A wallow in '70s Miles
Having made what's become the common consensus "greatest jazz album of all time" (that'd be Kind of Blue) in 1959, he spent the years 1964-68 assembling and leading a quintet of freewheeling, forward-looking young bloods (Hancock-Carter-Williams-Shorter) that played the fire out of his repertoire while pursuing studio experiments that enabled him to figure out exactly what it was he wanted to absorb from free jazz (which he purported to disdain), funk and rock, culminating in 1969 with In A Silent Way, an album of lapidary beauty on which he restricted Tony Williams to playing backbeat and augmented the lineup with a couple of extra keyboardists and John McLaughlin, a hotshot English guitarist Williams had brought over to make Lifetime.
Then he blew it all up with a series of albums, from 1970's Bitches Brew to 1976's Agharta, that confounded the critics and polarized his fan base as he moved progressively further away from jazz tradition and deeper into a new direction that reflected the latest developments in black street music: the multi-layered syncopations of James Brown and Sly Stone, and the stratospheric acid-blues of Jimi Hendrix. All of this music -- even 1972's On the Corner, which has been called "the most hated album in jazz" -- sounds like heartbeat now, only because it's been so influential in arenas like ambient, dub, and hip-hop. To the jazz purists of the time, however, it seemed like heresy: abandoning all but the most rudimentary chord changes, adulterating the signature Davis trumpet tone with a wah-wah pedal, releasing records that were products of extensive studio editing, rather than documents of pristine live performances.
Forty years after the fact, the music Miles was making in the early '70s holds up a lot better than the fusion that it spawned in the work of his ex-sidemen (Williams' Lifetime, Hancock's Headhunters, Shorter and Josef Zawinul's Weather Report, Chick Corea's Return to Forever) and scores of others who followed in their wake. Where Miles' music was driven by an uncompromising musical intelligence, fusion was a music of crowd-pleasing excitement and exhibitionism -- a sophisto muso's form of the lowest common denominator.
Bebop -- which sprang from a desire on the part of intelligent men like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, who were hyper-aware of their marginal position in society, to create a music that squares couldn't play as their way of flipping the bird to the powers that be -- had made technique a fetish bordering on a religion among its adherents. But as Derek Bailey points out in Improvisation, even a demanding form like bebop has its idiomatic conventions, and these could be codified and replicated until the music's original impetus had evaporated.
By the '70s, jazz had started making inroads into academia, and by the end of the decade, schools like NTSU that had formerly churned out legions of Maynard Ferguson-worshiping scream trumpeters were instead manufacturing battalions of earnest, Wayne Shorter-inspired composing saxophonists. Fusion came about when highly skilled players saw less technically adept rockers earning adulation and lucre and figured, "Why not?" For his part, Miles had looked askance at instrumental prowess for its own sake since he employed Coltrane during the saxophone icon's late-'50s "sheets of sound" days. He seemed to be looking for a certain purity of essence: having hired the sharpest players he could find, he expected them to create in the moment.
He deliberately thwarted potential grandstanders: forcing keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett to play electronic keyboards against their will (and in so doing, dragging them kicking and screaming from the past to the future); eliciting one of John McLaughlin's best recorded performances (on In A Silent Way) by telling him to "play like you don't know how to play guitar" (like George Clinton telling Eddie Hazel before cutting "Maggot Brain" to "Imagine your mother died and then you find out that she ain't really dead"); telling bassist Michael Henderson (whom he'd hired out of Aretha Franklin's band to give his '70-'75 bands a solid foundation of funk), "If you learn any of that old shit, you're fired;" instructing Henderson not to follow Jarrett when he went "out," while telling Jarrett to "play more behind Gary [Bartz]" after the saxophonist had complained that his backing was too busy.
It's worth remembering that at the time Miles started alienating old fans with albums like Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, his own trumpet chops were probably at an all-time zenith; his health-conscious regime made it possible for him to hit high notes and play with an endurance that he'd never been able to before. Over the next couple of years, his physical infirmities (and the drugs he used to try and manage them) took a toll on his abilities, but by the time he "retired" in 1975, he'd managed to transcend these limitations by building a new band that responded to his cues (either nonverbal or played on trumpet or organ) so intuitively that the transitions in their live sets sounded like they could have been studio edits.
Since the late '60s, Miles had adopted a method in the studio that mirrored what Hendrix was doing then, and Krautrockers like Can and Faust would in the early '70s: playing a lot, recording everything, and making records by editing together the best bits. The Beatles had George Martin to help realize their visions on record, and Hendrix had Eddie Kramer, then Alan Douglas. Producer Teo Macero played the role for Miles, compiling tracks from hours of studio jamming, effectively recomposing pieces of music with edits that added structural coherence and unity, and occasionally interpolating unrelated materials (Miles' "In A Silent Way" solo in the middle of "Yesternow" on A Tribute To Jack Johnson; the spoken word bit near the end of "Inamorata" on Live-Evil) in a way that '90s remix culture would make commonplace, but was unusual for its time.
On Bitches Brew, Miles used an expanded ensemble, doubling up on every instrument except guitar, to create orchestral colors and textures in the same way Gil Evans had with an even larger group on their '50s and '60s collaborations. The two or three keyboards create a shimmering aura of mystery which gives way to a throbbing pulse from the electric and acoustic bases, multiple trap drummers and percussionists. Miles' trumpet stabs out from the dense rhythmic thicket and floats above the band's sustained vamps and grooves, using an Echoplex to heighten the essential loneliness of his sound, whether he's soloing or dialoguing with Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin's horns. (Although both saxophonists were primarily tenormen, Miles assigned them to ancillary axes -- soprano for Shorter, bass clarinet for Maupin -- for these sessions.)
On tracks like "Bitches Brew" and "Pharaoh's Dance" (as on the two LP side-long medleys that comprised In A Silent Way), Miles was using the LP record to sustain a mood for an extended time period -- longer, in fact, than he was inclined to in live performance -- increasing the medium's expressiveness in a way that surpassed the post-boppers' use of the LP to present complete live extemporizations, freed from the three-minute constraints of the 78 rpm disc. He and his band continued to refine the material as they took it to the stage in rock venues, including the Fillmores East and West and the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, where Miles played a blistering 35-minute set at dusk on a bill that also included the Who and Hendrix.
In the live recordings of those performances, you can hear the band evolving towards what it would become on 1971's Live-Evil, on which the dynamic tension between Jarrett's freedom and Henderson's funk is palpable, and strikes sparks. McLaughlin, who was sitting in for the last night of a four-night engagement at D.C.'s Cellar Door, sounds more like his classic self here than on Bitches Brew, but without the distorted, trebly tone that was his trademark in Mahavishnu Orchestra (the band he formed on the strength of his notoriety as a Davis sideman). On Live-Evil, the pulverizing, percussive, piston-like attack with which he unleashes his Gatling-gun-fast runs sounds muffled enough to be Jarrett's right hand on a Fender Rhodes' keyboard.
In between Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, Miles released A Tribute To Jack Johnson, a record that in a just universe would have been a huge hit. "Right Off" is the closest thing to a straight rock record that Miles ever made, with McLaughlin chording ferociously and his Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham slamming out a basic shuffle, locking it in the pocket with a percolating Henderson in a manner that Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow rhythm section would emulate on "Freeway Jam" a couple of years later. Up front, the leader plants himself in front of the mic and blows from the bottom of his feet. Things flag a bit with Steve Grossman's soprano solo, and Herbie Hancock sounds uncomfortable on organ, but McLaughlin, Henderson, and Cobham never let up, playing a groove reminiscent of the fonky Meters before returning to the shuffle. McLaughlin plays a solo filled with more filth and funk than he'd displayed since Devotion. Turning the record over, "Yesternow" uses the bass line from JB's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" as the basis for a dark, ruminative exploration, with clouds of feedback courtesy of Sonny Sharrock.
On the Corner was the line in the sand that even listeners who'd made the jump to Bitches Brew and Live-Evil with Miles were unwilling to cross. Miles telegraphed his punch with the album's cover art, which replaced Abdul Mati Klarwein's stately and forbidding Afrocentric majesty with Corky McCoy's cartoon jive. A lot of Miles' usual suspects were on board, but this time they went uncredited on the LP sleeve, and their individual voices were subsumed in a mix so busy and dense that all that registered at first hearing was the pulsing groove -- which was exactly the idea. More to the point, "Black Satin" and its derivatives that made up side two had a naggingly insistent hook, somewhat playful, somewhat sinister.
In 1973, Miles put together the band that'd see him through to his "retirement" in '75. He'd used some Indian musicians in the band the previous year, but they were soon dropped, and after Jarrett quit, Miles was unable to find a keyboardist who could follow his instructions, so he opted to play organ himself. He retained Henderson as the core of a rhythm section that also included Al Foster on drums and Reggie Lucas on guitar, and there was a succession of sax players. To avoid too much unanimity and preserve some spontaneity, Miles exempted guitarist Pete Cosey and percussionist Mtume from rehearsals. The band played long, seamless medleys, built around vamps and themes that Miles cued with gestures or brief musical phrases, so the musicians had to listen intently. Live, he'd often stop the band while a soloist was in full flight, leaving them to perform unaccompanied.
The big news in this band was Cosey, a Chicagoan who'd done sessions for Chess -- including those that produced Electric Mud, the psychedelicized Muddy Waters album which was widely reviled when it was new, but has since been rehabilitated in the same way as Miles' '70s music has -- but was also a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the organization from which Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago emerged, among others. With Miles, he'd sit onstage with a half dozen guitars in different tunings -- he'd studied the country bluesmen, as well as stringed instruments from Africa and India, and had either 32 or 36 different tuning systems, depending on whose interview you read -- as well as a table that held a synthesizer, thumb piano, autoharp, and small percussion instruments: a harbinger of latter-day experimental musos.
At the time Get Up With It was recorded, Cosey was still getting acclimated to Miles' music, so his reputation really rests upon two double albums that were both recorded on the last day of the band's 1975 Japanese tour. Pangaea, from the evening performance, was released in '75, but only in Japan, while Agharta, from the matinee, wasn't released in the U.S. until '76, when Miles was already in retirement. Cosey's sound is awash in effects, but deeply rooted in blues, and he plays with an abandon that occasionally veers into atonality. He plays beyond the notes, channeling the same cosmic energy as Hendrix on "Machine Gun," Hazel on "Maggot Brain," and Sonny Sharrock on Ask the Ages. After his tenure with Miles, Cosey receded back into obscurity, and when Miles returned to performing in 1981, he employed guitarists who were a lot less visionary. A pity.
Agharta explodes out of the gate like Sly at Woodstock, the band churning out a driving funk riff, saxophonist Sonny Fortune testifying like Maceo Parker, Cosey going off like a Holy Roller speaking in tongues, and Miles smoldering with quiet fire while Henderson, Lucas, Foster, and Mtume groove unmercifully. (It's worth noting that Miles briefly employed P-Funk drummer Tiki Fulwood for some shows in '72, so he was also aware of George Clinton's masterwork.) The "Maiysha" that follows is taken at a more leisurely tempo than the studio version, which it surpasses on live spontaneity and Cosey's incendiary solo over the bluesy I-IV change -- much more present in the mix than he'd been on Get Up With It. "Interlude" brings the tempo wa-a-ay up, with the band executing the Meters-like theme from "Right Off" at about three times the speed of the studio version before taking off into welters of messy psychedelia. The shuffle section from that piece obliterates the memory of the studio version, then gives way to a denouement that employs even more negative space than "He Loved Him Madly." This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Why are there now no major artists risking critical, popular, and even subcultural backlash in the way Miles did in the '70s? This is another discussion for another time; perhaps it has to do with the way in which the diminished expectations of a segmented marketplace -- where even genres like metal and dance music are self-ghettoized into myriad and virulently mutually exclusive subgenres -- have downsized the economies of scale, so artists tend to continually massage the known pleasure centers of an ever-more circumscribed audience, and those who fail to do so (cf. Iggy et son chansons en francais, or Uncle Lou hooking up with Metallica) generate scarcely a ripple in the public consciousness.
To paraphrase St. Lester, the jazz audience (such as it is) will never again agree on anything the way we (!) once did about Miles -- all those new kids buying Kind of Blue as their first jazz album notwithstanding. No one in today's jazz cosmos, not even greats like Cecil Taylor or Peter Brotzmann, can engage and enrage in the way that Miles did. In the meantime, Miles' '70s music remains, out there in the wind, in the cloud, in your mom's scuffed-up shiny silver discs, and in your grandpa's scratchy old vinyl. Dance with your mind and listen with your body.