Miles Davis will forever be known for his fearless inventiveness. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he never stopped finding new approaches to the music he played. Coming out of the '60s with immortal recordings like Kind of Blue and The Birth of the Cool behind him, Miles was looking in a new direction. Reciprocating the admiration shown for him by such popular artists as Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, Miles pushed his band into new, totally uncharted territory. To some degree, the map of the journey was set by Bitches Brew, Miles' controversial electric jazz album. But Miles was moving even further, with a new lineup, a new sound and a new vision.
During this period, several of his concerts, plus one experimental half-live, half-studio album were recorded. Until recently, these double-LP recordings were only available as Japanese imports, but Columbia has now reissued them, lavishly remastered and repackaged, and sounding as fresh as ever.
As the albums range from wildly complex jazz to spaced-out noodling to bubbling funk, Miles' trumpet remains the sole constant. The beautiful melodies, brilliant timing and phrasing that his fans loved never goes away, it's just in a changed context. On the albums, it is the horn that stays the same--a steady reminder that Miles was not going to leave anything he'd learned behind.
The first two discs, Fillmore West and Fillmore East, were recorded in the spring of 1970. They provide a bridge between Miles's earlier work and the rest of the series. With Chick Corea on a very plugged-in piano and Dave Holland on electric bass, the sound of the music is transformed and moves into a startling mixture of jazz and funk. The synergy between the musicians in this small ensemble format is remarkable, and the interplay is at times breathtaking. The sound is a mixture of classic jazz approaches and louder, contemporary rock music techniques. Taking the overall feel, as well as many of the tracks, from Bitches Brew, Fillmore East and Fillmore West are original and thoroughly excellent jazz albums, but only hint at where Miles was going.
Live-Evil,also recorded in 1970, provides perhaps the best summing up of the albums in the series. The recording repeatedly switches from the polyrhythmic, intense jazz of the Fillmore albums to the stomping funk of the later releases. The sheer range of the album can be disconcerting, but the emotion put into the music by the musicians carries the album magnificently. Each of the many players emerges with a distinctive voice, and together they paint a fascinating aural canvas. The all-out wailing of Gary Bartz's sax provides a sharp counterpoint to John McLaughlin's oblique, introverted guitar solos. The album seems to drag on at times, particularly during one very long drum solo, but the variety and enthusiasm is enough to make it a great listen.
Live at Philharmonic Hall finds Miles and company settling into a groove so deep it sounds like they might never come up. It is 1972, and the old rhythm section has replaced by a new one whose grounding is purely R&B. The difference shows itself as mind-bending, morphing rhythms are replaced by swirling cymbal crashes and striking beats. Dizzying bass acrobatics are replaced by percolating, rock-steady lines. The band seems to find one voice, and in tracks stretching up to 30 minutes long, the musicians lay into one repetitive groove after another with a vengeance. Miles, in the center of it all as always, works the wah-wah pedal relentlessly, giving his horn even more human qualities.
Dark Magus, from 1974, serves as the culmination of the journey documented by these albums. By this time, the wall of sound Miles employs has grown to such an extent that it has become something new entirely. With three guitars, Miles playing organ and a relentless rhythm section, Dark Magus becomes a sea of sound--a dense, nearly opaque collage of crashing rhythms, slamming funk and inspired, wild soloing. Unlike Philharmonic Hall, where the soloists largely stayed in the vein of the steady funk of the band, the soloists in Dark Magus can barely be contained. As horn player Dave Liebman writes in the liner notes, "each man had his role...[drummer] Al Foster for the most part just kept the energy up relentlessly.... What it really came down to was the relentless, screaming sound and energy of the music."
And sound, in the end, was the whole point. For Miles, there was always a challenge around the corner. Having already proved that he could master the world of jazz, he had set his sights on new horizons--unexplored sonic worlds where he could maybe get a little bit closer to what he was always looking for. Bobby Previte writes in the liner notes to Philharmonic Hall that "The sense that it's impossible for us, and no one with any feel would want it any other way." For Miles, it was the journey that mattered. As these albums testify, during the early '70s Miles was taking giant steps indeed. He was, once again, miles ahead.
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