Last week, we started listening to Miles Davis’ live electric output from the early ’70s and today, we reach The Cellar Door Sessions, a box set that documents four days (Dec 16-19, 1970) of Miles and his band moving away from the Bitches Brew material and beginning to move in a funkier direction.
The new band consisted of Michael Henderson on bass, Gary Bartz on sax, Keith Jarrett on electric piano and electric organ, and Jack DeJohnette on drums joined by percussionist Airto Moreira on the 17th-19th and guitarist John McLaughlin on the 19th. Over the course of the four night stand they worked out on seven tunes: “Directions,” “Yesternow,” “What I Say,” “Inamorata,” “Honky Tonk,” “It’s About That Time,” and “Sanctuary,” with a Keith Jarrett improv preceding each version of “Inamorata.”
Edited versions of some of the recordings from the 19th were released in 1971 on Live-Evil. The rest were kept in the vault until the 2005 release of The Cellar Door Sessions.
Listening through this is a truly amazing trip. Each rendition of each song is slightly different and over the course of the four days each song that is played more than once evolves as the musicians come to more fully understand what Miles was after.
“What I Say,” with its funky groove and simmering intensity forces a body to move. It’s just impossible to sit still while this is playing, particularly the 21 minute version from disc five that features John McLaughlin on guitar. Ever since I first heard it on Live-Evil (incidentally, it’s the only unedited track on that album) it’s been one of my favorite numbers from Miles’ electric live material.
Other highlights include the disc three version of “Honky Tonk,” a fascinating workout for Jarrett. For the most part, it’s a slow plodding tune but Jarrett’s deft touch on the electric piano (far more interesting than Corea’s blocky chord playing earlier in the year) makes the track. There’s a searching quality as Jarrett seems to explore the song’s structure before taking off in flights of notes that eventually settle like birds landing on a sound wave.
On disc four, Miles leads a beautiful and introspective – if short – “Sanctuary,” the only song remaining from Bitches Brew, that cools things down after a scorching “What I Say.” Miles’ trumpet sounds as haunting as ever and leads nicely into one of Jarrett’s pre-“Inamorata” improv moments. That improv leads to my favorite “Inamorata” whereupon the whole band comes back like an engine revving while Miles and Gary Bartz soar above.
The best of this exemplary set, though, is found on the last two discs when John Mclaughlin sat in on guitar. McLaughlin’s playing is intense and explosive as ever, doing to jazz what Hendrix did to rock. Miles’ music of this period screams for the addition of guitar (including screaming guitar), and most of the material for the three quintessential Miles electric studio albums (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and A Tribute to Jack Johnson) feature McLaughlin. Guitar (expecially his) is the missing ingredient on all of the electric Miles recordings of 1970 until the last sets of the The Cellar Door Sessions. From that point on, the rest of the released recordings from the early ’70s would feature electric guitar.
After The Cellar Door Sessions, I went back to listen to Live-Evil, which from 1971 to 2005 was the only available recording of this music. All of the live music is edited from the sets featuring McLaughlin. I’ve always enjoyed Live-Evil, but now that I’ve heard the unedited versions, I probably won’t go back to it much. The album is filled out with interesting studio material (is this the evil part?) recorded earlier in the year and available in The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.
1970 was a year in which Miles Davis managed to alienate most of the jazz world by plugging in and incorporating rock style guitar intensity with funk rhythms and jazz improv. This was music unlike any that had ever been heard before. Was it even still jazz or was it something new? Miles seems to be searching for a way to connect with the times and currents swirling around him, the music in the air and on the radio, but though the sounds, electrified, intense and sometimes sinister were changing his trumpet is as moving as ever. Unfortunately, these recordings were where many of Miles’ longtime fans abandoned him.
It was only starting to get interesting.