The Resurgent Power of Miles Davis’ Late Music

A new box set of Miles Davis' appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival remind us of his restless need to evolve -- and several new records remind us of how his later styles live on.
Miles Davis
Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4

With the passing of Ornette Coleman, the jazz community lost one of its most natural and beautiful innovators. Coleman’s legacy and meaning was somehow understood almost before it had an impact. Within weeks of Coleman’s arrival in New York in 1959, the music world was abuzz, his gigs were packed with musicians — from the jazz world but also, famously, Leonard Bernstein — and an avant grade, free music scene was off and running. Jazz players had been inching toward a freedom from chord changes and strict time for a while, but suddenly “The New Thing” was everywhere. And while it wasn’t really “accepted” as a form of respectable orthodoxy for a couple of decades, it was a most respectable and influential alternate scene.

Other avant-garde elements of jazz can take decades to have meaning.

One of the prominent musicians who resisted Coleman and his followers — at first, anyway — was jazz star Miles Davis. Maybe it was just rivalry in the beginning, as Davis was a festival draw and had made his fame on playing with a beautiful clarity: not too many notes and wringing incredible soul out of things like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. Even though Davis had helped to pave the way for Coleman’s acceptance with his modal music, he cut on Coleman in places like the pages of Downbeat.

But by 1965 or so, Davis’ quintet (with Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter) was pushing its leader into a rather Coleman-ish freedom, and Miles seemed like as brilliant and melodic a “free” player as the man he doubted.

It was a brief window, however. By the late ’60s, Davis was transitioning again, from a form of daring free-bop to a new style that was built partly on free blowing and even more on obstinate funk jams that the jazz star was adopting from the likes of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown. In relatively short order, Coleman himself would begin a wild and wonderful electric/funk phase (apparently Coleman was less inclined to resist the innovations of his peers).

Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4

Davis’ transition from an elegant proponent of mid-century jazz standards to a free-wheeling Coleman-esque free-bop to sprawling, dense, exploratory funk jams is wonderfully documented on the just-released Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4, the latest in Columbia’s series of unveilings from the seemingly vast library of unofficial Davis treasure.

These latest recordings are fascinating because they remind us of the glory of Davis’s emergence in the ’50s and shows his development into a star through several periods of exploration. The collection starts with a 1955 all-star festival band featuring Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Thelonious Monk, Connie Kay, and Percy Heath. Monk and Miles play a breathtaking version of “‘Round Midnight” mostly by themselves that would get Davis signed by Columbia Records. His 1958 festival appearance with his sextet (the one that recorded Kind of Blue) has appeared before on record but is presented here in full, nailing versions of “Straight No Chaser” and “Bye Bye Blackbird. A great band playing the jazz festival of its era, greeting the summer heat of the US east coast with a combination of cool and hot sounds: still amazing.

It’s just astonishing, then, to hear (on the second disc of this four-disc set) a new band, eight years later, combining older tunes (“Stella by Starlight”) with new ones (“Seven Steps to Heaven” in 1966 and “Gingerbread Boy” in 1967) in a style that has absorbed Coleman with a particularly Davis-ian genius. The band shifts across time and floats away from chord changes like Coleman did, but they do it with an elegance and sophistication that was never Coleman’s style. Coleman’s music felt like folk music, like a kind of hip rural blues played on jazz instruments. It had a sunny quaintness that Davis could achieve on his least “Prince of Darkness” day.

From the 1967 set, however, it takes only two years for the band to hurtle into a fully new kind of freedom. Listening to this set from July 1969, it isn’t hard to imagine a Newport crowd that wasn’t ready for the changes: Chick Corea’s Fender Rhodes electric piano is almost another drum set, and Jack DeJohnette’s drums are both precise and pulsing with rock/funk influence, a kind of tribal take on Elvin Jones. Davis’ trumpet is full-throated and bold, punching its way around a pop-music boxing ring but crackling with fire still. The music is not dumbed down, but “Bye Bye Blackbird” has been banished. harmonic changes are entirely different, they come more slowly, or they are improvised by players that are set on grooving rather than “swinging” in the old sense. This band, greatly expanded, would record the genre-busting Bitches Brew just weeks later.

All of discs three and four are devoted to this fertile period, from 1969 to 1971 (Newport in Europe), 1973 (Newport in Europe), and one track from 1975 (Newport in New York), right before Davis retired from the scene, seemingly too sick or drugged or burned out to keep going. The music and its recording quality are outstanding. The 1969 music features no saxophone, with Davis easily carrying all the horn chores and Corea brilliant as a foil. Holland on bass and DeJohnette on drums are a dream team. The 1971 band features Keith Jarrett on keyboards and Gary Bartz on saxophone with the new rhythm section (Mtume, Leon Chancler, Michael Henderson) still utterly elastic and swinging, though in a new way. The 1973 band has dropped keyboards for two guitarists (Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas), and it is a whole new thing again, with Davis starting to disappear into the overgrowth of sound. His use of the wah pedal and other effects feels artful here but by the one track (“Mtume”) recorded in 1975, the leader is largely gone, his chops suffering from health issues.

Much of this post-Bitches Brew, post-1970 music was either maligned or misunderstood at the time. That is, unlike Coleman’s 1959 revolution, which generated opposition but a kind of artsy respect, Davis’ electric music from 1971-75 was considered either a sell-out to rock or youth or, well, crap. A few jazz critics thought it was the future (especially Ralph J. Gleason, who also wrote eloquently about rock at the time), but most just gave up on Davis. Then, suddenly in 1975, Davis himself seemed to give up — in a career move that lots of folks probably took as a tacit admission that the music had nowhere to go.

The Long Shadow of Miles Davis’ Late Period Music

Fortunately, this was utterly and wonderfully not true. This music would have a huge influence, but it was simply time-delayed and graduated. It provoked an initial wave of “jazz rock fusion” that was shifted Davis’ vision into a market-savvy form of prog-rock jazz (The Mahavishnu Orchestra of John McLaughlin, Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House band), some more marketable funk-jazz (Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, the new soul-jazz of Grover Washington Jr) and eventually an even more tame form of instrumental soul that would become the radio format “Smooth Jazz”. I have wildly oversimplified the flow of these styles, I know, but with the emergence of this last category, the line back to Davis’ ‘70s music was almost wholly lost: the free-funk of 1973 — music that sounded like it was blazing a trail in a psychedelic urban jungle — was acid and smooth jazz was a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler.

By the ’90s, however, something resembling a rediscovery was underway. Steve Coleman and his MBASE team were combining funk, free-blowing, and complex structures involving polyrhythm and contrapuntal groove. ‘90s hip-hop was flirting with jazz in various forms and scenes were developing in New York and Chicago where danceable kinds of jazz embraced freedom rather than cushiony R&B. And with the new millennium, trumpet players specifically were starting to explore the vocabulary Davis had developed for a clarion horn leading a free/electric orchestra — see much of the music Waddada Leo Smith has made in the last 15 years.

In just the last few months, there have been string of recordings that are either deliberately poised as refractions of Davis’ ’70s music — suites that set trumpet against an electric groove context — or that come to us as second or third generation suites of electric jazz that emerge from the music that followed Bitches Brew — in some cases the music that Davis himself made after he returned to performing in the ’80s and ’90s.

This new music is varied despite its common lineage, and it’s likely to appeal to different audiences. It’s a perfect example of how the legacy of Davis remains not only strong but astonishingly wide.

Three Trumpets, Three Different Angles on Miles Davis

Dave Douglas is a leading trumpet player who has mostly avoided living under the Davis shadow during his varied career. He has captained a brilliant quintet for years, yes, but Douglas has keenly avoided both sounding overly influenced by Davis as a player and following Davis too closely as a leader or composer. Douglas’s new — and daringly different — project comes at Davis’ late music indirectly and with fresh voice.

There’s nothing in High Risk, a collaboration with drummer Mark Guiliana, bassist Jonathan Maron, and electronic sound sculpture Shigeto, that explicitly nods to Davis. But from the opening “Molten Sunset”, we are clearly in a space that fans of Davis’ ‘70s music understand: groovecentric washes of sound that pulse and probe with relatively little harmonic motion but still a sense of exploratory freedom — and with a trumpet as the sentinel up top, light the way forward. The influences on this music are more explicitly contemporary, as any Guiliana or electronic music fan can tell you. There’s the drummer’s extraordinary precision and complexity in dialogue with electronic beats that weren’t even dreamed of in 1972. But, as Douglas comes in two-plus minutes into “Household Item”, the effect of plaintive, simple open trumpet line against all that fraying funk is… Milesian. Intended or otherwise.

Like almost all the the other music of today that flows out of or refers back to Davis’s post-1970 period, the arrangements tend to be more purposeful and focused than the 20-minute jams of that earlier era. These are compositions and arrangements by Dave Douglas, not just melodic ideas that get opened up, and the electronic music it derives from (and, in large part, is) can be quite precisely “programmed”. Still, when you listen to “High Risk”, there’s a beautiful template it would be disrespectful not to acknowledge: that period when Davis tossed away the swing, chord changes, and convention of an acclaimed second quintet to forge new directions in music.

Even the title of Kind of New tells you where Ingrid Jensen and Jason Miles are coming from. This suite of compositions use Jensen’s horn as the primary soloist against a bank of grooves directed by keyboardist James, largely from his Rhodes. The reference point, despite the title, is not Kind of Blue but those late ‘60s and early ‘70s records (though occasionally Jensen’s sound is more 1959 than 1969). The opening gives you Jensen’s wide, echoey open horn arcing out through the air before a fat bass and tight drum pattern kick in with “The Faction of Cool” — a track that uses the slow funk tempo of those great ‘70s jams to allow Jensen to really explore the space.

Though the Jason Miles arrangements are certainly tighter and more programmed than the improvised grooves of Davis’ ‘70s bands (including the judicious use of B3 organ sounds and precise percussion parts from Cyro Baptista), the inclusion of shadowy bass clarinet parts is an explicit reference to the role that Bennie Maupin played on Bitches Brew. “Shirley” is pretty melody (not particularly similar to ‘70s Miles Davis) etched with bass clarinet. More plainly, “Close to the Action” uses bass clarinet as a smoky counterpoint that makes this music — while certainly much cleaner than ‘70s-era Davis — a far cry from the sanitized fusion that earned the word “smooth”.

The overdriven Rhodes groove of “Ferrari” should remind you of vintage Herbie Hancock, and then the alternation between Jensen’s Harmon-muted sound and then a soprano sax that serpentines much like Wayne or Dave Liebman or Sonny Fortune back in the day. The inclusion, at the program’s end, of a mysterious and haunting version of Shorter’s Bitches Brew class “Sanctuary” pretty much seals the deal. But the next tune (not listed on the CD booklet, reminds us that Davis himself wasn’t finished in the ’70s. The real closer is “Jean Pierre”, a concert staple of Miles Davis in his comeback period, a bumping tune with an impish children’s song melody that was one of the coolest things Miles did in the last ten years of his life. Nice.

Terence Blanchard has been one of the most urgent composers and trumpeters of the last 20 years, mostly playing with a quintet (sometimes supplemented by guitar or by electronics), composing film music, collaborating fearlessly with many other musicians. He’s linked to the New Orleans tradition because of where he grew up (and often, therefore, compared to NOLA trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton), but Miles Davis is certainly a weight in his concept as well. His latest, Breathless is credited to him and “The ECollective”, which is a new quintet that carries over keyboardist Fabian Almazan and adds guitar (Charles Altura), electric bass (Donald Ramsey, and drummer Oscar Seaton. Seaton provides a backbeat as solid as stone, and the general tone of music is based around Almazan’s Rhodes playing and a very funky interaction in that nimble rhythm section. Blanchard original such as “Confident Selflessness” and “Soldiers” put us in that Miles Davis frame of mind, with a blues sensibility pushed forward by Blanchard’s brass and a searing guitar — one not unlike what Miles featured with Chicago’s Pete Cosey on the 1973 set from the recent bootleg set.

On much of Breathless, however, there’s a somewhat different sensibility at work. The disc opens with a modern take on “Compared to What”, the political Gene McDaniels tune that was given a timeless live performance in 1969 by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. McCann and Harris were, of course, recording a kind of soul-jazz that did well on certain jukeboxes in the ‘60s, a style that preceded Miles Davis’ tribal/psychedelic funk-rock electric jazz but nevertheless connected in many ways to the R&B of that era that Davis was keying on. Here, beyond “Compared to What”, Blanchard offers some flowing hip hop (“Samadhi” and “Breathless”, inspired by recent killings of black folks in our cities), a seriously funky setting for samples of Cornell West talking about US culture (“Talk to Me”), some impressionistic R&B (“Shutting Down” with PJ Morton on vocals), and an ingenious R&B transformation of the Hank Williams tune “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But Time”. It might be the kind of fusion of with mainstream to contemporary music that Miles Davis hoped for with his “Doo-Bop”. It’s certainly what Robert Glasper has been working on with his two Black Radio collections.

Late Miles Beyond the Trumpet

Several recent records made by musicians who don’t play the trumpet suggest the continuing influence of Miles’s late styles. Pianist Marc Cary uses the wonderful young trumpeter Igmar Thomas on his Rhodes Ahead, Vol. 2 on some songs, and the effect is a bit like that on the Dave Douglas/Mark Guiliana collaboration. Cary has Terreon Gully and Tarus Mateen creating up-to-the-minute grooves that borrow from the electronic bass-n-drum style, and he often combines his trio with tabla and percussion to generate fiendish and precise grooves. Cary uses world music as a source on “African Market”, which ties itself back to Miles Davis in how it evokes the groove of Joe Zawinul’s “Black Market” with his post-Miles band Weather Report.

Thomas’s trumpet is feared most beautifully on “For Hermeto”, a shimmering modal ballad on which Thomas uses an echo effect over Cary’s distinctive Rhodes sound. Cary himself falls into the glorious tradition of the pianists who used Miles’s band to extent jazz piano technique into another realm. So much here is dependent on how he creates texture with his voicing and rhythm. Like Blanchard, Cary also makes the connection between this kind of groove-based jazz and the impulses of hip hop. “The Alchemist’s Notes” features Sharif Simmons on spoken word, as the trio chatters and plays with polyrhythmic joy.

Cary has noted that the Rhodes he plays traces, in a sense, back to Miles himself, having been gifted by trumpeter Wallace Roney, a Davis protege. But Miles was also the artist to who forced serious jazz pianists to consider the musical excitement to be found in the electric piano. And he did it with those late ‘60s, early ‘70s bands.

Two other recent records flow from interestingly from Miles’s late period, via the talents of bassist Marcus Miller. Miller played bass in the Davis 1981 comeback band, and later he became the trumpeter’s co-writer and music director for his two most intriguing late records: Amandla and Tutu. What Miller did with Miles is an easily-overlooked trick: he assimilated Miles’s history as a great melody player with some of the interesting impulses of his electric period while filtering out some of the cheese that was creeping in as Miles tried to appeal to a public that was biting on “smooth jazz”.

As a result, Miller is the producer of records like the latest from David Sanborn, Time and the River. This record — a piece of pop jazz, for the most part — is a far cry from the daring of the Dave Douglas or the acid wash of something like On the Corner. It remains a cool and sophisticated concerto for Sanborn’s still-and-forever gorgeous alto sax sound. “Drift”, for example, puts Sanborn at the helm of a keening tune, riding over Miller’s unique electric bass and washes of Rhodes. I don’t know if it’s art — or jazz — but it’s well done. The record also let’s Tower of Power’s Larry Braggs kill a groovin’ soul tune and, even better, lets Randy Crawford have a hip go at “Windmills of Your Mind”, the brilliant Michel Legrand tune that hardly gets played these days. Kudos to Miller and Sanborn for making a MOR record that is cooler the closer you listen.

Marcus Miller has his own new recording out, Afrodeezia, where he uses his own post-Miles concept to intriguing effect. The band is exactly the kind of electroacoustic blend that is becoming more common in even adventurous jazz, with electric keyboards and guitars blended with acoustic and with horn leads. Miller’s own electric bass is about as organic a sound as there is in the music, distinctive and human in every way. Using musicians from West Africa, the Caribbean, and the US, Miller pulls off a set of originals (except for an instrumental cover of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) that mix jazz, world music, and the kind of funky soul/pop/jazz that is too rich to be “smooth” and yet hardly the challenge of Bitches Brew. It’s a couple generations removed from that, even though we can hear it pulsing in the background at times.

Tunes like “Hylife” and “River” are upbeat and fun, cross-cultural in a slightly anodyne way. Miller adds sunny wordless vocals to the otherwise very funky “We Were There”, a song highlighted by punchy Rhodes solo by guest Robert Glasper. “Xtraordinary” is a ballad that sets up Alvin Chea’s (from Take Six) shadowy vocal, where the ballad “I Still Believe I Hear” features cellist Ben Hong. Guest Ambrose Akinmusere plays a sneaky, coy trumpet solo on the otherwise urgent “Water Dancer”. But the most distinctive guest spot is by Public Enemy’s Chuck D on “I Can’t Breathe”, another reaction to the past year’s spate of police violence against black folks — in this case the album’s coolest and most integrated arrangement, balancing a bass clarinet melody (Miller’s other instrument), chattering percussion, layered keyboards and percussion, and lyrics both political and personal.

Ultimately, the legacy of Miles’s late period is not a single style or a subset of musicians. Miles Davis was simply to big for that. What he realized as he heard Sly and Led Zeppelin play Newport in 1969 was that jazz — a music that had always reacted to and absorbed the culture and the pop music around it — was going to change. He took a leap to that change in a matter of a year to two, not watering down his art but expanding it (at least at first). and he never looked back. The music, as a whole, needed decades to absorb what Miles was up to.

Today, the most serious of jazz musicians have funk and hip hop and the avant-garde in their blood. It’s all of piece and the strands can never be unwound except by revivalists and historians. Jazz, a beautiful living thing that evolves, will carry Davis in its DNA forever.