The Cellar Door was a club in Washington, D.C. (insert Basement Tapes reference here). In the early 1970s, trumpeter Miles Davis seemingly developed an allergy to the studio, but Columbia made up for it with frequent concert recordings, most of which have never been released or had just bits and pieces cherry-picked by producer Teo Macero. Over two-thirds of this music is appearing for the first time, 35 years after it was recorded.
What little did appear at the time (on Live/Evil, heavily edited by Macero) was often reviled by critics. As time has passed, Miles's then-recent change to electric music has become accepted; if the shock is gone, at least in compensation we're more accustomed to the proper mindset for appreciating the new approach, which goes way beyond just adding electricity to jazz. Miles and his cohorts were creating a whole new style of music; it required a whole new way of listening, a different set of priorities.
Overall coherence and symmetrical (or even tidy) structure, long important touchstones in Western music of all types, are largely abandoned in favor of emphasizing contrasts (of timbre, style, rhythm) and accretive, organically open structures developed as the music proceeds. There are lulls; past critics have thought they were lapses in improvisational inspiration, but they are actually fulfilling a number of important functions: melodic focus is put aside in favor of explorations of instrumental timbres and group textures; balance is achieved by putting breathing space between the more densely packed moments; collectively equal transition sections offer an alternative to the solo-after-solo structure that had ultimately made bebop feel so predictable. The quieter passages some would call "noodling" are subtly building suspenseful tension that gets released when a new section explodes on the listener. Hearing the organic development of these improvisations in full makes these live recordings superior to their edited Live/Evil form.
The contributions of individual members of the band, which had been together for about three months by December 1970, have been separately analyzed -- and, often, found wanting -- which misses the point of this band (and of most Miles bands), which is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Much has been made of the fact that before joining Miles, electric bassist Michael Henderson had been in Stevie Wonder's band. He's not much of an improvisor, but he isn't asked to be: He mostly provides the foundation, often repetitive and always solid, over which the others build; the directions in which that foundation goes guides the shape and sound of the music, making him extremely important and yet, if listened to in isolated fashion, not very interesting. But he was doing what Miles wanted from him, and if Miles hadn't been happy, Henderson wouldn't have lasted five years in the band. And while Henderson's lines are frequently those of a funk bassist, they are placed in an entirely different context, and this is not funk. As keyboardist Keith Jarrett astutely points out (every band member but Miles, who died in 1991, was interviewed for this package's booklet; the box as a whole is fully up to the standards of Legacy's spectacular previous Miles boxes), "Miles never wanted just a funk band when I knew him. He wanted a band that could be many things."
Miles was like a chemist (an analogy Airto Moreira makes in his interview) concocting a complex compound: A lot of distinct elements are thrown into the mix, and their reactions to each other create much of the excitement.
Even what Jarrett was playing on is part of the chemistry: an organ and a Fender Rhodes electric piano,“ often both at once. Previously, he'd shared keyboard duties with Chick Corea in this band; at times, it's almost like Corea's still there, while at other times Jarrett plays the two sounds in unison to create a new composite sound that has a hard-hitting dramatic impact. In terms of solo honors, Jarrett is the star of the set, even more than the leader.
Alto and soprano saxophonist Gary Bartz was still establishing himself at the time and was hardly conservative, but it's his playing that is most overtly "jazz"-oriented, somewhat derived from John Coltrane but perhaps somewhat adrift in this different context. But that jazz style still held some importance to Miles, or signified something, or maybe just offered another stylistic contrast. And again, it's the overall effect; judging Bartz in isolation is unfair and, as said already, misses the point of this music.
Drummer Jack DeJohnette had been with Miles longer than any of the other band members at this time. He switches handily among a variety of roles: polyrhythmatist, groover, color-splasher. No wonder he's been Jarrett's drummer of choice for decades.
Percussionist Airto Moreira's contributions (absent from the first set for unexplained reasons) were frequently criticized as inessential, largely decorative. Certainly with DeJohnette the band had all the drumming it needed, so the question is, what did Miles have Airto there to provide? Exotic sounds (he also blows whistles, sings wordlessly, and more) and additional polyrhythms, of course, and perhaps a bit of visual flair as well. But in a larger perspective, Airto's role is to fill up middle sonic ground -- between bass and treble, between basic rhythm and freer parts, even between rock and funk and jazz as a style that comes from none of them.
This six-CD box contains sets from four consecutive nights (not all the sets; there were ten total), one set per CD. For the fourth night, guitarist John McLaughlin, so integral a part of In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Jack Johnson for his mix of rock tone and jazz chops, steps in as a guest, and the band's sound is transformed. The band gets a new set of timbres, there's a great added musical intelligence to play off of, and the relative unfamiliarity of the new ingredient thrown into the mix rachets up the intensity of all the players, even Miles, who's as hot and nasty here as he ever got. Yeah, he can be cool, but here he mostly spews bursts of notes like molten lava sprays.
This year, Miles Davis is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's music like this that justifies that. Thirty-five years later, there are groups playing in this style as a new, hip, funky sound. Here's the original, and still the best. It could be the best return you get this year for a hundred dollars. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.