Miles Davis Goes Electric


When my Miles Davis birthday retrospective got out of hand, I split it into two parts. The first covered his acoustic periods. Here's the second, covering the most controversial part of his career, when he "went electric" and brought in all kinds of styles that were anathema to jazzbos. Once again, the most crucial albums are those with cover art.

Filles de Kilimanjaro (Columbia)

Miles's first foray into electric music came on Miles in the Sky, a transitional album that also included his last acoustic studio recordings. Filles was his first album to have electric instrumentation on all tracks.

It too could be considered transitional, in the sense that it falls along a spectrum of stylistic evolution and finds the band personnel changing (Chick Corea and Dave Holland replaced Hancock and Carter), yet within itself it is a fully formed stylistic whole in which all ties to bebop have finally been cut; some writers have noted that with all the tracks in F, the album plays like a suite. Though unlisted in the album credits, Gil Evans contributed to Filles as composer (collaborating with Miles on "Petits Machins" and creating "Mademoiselle Mabry(Miss Mabry)" by reworking elements of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" -- not immediately obvious, but once you know it, easy to hear), arranger, and co-producer. The structural approach that had come to the fore of the "second great quintet"'s later work carry over; "Petits Machins (Little Stuff)," with Hancock on Fender Rhodes electric piano and Carter on electric bass guitar, is perhaps the apex of structural complexity here, with metric shifts (11/4 to 4/4) and a cyclical development that alters section lengths, removing the comfort of symmetry. The old saw about the journey rather than the destination definitely applies to this music.

In a Silent Way (Columbia)

Davis's interest in the then-new fusion genre reached its first fruition on this 1969 disc of two lengthy, flowing tracks; the combination of what he'd developed on Filles with rock grooves proved revelatory. There was a lot more amplification here than jazz audiences were used to, nor were they all ready for the extended harmonic vamps. There was more to it than that, of course; the three other keys to the new sound were the use of multiple keyboardists (Corea and Hancock on electric pianos, Joe Zawinul on organ) to create seamlessly undulating beds of sound, the imaginative work of guitarist John McLaughlin, and the creative tape editing of producer Teo Macero. Macero could be an annoying figure (his attempt to retroactively weasel the producer credit for Kind of Blue still rankles), but he was a composer of some talent, and Miles, not always the most trusting guy, trusted Teo's decision-making; Macero was able to take raw, rambling studio jams and not only extract what was good in them, but put the pieces together in a non-chronological way that strengthened, or created, strong overall structure. McLaughlin's playing continues to amaze; it's not the loud power of his approach in his Mahavishnu Orchestra, but rather a more lithe, horn-like style that fits well with the melodic emphasis of Davis and Shorter (in the near-stasis of the title track, Davis's supremely nuanced trumpet playing achieved the haunting beauty of his greatest music). And, of course, the rhythmic genius of Tony Williams, whose beats seem simple but subtly propel the two lengthy, flowing tracks in an utterly hypnotic way.

The three-CD set The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, though deceptively titled (it stretches across a longer time frame, even including two Filles tracks that had been released on that LP before anything that actually appeared on In a Silent Way had been recorded), is well worth the mere $20 for which it can be found used on Amazon. Not only does it provide a thorough look at the path leading from Filles to In a Silent Way, it includes some excellent music that, had Davis not been recording so prolifically, could have been seen as equally iconic if released at the time. In particular, the lengthy "The Ghetto Walk," with Joe Chambers on drums, is so great that it's amazing it waited decades for release.

Bitches Brew (Columbia)

The tracks on Bitches Brew, Miles's first double LP, were recorded August 19-21, 1969 with a large and shifting ensemble. Miles later said, "I knew what I wanted would come out of a process and not some prearranged shit. This session was about improvisation...." He took fusion to more avant-garde realms on this session; though when it was released in April 1970 jazz purists vehemently rejected it for its abundance of electric instrumentation and its increased incorporation of rock- and R&B-influenced rhythms, it actually is as texturally based and colorful in timbres (notably shaded by bass clarinet -- all hail Bennie Maupin!) as Davis's work with Gil Evans, but it grooves a lot harder ; some of "Spanish Key" is as funky as James Brown, and all tracks but one have two trap set drummers (Jack DeJohnette on all; Lenny White is replaced on one track by Don Alias) and two additional percussionists except on the track where Alias switches to traps. Although the dominant rhythm tends to be straight eighth notes (influenced by Tony Williams's style, whether by the drummers' choice or Miles's direction), the multiple drummers set up interlocking polyrhythms under and around the beat, occasionally dropping out and then returning for variety of density, which has a dramatic impact. There are usually two bassists, Dave Holland on upright acoustic on all tracks and Harvey Brooks on electric everywhere but two tracks, laying down a plush, propulsive bottom; there are also at least two keyboardists on all tracks (Zawinul and Corea, joined on two tracks by Larry Young) also setting up interlocking patterns, and McLaughlin weaves in and out. Wayne Shorter plays only soprano sax; this sets him apart sonically from the other reed, Maupin's bass clarinet. And Miles increasingly alters his trumpet sound with effects; the master of timbral subtlety was adding more sounds to his palette. There are some excellent solos, but this is much more a music of ensemble interaction. It is one of the three or four best albums of Miles's career, perhaps the best, and definitely the most influential of his electric efforts. (There are several options if you want expanded packages; all are more than most fans need, most with discursive jams at chronologically proximate sessions that sometimes sound relatively little like Bitches Brew; more recent deluxe packages include a concert or two; the DVD gig is subpar but the audio-only concert's pretty hot.)

Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia)

You wanna hear Miles really rock out? This is where it happens, on "Right Off." At an April 7, 1970 session, with Miles not even in the room at first, Billy Cobham bashes out an aggressive shuffle beat while John McLaughlin riffs on chords; Michael Henderson joins on a throbbing electric bass line. Miles rushes in from the control room and plays a hot solo. But Macero interrupts the groove to splice in a trumpet solo he'd recorded back in November 1969; for a little while, it's just trumpet and an electronic hum. Then the groove comes back in, from another take of "Right Off," with Steve Grossman soloing on soprano sax; Herbie Hancock had dropped by the studio; he throws down some organ after Grossman's done; then a different groove, based on a snippet of a Sly & the Family Stone riff, is appended. This is an album that was finally better understood after Bob Belden went through the many tracks originally produced by Teo Macero and compiled a large (but not complete) number of them on the five-CD set The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. It might seem to somewhat complicate the myth of spontaneous creation that the final LP version of "Right Off" is constructed from multiple takes, including a snippet from five months earlier, with Macero cutting it together with such obvious, even crude, edits -- but while it is more complicated, the ethos of spontaneity is still at the root of it all, just shuffled (no pun intended) around. What does it all have to do with providing the soundtrack to an obscure film about the black heavyweight boxing champion of the early 1900s? Nothing directly related, perhaps, but certainly there's some identification of Miles with Johnson, another black man who irritated the white power structure by saying and doing what he felt like saying and doing. The studio wizardry gets even more convoluted on the darker, more mysterious "Yesternow," side two of the LP, with a wide variety of sessions (with different personnel) and multiple compositions dissected with their parts then stitched together, including an iconic quote taken from In a Silent Way. Yes, the sudden shifts can be disconcerting and seem philosophically opposed to the old philosophy of jazz, but think about it this way: where the old way of working would have involved taking the spontaneous creations, learning them in the new form, and playing them over and over until it all came out right in a "live" performance, here the spontaneous moments are preserved as they happened, albeit not in their entirety or in order, but without the original inspiration dimmed by repetition.

On the Corner (Columbia)

If Miles had any jazz purists remaining as fans, this is probably where the last diehards gave up. The colorful cartoon cover art screamed "street," and so did many of the rhythms and textures inside, though anybody who thought music this downright weird was some sort of get-on-the-radio sellout was out of his mind. The rhythms on the title track (actually a suite) can be almost robotic at times, the multiple drummers playing very repetitiously, but the way their patterns overlap shifts kaleidoscopically. Because Miles was not only influenced by funk and rock here, he was listening to avant-garde icons Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis, and apparently Indian music as well; there's sitar and tabla here. He combined those disparate influences into dense, dissonant music that was as far from "jazz" as anything he'd ever do, heavy on electronic alterations of his trumpet and organ. "Black Satin" loops around itself, an etude in how to find variety in repetition. "One and One" is the funkiest track, its syncopations out front; "Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X," the closing track, is full of rampant syncopation in the "Helen Butte" part, but somehow the way the individually funky elements lock together is beyond funk; the "Mr. Freedom X" starts out spacier but occasionally locks in like a James Brown groove turned inside, only to have the textures thin out again as tabla takes over the rhythm. Though the tracks come from sessions with varying personnel, the structural principles are consistent.

Get Up With It (Columbia)

By this point (1974), most of Davis's releases were double LPs, but unlike Bitches Brew, his first double, they were either concert recordings (sometimes heavily edited by Macero) or grab-bags from disparate studio sessions (occasionally combinations of both). The highlight on this not-even-trying-to-cohere collection is the 32-minute dirge "He Loved Him Madly," Davis's heartfelt tribute to the recently deceased Duke Ellington. Not that it sounds anything like Ellington's music, or even much of Davis's. To call it a groove might imply a faster and more upbeat track, and it is neither, but it does have a slow-burning rhythmic impetus that has a sort of slow-motion juggernaut momentum to it (kudos to drummer Al Foster, who manages to incrementally vary the simple beat in ways that keep it compelling) that proves quite hypnotic. By this point Miles was sporting a two- (sometimes three-) electric guitarist lineup instead of a multi-keyboardist band; the guitarists on this track are the great Pete Cosey (former Chess Records session man of psychedelic inclinations), the excellent Reggie Lucas (later Madonna's producer), and the negligible French youngster Dominique Gaumont. Dave Liebman, usually on sax, shows himself to be a talented alto flutist, that lower-pitched flute adding distinctive character. But the main soloist by far is Miles himself, summoning one of his greatest displays of subtly nuanced phrasing and tonal color, which traits are even more foregrounded than usual because the track is basically bereft of melody and harmonic progression. "Maiysha" peps things up slightly with Latin downtempo beats and guitar riffing; (regular) flute is again deployed, this time in the hands of Sonny Fortune. Organ is added by Miles himself. Other tracks date back as far as 1970 ("Honky Tonk," with McLaughlin, Hancock, and Jarrett, moves in and out of a slow blues shuffle). "Rated X" (1972) is a blaring, increasingly dense onslaught of droning keyboard noise and pounding percussion; Miles plays no trumpet, sticking to organ. "Calypso Frelimo" ('73) is another 32-minute marathon, but multi-sectional and mostly more rhythmically inclined than the other 32-minute track; Miles shows his agility with some fiery trumpet playing but also has some lyrical moments; the . The short "Red China Blues" ('72) is an oddity, supposedly a non-Miles track -- including harmonica! -- with a brassy Wade Marcus arrangement (though with the Davis rhythm section of Foster, bassist Michael Henderson, and percussionist Mtume) onto which Miles decided to overdub his trumpet. The rest of the album -- Davis's last studio recordings before his 1975-81 hiatus -- consists of the serpentinely polyrhythmic "Mtume" ('74) and the funky yet exploratory "Billy Preston" ('72). Taking off from the structural elements in On the Corner but deploying them more organically, this music still sounds strange and unlike most anything done before or since.

Agharta and Pangaea (Columbia)

The odd thing about this pair of double-LP concert recordings (from the same day in Tokyo in February 1975) is that the music's disjunctures seem to echo the sort of jump cuts that Macero had used to reshape studio recordings, band copying tape rather than vice versa. Miles concerts were by this point nearly spur-of-the-moment suites built around a few themes and riffing jams. The results from earlier concerts could often be rather loose, but here the intensity and focus are almost painful. And for Miles the performances were genuinely painful -- his hip was falling apart, he had an array of other medical problems, and he was doped up on painkillers (and who knows what else). Combine that anguished mindset with the avant-garde leanings of guitar great Pete Cosey -- whose greatest moments are recorded here -- and the results are mind-blowing. Cosey and Lucas and the rhythm section had become a tightly knit team by this point, and Sonny Fortune, at the peak of his talents, is masterful on saxes and flute, the first fully worthy foil Miles had had in a hornman for several years (though Dave Liebman came close). For its even wilder guitar passages of whammy-bar mastery, I slightly favor Agharta over Pangaea, but both provide coruscating catharsis rarely found so powerfully in Davis's albums. People are still catching up with this music. Soon afterward, the pain too great for Miles to continue touring, he stopped performing, in concert or in the studio for six years.

Aura (Columbia)

Recorded in 1985 but not released until 1989, Aura is certainly the most ambitious project Davis took part in during his comeback. I almost ruled it out, since it is more a Palle Mikkelborg album that Miles (and John McLaughlin) guested on than an actual Miles Davis album, but anything that could pique Miles's interest so much, and inspire him to play so well, overcomes that objection, and is somewhat comparable to the '50s projects with Gil Evans that partially inspired it, and nobody would think of ignoring those. But Mikkelborg's sonorities and harmonies are often far from Evans's lushness; Mikkelborg used serial techniques (though this is neither atonal nor 12-tone) and icy textures to create an eerie series of moods unlike anything else in the Davis discography.

I carefully considered including more post-hiatus material on this list for chronological balance, but nothing else post-'70s is so consistently excellent. We Want Miles (1981) has good playing, and the 20-minute transformation of "My Man's Gone Now" is a must-hear, but the tunes are otherwise too simple-minded. Star People (1983) has interesting interaction with guitarists Mike Stern and John Scofield, brings Gil Evans back on arrangements, and renews Miles's interest in the blues and more organically created music, but pales next to his earlier work. I quite liked Tutu (1986) at the time, but the arrangements and production have not aged well, true of most of his '80s work. That's okay; Miles had given us so much already. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.


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