It is tempting to write a short essay about the Miles Davis Industry that has arisen since the great trumpeter’s death in 1991. But that would suggest that something akin to the James Joyce Industry—the loose society of academics whose careers are based the continual, almost masturbatory investigation of the Irish author’s few books. Miles Davis, however, is essentially still alive for jazz fans, musicians and critics, as his music and legacy continues to emerge each year, still prodding us forward, still upsetting us, still offending, and still baffling.
But that was always Miles—larger than life and threatening to be beyond mortality, whispering to us in his raspy-throated rage like the grim reaper himself. One nickname was “The Dark Prince”, and Miles moved in the world just like that—as someone both privileged beyond normal and someone elementally threatening. To white America, he was a complicated incarnation of fears and desires, and black America saw an artist who didn’t compromise, didn’t “Tom”, and didn’t respect certain boundaries. To everyone, he was exquisitely musical, such that his art and fame lifted him above the borders of “jazz” and into general, singular fame.
Since his passing, Columbia Records (his label for the thirty years from 1955-85) has embarked on an ambitious program of reissues and—more significantly—unearthings. There had always been rumors that Miles recorded much more music than Columbia would release, particularly in the controversial and musically fecund period following 1969, when Miles began experimenting with new structures—funk and rock rhythms, ostinato bass lines and electric instruments. Indeed, many of Miles’s albums beginning with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew guaranteed the existence of previously unheard music, as these discs were constructed in the editing room from source recordings, artfully using tape splices, repeated sections and interpolations of different sessions to create their effects. And so Columbia is now delivering this material in chronological order, putting out gorgeously documented box sets of Miles’s original or pure sessions for fans’ obsessive ears.
The Cellar Door Sessions is another in this series, and it’s tempting to call it one of the “missing links” in the story of Davis’s transformation from mainstream jazz superstar to aspiring funkster and father of “fusion”. (The illusion created by Miles’s official releases was, to some extent, that he had shifted overnight from dark suits and Rogers & Hart to bell-bottoms and Sly Stone—with accusing fingers pointed at producer Teo Macero, label honcho Clive Davis, Davis girlfriend Betty Mabry, and Davis’s own greed or suddenly questionable taste.) This 1970 band marked the permanent switch from acoustic to electric bass in Davis’s working groups and, thus, was the first to lose the ability to work as a traditional jazz band—it not only did not play “Autumn Leaves”, but it couldn’t. The band was never documented in a studio session and, in concert, was primarily represented by portions of the album Live Evil, where it was augmented by guitarist John McLaughlin. Thus, The Cellar Door Sessions—which contains the original tapes for a four-night stand at Washington, DC’s Cellar Door club, the first three nights without McLaughlin—is the first clear documentation of the sound of the Davis band that had taken the controversial turn toward uncharted waters.
Presented here on successive sets and nights, this band—Miles’s sometimes wah-ed trumpet with Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Gary Bartz’s alto sax, Jack DeJohnette on drums, Airto Moriera on percussion, and Michael Henderson’s electric bass—stakes its claim as an important unit in popular music. On the famous, groundbreaking albums, Miles’s music sounds very much like an incantation or ritual, with a great mass of musicians—often multiple drummers, keyboards, basses or guitars—creating a swirling stew of rhythm. Between the multiple players and the studio wizardry, it was not easy to hear Miles’s music as the product of a collection of individual players in the jazz tradition. In these exceptionally clean recordings, the contribution of each member of the rhythm section is made clear as Caribbean waters. In short, this release answers the question of how Michael Henderson’s entrance to the band as a pure funk player shifted responsibilities and created what was arguably the first true “jam band”. Perhaps this group could not have played “Autumn Leaves”, but most of the band consisted of world-class improvisers constitutionally incapable of mere blues noodling—this was a jazz-groove band that will be unmatched for decades to come.
Nearly every tune on this collection is built on a repetitive bass figure, one that may shift over time but is mainly the tune’s unmoving signpost over and against which everything else dances. The package features repeated versions of “Directions”, “Sanctuary”, and “Inamorata”, “Honky Tonk”, “It’s About That Time” and “What I Say”, in addition to single version of “Yesternow”—so fans of early ‘70s Miles will be drooling just looking at the liner notes. Beyond the tune selections, the headline of this set will be the playing of Keith Jarrett, being heard here for the first time as the lone keyboardist and without guitar. In previous releases, Mr. Jarrett was teamed with Chick Corea or John McLaughlin in generating the harmonic accompaniments for Miles, masking his distinctive voice. Heard here playing two different instruments—a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Fender electric organ—the pianist emerges as a compelling soloist as well as colorist, playing lines that are immediately recognizable as within his style—long, rhapsodic melodies that draw equally from blues, chromatic impressionism, Bud Powell, and his own personal ecstasy. Frequently, Mr. Jarrett plays both instruments in unison, generating an otherworldly momentum that makes him the dominant solo voice.
Plainly, Miles knew what he had on his hands with Mr. Jarrett. The bandleader grants Keith a long, cadenza-like solo feature in most sets that serves as a bridge between different tunes. On these selections, Mr. Jarrett is particularly urgent and interesting, creating improvised musical worlds that are self-contained—a preview of his career-defining acoustic solo concerts of just a few years later. While one of these appears on Live Evil (and also here), this comprehensive set of recordings presents four such solos, each of which is different, fresh and a set highlight. Miles, who never stopped mentioning Keith Jarrett as a favorite player as the years passed, surely beamed (at least on the inside) during these gripping sequences.
Without Mr. McLaughlin’s additions (featured during the Saturday night sets), this group feels more like a jazz group, even though the bass lines are moving everything into funk. Both Mr. Moreira and Mr. DeJohnette are recorded cleanly so that their percussive contributions are sonically separable and feature in three-way conversation with Mr. Jarrett. The push-pull of this interaction may not be “swing” in any traditional sense, but it has the elasticity and feeling of moment-to-moment invention that defines a jazz rhythm. With the guitar slashing over the mix, these virtues seem less transparent. There are particular moments when Miles signals the band to shift feelings with a rhythmic trumpet figure, and you can hear each of the four rhythm players answer the call—in sequence and then in lockstep—like the working band that they were.
Gary Bartz was the first alto player Miles had worked with regularly since Cannonball Adderley. While his playing here is strong—highly vocalized and gritty, staying largely centered on the blues—it suggests why Miles had favored tenor players for so long. At this time, Miles was playing higher and faster than ever in his career, and the lower and darker sonorities of the tenor were a better contrast, while the nasal soprano was more of a match. Bartz is, to some extent, lost in the mix even though his screaming solos (particularly on soprano) kill.
Also undeniably joyous is Miles’s own playing at the Cellar Door. The band had been playing mostly large venues at this time—foregoing its usual fee to open for various rock acts at places like the Fillmore—and this DC club was rather small. Miles sounds both aggressive and intimate in this space—stabbing in his upper register, muttering in the low register chromatically, then playing unusually fast and subtle runs—often through his wah pedal—that might not have worked as well on the stage of a large hall. Throughout the engagement, Miles belies the notion that he had resorted to effects because his chops or harmonic imagination was in decline. In fact, his playing here is at a career height of daring and range. Though folks looking for the fragile, beautiful mute playing of his quintet days will be disappointed, in the every other respect this is Miles’s best pure trumpet playing on record.
So, here it is, Davis-nuts: six CDs recorded over four nights featuring a slam-bang Davis jazz-funk-jam band that, mostly, you’ve never heard before. Feast your ears. To hell with your diet.