In his excellent liner notes for Miles at the Fillmore – Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, reissue producer Michael Cuscuna sets a context for Davis’s late ’60s work, and Bitches Brew in particular, as part of the confusion of the ’60s. It exists in a time, according to Cuscuna, where the Civil Rights Act had not ameliorated racism, where the Vietnam quagmire was still going on, where protesting students could be killed at Kent State. But it was also a time where jazz and rock and roll were intersecting. Hendrix was the inspiration for Davis’s “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”, and Hendrix and fellow musicians like Sly and the Family Stone were stretching the parameters of genre, of sound, of music.
Driven by Hendrix, by James Brown, and by a desire to break from what he’d already done, Miles Davis was furiously creative from 1969-1971, amassing recording sessions that would lead to his classic Bitches Brew, but also A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Big Fun, two live sets (from both Fillmore West and Fillmore East), and tons of unreleased material. He was going electric. He was embracing fusion. He was moving away from purely jazz traditions. In other words, he was making a sound completely and uniquely his.
Bitches Brew is the crowning achievement of the time, and much of it is celebrated on this new Miles at the Fillmore box set. Recorded just months after the release of the record, it finds Davis and his band searing through four nights at Fillmore East and changing, yet again, the songs from Bitches Brew that had already changed music. Some of this material was released back in 1970 as the two-LP set Miles Davis at Fillmore. But that album was a patchwork of sounds, with each night’s performance edited down and patched together to fit one side of a record. The result is an interesting crosscut of these shows, a highlight reel for a game in which you might not know the rules. It’s a fitting companion to Bitches Brew as post-production and heavy editing play a major role in each record.
But this box set provides each of the four nights in June 1970 in their entirety, as well as bonus tracks from Fillmore West sets from April of that same year. Not only does this give us about 100 minutes of completely unreleased music, and complete sets never officially issued, it also gives a new context for the material of this time. If Davis was a mad scientist in the studio, he was still a sorcerer on stage, and these performances give organic, pulsing life to these fascinating songs. It helped that Davis had a potent band behind him. Wayne Shorter had just left and Steve Grossman assumed sax duties in his absence. While Shorter was an indelible part of the Davis’s changes through the second half of the ’60s, Grossman represents the change well with dynamic playing throughout. Dave Holland still commands with his bass here, meshing brilliantly with the unpredictable rhythms of Jack DeJohnette and the added percussion of Airto Moreira. But these sessions also bring the dual keyboard force of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. Jarrett was relatively new to the band, only recording a few sessions here and there, and the fresh dynamic between Corea and him is apparent throughout these sets.
Each night’s set is bolstered by a steady rotation of songs. Night one lays out the basic set. It opens with “Directions”, a set mainstay of the time that never got issued on record until the odd ‘n’ sods collection, titled Directions, came out in 1980. Here, though, it’s easy to see why it opens the show. The song has a funky groove that still borrows on traditional hard-bop for its main theme. From there, though, it breaks off in all directions. Moreira and DeJohnette build towering rhythms and then bust them down. Corea and Jarrett spin circles around each other. And once in a while Davis swoops in to run off a vamp or restore melodic order. Meanwhile, Holland is foundationally sturdy. The song changes mood and tempo throughout and lays essentially an introduction to the entire musical palate for the evening. It leads into “The Mask”, a song recorded just a couple of weeks before these shows, and it is an unruly counterpart to “Directions”. It bears closer resemblance to the rock-oriented epics of A Tribute to Jack Johnson since it was recorded during that album’s sessions. But there’s also a spaciousness to this version that recalls the wide, scraped out spaces of Bitches Brew.
If these two songs mark the new at the time, the signals of a new path for Davis, it’s interesting that they lay that out without ever actually dipping into material from Bitches Brew. In fact, from here we move to “It’s About That Time”. This song originally appeared on In a Silent Way and in the set feels like a meditative break, an ambient interlude between huge romps. At least at first. On stage, the band blows this song wide open too, especially in its second half where Corea and Jarrett do their best approximation of two guitars shredding through dueling solos. The song builds to chaos, unlike the others that seem to break from order into chaos and then find order again. Here meditation becomes explosion. It leads perfectly to “Bitches Brew”, which clocks in, at 13 minutes, at about half its studio run time, but what it loses in grandeur it gains in pure rugged power. It circles back around to the contrasts of density and space explored, with a similarly funky edge, on “Directions”, giving the set a circular feel.
These four cuts appear on all four nights, and they shift from set to set, from propulsive and lean to swampy and exploratory. Around them, though, the band adds news sounds from night to night. Disc Two includes a rare encore version of “Spanish Key”, which was originally edited down and released as a single with “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” to promote Bitches Brew. It’s no wonder this caught on with rock radio at the time, as it — on record and especially here on stage — has a deep groove that certain blends some of the more out-there elements of Davis’s second great quintet with more traditional rock elements, without use of guitar yet. It’s a perfect addendum to the set, a far more frenzied clash of sounds than the other sides here provide. Midset on Disc Three the band shifts into “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Sanctuary”. These brief moments in the middle of the set serve as a nod to the past, as the Seven Steps to Heaven cut “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and the Shorter-penned “Sanctuary” feel like the most, for lack of a better term, jazz moments here. They are softer than these other cuts, but also challenging in their use of negative space and silence. Moreira’s percussion keeps things just off their axis, but you can feel Davis looking over his shoulder in these moments, nodding if just for a minute to yesterday.
Disc Four repeats those songs but brings us back to the present by adding “Willie Nelson”. This was another song recorded during the Jack Johnson sessions, and like “Spanish Key” it follows “Bitches Brew” nicely. Holland’s bass sets the mood here, carving out huge gaps with its funk-driven lines, and Davis glides through those gaps with his trumpet. It’s one of the great unsung cuts of the era, one that goes into the unknown textures of these other songs, but remains its rock and funk shapes more clearly throughout. It’s a culmination and clarification of all of these sounds, a combination of where Davis had come to and where he would go.
Around these four brilliant sets, we also get three bonus cuts from the Fillmore West in April of 1970. These sets a bit murkier in quality — the four proper sets here are pristine — but they make for compelling contrasts, as takes on “Paraphernalia”, “Footprints”, and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” find Davis and his band exploring these new sounds on stage, etching them into rough shape, only to then blow them wide open at Fillmore East two months later. It’s easy to see the genius of musical architecture that Bitches Brew is, and certainly we’ve spend 40-plus years celebrating the genius of that music. But removed from the studio and presented in full sets, the material from the album meshes perfectly with other fresh material from the time to show Davis’s full musical vision, one that broke down genre borders and questioned how and where one market music, who their audience can be, what it can mean to be a jazz musician or a rock musician. It was a time of turmoil, but for Davis’s music, turmoil was a state of creation, and these four nights give us four distinct and brilliantly built storms. Davis and his players conjure these storms like Prospero, maybe not so we’ll wreck our ship, but surely so we can join them on whatever island they’re constructing, even as they shift the borders, even as the ground — even now — still feels like it’s moving under our feet with every spin of these discs.