The Birth of the Hot
There are no easy parallels these days for the controversial electrified-guitar-based music Miles Davis was making from 1970 to '75 (when he went into a self-imposed six-year retirement). And the "jazz-rock fusion" he helped spawn is not an accurate reference. The only comparison I can come up with when I think back to the one live Miles show I saw during that period (at the old Paul's Mall on Boylston Street, probably in 1974) was Sonic Youth. I don't mean musical content -- not chords and melodies, keys and time signatures. I mean the music's size and density and texture.Just as Sonic Youth's geometrically multiplying guitar overtones create edifices that are almost visible in the concert hall, Miles's music kept coming at you. It wasn't volume alone that overwhelmed you -- though the music was plenty loud. Rather, it was the sum total effect of more sonic information than you could process. Multiple guitars squawked and chattered in tandem with Miles's electrified trumpet -- a pick-up attached to the mouthpiece, a microphone set on the floor, and a wah-wah pedal to process the whole thing. Meanwhile a drummer and a percussionist rolled out cross-rhythms (with additional electronic percussive filigree) over a deep groove from bassist Michael Henderson.In fact, Miles's music seemed to have become all rhythm and texture (all those drums, all those wah-wah pedals!). Jazz is known, among other things, for its harmonic sophistication, but Miles said of those years that he was trying to teach his musicians how to play at length off one chord. He claimed as his influences James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone's "Dance to the Music," and also Karlheinz Stockhausen and the British cellist Paul Buckmaster (these last for the way they "used rhythm and space," Miles said).He even credited his old nemesis Ornette Coleman. "I had begun to realize that some of the things Ornette Coleman had said about things being played three or four ways, independently of each other, were true because Bach had also composed that way. And it could be real funky and down." You can add to that mix Curtis Mayfield and the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," Isaac Hayes's theme from Shaft, and the whole blaxploitation-flick look of Miles album covers like In Concert and On the Corner.In its ongoing Miles reissue program, Sony has just brought out five albums from the period (all double CDs), two of them -- Dark Magus and Black Beauty -- previously available only as imports. Miles had begun experimenting with electric keyboards and electric guitars a few years before, but by the time of these albums, his transformation was complete. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and A Tribute to Jack Johnson were behind him, and so was his classic acoustic quintet of the mid to late '60s with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams. The critics dumped on him for turning away from jazz, but more people bought his records than ever before (Bitches Brew sold 400,000, a benchmark for a jazz release). He crowded the stage with electric instruments and percussionists -- two, even three Fender Rhodes pianos singing out at once, sitars, congas, tablas, guitars, a couple of trap drummers (Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham).The music is all over the place, in content and quality, as personnel and concepts shift from side to side of these concert-long jams. Once Miles had broken through to the white rock audience, he wanted to reach a broader young black audience. At any given point on these later albums -- a guitar lick, a funky Fender Rhodes piano figure -- the music conjures the period in all its bellbottomed, Afro'd specificity. Yet for all the conscious attempt at pop appeal, there's nothing on these sides that's anything less than experimental. Standard song form goes out the window. And even when Miles gets Henderson and DeJohnette to establish a funk vamp on Live-Evil, he thwarts it. There's no verse-chorus tension and release, the blues figures are clearly stated but never resolve in standard progressions -- it's all tension, no release. There is no "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and certainly no "Dance to the Music."If few of these albums are consistently thrilling, they all have their thrilling moments. On Black Beauty and Fillmore East, it's Miles's virile open horn playing, and Dave Holland's interpretation of Milesian funk on electric bass as well as his dancing interplay with Chick Corea's Fender Rhodes. (The Fillmore bands didn't include guitar.) On In Concert it's the opening Latin-style clav beat, the spaciousness of the music despite the crowded instrumentation, and the interplay of Reggie Lucas's electric guitar with Khalil Balakrishna's electric sitar.Dark Magus is the latest album in the bunch, Miles's last band before his "retirement." It's sometimes called the Pete Cosey band because that Chicago guitarist was the one common denominator (sax players and other changed.) The other albums from that band include Agharta and Pangaea, and Cosey was a distinguishing figure in all (Lucas and Dominique Gaumont were the other guitarists). Cosey's use of pedals and delays is eerie. Despite his role, he's set somewhat back in the mix. But it seems intentional. Cosey liked to use his effects to create calligraphic lines that moved freely from foreground to background, sometimes using the wah-wah pedal to squeeze out static-laced drips of sound on the canvas of the music.Despite Cosey and Magus's other attractions (Miles's cheesy-wheezy Sun Ra Farfisa effects on his Yamaha keyboard), the Cosey sessions leave me hungry. There are great moments -- all three guitars coming together to yammer excitedly, a repeated lone trumpet figure that's so vocal it sobs -- but too often it feels like noodling. Miles relies on repeated devices, like cutting the band to let Cosey or the saxophonist solo a cappella. At it's best, it's noise-damaged new age. But too often those pauses feel not like dramatic effects but like musicians trying to figure out what to play next.For my money, the best of the batch is still Live-Evil (called this despite the fact that as much as half the album was recorded in the studio). On some of his work from this period, Miles's trumpet -- one of the most lyric voices in all jazz, capable of extraordinary sustained flights -- communicated by electrified Morse Code-like blips and blats. Especially on the Cosey sides, he sometimes limited his playing to sideline exclamations. On Live-Evil, though, he's centerstage, and he uses the electrified technique to its best advantage. The wah-wah-and-mute combination becomes extraordinarily voicelike, and though he plays short notes, he uses them to build long coiled passages of rhythmic tension, rising to a high nasal whine, falling to deep guttural lows. He trades barking call-and-response figures with what sounds like Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira's rubbed conga skins. At times, everyone is speaking in tongues -- the electric pianos varying in tone from bell-like to marimba percussive, the wah-wahs of guitar and trumpet mimicking each other. Jarrett plays long gospel-inflected melodic solos. Gary Bartz plays an alto sax that's a cross between Jackie McLean and Junior Walker.But the binding element on Live-Evil was John McLaughlin. The guitarist was 28 at the time; he'd played in English blues and jazz bands and with the Tony Williams Lifetime. "Here he was, this English guy," said a friend of mine recently. "And he's playing the blues with Miles Davis. He must have said, 'I'm going to play with the hottest tone I can.'Ê" McLaughlin did. This was not the Teutonic-Hindu fury of the later Mahavishnu Orchestra, or his earlier refined jazz attack. It was dirty, concise, directed. It was hot, and it made the whole band hot. In fact, throughout Live-Evil you can hear buzzing amplifiers in quieter moments, buzzing connections. McLaughlin and Miles were two talking rhythms playing off each other -- it was Miles's most dynamic relationship with another soloist since his band with John Coltrane.And the music, despite the references to funk and Hendrix, was an integrated whole. After his retirement and return to playing in 1981, Miles had his moments and made plenty of enjoyable music. And the music on these five new releases is rarely less than good. But Live-Evil may have been the last time Miles Davis was new.The Sony reissues* Live-Evil (recorded February 6 and June 3 and 4, 1970, at Columbia Studio B in New York; and December 19, 1970, at the Cellar Door in Washington, DC).* Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West (April 10, 1970, in San Francisco).* Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore East (June 17 through 20, 1970, in New York).* In Concert (September 29, 1972, at Philharmonic Hall in New York).* Dark Magus (March 30, 1974, at Carnegie Hall in New York).