Quick 70s electric Miles notes.

by waxbanks

Miles’s 1970s electric material generally moves further and further from ‘jazz,’ though by the early 70s ‘jazz’ had come to mean something complex and multivalent and both rock and jazz critics seem to’ve been busy missing its new identity, or in any case mischaracterizing it, for a variety of reasons. Though his 1970 and 1975 bands have lots in common, it’s certainly possible to dig one mini-era from that decade and not respond so much to the others.

Bitches Brew Live contains tracks from both Miles’s Newport 1969 show with the Corea/Holland/DeJohnette quartet, and his landmark Isle of Wight show nearly 14 months later, with Moreira/Jarrett/Bartz augmenting the 1969 quartet. The Newport set is fascinating: if memory serves, Miles didn’t cut any studio tracks with that 1969 touring quartet, and their 24-minute distillation of Bitches Brew-era Miles is a lot less likely than the studio album to transport you to interstellar darkness, but has a visceral funk intensity all its own. I tend to think the music loses a lot by this drastic stripping-down; when Miles lays out it’s basically a piano-trio-but-with-Rhodes-instead, which is a whole category of music that I mostly don’t have time for, even if it’s Corea on the Rhodes.

The Isle of Wight band, meanwhile, was frighteningly intense and just as dense as the Bitches Brew studio ensemble. With Corea and Jarrett around, there’s more coloristic organ happening, more electronic texture, and Moreira further complicates DeJohnette’s already busy percussion attack (without ever stepping on anyone’s toes). Jarrett has said that Miles never again played with such a sophisticated band, which is fair — this was the last moment when the harmonic intricacy of jaaaaaazzzzzz was a top-line characteristic of Miles’s electric music.

Miles at the Fillmore 1970, from the Bootleg Series, gives a complete account of the music edited into suites for Miles at the Fillmore. It’s incredible. Miles hasn’t yet entirely subsumed his trumpet playing in the evolving groove (little or no wah pedal from him, if I remember right, though everyone else is going crazy with the things), and he even breaks the groove down entirely to offer solo readings of ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’ — moments of unbelievable beauty and emotional power, connecting the band’s beastly psychedelic rock to Miles’s earlier work. This might be my favourite of Miles’s 1970s bands, though it’s not my favourite of his 1970s albums, if that makes sense.

Even on the 1970 Cellar Door collection (recorded later that year, minus Corea) you can hear the music bifurcating somewhat, between the Free catholicism of Jarrett’s organ fantasies and Miles’s aggressive funk/blues attack. My favourite moments from the Cellar Door box are the hybrid jams like ‘Honky Tonk,’ with Bartz, Jarrett, and Miles blowing triumphantly over a perversely steady I-IV for fifteen, twenty minutes per track. The solo features are clearly defined, but you can hear the seams stretching a little; it sounds to me like Miles is looking forward to something more purely rhythmic/atmospheric.

The Cellar Door box is one of the best things I know, less sense-deranging and cacophonous than the Isle of Wight set — it’s not party music — but still possessed of an intense collective (and individual) intelligence that would be replaced, in Miles’s mid-decade music, by something more purely somatic…

Big Fun contains a mix of tracks from several turn-of-the-decade projects, including a couple from the Bitches Brew Sessions box. I love the pairing of the astringent ‘Great Expectations’ and Zawinul’s expansive subcontinental psych on ‘Orange Lady’: together the tracks build from a brisk sidewalk beat to a vision of the outer/inner cosmos, a narrative arc characteristic of many longform improvisations of the post-Trane/post-LSD era. Still, it’s not an essential purchase if you have the constituent tracks, which you absolutely should — with the possible exception of the Jack Johnson Sessions, which contains multiple versions of most tracks (which can be trying even when the tracks are absolutely killer as they are here), every single one of Columbia’s huge sessions boxes is must-hear.

The On the Corner Sessions are an amazing resource: because the box includes material from 1972 through 1974 and the tracks are sequenced chronologically(!), you can hear Miles’s conception changing track by track, session by session. ‘On the Corner’ itself is among the most primitive material in the set, repetitive and somewhat aimless; it avoids boredom by dint of its timelessly filthy street-corner groove. ‘Jabali’ and ‘Ife’ point the way forward to the thick atmospheric fog of Miles’s mid-decade stuff, and two tracks (and three months) later, the well-titled ‘Rated X’ codifies the recipe, layering Miles’s horror-sex organ textures atop a roiling rhythmic bed. It’s an unremittingly weird vampire-honeymoon track that doesn’t sound dated; after that, ‘Turnaround’ sounds like a stroll through the park in the fresh air.

A few tracks from the On the Corner box (e.g, ‘Ife’ and ‘Calypso Frelimo’) provide the raw material for performances like Miles’s 1973 Montreux set, in which the mix of organ and guitar creates an atmosphere of intense insinuation. The studio ‘Calypso Frelimo’ breaks down into a harrowing, arrhythmic ambient space reminiscent of (no really) the underground music from Super Mario Bros.; onstage in ’73 there’s a bit of an international-black-man-of-mystery vibe to it, and the set’s quieter moments feel poised to do violence rather than content to echo eerily as the studio tracks do. I like the Montreux ’73 set a good deal, but I listen to the studio ‘Calypso’ and ‘He Loved Him’ all the time — their sonics signify (for me) in a way that the live atmosphere of the Montreux set doesn’t quite.

That said, as you get into 1974-75 Miles, live albums are the way to go. The final disc of uncut studio jams in the On the Corner box showcases a three-guitar attack that already seems somehow rock’n’roll, essentially but indefinably, rather than jazz. A lot of that is down to Pete Cosey, who sounds like the living Hendrix and who still hasn’t gotten the mainstream attention he deserves. Astonishing player — the linchpin of Miles’s 74-75 sound, really.

Dark Magus is a 1974 Carnegie Hall gig. Partly due to differences in recording quality, but owing much to the evolution of the band over a couple of years, there’s a surprising amount of difference between this album and Agharta/Pangaea (both recorded on a single day in Japan, 1975). All three albums mix avant-garde jazz flights with spine-crushing hard rock — the kind of stuff you’d never, ever expect from a ‘jazz’ group led by the trumpeter who did Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue, and worlds away even from his initial electric forays on In a Silent Way and the definitive work of jazz psychedelia, Bitches Brew. But Dark Magus features a couple of additional players (sax and guitar, with the sax appearing on a tryout basis, only to be canned after the show), altering the balance of the sound somewhat. It’s dangerous music, but not the deadly assault of the latter two albums.

Moreover, by the time of the two Japan shows, the band had spent years perfecting their unique jazz-funk-rock-psych fusion, and Agharta (recorded first on that fateful day) in particular showcases a tight touring band at absolute peak proficiency. The shows do incorporate preplanned structures, to a point, but the overall flow is seamless, and if you’re not paying close attention you might not even notice Miles’s subtle signals to move between grooves.

Agharta is one of the high points of 70s rock. You have a moral obligation to hear it.

That said, there are limits to the music — or rather, caveats. There isn’t a casual or even calm moment in the whole of Agharta‘s 90+ minute running; the quiet bits are just momentary ceasefires. They’d perfected a sound, and just kept on making it without taking a breath (track lengths: 32, 12, and 51 minutes). Even when things got more intimate, as on ‘Maiysha’ or the final 15ish minutes of ‘Jack Johnson,’ Miles’s sleep-ruining Yamaha organ is around to poison the wine. Danger lurks. And the overall sonics are deliberately murky, with the two guitars and organ creating a kind of distorted antiparallel to the keyboard-heavy soup of Bitches Brew. That never lets up, really, so if you like the sound of the first ten minutes you’ll like the rest of it, but if you can’t go an hour and a half without a few moments of austerity then Agharta will wipe you out — though the sexier Pangaea might do you right, especially the 50-minute ‘Gondwana,’ one of the culminating achievements in all Miles’s electric discography even if Miles himself is largely out of the action by that point.

There are some 1975-76 recordings floating around which were made during Miles’s retirement — I have a little less than an hour of such stuff, intriguingly gnarly funk-rock mixed with more structured grooves that sound for all the world like ‘jam band’ stuff (check the ‘Latin’ groove in the ‘more 75/76 sessions’ compilation available online). But the Japan shows represent a peak for Miles, and for jazz-rock fusion.

(There are other proper LPs from the period as well, but if I remember right, if you get your hands on the big session boxes — at your local library, say — and the live albums, you should have it all.)

The upshot: all of Miles’s pre-hiatus electric music is worth hearing. He didn’t invent jazz-rock fusion, but several strains of that hybrid genre find perfect expression in his 70s experiments.

I’m not the guy to write about Miles’s 80s music. Maybe you are?