MILES BEYOND, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967–1991
By Paul Tingen
Billboard Books, 352 pages, $24.95
reviewed by Don Rose
Magical, mystical, mysterious Miles!
Nobody, but nobody, in the century-long history of the music ever covered all the territory, musical, imagistic and iconistic, that the skinny trumpet player from East St. Louis did. He would have been 75 last May had he lived—but that life was cut short a decade ago. Yet for most of his years on earth, from the time he left his hometown in 1945 to find Charlie Parker in New York, he blazed a long, winding, trail through the jazz world, making astonishing music, continuously riddled with controversy, to become perhaps the first jazz superstar—and rock-star to boot.
As a jazzman he ranks right there close to Armstrong, Ellington, Parker and Coltrane and as a perpetual agent of innovation and change probably surpasses them all. If he did not actually invent the cool-jazz movement, hard bop, modal music or fusion, it was he who crystallized, codified and defined by example those post-bebop tendencies. He led two of the greatest small bands in the history of the music and he was there as a principal and collaborator when peaks of post-Ellington orchestrated jazz were reached. He's the author of the two best-selling jazz recordings of all time and an unsurpassed identifier and developer of musical talent. (Let's not even talk about the extremes of his personal life—the drugs, drink, illnesses and foul behavior with women.)
With all this—though he was roundly criticized in his earlier days for problems with tone and technique—there is general agreement about his contributions up to the late sixties, with the second great quintet, which stood, in Neil Tesser's phrase, at the right wing of the avant garde and free music. It is when that band began to expand in personnel and instrumentation—mainly by adding electric instruments—that the real Miles Davis controversy begins. At least among many jazz fans and commentators.
The introduction of electronics and the rhythms and harmonies of rock, funk and even pop raised questions galore about his betrayal of the jazz tradition, questions that pursued him almost to the day he died in 1991, while at the same time he was becoming perhaps the wealthiest jazzman of all time. That's what Paul Tingen's book is all about: revaluating the electric years and putting them in a new context. (Coincidentally there's a recent set of discs, "Electric Miles," providing the musical evidence needed for such a revaluation.)
Tingen, a Dutch guitarist and writer based in Scotland and California has given us a fascinating, microscopically detailed analysis of all Davis's live and studio recordings during the period, accounts of concerts and club dates, personnel and working methods and myriad biographical details based on interviews with more than 50 musicians and other associates of the master. He includes a remarkable 40-page sessionography by Enrico Merlin and an extensive bibliography, proving that this Davis guy was a popular subject, generating one of the longer bookshelves in the music.
Right off, he attempts to dispose of much of the criticism of the last half of Miles's professional career by stating firmly that Miles simply had become a rock musician and his critics were, and are, jazz people who consider rock an inferior music. "[T]hey're stuck in a jazz paradigm from which rock looks unpleasant and incomprehensible. Rather than admit to their limitations, his detractors simply devalue and dismiss what they don't understand....had Miles's opponents been able to follow him into his new direction, they would have recognized that it renewed and arguably salvaged jazz." (You will find the word "paradigm" repeated ad nauseam throughout the book—which seems to be an integral linguistic element of a Zen—New Age perspective that enters the analysis and smears it up here and there.)
You don't have to swallow his argument whole to appreciate his views. There is certainly a modicum of truth to the hypothesis. I would agree that many of us who write about the music do rank rock as a lesser art—much as we rank pop the same way, in some instances lowering it even below rock in our personal musical hierarchies. Thus, when a true jazz artist enters another realm—whether Miles messing with rock or George Benson singing pop—we tend to look with disdain at the artist's move toward commercialization or whatever sin might be related.
Tingen offers the additional thesis that Miles was essentially a blues musician who first took up jazz then jazz-rock, rather than a jazzman who was influenced by the blues. He builds a fair case based on Miles's earliest associations and later efforts to play with various blues artists—and his return to a blues-based music toward the end. But it's essentially a distinction without a difference. One can make the same case for Parker, who never considered entering the rock world.
To his credit, however, in discussing and analyzing all the many works in the electric period, he maintains a sharp objectivity, frequently criticizing whole sessions or Miles's work within them, as when the trumpeter relies too heavily on his wah-wah pedal. Slowly and painstakingly he follows the development of the music, year by year, session by session, from the initial addition of a guitar to the second quintet—the one with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams—on through the use of electric pianos and synthesizers.
The breakthrough record was "In a Silent Way," introducing new grooves and rock harmonies and rhythms, then the epic "Bitches Brew," with added musicians, including jazz-rocker John McLaughlin. Thus began Miles's use of a vast "stock company" of musicians who would come to weave in and out of studio sessions and live dates. The walls of sound that emerged, against which Miles's playing became increasingly abstract, led ultimately to the "ambient" music of the later seventies and eighties.
"Bitches Brew" was also a landmark use of the studio as part of a work's compostion. Teo Macero, for many years, up to a nasty break, assembled songs and virtual suites from miscellaneous pieces of music—sometimes long after the fact—often introducing breaks, shifts and distortion through the use of electronic devices. We would come to hear entire albums of pastiche and collage, of overdubbing and repetition. Tingen is quite remarkable in his detailing of these works, identifying fragments of ensemble and solo work, noting splices and editing and their precise second of timing on the finished product. A useful musicological service indeed.
Yet another useful service here is the ongoing discussion of Miles's working methods—the way he would bring in players and give them little or no guidance as to what was wanted or expected, always relying on the element of surprise and spontaneity. People would be hired right out of the blue, with no advance notice, let alone a try-out. Sometimes he would even play one musician off against another personally, just to relish the musical result of the tension. Sometimes he would ask simply for a groove or riff—often cryptically. Sometimes he would just hum something, or nod his head. He was the ultimate mother bird who tossed her fledglings out of the nest with no warning and made them all fly—often in perfect formation.
Dozens and dozens of fine musicians entered his realm during the 24 years discussed here—many of whom would go on to find some degree of fame or notoriety in the jazz world and many more in the rock and pop worlds. From all of these interviewed—even those who would ultimately be discarded—the element of awe runs brightly through, like a vein of gold in a mine. There is gratitude to Miles for making them part of his ensemble, if only briefly, and respect and amazement at how well things managed to come out. One could make a case that he had a true aura—or perhaps it was a history and accumulation of respect approaching idolatry that inspired all.
Musically, the years in question gave us the still controversial "On the Corner;" they may not have provided us with a "Birth of the Cool" or "Walkin'" or "Kind of Blue," but one cannot but be impressed with "Bitches Brew," or "Aura" or "Jack Johnson" or "Pangaea" or many other albums of this controversial period, particularly at this distance. Even in some of the strangest and sometimes least appetizing environments, the trumpeter played some remarkable solos. Of course there was a lot of trash there, too. Miles Davis was a searcher who was impelled to change, to stake new territory, to regularly remake himself like a serpent shedding its old skin. The essential thing is, he did it by way of synthesis and absorbtion, contrasted with another searcher, John Coltrane, who chose to explore an outer space, thus there was never an accusation or fear of his selling out or betraying jazz for commerciality. I think this is Tingen's main point.
We have here a fine, if occasionally annoying or overly detailed addition to the Davis bookshelf. It is part biography and part a special pleading, suffering a bit from trying to make too many cases about Davis and answer too many external criticisms. It makes a few errors in making its case: Miles was certainly a discoverer of talent, but he didn't discover Horace Silver—Stan Getz did that five years before Davis hooked up with him. It cannot replace Jack Chambers's indispensable, two-volume biography, "Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis," which carries us from the very beginning through the early eighties, prior to his death, but whose most recent addition has a bit of a post script. But for the interviews, the detailing of the sessions and many of its musical evaluations, it is more than worthwhile.