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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2002/10/23
by Patrick Buzby

In Pursuit of Miles

The Miles Davis live sets between 1969 and 1975 are
high on the list of secret ancestors of jamband music
(or, at least, what jamband music should be). For
those who enjoy open but rock/funk-based material,
imagine entire sets of those sorts of songs, without
vocals, segued together. Furthermore, most folks with
even a passing knowledge of Miles know that he was a
character, and there are enough complexities and
contradictions below the surface of this music to keep
would-be biographers and analysts busy for years.
A beginning contradiction: many cite Miles as a
pioneer (of jazz-rock, among other things), but
devil’s advocates point out that other artists
preceded him in many of his stylistic territories.
Furthermore, many describe his foray into jazz-rock as
a sudden shift. Examining his live recordings
carefully, though, one finds a more gradual evolution.
Miles’s last great acoustic quintet of the mid-60’s
has more to do with his early fusion era than many
realize. It marked the first time he collaborated with
musicians of a younger generation (such as the
then-teenaged Tony Williams), leading for the first
time to the question of whether Miles could keep up
with his sidemen. Also, towards the end of this
group’s time, Miles introduced the idea of continuous
sets, which would carry over to the fusion years and
have a great deal of impact on the music. (No official
live releases exist of those later sets, but Miles’s
European tour in 1967, like those in ’69 and ’71,
yielded a number of videos and FM recordings, some of
which are quite easy to find on tradelists.)
Furthermore, the last Miles quintet built a reputation
as the most advanced rhythmic and harmonic explorers
in jazz, which gave latter-day recruits Chick Corea
and Dave Holland something to live up to. The two of
them are at the core of the first two live electric
Miles sets available in the U.S., It’s About That Time
(a recent archival release from the Fillmore East
where Miles opened for Neil Young and Crazy Horse and
Steve Miller) and Black Beauty (from a Fillmore West
run opening for the Dead). In the liner notes to the
reissue of Black Beauty, Corea describes Miles as
"always the Captain and Main Navigator." From his
sidemen’s viewpoints, most likely this was so.
However, listening to these recently, I hear each of
these sets as continuous dialouges between Corea and
Holland, often aided by drummer Jack DeJohnette and
taking into account what the horn players have to say
when they are present, but rolling on their own path
regardlesss. This music is still in the spirit of
mid-60’s jazz, despite the funk basis of much of the
material.
Miles still uses the continuous format (as he would
until his hiatus in 1975), and he is nearly always the
one who cues the starts of new songs. However, if
Holland’s bass playing on "Directions" at Black
Beauty’s outset is more pattern-oriented than Phil
Lesh ever would have been, it doesn’t take long for
him to break loose. Listen to "It’s About That Time"
from this set for an example of Corea and Holland
constructing an improvisation under (or alongside) the
horn players’ solos, constantly transforming the blues
riff into something lyrical one minute, obtuse the
next, almost samba-flavored for a few seconds around
the three-minute mark. This is the last track on the
first CD, and their dialogue continues up until the
moment my discman shuts off. Earlier on "Miles Runs
The Voodoo Down," DeJohnette joins Holland in
underpinning Miles’s blues wailing, switching things
from a shuffle to straight-8th feel two minutes in,
and messing with the tonality around 4:00, leaving
Miles to hesitate for a while before reasserting
himself while the rhythm section realigns to a
32nd-note stomp at 5:00, with Miles leaving
saxophonist Steve Grossman to take the helm over this. Around 7:30 Holland hints at the next track, "Willie
Nelson," but by this point things have dissolved into
frantic atonality, with Corea building to a climax and
subsiding to space noises before Miles gives the
definitive cue.
In an intriguing article in the Chicago Reader last
year, critic Kevin Whitehead suggested that Miles’s
sidemen were using the opportunity to one-up their
leader. It may be that Miles’s consistent function of
introducing new songs and curtailing Corea and
Holland’s flights into avant-land are evidence of
this. Certainly, though, Miles’s work always has the
charisma and readiness to lead the ensemble. One
amusing example of Miles’s listening comes towards the
end of the Black Beauty take of "Bitches Brew," where
a feedback squawk emerges from Corea’s keyboard and
Miles acknowledges the noise, incorporating it into
his line.
Another theory in circulation is that Miles wanted to
move into pure funk while his sidemen remained more
inclined towards free jazz. Paul Tingen leans this way
in his excellent book on electric Miles, Miles Beyond,
and the commments of Keith Jarrett, who joined
alongside Corea after Black Beauty and subsequently
held the sole keyboard position, are among those
supporting this. However, as Tingen mentions, one can
hear a similar jazz/funk battle on the Jarrett-era
recordings (Live/Evil and, again, several European
bootlegs), with Jarrett and saxophonist Gary Bartz
pulling against the repetitive rhythm sections. It’s
thrilling music, but internally conflicted. (Listen
to Jarrett’s Impulse records for another fascinating
example of conflicted music, with his sidemen
challenging his musical notions, which come through in
purer forms in his solo outings.)
By the time one arrives at the last live records
before Miles’s hiatus (Dark Magus, Agharta, and
Pangaea), the funk has won out. For whatever reasons,
Miles’s bands still included jazz-oriented
saxophonists (Dave Liebman and Sonny Fortune), but
otherwise these units are of a piece. The 1970 sets
feature near-constant rhythm section dialogue, but by
the time of Dark Magus Liebman could write this in his
retrospective notes: "Each man had his role…There
was scant interaction between rhythm section members
or as a unit in relation to the soloist." This is not
entirely true: sometimes the rhythm guitar or bass
color the music with subtle fills, and sometimes Miles
seems to be interacting chiefly with Mtume’s congas.
However, it is far truer than before, which may be one
reason why these recordings often don’t work for jazz
fans.
In Whitehead’s article, he contrasts Miles’s
rebellious 1970 band with the backup of Crazy Horse,
who kept their boss happy. (See the recent Neil Young
bio Shakey for some intriguing comments from the
auteur about his band’s scant interaction, as well as
debate among his peers about the band’s merits.) As
Whitehead notes, though, there is something, a certain
zoned-out state, which Crazy Horse’s non-interactive
jams convey, and which Miles eventually reached after
presenting the exact opposite sort of interaction on
Neil’s concert bill. The transformation is rather like
that which Phish underwent over the 90’s, and it seems
relevant that it was after I came to appreciate late
Phish that I started discovering new layers in Dark
Magus and Agharta.
How did this process happen? Ask different musicians
and critics and you’ll get different answers, and
Miles himself did little to clear things up. (For
instance, despite caustic comments on jazz, he never
had bad words for Corea or Holland.) The fact remains,
though, that it’s a fascinating case, and one that any
serious fan of rock-oriented improvisation should
investigate.

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