Okay, so I've spent the past couple of days going back and re-listening to every recording I own of Miles Davis, '71-'75, and am now suitably prepped for the ongoing discussion of this era of Miles's music that started over at Do The Math.
First, though, I want to say how refreshing it is that we're now at the point where we can finally have a real, substantive discussion of this period of Miles's musical output, instead of getting hung up on tiresome knee-jerk reactions to the music's surface qualities. (But just in case anyone out there still thinks that the electric instrumentation, rock-informed beats, and pedal effects automatically invalidate all of Miles's music after 1968, or that he "sold out" by releasing a bunch of dissonant, austere 30-minute epics, well, you might as well stop reading right now.)
I also think it's great that the guys from The Bad Plus are willing to throw the discussion open like this. They gain nothing from taking the stand they did other than the meager pleasures of honest debate, and it's not like they don't already have their fill of controversy as it is. But one of the most interesting aspects of reading of their thoughts on Miles (and of Do The Math generally) is the way TBP's commentary illuminates their own music. Before this, I would have bet you any money that Ethan, Reid, and Dave were huge fans of 1970's-era Miles. The fact that they are not is fascinating, and certainly makes me see their music in a different light. (Not a worse light, I hasten to add. But certainly different.) This is exactly the kind of discussion I think the music blogosphere ought to be all about (he said, without a trace of self-importance).
I might as well lay my cards on the table: I absolutely love Miles's 1970's recordings. I still have vivid memories of the night I first heard Jack Johnson as a young teenager, on CITR's jazz show -- it blew my head wide open. I love all the subsequent 70's records -- Live-Evil (and the Cellar Door sessions), Big Fun, On The Corner, Get Up With It, Dark Magus, Agharta, Pangaea. I love the rich textures, the dark atmosphere, the cinematic scope, the long slow burn, the delayed gratification. Probably my favorite sensation in listening to music is the moment where you stop and think back to how the tune began and go: "Wait a minute... how did we get here from there?" This period of Miles is rich with those moments. I love that this music is uncategorizable -- it's not quite jazz (at least, not by the definitions of the day), but it's sure as hell not rock. Miles's bands also sound utterly unlike any of the fusion outfits founded by his alumni -- not the bombastic prog of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, not the breezy weightlessness of Return to Forever, not the infectious hook-based funk of Headhunters, not the synth-pop sophistication of Weather Report. And while all of these offshoot groups have their moments, as far as I'm concerned, Miles's groups were the only 1970's bands to consistently pull off the jazz+rock alchemy. Most of all, I love that 70's Miles is so weird. There's so little genuine weirdness in the jazz canon (Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, some Ornette, some early Monk) that anything that defies expectations as completely as Miles's early electric output deserves a great deal of credit on that basis alone.
As Pat obverved, Miles's music in the 1970's has a lot of affinities with early minimalism. It unfolds slowly, requiring a lot of patience from both the players and the listener. (It also requires a lot of patience for scratchy wah-wah guitars and wall-to-wall congas, which is admittedly not everyone's bag.) The music certainly isn't static -- the grooves do evolve over time, and don't (usually) lack for direction. It's just that the changes are subtle and often take a long time to accumulate. The solos -- including Miles's solos -- tend to be more ornamental than developmental. This is something a lot of people, including TBP (if I read them correctly) object to in this music. It's a fair objection. But like it or not, the idea that front-and-center improvised solos aren't the only way of advancing the musical narrative is becoming increasingly accepted in contemporary jazz. For instance, as great as the players are on John Hollenbeck's A Blessing -- and that band includes some of the very best improvisers on the scene today -- it's not the solos that stand out in my mind when I think of that record. It's the musicians' selfless contribution to the music itself that makes it such a success. "Okay fine, that's a big band," I hear you saying -- sure, but I could say much the same thing about the Claudia Quintet, or Ben Monder's band, or Kneebody. (Or, I daresay, The Bad Plus.)
This issue of expressive individuality vs. sublimation of individuality into the greater needs of the music is something Dave Douglas blogged about recently. I would love it if Dave saw fit to contribute to this discussion -- especially since he too is a huge fan of 70's Miles, and it would be interesting to see how he squares his commitment to individual expression with the ego-suppressing demands Miles often made of his sidemen during this period.
The challlenge set by TBP is essentially this:
Of all those great players [who played with Miles '71-'75], which of them contributes their BEST PLAYING on any of those sessions?
My response would be that Miles's music in the 1970's wasn't about showstopping individual performances. It's about mood, atmosphere, color, texture, groove, long slow shifts, making you wait for it, and then making you wait some more. (Isn't this what Miles's music has always been about?)
By 1971, Miles had abandoned not only traditional jazz instrumentation, the traditional jazz time feel, and the requirement that everyone in the band have an acoustic jazz pedigree, but he had also let go of the usual head-solo-head framework, replacing it with a minimalist, additive, groove-based method of moving the music forward. This shift requires a radically different approach from everyone in the band. So when TBP ask you to rate Dave Liebman's and Al Foster's work with Miles against their virtuso turns in a more traditional acoustic jazz setting, it seems like they are shifting the goalposts a little. The more important question to my mind isn't whether Miles's sidemen are expressing their individuality, it's whether they are advancing the music. If the music sometimes calls for 20 minutes of snare rustles from Al Foster, so be it.
That said... even though I don't feel the music from this period in Miles's career is primarily about solos or individualistic playing, I'm still up for pointing out some of the outstanding individual performances and great moments to be found in Miles's music circa '71-'75. And though I love the long atmospheric pieces like "He Loved Him Madly" and "Great Expectations" best, I will try to concentrate here on short(-ish) tracks and musical events that pay off even without the benefit of a 23-minute leadup.
To begin, two contrasting, back-to-back tracks from Get Up With It -- "Honky Tonk" and "Rated X":
"Honky Tonk" -- the skittish groove starts in Herbie's clavinet, and he's quickly joined by Keith Jarrett (on a distorted Rhodes) and John McLaughlin. This funky three-way dialogue goes on for the first minute until Keith plays the three-chord theme. Then the bass and drums join in, but Billy Cobham only plays the barest skeleton of a beat, just some stop-go figures on the hihat. You're dying for the full groove, but when it hits -- almost two minutes into the six-minute tune -- it's actually a different feel (an almost comically downhome blues shuffle) in a different tempo, thanks to a clever metric modulation -- the old quarter note becomes a quarter-note triplet in the new tempo.
Click here to listen to an excerpt from "Honky Tonk"
"Rated X" -- Miles lays down some bitingly dissonant organ chords (that only intensify over the course of the piece), then Al Foster launches into one of the fiercest beats ever played. Okay, so I feel kind of retarded trying to talk authoritatively about the history of drumming while addressing a band that includes Dave King, but seriously -- is that not the genesis of drum'n'bass, right there? Especially with the way Teo brings the band abruptly in and out via his magic "mute" button?
Click here to listen to an excerpt from "Rated X"
"Black Satin" from On The Corner -- this tune has it all: a spacey tabla-and-sitar intro and outro, handclaps, sleighbells, someone whistling in unison with Miles's wah-trumpet, and Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart on dueling R-L channel hihats -- how can you not love something this aggressively weird? The groove continues on "One and One" with some great wah-wah bass from Michael Henderson.
Click here to listen to an excerpt from "Black Satin"
Al Foster's Bonhamesque four-bar drum intro to "Moja" from Dark Magus -- welcome to Carnegie Hall, y'all. Also, check out Dave Liebman's tenor solo on Part 2 of this track -- incredibly heartfelt and beautifully paced. And Al Foster is on fire behind him! I only wish the recorded sound were better.
Click here to listen to the beginning of "Moja"
Click here to listen to Dave Liebman's solo on "Moja"
Check out Pete Cosey's space-age shredding on "Prelude, Part 1" from Agharta, especially the stuff in the breaks. Also, Miles's heartbreakingly fragile entrance at 5:52 of "Maiysha". His wah-wah pedal never sounded more tender than it does here. Sonny Fortune plays some really good flute on this tune as well. Again, though, this is a live concert in dire need of remastering.
Click here to listen to part of Pete Cosey's solo on "Prelude, Part 1"
Click here to listen to Miles's entrance on "Maiysha"
I hope I've at least done a reasonable job of explaining how and why this period of Miles resonates for me. If nothing else, it's been fun to go back into my collection and immerse myself in this music once again.
1. I can even pinpoint the exact moment when my brains hit the wall -- it's early in "Right Off" where John McLaughlin drops to Bb, but Michael Henderson keeps going in E, and Miles decides this bitonal no-man's land would be the perfect spot for him to make his entrance. And it is.
Click here to listen to Miles's entrance in "Right Off"
2. Well, to be perfectly honest, not so much Pangaea. The incredibly halfhearted swing groove at the end of Disc 2 is a definite low point in Miles's recorded output.
3. Okay, I'm cheating a bit already -- while the record wasn't released until 1974, this track was recorded in May of 1970. But it's too good not to mention. The tune also features prominently in the Cellar Door sessions, albeit in a radically stripped-down version with the metric modulation excised.