Miles: Bell Bottom Wah 1970-75

This page is devoted to a few titles from Miles’ electric period that date from the summer of 1970 up to his retirement in 1975. (His 1980s resurrection is of no serious interest to me. I’ve heard a lot of that music and can only conclude that Miles the musical artist died after Pangaea.) I’m not listing all of the Columbia titles from this half-decade; some of them I’ve heard and don’t really like enough to write about (Black Beauty, In Concert), while the tracks from the Big Fun grab-bag are discussed on earlier pages. I will add Agharta and Pangaea down the road.

Pop tastes run amusingly in circles, and time has been kind to most of these once-maligned albums. In the 1970s, jazz critical response was iffy, since Miles had been a straight jazz artist less than a decade earlier, and where did he get off selling out to free funk? Popular response (the Fillmore audiences and the record buyers) seemed to be based on a brush with an “other” legend, as in we’ll watch this jazz cat play just as long as the Steve Miller Band comes on in half an hour. Fast forward: In the stiff pop-music calculus of the 1980s, organic funk rhythms were verboten, fusion had been exiled, and jazz was historical, so shares in Miles’ electric period were at an all-time low. But in the 1990s, tables turned. Grunge and jam bands reclaimed the analog sensuality of rock; certain modern jazzers were blurring genre lines; reissue campaigns revived classic jazz artists’ catalogs; and the usual pop-culture nostalgia for whatever was happening two decades ago was now focused on the 1970s. The last of which meant, among other things, that pop-rock guitarists were allowed to use wah-wah pedals again, a less trivial signifier than it might seem. Anyway, the new generation of jazz listeners who had grown up in the 1970s - or at least enjoyed the decade’s superficial revival in the 1990s - were prepared to access Miles’ funky fusion period, which gave license to the jazz critics who liked that music all along to finally come out and say so. So, where On the Corner was once Miles’ most detested album, it was suddenly hip. Now this isn’t to say that the electric period is a vast treasure trove of highly advanced music that people couldn’t comprehend at the time. No, a lot of it is still just a bunch of unfocused one-chord boogie jobs, but that ‘70s sound, once reviled, had come to make prophetic sense.

On the Corner
1972 / Columbia

What a mess - a real genre clusterfuck that snorts at definition. Drums and bass play in repetitious funk circles, keyboards and synthesizers chatter and swoop, guitar, wah-wah trumpet, and atonal sax solo in random configurations, all surrounded by sitar, tabla, and sundry moodmakers. Miles got barked at for “selling out,” but not one minute of On the Corner is remotely commercial. Which is funny because Miles did intend to appeal to the young, urban record buyers, and in that sense, it was a total failure. Fuddy-duddy jazzbos hated it as well, because, erm, ain’t no A-trains here. But it resonates in retrospect with plenty of modern critics, some of whom cannot talk about this album without referring to Stockhausen once or thrice. In other words, it’s either street funk or specialized, avant-garde classical, take your pick. And of course it’s neither.

What happens is this: the colorful instrumentations and open modal jams of the post-Brew sessions (“Yaphet”, “Blue Frog”, etc) reaches a saturation point. A motley cast of players enters the studio, Michael Henderson dials up a fat bassline or two, and everyone sprays sonic graffiti for long stretches. Solos happen, but not quite; thanks to the lax nature of the proceedings, improvisations bleed into and over one another. The title track is a “suite” with completely arbitrary song title divisions; really, the whole thing is a tense jam in E-flat. Tense because the drums only dance around the beat with busy hi-hat patterns and sloppy snare hits. When one of the drummers finds the groovenear the end and Henderson alters his bassline accordingly, it’s a moment of great release. Then the tablas and sitar take over and whisk the track into the mystical ether. Love it or hate it, only Miles and producer Teo could concoct a brew like this. “Black Satin” introduces an Ornette-ish melody (with whistles and handclaps) that dominates the second half, underscored by wah-wah bass, sleigh bells, more caffeinated drumming, etc. Music to get lost in, music to call “ahead of its time,” but not something you would expect to literally hear playing on street corners circa 1972. Miles’ trumpet is but one more processed voice in the din, and he just as often contributes clustered organ chords. On the Corner is a busy, nervous record, sensually intriguing in its textural overkill. A mess, but fun.

Get Up With It
May 1970 - Oct 1974 / Columbia

This two-volume set collects eight studio pieces from the period. Four of the later tracks utilize the recent nucleus band, including guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas (Hendrix meets funk), bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Al Foster, and percussionist Mtume. Some of the mixes are atrocious, distorted from pegged-out levels. At first, I thought it was a remastering problem, but all accounts say the original LPs were just as muddy. Thanks, Teo.

“He Loved Him Madly”: Phased guitar soundscapes, somber organ courtesy of Miles, and subterranean bass tones ground an elegy for Duke Ellington. Short of composing anything in honor of the departed, Miles instead has his band improvise a meditative moodscape where a sense of loss looms large. The funeral-like motion and sheer length of this piece (over half an hour) is forbidding, but the music suggests an eternal emotional space, literally like the universe mourning, so one might say the track’s length lives up to its content. Yet even with that rationalization, it’s a long haul, and the dynamics take a long time to unfold. Subdued solos come from Dave Liebman (alto flute, very nice) and Miles over glacially shifting slabs of space rock; the final minutes break out of the funereal cast. Good for an annual listen.

“Maiysha”: The first part is a lightly driven song for flute (Sonny Fortune) and trumpet, underscored by boorish organ chords. The second part turns into a standard I-IV jam colored by triple guitar action (Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, Dominique Gaumont) and naughty bass noodling from Michael Henderson, whose pocket is deeper than ever. Both halves form a fifteen-minute whole. The muddy mix taints the second half.

“Honky Tonk”: An edited take of a happy-go-sloppy jam, two full takes of which reside on the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. I prefer the jittery keyboard and guitar interplay that opens the track to the off-target vamping of the middle, although the suboctave effect on Miles’ trumpet is interesting in this raunchy context.

“Rated X”: The nastiest groove in all of Miles. A chugging bass motif is wedged into the first three beats of every bar, subdivided by polyrhythmic drums and tabla. There is a feeling of both regular and doubled tempo at once, and guitar adds further points of emphasis. On top of this, Miles ditches the trumpet to hold down ear-splitting organ chords that would work for either a vampire flick or an aleatory classical piece; sick though these clusters are, they fit the vicious groove percolating below. Teo Macero racks up the tension by briefly muting the rhythm track here and there, leaving the listener alone with the monster chords in a terrifying abyss.

“Calypso Frelimo”: We’re back up over the half-hour mark with a multi-part epic from 1973. The first section is densely packed with rumbling, guitar-doused rhythms and suffers from an overcrowded mix. Miles plays a kindergarten lick on organ that I suppose is the “calypso” element, but otherwise, we’re in modal jam territory with loose-goose solos, including Miles on overdubbed trumpet. (Or was the organ overdubbed? Ah, who cares.) After ten minutes, the band drops out and leaves a sparse bassline not unlike the one Davis used in “Yesternow”. It’s actually the same bassline from the first part of this tune slowed way down, filled by guitar comping, a fine Dave Liebman flute solo, and an eventual Miles trumpet solo, then the rhythm resumes an uptempo charge. “Calypso Frelimo” is indulgent to a fault. Better to have backed off on some of the levels when mixing, and hey, did Teo lose his razor blades? A couple of years earlier, he would have stayed overtime snipping the hell out of something like this.

“Red China Blues”: Blecch. This 1972 anomaly has nothing to do with Miles creatively; it’s just a short antiseptic blues to which he lends some trumpet. A harmonica player does the actual lead, and a cheesy horn chart completes the Ray Charles-ish picture. There’s a huge distance between this stilted pop beat and the free-range rhythms of Miles’ regular bands.

“Mtume”: Named after the percussionist, who introduces the track but thereafter is lost amidst the electric din. Again, the mix crunches everything together until it distorts. The sole chord change of the piece is the only musical point of interest; the rest of it is just a fast funk jam that wears out its welcome long before the fifteen minutes (!) are up.

“Billy Preston”: Named after the popular electric pianist, who isn’t actually present, but there is electric piano (Cedric Lawson), along with an open backbeat and funky guitar comping. A wah-trumpet melody appears intermittently, though most attention is drawn by the bouncy syncopations of Henderson’s bass. Back in 1969, Sly Stone’s “Thank You” inverted the pop-rock hierarchy and made the bassline the focus of the song; a lot of Miles’ ‘70s music relies on this premise. “Billy Preston” is nothing but groove, and thank goodness it’s a catchy one.

Get Up With It covers a lot of ground - some good, some dull - but also reveals the excess of the period. I’d be willing to dismiss the whole thing if it weren’t for “He Loved Him Madly” and “Rated X”.

Dark Magus - Live at Carnegie Hall
March 1973 / Columbia

Single-mode funk so toothy and vast that it could soundtrack a Cretaceous discotheque. Upstart Dominique Gaumont joins tenured guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas; Dave Liebman shares sax space with Azar Lawrence, who sat in for the evening; bassist Michael Henderson and drummer Al Foster kick out the rhythms with percussionist Mtume. Miles pilots the mothership on electrified trumpet and organ. I first heard this album (reissued on 2CDs in 1997) after living with Pangaea and Agharta for years, and I was happy to hear that Dark Magus sounded just like them. Of course, chronologically speaking, those later albums sound like Dark Magus. Whatever the touchstone, the premise is simple: Henderson and Foster lock into a groove, guitars cover the middle ground, and trumpet, sax, and guitar (usually Cosey) alternate long solos.

The crux of the matter, however, has little to do with individual improvisation. The only solo that stands out is the tenor sax freakout in “Moja pt.2”, which I’m pretty sure is handled by Liebman. (Although sorting out who plays what isn’t easy, especially with the guitarists. There’s only one moment where I can actually pick out the three guitars playing simultaneously. The wankier solos I suspect come from the young Gaumont, and Cosey often taps a cowbell during Dominique’s spotlights.) The main thrust comes from the propulsive rhythm section, as in “Moja pt.1”. Foster is a decent backbeat drummer, but why oh why does he keep the hi-hat open when keeping time on it? I’ve actually seen the guy play and he does know how to close it (yes I’m being facetious), so maybe Miles requested that Al let it flap in the breeze? It eats into the clarity of the drumming, but it’s usually so buffered by guitar and percussion that it’s not too irritating.

Mtume uses a primitive drum machine on occasion for special effects. At times the band slows down and gets spacey, which is nice. Apart from a couple of slower melodic statements, Miles’ wah-wah trumpet and organ function as sonic elements and little more. Once again, in these liner notes, we’re reminded that Miles was still playing Classic Miles Phrases, just in a new rock/funk setting. That’s nonsense on stilts. Isolate any of his “solos” on Dark Magus and you’ll hear an extreme reduction of musical information, jazz or not. That’s not to say it’s bad or wrong, but it’s got nothing to do with how he used to play.

Can’t believe I’ve babbled this much already without getting to the main point - Dark Magus is good but it’s not the sort of music that stands up to frequent listening. I spin it about once or twice a year, and it’s enjoyable on that pace. I think it beats the majority of Get Up With It, and it sounds better, too.

Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969 - 1974

Remixed jazz is worth getting uppity about. In a nutshell, the cut ‘n paste aesthetic is diametrically opposed to the real-time essence of jazz. Especially when you graft in outside elements, like that “Cantaloop” business where you wipe the Tony Williams track and insert a drum machine, a textbook example of dumbing something down. A ream could be written on what this implies about a culture: that it cannot accept rhythmic humanity, requiring instead an unvarying metronome in its place. But that’s that. Alteration of performance has been a part of recorded jazz ever since producers learned the value of splicing different takes together, or replacing certain parts, or what have you, but the intention of preserving a real performance was almost always there, obvious experiments notwithstanding.

Miles’ electric period is a different case, as the trumpeter was no longer making music that started and ended within standard forms. Miles’ (and Teo’s) studio process instead involved editing raw jams into shape for LPs, thus letting the band loose on a one-chord groove for half an hour in the hope of fetching ten or fifteen minutes that could be molded into a listenable track, or spliced into a completely different piece of raw material. Thus the original records were already remixed, reshuffled, re-EQ’d, overdubbed, and fiddled with. The performance itself was still somewhat sacrosanct, but not in the beginning-to-end sense.

On this 1998 CD, Bill Laswell does nothing so shameless as some jazz remixers do. He accesses the original tapes to become Teo Part 2, reconstructing the mixes according to his own taste and skill, the ethics of which might lead the thinker into a gray area. No, Laswell was not involved with the original sessions, so we might question whether or not Miles would have wanted his material re-presented a la Laswell. Yet Laswell stays true to the performances - the musicians are still the stars of the show - and his adjustments mainly serve to clean up the original mixes and present the instruments in a comfier light. This means some artificial reverb at times, and re-balancing the instruments, and some editing. The tinkering is done to the original performances only - nothing was added.

Without wanting to spend much more prose on this second-hand album, its best merit is as a sampler of sorts. The entire Silent Way album is condensed into a quarter-hour suite. The massive “He Loved Him Madly” from 1974 is shortened and tweaked into a more approachable stretch of late-night moodiness. The forbidding “Rated X”, so extreme and dirty in its original mix, is given a hot shower and a cellophane wrap, and then linked to the funky “Billy Preston” excerpt. These aren’t replacements for the originals, but I won’t balk at saying they sound better. The project was done with respect and a good ear. If you want Miles’ 1970s vibe in a nutshell, it’s here and it sounds great.

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