[21 December 2004]
On August 29, 1970, Miles Davis and his band played the Isle of Wight festival, facing the largest audience of their careers: 600,000 were in attendance. Davis’ septet (Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Gary Bartz, and Airto Moreira)—sandwiched between frivolity (Tiny Tim) and brilliance (Joni Mitchell)—would take this golden opportunity to boost jazz’s public profile in a mere 38 minutes.
Some argue that this engorged profile came at the steep price of jazz’s integrity, for Davis was playing the strange fusion that he had unveiled four months earlier with Bitches Brew. Bitches Brew, a record that took the repetitive haze of In a Silent Way and turned it into a seminal nightmare, is undoubtedly the most fiercely debated jazz release in modern history. Its unholy marriage of There’s a Riot Goin’ On sludge-funk, rock’s bombastic backbeats, and jazz’s reeling improvisation bitterly split the jazz community down the middle. The majority of jeers came from journalists like Ralph Gleason and Martin Williams, past defenders of Davis’ music. They found Davis’ new “directions in music” offensive to the jazz idiom, a banal sorcery conjured by a turncoat. Gleason even accused Davis and his producer Teo Macero of killing jazz music. Bitches Brew was the bloody murder weapon. The evidence: enforcements of single chord vamps; dense, jumbled movement of multiple instruments at once; effect-laden instruments; and—most infuriatingly to critics—the heavy edits (Macero spliced and diced the double album from almost nine hours of tapes). Even members of Davis’ groups, including Corea, Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, were initially taken aback by Davis’ insistence that they play electric pianos and synthesizers instead of acoustic instruments.
That Bitches Brew was so successful (it sold over 500,000 copies and is claimed, by some, to be the highest-selling jazz record) is puzzling, for the album was a lumbering behemoth of anomaly. It was Davis’ most difficult, inaccessible release to date, one that turned off as many people as it turned on. It’s easy to see why the psychedelic rock camp embraced it as one of its own, for the swirling, spaced-out jams had little in common with traditional jazz. But did Davis sell out? If you define a sell-out as one who compromises all artistic integrity to create something he doesn’t believe in for monetary gain, then no. Davis himself admitted that he had had it with jazz’s status quo, could play standards in his sleep, and was actively looking for a challenge. Bitches Brew is about as subjective as music appreciation gets, but its greatest asset is that it sounds like nothing else.
The perpetual controversy surrounding Bitches Brew is the initial focus of Murray Lerner’s documentary Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, now available on DVD. While Davis’ 38-minute Isle of Wight performance claims the heart of the film’s two hours, it is buttressed by interviews and insight from a number of Davis’ collaborators and critics. Carlos Santana readily defends Davis’ electric period (using silly phrases like “spiritual orgasm”) while critic Stanley Crouch describes how he “altered [his] consciousness to try to like it”, never making sense of the “formless, long pieces that seemed to go nowhere”. Guitarist Pete Cosey (who joined Davis’ band in 1973 and first appeared on Dark Magus) clumsily argues the semantics of the word “jazz” to support Bitches Brew, but it’s people like Joni Mitchell who offer more clear indications of the record’s impact by comparing it to Bob Dylan’s much-ballyhooed electric transformation.
Despite the proliferation of old concert clips and hit-and-miss discussions of Bitches Brew‘s importance, Miles Electric really gets down to business with its centerpiece, the uncut Isle of Wight performance. Previously available in heavily edited form on Isle of Wight compilations, the 38-minute jam is a cacophonous display of endurance that begs to be absorbed in its entirety. Over a thick, driving rock groove, keyboards emit B-movie exclamations and electronic seizures; Jarrett (the band’s true force of nature) is often caught indescribably in mid-transcendence, flailing over the white keys. Davis, wearing a bright red leather jacket and blue sequined pants, disappears and reappears, seemingly taking in all the bustling sonic crosswinds, absorbing his environment and adding pieces to the top. As the band is left to its own devices, things get nonlinear and out of hand; Davis returns to add some clarity to the proceedings with an effortless note or two. As Corea and Jarrett are intertwined in a subtle duel, Davis’ trumpet pulls them back on track, without a word or glance, and soon everyone is locked in the trance of a cascading rhythm. In the DVD’s extra interviews, Jarrett describes Davis as “the best listener who also led a band”, which perfectly encapsulates the onstage persona we’re shown. One minor complaint: occasionally, the sound falls out of sync with the picture, which is annoying but ultimately excusable.
As a film, Miles Electric doesn’t engage in a satisfying flow; it begins with the interviews, touching on Davis’ rock influences, fashion, and boxing fetish, settles into the Isle of Wight set, and concludes with the interviewees performing instrumental “tributes” to Davis’ memory. Lerner sets out investigating the polarizing effect of Davis’ electric period, but lazily loses the thread to settle for reminiscences. It’s not a schizophrenic work; it’s simply not consistent from beginning to end. But for fans of Davis’ 1970s output, the Isle of Wight set alone is worth the price of admission. Love them or hate them, the events documented in Miles Electric cast giant waves upon the jazz world that would be weathered for decades to come.