Miles: Cellar Door 1970

With acoustic jazz in the rear view mirror and funk-rock fusion on the horizon, Miles was in uncharted terrain at the start of the decade. His band included Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett, Michael Henderson, and Jack DeJohnette. Plus guests.

The Cellar Door Sessions 1970
December 16-19, 1970 / Columbia

Some observations right off the bat:

- I used to own Live/Evil, a double album mostly made up of excerpts from this live engagement, and I never really dug the whole thing. I suspected that a more comprehensive sampling of the gig might lend a better impression, and this six-disc box does just that.

- The sound is good and at a civilized level.

- Gary Bartz is one bipolar player.

- It’s official: if you want to hear John McLaughlin at his best, don’t buy a Miles album. Except maybe A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

- The release date for this box was repeatedly delayed until it became comical. So jilted was I that it was the first Columbia Miles box I did not buy on release day; in fact, it took me a few weeks to bother.

The Cellar Door box, like the Plugged Nickel collection, documents a few nights at work with a particular Miles grouping. In this case, it’s Miles on trumpet (often electrified, with wah pedal), Gary Bartz on soprano and alto sax, Keith Jarrett on electric piano and organ, Michael Henderson on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Percussionist Airto Moriera does lots of shaking, rattling, and tapping, though his decorations are mostly so inconsequential that you’ll forgive me for not mentioning his name again. The first four discs of this box feature the above roster, and then for the last two discs, guitarist John McLaughlin sits in.

The material roams the gray area between rock and jazz, and several of the tunes are repeated from one night to the next. There’s Zawinul’s “Directions”, the bluesy two-chord “Honky Tonk”, “It’s About That Time”, the piledriving “What I Say”, the funk machine “Inamorata”, Jack Johnson’s “Yesternow” (just the slow ostinato part), and a few snippets of Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary”. As with most of Miles’ fusion-era material, these “tunes” present a melody, tonic homebase, and initial tempo, then it’s up to the players to go wherever they want within those bounds. Instead of wrapping up any given number, Davis usually just interrupts it with the theme of the next piece, and so each set forms a long suite. At their best, the group maneuvers with the agility of a jazz band, leading to a lot of genre-less grooves that are on continual alert of upheaval. In the lengthy plot of each piece, rhythms are inhabited then abandoned, and solos develop in various directions. The broadest dynamics come in the monolithic swelling of the multiple “Honky Tonks” and “Yesternow”, a major highlight of the box. The music refuses to be pinned down because the players never settle into any zone.

Ringmaster Miles is outweighed by the rhythm section yet he guides them with cues and the occasional incisive statement. His staccato wah playing mimics having an extra guitarist, and he otherwise tests the waters of a new style that is unfortunately prone to careless lines and sloppy high-register shrieks - every time he ventures up high, it’s a gamble. So it’s warts-and-all Miles on this occasion, sometimes excellent, sometimes hazardous. Gary Bartz, as mentioned, is even more two-faced. When he dips into his storehouse of serpentine lines, he’s great, and the “outside” moments are very welcome. However, he also spends a lot of time zeroing in on a particular note or phrase and repeating it over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I do not exaggerate - listen to any “Directions”, for example. Several of his solos are nothing but blues calls or honked notes. I hate to admit it, but most tracks for me are like, “Oh no, here comes the sax solo.”

The bass and drums are another wild card in that Michael Henderson’s basslines can be torn asunder by Jack DeJohnette’s hyper drumming. In taking things up a notch, Jack sometimes trips over the beat entirely, after which the band has to paddle for a few seconds before getting back together. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Jack, and while the occasional hiccups bear mentioning, a lot of his barrages elevate the music. Listen to the excitement he brings to the otherwise placid “Honky Tonk” on the fourth disc, taking the mood to a breaking point and then slamming it back down again. Anyway, he and Henderson make a kinetic if unpredictable rhythm battery.

Meanwhile, Keith Jarrett dominates almost everything. To this day, he regards electric keyboards as “toys,” yet he waived these objections for a chance to play with Miles. One hand each on organ and electric piano, he becomes a Frankenstein of winding solos and effusive comping. His bond with DeJohnette (with whom he played in Charles Lloyd’s band) is evident and he also hooks up with Henderson’s bass on many cool, impromptu vamps that can be heard in the various versions of “Directions” and “Inamorata”. (Listen also to the wicked sub-riff they devise early in Disc 3’s “It’s About That Time”, under Miles’ first solo.) Jarrett gives each “Honky Tonk” a soulful introduction, and his exuberant riffing does many favors for the idiot pogo-beat of “What I Say”. In most sets, he’s granted a solo improvisation that by the final disc grows into a fantastic fugue, one of his best moments on record. Jarrett’s presence is a case of Miles hiring some “bad motherfucker” to turn loose on his property, and Jarrett makes the most of it.

On the last two discs, John McLaughlin tries to wedge his guitar into the same space already occupied by Jarrett’s two keyboards. Having another soloist crowds the balance, and you can hear Jarrett pull back a bit to accommodate. Except for a few serendipitous moments, McLaughlin is mostly an unnecessary addition to a group that already had its own sound. His tedious solo in the last disc’s “Inamorata” is very repetitive and knocks the remainder of the tune out of whack.

If I sound like I’m waffling on most everybody’s playing and that the music might be correspondingly uneven, it’s true. The Cellar Door contains some ultra-nasty grooves and truly amazing summits. When the group is all on the same page, it’s fantastic. Behold the authoritative momentum that builds throughout Disc 5’s “Directions”, the peak moment of which was used as the introductory minutes of Live Evil. Then there are stretches where things fall to pieces - Miles spitting out feeble lines, Henderson dislocated from the pulse, and Bartz wailing yet again on a phrase you heard him exhaust two tunes ago. (His solo on the last “It’s About That Time” makes me want to fling the disc across the room.) I’m not trying to be a mudge about the ups and downs of this much-anticipated music; I’m just being honest.

So what’s a curious yet discriminating listener to do? Cherry pick, and a converted Miles fan should have a whale of a time doing so. Behind the Cellar Door is an electrified treasure chest; you just need to sort out the gold.

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