I finally made it to 1975 in my trip through the live recordings made by Miles Davis during his electric period in the early 1970s. Part 1 of this adventure is here and Part 2 is here.
In September 1972, just a few months after finishing the jazz/funk/jam album On the Corner, which appears to have been universally panned, Miles recorded In Concert: Live at the Philharmonic Hall. The only remaining band member from the Cellar Door sessions was bassist Michael Henderson, and the only remaining track from 1970 was “Honky Tonk.”
Filling out the band, were Carlos Garnett on sax, Cedric Lawson on electric piano/synthesizer, Reggie Lucas on guitar, Khalil Balakrishna on electric sitar, Al Foster on drums, Badal Roy on tabla, and Mtume on percussion. The resulting recording is two discs of furious jazz fusion jamming.
Disc 1 (“Foot Fooler”) is comprised of four tracks opening with “Rated X,” which starts as a noisy percussion-driven rhythm with Miles and Garnett chirping and squawking along until Henderson takes over about halfway through at which point the track becomes a fast paced funk jam.
The best part of the first disc is “Theme from Jack Johnson,” a fast tempo guitar driven groove featuring Miles blowing some clipped trumpet lines that sounds for all the world like two world class runners pacing each other through the streets of an urban wasteland. The set wraps up with “Black Satin/The Theme,” a mostly bass oriented groove that features some of Miles’ finer wah-wah playing.
I found disc 2 (“Slickaphonics”) a little less interesting, but still a very cool ride. Especially, the second track, “Right Off/The Theme,” which is a hard bassy funk.
Miles’ next live album Dark Magus recorded at Carnegie Hall in March 1974 leaves the more funk based fusion behind for a different approach, one that suggests a blueprint for the style of dark seething funk/rock/jazz soundscapes and atmospheric pieces that Talking Heads’ eventually delved into during their brilliant Remain in Light/Name of this Band period, where dark and dense grooves drove beneath David Byrne’s often manic vocals. The aptly titled Dark Magus contains some of the densest, most sinister jams on record. It’s truly the most evil groove I’ve ever heard.
The band on Dark Magus features two sax players: Dave Liebman and Azar Lawrence as well as three guitarists: Reggie Lucas, Dominique Gaumont and the insanely shredding Pete Cosey who seems to tear through this material like a wrecking ball. There are four tracks, each broken into two parts: “Moja,” “Wili,” “Tatu,” and “Nne.” Each track runs into the other, each being a fast and furious jam with occasional solos (including a smoldering sax piece in the second half of “Moja”).
My favorite piece is “Wili” because here it all seems to come together and fly apart at the same time culminating in a brooding psychedelic-tinged guitar solo that looks back at the blues and drags it into the glorious stew of Dark Magus, Miles’ most bitchin’ brew.
I’ve been listening to this music for years and each time I hear Dark Magus, I discover new things, moments and interactions between Miles and his band that I’d previously missed. This is music that is not for casual listening, only by sitting down and focusing on it does it come alive, like a living world seen from the ground up rather than the air down.
The last two albums from this period are Agharta and Pangaea, both recorded in Tokyo on February 1, 1975. Cosey, Foster, Henderson, Lucas and Mtume return from Dark Magus joined by Sonny Fortune on sax and flute. Agharta was the first set and represents one of the high points in jazz fusion. Like its predecessor, it’s about rhythm and texture and dominated by Pete Cosey’s tremendous guitar work which ranges from the blues through jazz and psychedelia to funk, sometimes in the same solo. The music has a brighter and more open feel than what was heard on Dark Magus.
Pangaea is the only one of these albums I don’t have. I heard it a few years back and liked it, but haven’t bought it yet since these last two are the only ones Columbia has not remastered and rereleased. Do I sense a box set lurking out there? After Agharta/Pangaea, Miles went on hiatus plagued by a host of health problems and addictions. He resurfaced in the early eighties, and I have no idea what his music was like at that point.
He was accused of selling out after he left straight ahead jazz for fusion, but it isn’t selling out for a musician to follow his muse. Perhaps if he’d taken up singing, the sellout argument would work. He taught young rockers what improvisation is about and he forced jazz musicians to challenge the status quo. Still, I wonder what it must have been like for longtime Miles fans to hear this music for the first time in the early seventies.
It doesn’t strike me as odd at all, but then I grew up listening to artists like Sonic Youth and the Grateful Dead whose extended jams full of noise and drone often pushed the limits of what music is just as Miles once pulled jazz apart at the seams when he looked for something new and found fusion.