horns, and clarinets to their full potential in the orchestra. Some of what Evans does is not so fluid though. The inclusion of an Evans original, “Gone,” is nothing short of shocking. Not to say it’s a bad tune, but its inclusion is a significant change–much more so than doing an instrumental rendition of an opera. The Gershwin score certainly isn’t rigid. At the outset the results are indeterminate. But placing “Gone” in the middle breaks up the flow of Porgy and Bess even in a non-vocal version. Still, this record is a wonderful meeting of talents to deliver a common vision.

Don’t call this jazz, opera, folk, pop or classical. Don’t call it anything. Just listen and let it melt boundaries.

Miles Davis – E.S.P.


Miles DavisE.S.P. Columbia CS 9150 (1965)

In 1965, Miles Davis made a slight break from the East Coast hard-bop he pioneered over the past decade. E.S.P. was the first studio album from Miles’ second great quintet: Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Tony Williams (drums), and Ron Carter (bass). At every turn, the group breaks convention. E.S.P. is not as popular as other Davis albums, but it remains as great as any other recordings by any of Miles’ groups. It’s the intriguing launch point for what Miles did over the coming years.

Miles Davis never had to practice. He had the remarkable ability to immediately remember any music he heard (a phonographic memory?). His band did not feel quite the same way about skipping practice, but they certainly had to deal with it. The rhythm section was left hanging to fashion their own ideas about the music — even more so on their next album Miles Smiles. Miles always said he didn’t know what the fuck the band was doing “back there.” Well what they were doing back there was playing great jazz. Left without structure and guidance, the rhythm section found themselves experimenting with new forms and styles. E.S.P. is a great example of the jazz ideal of making it up as you go. Tony Williams (just nineteen!) showed early indications of fusion with some straight drumming on “Eighty-One” (“straight” means, for example, instead of accenting the 2nd & 4th backbeats in 4/4 time, all the beats are accented the same).

Herbie Hancock started to use “no left hand” as Miles instructed. The space and lighter voicing holds the horn solos. The piano sounds more like another horn. Wayne Shorter gracefully delivers melodic solos, while the trumpet coats the sax in sleek harmony. Miles’ magic mute appears for “Agitation” with attentive snaps in front of Ron Carter’s vamps. Miles then boldly lays down his vibrato-less blasts on “Iris.”

The sound is delicate and always compassionate. Tonality is hardly constant, slowly removing traditional bop structure. The songwriting encompasses contributions from most of the group, though Wayne Shorter would later take over most of the writing.

Miles Davis refused to let music evolve past him. He reaffirms his place as one of the great bandleaders and visionaries by assembling a remarkable band that delivers on every ounce of potential. E.S.P. was elegant 1960s jazz that needed not shy away from the free jazz movement.

Directions in Music By Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew

Directions in Music By Miles DavisBitches Brew Columbia PG 26 (1970)

There is no question that Bitches Brew is a milestone of that beast known as “jazz fusion”.  What continues to astound is how odd it really was.  This was heralded for it efforts to introduce rock influences to jazz music.  But this sounds like no rock record of its age, or any other.  Miles went on to record far more “rock” sounding albums, like A Tribute to Jack Johnson.  This things was something else entirely.  It presents a modulating soundscape with hardly any points of reference.  No matter what angle you approach this from, its massive sound just overtakes your any contextual references brought to the table.  You can hear Miles play trumpet, but amidst the washes of keyboard, guitar, horns, bass and drums, the whinnies and blurts coming out of Miles’ horn sound other-worldly.  The sheer number of players that are heard and the amount of raw material spliced together to form the the finished product was something new for a “jazz” album.  What it ensures is that the textures continually shift.  I somewhat rarely throw this on my stereo, but when I do I’m always surprised.  There seems to always be another layer to the music waiting to be discovered.  The density of the vision is great, because you can pick out any song, jump in at just about any point, and find one of those perfect notes.  Those are the notes that feel like the culmination of the massive sonic fabric that surrounds them.  And to think that “fusion” was a fairly new concept when this album came together, it’s a remarkable thing indeed that the creativity and power of the album is at a maximum throughout.  Don’t bother looking for missteps.  For the most part, this album defined the 1970s in jazz.  That might have been for the better early on, even if it was for the worse after around 1975 when Miles went into temporary retirement.  There probably is no other artist or group that reached the heights Miles did with this form.  Sure, others made major contributions and achieved great things.  But Miles was able to take the basic idea here and take it many different directions over the years with countless lineups.  You’ll probably either hate this, or love it to the point of addiction to the relentless, harrowing journey Miles will take you on through the rest of his activities in the 70s.

Miles Davis – Big Fun

Big Fun

Miles DavisBig Fun Columbia PG 32866  (1974)

It is somewhat amazing to think that despite the intense creative peak Miles Davis achieved in the early 1970s, On the Corner from 1972 was the last proper studio album he consciously assembled for roughly ten years, until The Man With the Horn in 1981.  Everything in between was either archival in nature, a live recording, or, like Big Fun and Get Up With It, an amalgamation of leftovers spanning a period of many years.  When it comes to Big Fun, rather than taking the rather disparate material — from the moody, atmospheric “Great Expectations/Orange Lady” and “Lonely Fire” from the late-1960s Bitches Brew era to the grinding rock of “Go Ahead John” from the Jack Johnson period to the murky, paranoid, Eastern-flavored “Ife” that was recorded following the On the Corner sessions — and either accepting the incongruity or else massaging the material in the editing process to homogenize it, Davis and producer Teo Macero take a third path.  What happens is that they take raw material as if in a highly elemental form, and Macero uses studio effects and cut-and-paste techniques to transform a lot of it into something different than any of its origins.  This is perhaps most apparent in the harshly chopped and distorted editing of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s solo(s) and Jack DeJohnette‘s drums on “Go Ahead John.”  This was remarkable stuff.  The editing process was a conscious and audible part of the final work.  There were precedents.  Modern composers had made similar experiments.  For instance, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Davis greatly admired) stitched together national anthems for his Hymnen, and Steve Reich chopped up a spoken word sample to create Come Out previously.  But Davis and Macero were taking those techniques and trying to apply them to popular music.  This was meant for the masses!

Often relegated to at best a second-class status, Big Fun is a better record than that spotted critical history suggests.  Yet it also isn’t the most immediately impressive entry into the long line of great 70s fusion albums from Miles.  Most listeners will perhaps want to put this further down the list of Davis albums of the period to check out.  But bear in mind that if anything from the period hooks you, you will almost inevitably seek out the rest, and Big Fun definitely earns its place in that search.  This has a more agitated and fiery flavor than the earliest of Davis fusion efforts in the late 1960s, but also a more ambient quality than much of the dense and funky early/mid 1970s recordings.  If there was a way to convey the tumult of the times, this would have to be it though.  It’s a record that isn’t always satisfying, at least not for more than moments.  If that sort of approach isn’t for you, then the album won’t necessarily be for you.