One of the less-remembered, underappreciated releases in Miles’ discography, revamped for the new century and ready to open some ears.
A few months after the Bitches Brew sessions that broke jazz-rock out like Phoenix from the flames, Miles Davis returned to the Columbia recording studios with the intent to push his music in yet another startling direction. This time around, Miles took inspiration from classical Indian music, interpolating it into rock and jazz structures as the Beatles, altoist Toby Harriott, and others had done before. But, as expected from Davis, he did it in an entirely new and unexpected manner. That session resulted in “Great Expectations”, the first of four side-long tracks on Big Fun as originally released in 1974.
The long, ever-droning, darkly exotic electric music, and in fact the very idea of just four songs taking up four full sides of an album, was not too appealing to critics or the general market at a time when short, sharp disco tunes were beginning to chart like wildfire. So Big Fun received generally weak reviews from writers who (once again) didn’t quite understand what Davis was trying to prove. Never mind that this was the incubator from which soon emerged the next wave of fusion: members of Weather Report, Lifetime, Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra, among others, learned from the master and followed on.
Fast-forward to 2001 and the visionaries at Columbia’s Legacy imprint. Reissue producer Bob Belden has been combing through the label’s files of all things Miles, digging out forgotten tracks and polishing up the trumpeter’s previous releases for the enlightenment of new audiences. He has truly hit paydirt by reissuing Big Fun with four additional tracks from some of the same sessions. As Davis and Columbia had the habit of collecting tunes that may have been recorded months or years apart onto the same album, sometimes it’s been difficult to get a real idea of the chronology of Miles’ music. The four “new” tracks here (“Recollections”, “Trevere”, “The Little Blue Frog” and “Yaphet”) were released a while back on the 4-disc set The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, which looked more globally at Miles’ early electric output. However, it does seem a little more appropriate to consider them in the closer context of Big Fun, which spanned four years of sessions in itself. All eight tunes here have also been remixed and remastered by Belden, offering an even fresher perspective on them. These sessions apparently mark Miles’ only use of Indian instruments in his music. Perhaps he wasn’t as pleased by the experiment as he’d hoped. More’s the pity, as the results are usually rich and commanding.
“Great Expectations” is once again the lead-off, and the remastered take shines like a golden idol in the noonday sun. The depth, space and texture of this music is startling, as long tones from the trumpet and reeds cast shadows across the percussion, droning Indian strings and shimmering keyboards. While the sustained, single-key mood might tend towards monotony and not appeal to fans of more traditionally active music, it provides a powerful sense of suspense and allows much room for linear idea development. “Yaphet”, recorded on the same day, bears moments of tender charm between the dark minor passages and alien drones.
“Trevere”, “Lonely Fire” and “The Little Blue Frog” were taped a week or so later. The first theme sounds rather like sci-fi gospel, strong surges of trumpet and organ forcing their way through the miasma of drum and key before again submerging briefly. “Lonely Fire” is spare and lamenting, while “Frog” is an exercise in ethnic funk. McLaughlin’s wah’d guitar and Airto’s horny cuica bleat and groan with Miles in front, triangle and electric sitar behind.
Three months later came “Recollections”, an austere Zawinul composition that features John McLaughlin’s guitar and Wayne Shorter’s woefully introspective soprano. March 1970 brought the only quintet recording here, “Go Ahead John”. The comparatively bare-boned approach provides some relief from the imposing crush of the larger bands. McLaughlin begins with funky wah lines behind young Steve Grossman’s razor-edged soprano and the leader’s scattered trumpet ideas. About six minutes in, McLaughlin takes over furiously. Thanks to the then-new wonders of noise gate technology, Jack DeJohnette’s drums and cymbals flit back and forth rapidly from left to right in the mix. With each switch, the guitar’s volume blasts in and out, over and over again, during McLaughlin’s relentlessly acidic solo. “Ife” was a latecomer, not taped until June 1972. Horror-movie keyboards quickly give way to an almost Balkan-dance-sounding bass riff and quick-stepping percussion, then Miles’ wah-wah-inflected trumpet emerges to tear off the wallpaper. He had begun to use that sound effect after the other tracks here were taped, which makes it stand out from the more drone-oriented selections. Bassist Michael Henderson would spend several more years with Davis pumping out dozens of basic ostinatos like this, which today could all be recorded in an hour’s time and looped incessantly as needed. Though his job may have been gut-wrenchingly boring at the time, he’s an essential portion of the whole.
Had LPs been able to hold more music in the early 70s, these eight selections might have been released as a whole package the first time, so sensibly interconnected is their sound. At any rate, what joy this package brings today, what big fun in unwrapping this set to hear this kind of logical progression of Miles’ various electric bands through the presence of rare tracks and cleaned-up masters. Bravo to Belden and Columbia/Legacy; keep ‘em coming!
Personnel: (Collective:] Miles Davis, trumpet; Steve Grossman, Carlos Garnett, Wayne Shorter, soprano sax; Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute; Sonny Fortune, soprano sax, flute; John McLaughlin, electric guitar; Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, electric piano; Joe Zawinul, electric piano, Farfisa; Lonnie Smith, Harold I. Williams, piano; Larry Young, organ, celeste; Khalil Balakrishna, electric sitar; Bihari Sharma, tambura; Ron Carter, Dave Holland, acoustic bass; Harvey Brooks, Michael Henderson, electric bass; Al Foster, Billy Hart, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, drums; Airto Moreira, percussion; Badal Roy, tabla; Mtume, African percussion.