Jazz Institute of Chicago

Electric Miles

Miles Davis

Electric Miles

Black Beauty: Live at Fillmore West
(Columbia/Legacy C2K 65138), April 1970
Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at Fillmore East
(Columbia/Legacy C2K 65139), June 17-20, 1970

(Columbia/Legacy C2K 65135), 1969-70
Miles Davis in Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall
(Columbia/Legacy C2K 65140), September 1972
Dark Magus: Live at Carnegie Hall
(Columbia/Legacy C2K 65137), March 1974

Reviewed by Greg Masters

To fans of Miles Davis' later periods, the musical events he created during his so-called electric period (1969–75), are acts of constant exploring and constant willingness to push into the unknown, daring to always look forward and to not rely on any conventions or any of the safety nets of the past. The music is rebellious, uncompromising in its intensity and uncategorizable. It flaunts recording conventions merging tunes and passages into suites lasting longer than an LP side.

Miles' music of this five year period is unlike any music that preceded it, and still, thirty years later, is so original, so progressive, and so inadequately described. It's no wonder that with his transformation into an electric experimenter, Miles lost a huge share of that loyal audience who'd been following his earlier career. This new electric music dared to shed a "jazz" sound to integrate a highly charged, youthful raw power from rock and funk. Ignoring barriers, this music refused to stay in any "proper" place. Besides being multi-cultural, it made perhaps an even bigger transgression: it was often unpleasant, assaultive, harsh, combative, macho, eerie, and seemingly formless. If you came expecting a transcendent version of "My Funny Valentine" you were going to be let down.

This music is not useful as background music. It can't be used in the same way the 30 years' worth of Miles' previous music can be used. It demands attentiveness. It's militant and arrogant. It's ferocious. It's unsettling. It's more a display of audacity and an assertion of absolute independence than a lovely palette to summon dreams. Miles is making it clear that the dream is over.

All romantic ballads and pleasurable entertainments are history. With this sound he describes a new reality for which he invents a new musical vocabulary. He can't waste time making things pretty and acceptable anymore. These urgent expressions do contain aspects of prettiness and lush pleasantries; it's just that the context for these elements has been radically altered, with elements of ugliness, atonality, and the brutish added to the emotional mix. This music is on fire, crackling with effervescence and affirmation. As a body of music, this period seems to unleash forces of liberation and decades of pent-up fury.

This isn't posturing entertainment, this is artistry of the highest order with no concession for the audience's expectations or for presenting what the audience might be comfortable with. Despite the ignorant criticism of the time that Miles was selling out to the big-selling rock market, this music is realer than real had ever been. You can question this mutant, merging of musical forms as a matter of taste, but you can't question the integrity of attempting to open new emotive ground.

Long out of print or available only as expensive CD imports from Japan, the recordings of this prolific and fertile period of Miles' career have, for 20 years, been the least accessible and the least examined. Columbia/Legacy has now given us the opportunity of reassessing and catching up with this period by issuing five double-CD sets of mainly live performances.

The sets are beautifully packaged with a much improved design from other recent Miles boxset re-issues. The photo spreads provide substantial visual drama. Touching and appreciative liner notes by musicians who played in the bands or are close to the music heighten the musical experience.

On the earliest of the dates, Black Beauty [Fillmore West, April 1970] and At Fillmore [East, June 1970], Miles leads the band through much of the material that had recently been recorded in the studio as Bitches Brew. These live interpretations stretch out with a cracked appropriation of the dance groove of James Brown and Sly Stone—an effect that first showed up to more dramatic success on the 1969 release, In a Silent Way)—sounding more jagged and lacking the bounce and palette of subtle coloration of the studio versions.

Seemingly out to show something to this new younger crowd, Miles' playing on open horn is powerful and masculine. He puts everything he has into long solo essays, opening his soul to lengthy and thorough examination. The sound and timbre of Chick Corea's electric piano is jarring and unpleasant, but his playing is a revelation. His percussive, rococo embellishments, his eager chord sequences that reconfigure vamps into startling voicings and his solo runs pull the group toward a conception freer than before. The sound is still within the orbit of a chordal structure, but is less indebted to the traditional faith in harmony and melody.

Live-Evil captures Miles live at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. and in the studio from 1969 to 1970 with an assortment of musicians. This set may be the most cohesive and comprehensible of the five new packages, if it doesn't quite attain some of the intense fire grooves of the other sets. In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall is another step in Miles' continuing evolution. By this point jazz-based musicians have all been replaced with musicians who've come out of funk and the group sound is more focused to a driving groove.

The simple, repeated bass patterns of Michael Henderson (former bassist for Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder), anchor a churning, molten maelstrom of sound. He subtly pilot the ensemble through shifting phases of musical explication while Miles' muted and melancholic trumpet played over tribal chant-like music becomes an incantation and meditation on the deep recesses of the human spirit.

On Dark Magus all the effects, all the power and energy, all the starts and stops, still serve to create what Miles has always created: moods, atmospheres, feelings. In this case, they're among twentieth century music's darkest and most extreme.

Out of the quagmire of activity on all these sets, tunes and heads echo long after listening. Their ebullient affirmations punctuate the dailiness we walk through. Their brooding sadness, proud yet effusive, attunes us to deeper layers of emotion than many of us are accustomed to and certainly, never have heard expressed before in such a vulnerable manner.

Not to appear ungrateful to Columbia/Legacy for the gift of these treasures, but these releases leave devotees of this music dissatisfied. There's strong feeling that the release of the full, complete performances is essential. Teo Maceo's post-production editing may have served his client Miles well but at the same time, certainly excised many solos of the other band members and sliced away developing themes and concepts. For example, what we get on the Fillmore East set, must be half of each of the four night's performances, edited down to fit the original LP format. In short, we'd like to hear for ourselves the tooling around Teo argues he's spared us from.

For a future reissue, it would be terrific if Columbia would restore the sets entirely and give us a four-CD package. We also need the complete live sets with John McLaughlin that were excerpted on Live-Evil. These moments are important enough in Miles' progression that they deserve a public hearing. And the considerable legions of Miles fanatics are willing to shell out the money.

The original version of this article was printed in CODA Magazine, 2/98 and also appears on the Jazz Journalists Association web site.

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