Miles Davis had a career that touched upon six different decades in the twentieth century. However, for the causal listener, the area of greatest familiarity tends to be centered on the late 1950s, essentially around the release of that bachelor-pad perennial, Kind of Blue. It is during this time that jazz reached a golden era, a place at which the mold hardened somewhat. Indeed, to many listeners, the modal, post-bop music created during that time from Miles and his peers, such as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Art Blakey and so forth, defines what jazz was then, and continues to be.
Although Miles put his distinct stamp on that era, he continued to move forward, forming his second great quintet with the likes of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The music from this period further eschewed jazz convention, preferring multi-segment arrangements, longer solos, and more atonal elements.
However, it was only after this group disbanded that Miles made the most significant evolutionary step of his career. For five years, almost all commercial output from Miles Davis consisted of lengthy pieces, often spanning the entire side of an LP, containing little in the way of repetitive themes or conventional melody. This music was culled from jam sessions, from which the highlights were identified. With the aid of producer Ted Macero, Miles spliced these segments together into their final forms. It was not at all uncommon for these edits to bring together different ensembles from entirely different recording sessions within the same album track.
Not only was this music produced in a manner unseen in jazz at the time, but the type of music played was strikingly different as well. In addition to Miles’ trumpet and other horns, the rhythm sections of these bands usually consisted of electric guitar, electric bass, and electric piano and organ, with Miles himself often playing the latter. The music was groove-based, with an established tonal center, but dissonant playing outside of the key was common, and tension-building far outweighed any sense of relief.
Miles was also working with lesser-established and younger players who, during and after their tenure with him, became stalwarts of jazz in their own right. In addition to some holdovers from previous bands, such as Shorter and Hancock, Miles played with bassists Michael Henderson and David Holland, pianists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette, among many others, in ensembles that ranged from six to twenty people.
What follows are capsule reviews of some of the highlights of this era. If confronted head-on, much of this music can be opaque and impenetrable. Many listeners find their way to these records via psychedelic and improvisational rock from the same era, and that is not necessarily the best primer or mindset to receive maximum enjoyment. Nevertheless, if viewed from the right perspective, this music can be overwhelming with emotion, often straddling the line between fragile beauty and dark, troubling malaise. Upon closer listening, what ostensibly appears as cluttered improvisation can give way to nuanced layering. Other tracks simply never make it off the ground. Here are my opinions. As with all subjective art, your mileage may vary.
In a Silent Way – 1969
This album marks the beginning of this period, and also a natural entry point for the listener. Right away, the record establishes the ‘one song per record side’ format that would be followed by later releases. The first of these, “Shhh…/Peaceful” is more or less a standard vamp with extended soloing. Most of this soloing occurs within the key and overall groove. The use of clever editing provides context and texture, but the piece is fairly static throughout.
The record’s second side expands things somewhat. “In a Silent way/It’s About that Time” starts with slow, moody playing, eventually giving way to a groove section that effortlessly gives way to cascading chords before ending in the understated way it began. This is not the most challenging music of this period, but it is easy on the ears and suitable for all kinds of listening. Without hesitation, I would recommend this album to anyone who has their interest piqued by this posting.
Bitches Brew – 1969
Buoyed by the response to the In a Silent Way, Miles restrained nothing in putting forth this mammoth double album. This time, the band had grown larger and added a few more horn players. While this addition certainly expanded the range of sounds and textures, it also makes the music overbearingly dissonant in parts, and it loses some of the tightness that makes In a Silent Way so enjoyable.
Partly due to its provocative title and lysergic album cover, this album seems to be the entry point for many crossover fans. I picked this up in college, and having heard it referred to as ‘psychedelic jazz’ by a friend, I was expecting something in terms of early Pink Floyd or something similar. The shear chaos of some of this music took me aback, and it was only after a few years that I could really enjoy it, if only once a year or so even at the present time.
Where this album works, it is truly great. The sprawling title track alternates between stutter-stop organ crashes, Miles’ matador-esque trumpet calls, and a tight bass groove that deftly supports the weight of the dissonance piled onto it. Elsewhere, “Spanish Key” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” really percolate as they charge ahead, propelled by John McLaughlin’s punctuating guitar. Even after multiple listens, there is something very unsettling and almost creepy about this music, and that works to both its benefit and detriment.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson – 1970
As if it needed to be said, the titular character of this album is the boxer, not the frat party staple. Rather than dive in with Bitches Brew, I suggest that fans of psychedelic rock start with this one. Rock and jazz meet on Johnson in a way that enhances the best of each genre. Davis’ playing style closely approximates electric guitar riffing, and the overall distortion levels exceed those of earlier work.
Side A of the record contains “Right Off,” which blazes ahead with a rock backbeat on drums, and a sparse arrangement of guitar, bass and trumpet. Only later in the piece are sax and organ introduced. “Right Off” succeeds as a minimalist jam that keeps up the intensity throughout its 26 minutes.
Side B is where the record really earns its wings. “Yesternow” starts with a plodding beat and seemingly reckless stabs of guitar. However, it is in this song that Macero’s editing process really pays off. Midway through, a snaky bassline kicks in, and the piece picks up considerably. A second tape splice introduces a staccato guitar riff that kicks the song into full gear. Truly psychedelic effects are introduced via an echo-box, and in many ways, this piece truly fulfills the mind-bending promise made on Bitches Brew. Not only would I heartedly recommend A Tribute to Jack Johnson to fans of trippy rock and roll; it is a welcome addition to any music collection, and to me, represents the high water mark of Miles’ electric period.
On the Corner – 1972
On the Corner is relentless and uncompromising. I’m sure that the question, “Is this really jazz?” surfaces a good deal upon listening to this album. Miles stated afterward in his autobiography that he wanted to put out a record that would appeal to young black listeners, as well as the new, mostly white, young audience he had attracted with Bitches Brew. He was far less concerned with pleasing the jazz establishment. The result in this instance is an album anchored by steady bass and drums, while every other instrument makes an effort to exist somewhat outside of the basic groove and key.
This creates a listening experience that provides a rhythmic overload, but very little in the way of melody or other structure. Miles was experimenting with playing his horn through guitar effects, most notably a wah-wah pedal. This not only makes the music surreal, but also over-saturates it to some degree. The track “Black Satin” provides ethereal harmonies that drift in and out, creating an uneasy disorientation, and one of the more memorable moments on the album.
However, On the Corner is much less an album that one hears, and more of an album that one feels. From that standpoint, it’s a success, just something that doesn’t need to be heard very often to have an impact. Up until this point, this period of Davis’ career featured music in which at least some element could be hummed. That doesn’t hold true in the prickly ball of confrontation that is On the Corner.
Get Up With It – 1974
This album marked not only the end of Davis’ electric period, but also the beginning of a five-year temporary retirement, after which the grounds of 1969-1974 were not revisited. While prior albums had already consisted of hodge-podges of different ensembles and recording sessions, Get Up With It was assembled from recordings that spanned 1970 to 1974. Perhaps for this reason, every track is engaging and worthy of standing on its own. Because it is a sprawling two-disc album, it is not the most concisely brilliant of these recordings, but it is uniformly excellent.
Both discs of this set begin with a vinyl side-spanning track. On the first record, “He Loved Him Madly” sits in this position. Dedicated to Duke Ellington, who had died shortly before, this 32-minute dirge is perhaps the most restrained and understated of any piece from this era. Although almost wholly improvised, the musicians stay almost entirely within the key, avoiding what had become almost trademark dissonance. Even at its highest point, the energy level is at a low simmer, but with a constant drive. Although perhaps not truly representative of this era for Davis, it nevertheless is a remarkable achievement.
The second disc kicks of with the equally-long “Calypso Frelimo,” which, in similar fashion to Bitches Brew’stitle track, cuts between recording sessions creating welcome contrast. This track really cooks before dropping into a recurrent bass line not unlike the underworld music in the original Super Mario Brothers. This is by no means a slight.
Elsewhere on Get Up With It, “Honky Tonk” slithers along with an acid-drenched mutation of its namesake while Miles blows long, fluid riffs. “Rated X” contains tense and sustained organ tones over an appropriately pornographic beat, and the track “Billy Preston” is full of laid-back funk, recalling, but oddly not featuring the organist for which it is named. In contrast, “Red China Blues” is almost shocking in its adherence to traditional blues structures, even featuring a composed horn chart. Get Up With It is not easy to take in on one continuous listen, but the strength of its individual tracks deserve one’s attention.
In the years since these releases, entire uncut sessions from the albums have been released, as have complete concerts from this era. There is not room to discuss them here, but they are rewarding for anyone to whom the above albums appeal.
Unlike much of the other artists making music called “fusion” during this time, Miles Davis did not massage rock and jazz to blend easily together. Genres as different and distinct as these instead came into violent collision, giving way to only an unsettling truce at best. Miles never stood still artistically, for better or worse, and during this five-year period he blazed a future for jazz that few would follow.
Kind of Blue, along with the other landmarks of that earlier era of jazz, will always cast a long shadow on the genre, one from which it will never be free, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But for a sound that is sometimes as fresh as the day it was created, one would do well to check out these albums, full of beauty, ugliness, calamity and balance.
Ryan Harrell. HighStreet. Cleveland