Miles: Still The Baddest (and Meanest) MF on the Planet

Lots of Miles in the sky lately.

Just saw this hilarious (and oddly moving) story online today from the great old days when, in no particular order, Davis was alive, certain types of people drove around with stacks of cocaine in their Lamborghinis, and people drove Lamborghinis, period. Check it out, here

I saw this gem a few weeks back and did not comment, in part because what can you say? Miles doing a blind listening test? Give the man a mic and hilarity ensues. But I’m still fuming a bit about what a prick he could be (and the best artists tend to be the hugest assholes, particularly the ones who can brook no competition). In short, even though he was arguably (along with Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and Jackie McLean) one of the all-time magnets for –and advocates of– young talent, he was dead wrong on Eric Dolphy and he was embarrassingly –and revealingly– blind about Booker Little (who, had he lived for another few decades, would be on the short-list of not only trumpet players, but jazz composers, period). But he was honest, amusing and gave no quarter (or plugged nickel, for that matter), as always.

It’s been two years (already?) since the masterful Bitches Brew turned 40. On that occasion, I wrote a celebration entitled “The Shock Heard ‘Round The World”. It’s reproduced, in its entirety, below.

Shortly before his death in 1991, Miles Davis remarked “You don’t change music, music changes you.” While that statement is unassailable regarding the vast majority of artists, no matter how influential, Miles Davis was definitely an exception. Indeed, the Man with the Horn was being uncharacteristically modest, and he knew it. He did, after all, actually change music several times, and he was normally the first person to remind doubters and neophytes of this fact. His ultimate achievement—beyond the staggering scope of his recorded works—may have been providing a forum where the best players could congregate. In this creative cauldron that he tended to over the better part of four decades, Miles served as inventor, instigator and mentor. The list of legends that cut their teeth in his employ remains astounding: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin, just to name a handful.

Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.

At no point did Miles risk more—while most profoundly influencing the shape of jazz to come—than in the second half of 1969, when he oversaw the sessions that would eventually drop Bitches Brew on a wide-eyed world. Perhaps the grandest irony of all the misguided hot air surrounding the origins, intent and influence of Bitches Brew is the chuckleheaded charge that Miles had somehow “sold out”. Sure, 20-minute psychedelic funk mash-ups through the amp darkly were squarely aimed at the pop consumer circles. It was a ludicrous charge, then and it remains more than a little offensive, today.

Certainly, the fact that jazz and rock took a few pages from this script only augments the lightning Miles snared in his recording studio. The subsequent misfortune that an increasingly watered-down devolution of this sound mutated into the saccharine miasma called “smooth jazz” should be laid at Davis’s doorstep about as reasonably as we can blame Einstein for man’s detonation of nuclear weapons. This album found its audience the second it hit the streets and it continues to attract new converts every day. It does not receive the universal approbation accorded to Birth of the Cool or Kind of Blue, and it was not necessarily intended to. Miles was happy with it, the fans remain infatuated with it, and like any worthwhile work of art, it can—and does—speak for itself.

A few words are nevertheless warranted for the folks who, opportunistically or ignorantly, dismiss the album and consider it a blight that signaled the beginning of the end of a so-called golden era of jazz. The problem here lies mainly with the self-appointed culture cops, our ever-shrinking jazz intelligentsia and the hipper-than-thou historians who won’t accept that they simply don’t get it. Let’s name names: cantankerous blowhards like Stanley Crouch and clueless if influential neophytes like Ken Burns have either damned Bitches Brew (and post-‘60s Miles work in general) with faint praise or dismissed it altogether. For a lot of the critics with whom this work never registered, Bitches Brew signified the first time a butterfly turned back into a caterpillar.

And here we are, forty years later, celebrating what is commonly considered one of the seminal long-players in all music. All of which simply illustrates that Miles was miles ahead of the crowd, as usual. As always, he was less interested in following trends as he was in establishing them. Finally, as it relates to jazz music, this is where B.C. becomes A.D.

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t as though Davis dropped Bitches Brew on an unsuspecting public. Unprepared, possibly; but anyone who had listened to the previous three albums knew Miles was up to something. Certainly, someone who had not followed his work after Seven Steps to Heaven was in for a nice surprise; even anyone unfamiliar with the albums that came after 1968’s Nefertiti could not have been adequately up to speed. In actuality, the albums that led up to Bitches Brew are like a trail of breadcrumbs tracing the path to an inevitable house party. The twenty-six minute “Circle in the Round” made it clear that Miles would—and could—stretch out to ecstatic effect. The electric piano (and electric guitar) on Miles in the Sky were harbingers of the (semi) plugged-in and sustained compositions on Filles de Kilimanjaro. The languid pace, “modern” instrumentation and incorporation of rock and R&B (James Brown, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix were all implicit and explicit—and important—sources of inspiration) elements set in place the template for the new formula. This approach reached a preliminary apex during the In A Silent Way sessions, which saw the pace turn cool bordering on glacial. Despite the augmented band and instrumentation, the sound is crystalline (the triple-keyboard assault of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul remains revelatory): listening to any section of this album is still a bit like walking barefoot in the dark on a frozen lake—only warmer. All of which is to say Bitches Brew may not have been a predictable next step, but it was the inexorable one.

And this all went down forty years ago, which means The Age of Aquarius is officially middle-aged (never mind how old the young and middle-aged hippies who rang it in have become). Perhaps the world’s ears have matured—and heard—enough over these decades to understand—and appreciate—Bitches Brew. Either way, if any album obliges the by-now requisite milestone/anniversary reissue, it’s this one. The great news is that this 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition has all the original (remastered) tracks, some bonus cuts and two extra discs. The first is a live set recorded at Tanglewood in August, 1970. The second is a DVD featuring a never-before-seen concert from November, 1969. Needless to say, for jazz fans, Miles freaks and music aficionados, this must be considered an imperative acquisition.

And for the uninitiated? There is no better time to jump in; this brew tastes as good as it ever did. And regarding the stylistic and cultural changes that have ensued since late ’69, what might have once sounded scary should seem almost accessible. To listeners who have absorbed progressive rock, world music, trip-hop and the ambient dreamscapes that drugs and technology have helped create, this experience might impart the shock of recognition: this is the primordial stew that all of these advancements oozed out of. (For the full and unfettered experience, you need to acquire the box set that includes the complete Bitches Brew sessions, which was released several years back.)

Start with the artwork. Innovative and incendiary then, this double-gatefold LP—which would have (and still could) convey an insider’s sort of solidarity if taped to a dorm-room wall—could now be respectably framed in an office or living room. Miles, utilizing the considerable skills of artist Abdul Mati Klarwein, took James Brown one step further and the immediate visual message here shouts out Say it once, say it loud, I am African and I’m proud. Of course the mission statement above the title declaring that this effort signifies “Directions In Music By Miles Davis” is both a boast and a simple declaration of fact. If we no longer sit around and stare at album covers while we absorb the sounds (we may still stare at album covers but do we absorb the sounds?), we always have YouTube.

Regarding these “new directions”, music was already changing (it always is); Miles was clever enough to understand the new possibilities being made possible by the aforementioned Mr. Brown, as well as Sly Stone and especially Jimi Hendrix. Miles, always trusting his ever-keen instincts, incorporated some of this freedom into his approach; he just happened to have the biggest and boldest freak flag, and as such he was able—and obliged—to fly it higher than anyone else. In the process he dragged jazz music, kicking and screeching, into the ‘70s—and beyond.

Let’s look at a few of the elements that were so innovative (if unsettling, or both) circa 1970. The wah-wah effects Miles used to create a surreal but visceral—even intense—sound with his horn. The 27-minute title track is “Exhibit A” of this experiment, and it is one that remains boundary-busting and slightly intimidating. The funk elements inch their way to the forefront (they would arguably reach a fruition during the subsequent Jack Johnson sessions), incorporating the R&B-meets-Rock & Roll approach epitomized by Miles’s extended reworking of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” on Filles de Kilimanjaro’s “Mademoiselle Mabry”. These elements are all channeled through a sprawling, pan-cultural perspective on tracks like “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Spanish Key.”

Producer Teo Macero (ever reliable, patient and encouraging—as the hysterical studio chatter before the “Part Something” take of “Corrado”, from the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set illustrates: (Teo) “Okay, is this gonna’ be part two, or…?” (Miles, hissing) “It’s gonna’ be PART NINE WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE MUTHAFUCKA?”) continues the heavy lifting he did during the post-recording edits for In A Silent Way. Like George Martin with The Beatles, enough can never be said about how crucial Macero’s contributions were to the final products. The extended, but never aimless improvisatory jams were meticulously multi-tracked, then spliced, and resorted, providing both boundary and momentum (if not necessarily any sort of musical “logic” that contemporary ears were accustomed to).

The augmented personnel impart an obvious heft to the proceedings, but it never feels crowded. Indeed, it never even feels busy, primarily because Miles was always after feeling above all else, and no musician other than the young Coltrane ever attempted to “overplay” in his presence. For instance, Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet adds a beefy bottom, underneath the bass, giving this postmodern music an almost prehistoric vibe. Young drummer Lenny White was brought in to (as Miles dictated) serve as the “salt and spices” to accompany Jack DeJohnette’s muscular groove. Dave Holland provides an anchor for this rollicking ship with his acoustic bass, while Harvey Brooks bobs and weaves around the rhythm with his Fender Bass. Chick Corea provides ongoing color commentary via electric piano, and is joined by Joe Zawinul and Larry Young (each also using electric pianos) on several tracks. John McLaughlin is the secret weapon throughout, consistently providing subtle but unmistakable embellishment. Most of these moving parts mingle to sublime effect on the beyond-cool “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down”, where the band stalks the groove like a snake, moving calmly and assuredly by instinct through the darkening woods.

The star, besides Miles, remains the stalwart Wayne Shorter who, at this point in his career, continued (however improbably) to astonish each time out. His ethereal soprano saxophone on In A Silent Way would seem unimprovable, but here he lends a grace and class that elevates what would otherwise only be a near-perfect recording. Like Miles, Shorter (a master composer himself) was obsessed with texture and atmosphere. His presence makes a track like “Spanish Key” almost impossible to dislike: his graceful runs soar above the din and certainly point the way toward the truly gorgeous work he would do on Moto Grosso Feio and The Odyssey of Iska the following year. The mood over the course of the first five songs is alternately foreboding and restless, like a massive storm slowly building. It finally breaks on the magisterial album-closer, “Sanctuary”, which finally provides a manner of relief—however tentative. The song sounds like a plugged-in outtake from Sketches of Spain, and features some of Davis and Shorter’s greatest work. If most of the proceedings remain music that one can’t (shouldn’t?) listen to on a regular rotation, “Sanctuary” sits near the summit and can subsist in peace alongside anything else Miles ever did (you got that, Stanley Crouch?).

Still on the fence? The one-two punch of live material bookend this material brilliantly, and are both worthy additions to your collection. The DVD, filmed during a concert in Copenhagen on November 4, 1969 (about five months before Bitches Brew was officially unleashed), previews what is just around the corner. It’s not unlike a jazz Altamont; it signals the end of an amazing decade but the only casualty captured on tape is convention. The performance, lasting just over an hour, is one continuous flow of music with songs spilling over and into one another. The curtain opens and the band is already playing: it is almost unreal how unvarnished live acts (especially jazz) were back then—no dry ice, no pyrotechnics, no fake heroics or dubbed in embellishment; it’s just a live jam. The crowd is quiet, respectful, and almost entirely white. On most of the selections Wayne Shorter functions as a sort of chaser to Miles’s 180 Proof solos, restoring a semblance of collected calm after The Sorcerer’s short blasts of piss and vinegar. Jack DeJohnette maintains a pulsating beat, sounding like a slightly more muscular Tony Williams. If it’s possible for a man with a beard to have a baby face, it is the young Dave Holland, who suffuses restraint behind his upright bass. On the front line, Chick Corea fills out the contours in between Miles’s focused and powerful runs. Every time Shorter drops in his soprano cascades with placid, almost cerebral intensity, his eyes shut tight in composed concentration. It is a delight to have access to this footage.

The concert recorded at Tanglewood, on August 18, 1970, takes stock of what has gone down and offers Field Notes from the future. Gary Bartz replaces Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett adds organ to bolster Corea’s electric piano. Holland and DeJohnette are still holding down the fort, augmented by the percussion of Airto Moreira. A filthy funk abounds and the band keeps the pedal to the metal throughout this abbreviated (43 minute) set. One can appreciate how the origins of “jam band” took firm root in this era: like the DVD, this is one extended groove. The band locks in and runs through the numbers in a deliberate but not choreographed fashion. There is no doubt that Miles feels invigorated by the youthful excitement around him, and the team is obviously eager to earn the maestro’s favor. It works.

And so, once the fairy dust settles and all is played and done, you may find yourself—here in the yesternow of 2010—asking what all the fuss was about. The question, of course, is the answer: this is what all the fuss was about. Same as it ever was.


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