Miles Davis: The Essential Miles Davis

Miles Davis
The Essential Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time
US release date: 15 May 2001

by Simon Warner

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Django Bates, arguably the most dazzling talent in British jazz, once commented that his favourite Miles Davis material spanned the period 1926 to mid-1991. The fact that the years coincided with the birth and death dates of the artist speaks volumes about the man’s influence on the genre through three quarters of its first century. His presence — dangerous, volatile, brooding — was felt by every player on the scene and his spirit, a decade after his passing, still haunts surviving contemporaries and their heirs.

Nor is Columbia, his label home for much of his recording life, slow to reiterate that Miles’ legend lives on through a vast corpus of work. His 75th anniversary is not an inappropriate moment to reflect on this giant’s kingdom and the other musical mortals who inhabited his orbit, and a pair of double CDs which emerge as part of this memorial offer two intriguing ways into the phenomenon.

The Essential Miles Davis is rewarding trawl through 40 years of studio and live activity, a creditable introduction to an astonishingly creative oeuvre, reminding us along the way that Miles, like Armstrong, like Parker, like Gillespie, is not just a trumpeter of vision but a central shaper of the sound, the style, the pulse, of the music called jazz. Today the diverse connotations evoked by the term probably owe most to the invention, the vision, that the Illinois-born hornman concocted in a life that was restless and erratic, riddled by personal disaster and private heartbreak, but professionally a story of a revolutionary who set out to not merely push over the barricades but actually decimate them.

In fact, to speak of the avant garde — the advance troops who make or break a campaign, military or musical — is to talk of Miles Davis. In the era of modernism, of progress and progression, he held a flame for change, quite often change for its own sake. He once told his esteemed sideman Keith Jarrett why he had stopped playing ballads. “It’s because I like playing ballads too much,” Davis explained.

So Essential is a portrait of the artist as changeling, as chameleon, but it is also a wander through the Jazz Hall of Fame with Parker and Gillespie in 1945, with Blakey in 1953, with Coltrane in 1959, with Gil Evans in 1960, with Shorter in 1965, with Hancock in 1968, with Corea in 1969, with Marcus Miller in 1981 and John Scofield in 1984. And the odyssey is not just about outstanding collaborators, but ground-breaking collaboration, from bebop to cool, from orchestral to fusion, from latin to funk.

The album includes expected favourites “Round Midnight” and “So What”, “Summertime” and “My Funny Valentine”, “ESP”, “Nefertiti” and “Time After Time”; it embraces key moments from the albums Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain and Bitches Brew. The compilation strives hard to gather as many touchstones as a pair of compact discs can hold and it would be churlish to ask why nothing from Jack Johnson or In a Silent Way, why no contribution from Zawinul, when a fragment from the improvised soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud reveals another aspect to Davis’ overwhelming output.

Eclecticism is the mark of Miles. He could have lived off 52nd Street triumphs for a whole career. Instead he looked to Spain and Africa, to flamenco and French art cinema, to amplification and rock, to satisfy his insatiable desire for challenge. In fact, it could be suggested that in was only in his twilight years, during the 1980s, that he free-wheeled though the less testing terrain of funk and, even at the end, rap. By then, with a body savaged by addictions, by fading health, the miracle was that his muted, ever distinctive, playing was still to be caught on stages around the world.

Yet it was, possibly, his work at the end of the 1960s that would prove most controversial, a word so commonplace in the Miles biography that it became severely diluted through over-use. To the artist at the centre of these storms — artistic, critical, political — it seemed only natural that what he did would test the patience of those unable to pigeon-hole his talent.

That patience was most sorely tested when Davis turned his attention to the possibilities that rock appeared to offer him at the height of hippie euphoria. By the end of the Sixties, rock had cast off its early naivety and had acquired genuine cultural capital. In the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s, the acid-inspired excursions of San Francisco and the extraordinary pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix, it had been transformed from jukebox jive to the cutting edge of the counterculture.

When Davis announced a radical shift from the acoustic voicings of jazz to the electric inflections of rock via the seminal pairing of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the previous certainties that jazz was essentially an art music untainted by the gods of commerce while rock actively worshipped at the pyre of Mammon were exploded.

It’s About That Time is a double package that adds something to our understanding of this moment, a previously unreleased live concert drawn from a Fillmore East gig in New York in March 1970, two sets from the same evening. To put this occasion in context, Davis and the sextet he led, was entering the rock arena for the first time. Bitches Brew, richly tapped into here, had been recorded the previous year but not yet issued.

It was the start of a remarkable adventure for the band, one that would embrace gigs as openers to the Steve Miller Band and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. By August of that same year, Miles and co would be on stage at the Isle of Wight festival, England’s Woodstock, and I well recall hearing a live recording from that performance, a whole side of vinyl filled to the brim by a cut entitled “Call It Anything”. To younger ears the name of the track could not have been more appropriate.

The decades have allowed me and thousands of others to contemplate, maybe digest, this diversion on the Miles highway a little better. And, returning to the newly emerged Fillmore recordings, we know now that the talk of jazz and rock joining forces under the Miles trademark are really rather wide of the mark.

This may have been Davis turning up the volume, turning up the heat on the jazz cooker, but it sure as hell wasn’t Miles making rock. Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears made a sound that approximated such a shotgun marriage, but It’s About That Time — the title track is a re-working of a tune first spied on In a Silent Way — confirms that this sextet were intent on blending a dense musical soup that had a heavy sprinkling of the experimental and nothing of the 12 bar, 4/4 or the conventions of extended pentatonic soloing. Today, it has stronger associations with the free jazz school than the rigid building blocks of rock.

This album is a much less comfortable ride than Essential and I’m sure Miles Davis would rather his followers or would-be fans listen to this than the other, pleasing potpourri that forms, in short, a very serviceable “Best of”. I would, however, have to take the conservative view and actually resist Django Bates’ wholesale approval of the Davis project. It’s About That Time does not throw the same unresolvable conundrums my way that “Call It Anything” did all those years ago but it still remains too shapeless, too amorphous, to deliver tangible pleasure. Its fragmentation, its determined, though too often formless, seeking after fresh ways to unpick the jazz lock strikes me as an indulgence; the carefully chiselled frescos of a lifetime gathered on Essential offers a range of keys on a single fob and a much more satisfying combination.