Perfect Sound Forever

Miles Davis : The "Electric" Years

by Scott McFarland (August 1997)

Let me just state off the bat that Milesí music, from Bitches Brew on, is my favorite music on this planet (for a lot of reasons, some of which Iíll touch on in my closing paragraph). Iím going to structure this writeup around the albums which have been released from what I believe to be Milesí most exciting and fertile years (1969 through 1975) : classics like Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, On The Corner, Get Up With It, and Pangaea.

By the time 1969 rolled around, Miles had been looking towards and striving for new sounds for a while. His famed 60ís quintet had been together with only one personnel change for a five year-plus run; this band had consisted of Tony Williams on drums, Herbie Hancock on keyboard, Ron Carter on bass, and Wayne Shorter (who replaced George Coleman in 1964) on saxophone. Five years is a long time for a jazz unit to be together. What once seemed inventive and exciting had probably started to sound like cliché to Miles. That band featured great tone and instrumental virtuosity - but by Milesí own account simplicity and directness had been lost. One can compare the straightforward, soulful reading of Wayne Shorterís "Footprints" done on his own Adamís Apple album (itís also available on Blue Noteís excellent The Best of Wayne Shorter) with the version done by Milesí quintet on Miles Smiles, where the tune becomes a backdrop for the usual pseudo-Spanish tinkling around and theatrical flourishes that characterized that bandís sound, at the tuneís expense, for an example of this.

Miles had been moving in a simpler, more "modal" (a term that he helped to popularize during the 50ís) direction for a while. Miles In The Sky from 1968 started with a brilliant, 16-minutes plus track "Stuff" which cycled and floated in a gentle soulful manner and sounded unlike anything that anyone else was up to at the time. Filles de Killemanjaro from 1968 marked the end of the old quintet, with Chick Corea and Dave Holland coming into the band partway through the album - the music occasionally rumbled and exploded, but was also marked by long, rather lovely modal sections. To me it sounds like ambient jazz. The buzz on this album in retrospect is that Miles was "flirting with rock forms". (This is actually one heck of an album - well worth purchasing. In addition to its other charms, and great playing by all concerned, Chick Coreaís lovely, peaceful cycling through the lengthy "Mademoiselle Mabry" is more than worth the price of admission).

Miles continued to flirt with what were certainly different forms, perhaps related to rock, or to soul. His next LP, In A Silent Way, was hailed as a groundbreaking effort although I feel itís a bit overrated. The music was somewhat hypnotic and repetitive. Joe Zawinul and John McLaughlin had been recruited to play on the album, and their presence together with the restraint shown by the other musicians (for once, Tony Williams does not run rampant on the drums - he plays simple "rock" rhythms primarily) yielded what was again a very "ambient" album.

Miles wanted his music to get more basic, more in touch with a blues feeling. In his autobiography he states "See, when I used to listen to Muddy Waters in Chicago down on 33rd and Michigan every Monday when he played there and I would be in town, I knew I had to get some of what he was doing up in my music. You know, the sound of the $1.50 drums and the harmonicas and the two-chord blues". At this point he started to focus in on the more modern and aggressive sounds that would inform the rest of his works. His girlfriend Betty Mabry introduced him to Jimi Hendrix, and the two of them hit it off immediately. Miles appreciated the power in what Jimi was doing, as well as appreciating its grounding in blues and other black forms. Sly Stone and James Brown were also by Milesí account big influences on what was about to become his new sound. Things were about to get a lot more African. "My Funny Valentine" was about to go out the window.

In August of 1969 Miles assembled numerous massively talented musicians into a New York City studio for the Bitches Brew project. He brought in "musical sketches" moreso than tunes - as he had 10 years previously during the Kind Of Blue sessions. The musicians would jam on themes according to Milesí direction (during three "all-day" sessions), and the jams would be edited into pieces. It was an abstract way of working, a bit different than anything done previously by an artist with commercial viability - the tape recorder would deliberately be used, in "artistic" fashion, to shape the pieces after the fact. Hence musicians could explore ideas at length, without a burden of knowing that everything that they played during a "take" would necessarily be presented to the public with their name on it.

What makes the album superb is the playing. The music swings gently, in multiple directions at once. It is a new kind of swing. Jack DeJohnette and the other drummers on this recording deserve a world of credit for their subtle, tugging playing. Multiple electric keyboards, usually two per track, swing and swagger across this musical landscape (Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Larry Young are at the keys). John McLaughlin contributes electric guitar playing which is occasionally possessed of brilliance. Bennie Maupinís bass clarinet, Wayne Shorterís sax, Airtoís percussion, and the basses of Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks also contribute towards the musicís tonal palette. On top of it all we have Miles. His playing had always been minimalistic, and he had always been comfortable playing blues-based forms. Here he found his most natural expression, and contributed forcefully to the music. He laid down the real stuff, the essence of music, on his trumpet and topped the whole thing off brilliantly.

A rough guide to the Bitches Brew album - Side 1, "Pharoahís Dance", is an abstract keyboard-oriented piece. Due to its absence of a memorable central theme, itís a strange choice to open the album with, but it is a nice slice of music and of subtle swing. Side 2, "Bitches Brew", is massive. The composition, a combination of ambient theme and deep groove, comes together perfectly. Side 3 features the deeply rhythmic, gently bouncing "Spanish Key" (built on an interesting drum figure) and the shorter, slightly chaotic "John McLaughlin" (McLaughlin claims to have been as surprised as anyone when the LP came out and he saw that Miles had named this tune after him). Side 4 features the gritty, juke-joint-ish, artfully extended funk of "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" and the albumís closer "Sanctuary" which builds towards a frightening climax. The pieces provide landscape portraits more than they do traditional tunes or "featured player" improvisation. It was a new way of playing, based on cooperative effort which was centralized and focused on rhythm. In that regard the album reminds one of African cultures and of their music.

It was one heck of a record and was promoted as being such. Miles proceeded to put out a couple of live 2-LP sets during the next year. Black Beauty was the first (Iím not sure that it was released in the U.S. at the time). Itís a fairly honest and straightforward recording of his band in April of 1970 with Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Airto, and Steve Grossman. The sound is a bit cacaphonous; itís the sound of jazz players raising flashy, energetic hell on electronic instruments. The band keeps things swinging along throughout the whole set. Chick Corea fans will especially want to hear this as his electronic keyboard is the most prominent voice in much of the music, and as always he plays extremely well. The recording gets a bit "psychedelic" in part through his use of effects. It reminds me a bit of the German rock scene from the early 70ís; itís easy to imaging getting stoned to this record and digging it. I consider it a good but not great album.

At Fillmore came out next and drew some attention. It documents a 4-night stint opening for Laura Nyro at the Fillmore West; each 25-40 minute set is edited down to an approximately 20-minute album side. The intention was apparently to show that the band had an organic flow and that even when they played the same material night after night that it would be a "unique" experience. In retrospect the approach seems silly; who wants to hear the same basic set, chopped and diced different ways, four times in a row? The band sound is a bit difficult and cacaphonous and the editing only makes things more confusing. Of course there are some good moments; I always love it when that keyboard riff (sounds like a clavoline, usually) kicks in to start off the deep Bitches Brew groove. However, I believe that this album is basically a mess.

At this point in time Miles was opening for rock performers, dressing in his flashy manner of the time, and was generally thought to be courting a rock audience. The majority of critics, pundits, and listeners didnít seem to understand what was going on with him. Miles was occasionally criticized from this point on for deserting jazz, and for "losing the beauty which had been present in his music".

The intended follow-up to Bitches Brew was Live-Evil. The majority of this 2 LP set consists of some lengthy jams done at the Cellar Door in Washington DC (these were augmented with a few new studio recordings). The live tracks are oriented around Jack DeJohnetteís aggressive and energetic funky drumming, Keith Jarrettís pulsing, squealing, and frequently soulful keyboards (for a guy who has since gone on to decry the popularization of electronic instruments, Jarrett could really raise some hell when he was in the mood to), Michael Hendersonís repetitive basslines (Henderson had just joined the band - his playing here is not as dead-on as it later became), guest star John McLaughlin playing some fantastic electric guitar solos, and Airto putting some funky percussion on in places. Davis and sax player Gary Bartz play (and play well), but also lay out for huge periods of time while this band grooves. This, to me, really does sound like a "fusion" of rock (and soul) and jazz. The aggression and form of rock are present, but the players still have a tendency to meander and show off in the general style of jazz players. If you are in the mood for extended jam pieces (and it seems as if in the early 70ís, everybody was), these are pretty good for the most part. The opening track, "Sivad", might burn a hole through your stereo system with its relentless funk for a while before it moves into the soulful, minimalist piece later known as "Honky Tonk". "What I Say" is a nice 21-minute slice of frenetic modality, too. Sides 3 and 4 feature a band grooving at length in a manner that has its charms, but probably isnít the kind of thing that youíd want to start your morning with every day.

Miles cut what I regard as his next masterpiece in 1970, during five sessions which were fused into 2 sidelong pieces. A Tribute to Jack Johnson was done as a soundtrack for a film about the legendary heavyweight boxing champion. Side 1, "Right Off", is an extraordinary jam. In addition to some bouncing bass (Michael Henderson, I believe), rock-solid drums (Billy Cobham, I believe), and some rollicking organ (I wonít hazard a guess), John McLaughlinís electric rhythm guitar playing is right on the mark. Imagine Keith Richards crossed with Jimi Hendrix crossed with a classically trained guitarist - he sounds something like that. The rhythm of the piece is deep and constant, and greatly hypnotic. Just try to shut the music off in the middle - see if it keeps playing in your head. Each member of the group displays a perfect, close-to-the-bone devotion to the groove and the whole things rocks massively. Side 2, "Yesternow", is spacier. It seems put together from a few different takes (it actually includes some of the "In A Silent Way" music towards the end). It generates some ghostly groove and eventually makes way for a memorable freak-out guitar solo by Sonny Sharrock (with Chick Corea working Sonnyís echoplex box, apparently).

Sharrock remained uncredited on this album, as did many other of the players present on the sessions. For some reason, only the players signed to Columbia received credit on the cover. I was told some of the participants by Sharrock once - I probably donít remember everyone that he mentioned to me, but I do remember the names Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and himself as participants in addition to the musicians listed on the cover (Davis, Steve Grossman, Michael Henderson, Billy Cobham, John McLaughlin, and Herbie Hancock).

Miles continued to play and continued to record. His music was starting to bewilder the buying public, who had been confronted with a stream of 2-LP sets that didnít conform to their expectations of what Miles Davis should be doing (namely, playing lyrical trumpet over a jazz background). Some of his sessions, like the ones which eventually came out in 1974 on Big Fun, had to wait for years before being released. Big Fun has 4 side-long pieces : "Great Expectations/Mother Laranja" which is a 27 ½ minute slice of almost prototypical Miles, based on a repeating phrase over a flowing backdrop; "Ife", a long static piece with a repetitive bassline which is really a drag (it sounds more like an experiment in audience tolerance than it does music); "Go Ahead John" which is a small-band jam featuring John McLaughlin on guitar (playing choppy strokes with wah-wah, just like Reggie Lucas & Pete Cosey would go on to do), with some nice soloing over Jack DeJohnetteís busy drumming (which is heavily phased for the sake of funkiness); and "Lonely Fire" which is a bit aimless. The music throughout this album is not Milesí best, but Teo Maceroís production here is quite creative, and the record ends up being a decent ambient-styled listening experience thanks to the strength of Sides 1 & 3.

Some other early 70ís sessions came out even later, in the early 1980ís, on a couple of 2-LP sets : Circle in the Round and Directions. Among the highlights to be found on those sets are the killer McLaughlin/Cobham-fueled funk of "Duran", the impressionistic, multiple keyboard-based floating of "Ascent", an alternate take of "Sanctuary", and an extended take on the David Crosby tune "Guenneviere" which flows wonderfully and sounds like the missing fifth side to Bitches Brew. Both are good collections with some important stuff on them (lined up alongside a lot of moderately interesting stuff).

Next up was another change of direction : 1972ís On The Corner. Now this is abrasive stuff. It grooves, and it grooves hard, and it makes no apology for doing so. Miles was getting deeply into funk and also more deeply into dissonance. The album plays like one continuous suite of chattering funky percussion and deep bass topped with sitar, trumpet, and whatever else was on hand as a vehicle for self-expression. It is a "black thing" for sure, and a deep dark one at that. Iíve always felt that this album was a primary influence on the Public Enemy sound which started in the late 80ís and has had a large effect on popular music ever since (even the most "popular" artists these days are prone to augmenting their songsí chorus structures with screeching background noise, or at least with light abrasion. I hear it all over the place). Miles was simultaneously interested in deep funk ala Sly Stone and James Brown, and musical abstraction ala Stockhausen. The end result was a fairly startling album. The cover art, with a funky "street" illustration by Corky McCoy, and a complete absence of personnel listings, was also a notable departure from the norm.

The album was not promoted heavily by Columbia and was not embraced heartily by the listening public or by critical reaction. Miles was not going to be "the next big thing" commercially, was not going to outsell the ranks of white boys playing electrified blues guitar which is what a lot of people were into at the time. Fortunately, he kept at his music anyway (rather than backtracking or waiting for the general populace to catch up with him), because the best was yet to come.

Milesí staffed his next working band with musicians whose backgrounds were in the kind of funky music that Miles wanted to be working with, rather than in a jazz tradition. Michael Henderson was still on bass, and Al Foster came on to augment him with his fat, rock-steady drumming style. Mtume (who now lays down those funky soundtracks for the TV show "New York Undercover"), the son of Milesí old pal saxophonist Jimmy Heath, came in on percussion (and managed to outdo his well-known predecessor, Airto). A band with these players, plus Reggie Lucas on guitar (itís been said that he managed to play guitar "like a water drum" - his playing was perfect for this band - think choppy strokes and wah-wah pedal), Dominique Gaumont on guitar, Carlos Garnett (a sax player who seemed to understand what was going on and could fit into the music well), Cedric Lawson (a keyboard player), and a sitarist and tabla player augmenting things, toured in 1972 and had the live In Concert released subsequently. It showed a band which had dispensed with any perceived need for the bop-like chatter of jazz and would get down deeply into groove for extended periods of time. They jam on pieces which Miles had cut or would soon cut on "studio" albums, energetically and loosely. Itís like On The Corner come to life (the instrumentation is similar), but longer and with different themes. Itís not a perfect album; the music gets interesting and kicks out jams for a few minutes at a time, but tends to stay in one place for longer than might be preferable. It alternates between impressing the listener and annoying the listener. Fidelity is limited, too. Still, itís an uncompromising furtherance of something that was new, and documents this period well. Itís just come back into general U.S. release.

1973 saw more touring, and the occasional bit of studio recording by Milesí band. In 1974 a unit of Davis, Henderson, Foster, Mtume, Lucas, and Gaumont, plus new feedback-freakout-oriented guitarist Pete Cosey, with Dave Liebman and/or Sonny Fortune on sax and flute, cut the majority of tracks to be released on Get Up With It. (Some sessions from preceding years were used as well). This record could be seen as the culmination of Milesí career; itís some serious business. The key to the album is Hendersonís bass - his playing is perfect and huge. Fosterís drumming provides the perfect foil to him, and youíve got a thoroughly grounded musical maze starting already. Then add Mtumeís shifting, inventive percussion to that, and stack two rhythmic guitar players on along with one feedback-oriented player (who does some nice soloing on this album) - now youíve got some great shifting funk going on. Then put Miles on in a surly mood, playing some serious, no-frills trumpet and raising some hell on organ too. Itís quite a trip. I shouldnít forget Dave Liebmanís contributions - there are some who say that he was partially responsible for "Mayishia", a thoroughly perfect musical act in two parts on here. And Sonny Fortune plays well, and some other names pop up on the recordings as well. Side 1 of this record is a bit strange, a tone-poem dedicated to Duke Ellington who had recently passed away. Side 2 contains "Mayishia" and the strong, deeply funky "Honky Tonk" (actually recorded years previously with a whole host of famous musicians), as well as the bizarre "Rated X". Side 3 is an out-of-control madhouse piece called "Calypso Frelimo" which shows this band at their most anarchic, but clears way for another killer bassline after a while. Side 4 features the dense, energetic "Mtume" (an amazing cut which typifies this bandís sound) and the funky "Billy Preston", along with a relatively traditional piece, "Red China Blues". Each side is about 30 minutes long. If I had to describe this record with one word, the word I would choose would be "massive". This is one that youíll be taking the measure of for years and years..

That band (more or less - different sax players came through the band, and Gaumont left) cut a number of live albums. Dark Magus from early 1974 is a pretty good one. Itís only with the current wave of Miles reissues actually come into print in America. The sound is starting to center on Al Fosterís fat and flexible drumming, which is in a class of its own. Side 1 opens with a hot theme which turns up again on next yearís Pangaea as "Zimbabwe". There are large chunks on the album where the band starts improvising around some fairly flat figure, but through their now-patented "collective improvisation" method manage to build the sound up into something nice. It makes you aware, though, of how truly awesome they could be when they got themselves wrapped around memorable material. Itís amazing how contemporary this music sounds, all the more so as it comes from a live concert. It could be heard as a stream of sublime drumíníbass music being DJíd on stage by Miles Davis using real players instead of records.

Miles and the boys played at Osaka Festival Hall in Japan on February 1, 1975, one set in the daytime and one at night. The daytime set was issued on 2 LPs as Agharta. Iíve never been totally crazy about Agharta as a whole; to me most of the second half sounds a bit flat and directionless. However, the opening 33 minutes or so of "Prelude" (thanks to compact disc technology, we can now hear this continuously without having to flip a record over partway through) is a great extended exploration of funk and soul, and I rank it with my favorite Miles live performances. I love the whole of the nighttime set, Pangaea, which remained unissued in the U.S. until some kind soul rectified this in 1991. Itís consists of two lengthy pieces, each of which is the length of an LP. The first, "Zimbabwe", lays down a thick groove and plays around that. The second, "Gondwana", is built around a peaceful, circular figure. It flows lazily and naturally for a great length of time, and contains some rather nice flute playing by Sonny Fortune. The CD liner notes accurately note that this piece is reminiscent of some of Sun Raís music.

To me, this music (especially Pangaea) has a real naturalistic flow to it. He and his band had found their niche. The same type of "collective improvisation" which had been used to create Bitches Brew was being used to create natural, straight-forward music (groove music, really). These guys put up a nice, thick wall of sound which could be easy to get into, and easy to stay with for a while.

After that, Miles retreated into his house and rarely came out of it for the next 5 Years, making no new music and no formal appearances. Miles was suffering from health problems, didnít feel like making new music, and spent much of his time doing drugs.

Miles died in 1991 after making a comeback in the early '80s (most impressively on a live set from '82 We Want Miles, where the compositions contain brilliance and the playing is dead-on). He left behind him an amazing legacy of music, and an interesting autobiography (done with Quincy Troupe) entitled "Miles: The Autobiography" where he explains himself, his life, and his music in a straightforward manner (I recommend the book highly for anyone interested in any of Milesí music, or in jazz history, or just in interesting stories). He was a funny guy and the book reflects this, while touching on his relationships with some of the most significant figures in 20th Century music. The key to understanding Miles is to realize that he was a reserved individual and a minimalist. He would just as soon not say anything unless he had something he really wanted to say, and when he did speak, he tended to tell the truth regardless of how anyone might react to it. And his music reflected this aspect of his personality totally.

In closing, why do I love Milesí electric music so much? Why do I consider it the greatest music yet made on this planet? Well, of course oneís enjoyment of music is entirely subjective, but I present for your consideration the following virtues regarding Milesí music :

  1. You can dance to it. (Try "Black Satin" on On The Corner).
  2. You can relax and unwind to it. (Try "Mayishia" on Get Up With It).
  3. You can use it to get your adrenaline pumping. (Try "Fast Track" on We Want Miles).
  4. You can sit and reflect on it. (Try "Gondwana" on Pangaea).
  5. You can nod your head to it. (Try the bass break in "Calypso Frelimo", on Get Up With It. If even more head-nodding is desired, try Sides 2 & 4 of that album as well).
  6. You can make love to it. (Try "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" on Bitches Brew. If your partner doesnít dig it you can always masturbate to it. Or try "Ascent" from the Directions collection for something a bit more romantic, in its own strange way).
  7. It reflects the black experience and consolidates previously disparate musics into a coherent whole. (Try Bitches Brew and On The Corner).
  8. So many artists have been influenced by this music that you may as well cut out the middle-man and go straight to the source, for the real deal.
  9. Itís timeless; you can still listen to it decades from now without shame. In fact, it may make more sense to most of us decades down the line.
  10. Itís genuine art, created through an individualís (considerable) experience, intellect, and desire for self-expression. Plus itís lovely and it swings like a mother.

Also see this interview with Teo Macero about producing Miles and our article on Miles' Get Up With It