Miles Davis Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue Eagle Rock Entertainment
I hated Bitches Brew. A bunch of lengthy, rambling, ear-assailing nonsense by a legend too strung out to play well and was therefore suckering audiences with a so-called "new thing."
Those with similar thinking might change their opinions faster than the years it took me after seeing Miles Electric , a two-hour documentary centered around a 1970 Isle of Wight Festival concert based on the album. The performance in front of 600,000 people consists of a single extended jam, which Miles dubbed "Call It Anything" when asked its name.
Interviews with band members and other musicians of the era, combined with clips and insight from other points in Miles' career, do a solid job of preparing viewers for the 39-minute concert. Nobody says anything new, but numerous brief clips provide at least a surface level of insight from varying perspectives.
Chick Corea demonstrates the breakthrough electronic keyboard playing he made possible by manipulating the tones. Carlos Santana, one of the festival's performers, plays licks by the trumpeter on guitar and explains the thinking behind them. Keith Jarrett says his role on organ - an instrument he hated - was more to bring energy than music to the performance, which explains his over-the-top head-shaking stage presence. Jarrett also calls Miles' playing during the concert a microcosm of jazz history, noting there's even a brief bit of Dixie, one of several great contributions giving viewers something to listen for.
The accolades run a bit thick, of course, since this is more tribute than objective documentary. Jazz critic Stanley Crouch gets to explain how the "long pieces that seemed to go nowhere" in Bitches' Brew "felt like someone had my hand tied to a table and somebody was slowly driving nails through it." But most such commentary consists of supporters refuting criticism, such as Santana noting "it takes courage to leave your security blanket behind and jump without a parachute." Allowing a skeptic to explain specifically what was disagreeable - other than being long and different - would give viewers more to listen for and let them better form opinions about its artistic merit.
Still, fluff is minimal and when the concert begins 43 minutes into the movie there's a good foundation for hearing it, as the cliché goes, without feeling fatigued from the build- up.
Miles doesn't just play sharply at the opening; he looks like he's attacking it with real intensity, unlike later years when his passive stage presence suggested his mere presence ought to be enough. Seeing him also helps isolate his playing, which contains plenty of passages with roots from earlier classic sound clips. He doesn't sustain at that level throughout, but nearly everything is worth hearing for its insight if nothing else. By the time he slows down near the end, it is indeed possible to hear "a different kind of blue" over the funk-rock beat, if not one approaching his landmark moments.
Seeing sidemen such as Corea and Jarrett execute the roles they discuss also helps demonstrate how a seemingly cluttered collage might actually be part of something coherent. Some of their performances are also striking: Soprano saxophonist Gary Bartz, for instance, is remarkably similar in tone and approach to altoist Kenny Garrett's playing 15 to 20 years later.
One of the surprising highlights is the final track, "Tributes To Miles' Genius," suggesting a tiresome string of praise from interviewees. Instead, various musicians perform solo passages interpreting the trumpeter's work and/or explain philosophies behind it. James Mtume simulates a funk rhythm using his voice and some shakers. Herbie Hancock, after a brief meditation, plays a lovely closing keyboard riff he claims unsuccessfully tries to capture Miles' spirit. Joni Mitchell details contributions from Miles' sidemen and explains why "they're not playing like accompanists."
The narratives continue on a string of bonus DVD interviews, which at times do wander into excessive praise. But there's enough substance to make it worth watching, such as bassist Dave Holland explaining why Davis had a rare timing skill drummers loved and Marcus Miller dissecting some of his contributions on bass and other instruments.
Miles Electric succeeds as a documentary, even for those who dislike the concert. Skeptics may not enjoy Miles' music of the era better, but may gain more appreciation and respect for it. For fans of the trumpeter it's a near must-buy, of course, even if it does little but reinforce what they already know.