Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

An eclectic survey of recent recordings

By Stephen Grimstead

OCTOBER 13, 1997: 

Miles Davis, Reissues: Live and Electric! (Columbia/Legacy)

STEADFASTLY FOLLOWING HIS own muse, Miles Davis added electric instruments to his band in the late '60s. Many "purists" accused Davis of heresy, claiming that he degraded the high and lofty art form of jazz with electric instrumentation and (gasp!) rock and R&B influences. This controversy still rages today, as comments from two veteran critics in the recent issue of Jazz Times indicate. One called Davis' electric music "the ultimate mongrelization [of jazz] with rock," while another complained that Miles' electric albums "confused the uninformed as to what jazz is all about."

Controversy aside, this was revolutionary music, and Columbia/Legacy's recent reissues of Black Beauty, Miles Davis At Fillmore, Live-Evil, Miles Davis In Concert, and Dark Magus brings five of the most intriguing and exciting albums from Miles's electric era to CD for the first time. Three of these discs were originally released as double albums in the U.S., while Black Beauty and Dark Magus have previously been available only as Japanese imports.

This was a time marked by restless creativity for Miles Davis. He was listening to and influenced by Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, and was incorporating funk, R&B, and rock elements into his music. Shunning the studio, he felt that the dynamic spontaneity and energy of his electric bands was best captured on stage. These limited-edition, double-disc live sets document his evolving musical vision. Each disc is decidedly loud and electric, packed with highly improvisational music that burns with a compelling urgency.

Black Beauty: Live At The Fillmore West, the first of the batch, was recorded in April 1970, the same month that his "revolutionary" electric studio album Bitches Brew was released. Davis was playing a series of shows at Bill Graham's Fillmore auditorium in an attempt to reach out to a younger audience, often sharing bills with such bands as the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Black Beauty features many selections from Bitches Brew, only delivered with an energy not found in the original studio versions. Drummer Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Airto, and electric bassist Dave Holland keep a rapid-fire rhythm rolling along, with Chick Corea adding some frenzied electric piano. Soprano saxophonist Steve Grossman adds a fevered solo to "Directions," while Miles alternates between coolly placed notes and blistering attacks. This was highly spontaneous music; Miles called the shots and changed tunes on the spot.

Two months later Miles recorded Miles Davis At Fillmore: Live At The Fillmore East. The music's overall complexity and intensity was cranked up a notch with the addition of Keith Jarrett on organ. Jarrett and Corea weave a thick keyboard carpet, while Miles employs a sharper, more aggressive tone. Much of the material is the same as Black Beauty, with different arrangements and improvisations. In terms of band structure and musical content, these two live discs extend the musical ideas Miles expressed with Bitches Brew.

Nineteen-seventy's Live-Evil combines four studio selections with four live tunes. Miles has added John McLaughlin's electric guitar to the band on both the studio and live cuts. The addition of electric bassist Michael Henderson (a veteran R&B player who was recruited from Aretha Franklin's band) would have much to do with the decidedly funky sound the rest of these live albums would take.

The live cuts from Live-Evil give a good indication of what's to come: looping, funky bass lines and dense layers of percussion and keyboards create a thick wall of sound, with wailing blasts from trumpet, guitar, and sax adding melody and harmony to the sometimes cacophonous electric mix. Elements intertwine, with Henderson adding the R&B edge and the guitar(s) packing a rock punch, while the overall improvisational nature of the music keeps it firmly in the jazz camp. The studio material features up to three keyboards (Corea, Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock), as well as multiple percussionists and even a sitar player on one cut. In stark contrast to the live material, the studio material is often haunting and contemplative.

With 1972's Miles Davis In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall, Davis further diversified his instrumental lineup, adding tabla, more percussion, electric sitar, and wah-wah pedals to the band's sound. The audio is mixed so that the instruments muddle together into an organic blend, which creates a cohesive wholeness to the music, but often makes it difficult to distinguish the individual instruments. Miles's trumpet is very underrecorded, making for frustrating listening at times.

1974's Dark Magus: Live At Carnegie Hall features three guitarists and two saxophonists (including the remarkable Dave Liebman). Miles plays both trumpet and organ. This is the most incendiary of the batch, with the guitarists (led by the great Pete Cosey) keeping a feverish rhythm blasting along. Davis's trumpet solos and Liebman's sax solos are blistering. This is as loud and electric as this batch of reissues gets, and is simply breathtaking in its fury and improvisational sizzle. Miles would end this era with Agharta and Pangaea, two previously reissued live discs from 1975. Both feature smaller, one-guitar versions of the Dark Magus band, and pale in fury beside the three-guitar maelstrom of Dark Magus. Miles went into retirement soon after recording these albums, and didn't even pick up his horn for nearly five years.

Of the above, Miles Davis At Fillmore and Dark Magus are the most compelling. Fillmore shines because it's the peak of the Bitches Brew era, with incredible interplay between Jarrett and Corea. Dark Magus represents the furthest extreme of Miles's electric era and stands unrivaled in terms of intensity and improvisational fury. Taken as a document of an era in this great trumpeter's career, this is refreshingly unique, highly visionary, and wonderfully creative music. As mentioned above, these are limited edition reissues. Grab them while you can. -- Gene Hyde

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