Electric Miles: Danger, High Voltage
The new book by Paul Tingen on the music of Miles Davis is a long time in coming. How did a book like this take so long to come around? Let's not go there. The author has his own thoughts about the ignorance, stubbornness and prejudice of so many jazz writers. They're worth reading and he doesn't pull punches.
But it doesn't matter. It's here. "Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991." (300 pages, Watson Guptill Publications).
It's a tremendously researched work on Miles' most misunderstood and under appreciated career period. Tingen calls it the first in-depth exploration and analysis of Davis's controversial electric period and his unorthodox working methods. He's right.
And it's masterfully done. The first chapter, "Listen," is captivating and charismatic. It's like an elevator, taking the reader up to the 26h floor where the rest of the story will be told.
If there is anyone left who listens to Stanley Crouch (one of the prime purveyors of the sophomoric and embarrassing Miles Sold Out Theory) do yourself a favor and grab this book.
It seems lately that more people are getting into electric Miles, and this book gives them the tool with which to do it. It covers all of the stages, all of the bands, all of the personnel, all of the records. It explains what, how, where, when and the trickiest one it examines why. It's done with intelligence and flair.
This is not a Davis biography, but it does, necessarily, cover many aspects of his career. It does so with open and thoughtful consideration of various factors involved, whether societal or musical. Tingen is a guitarist who comes from the world of rock and he is very clear in his descriptions of the many recordings, music styles and influences, but the book is not at all beyond non- musicians. It has incredible detail about each recoding session and often each song. It is an interesting venture into a world into which few writers have stepped. While some have touched on certain areas, this work is complete. A detailed discography and "sessionography" is valuable and enjoyable for Miles devotees.
While Tingen is an admirer of the great artist and his music, it is a balanced, no-nonsense account. He talks of Miles and his human faults with frankness and honesty, but with a calm, compassionate and unbiased outlook. He provides information on Miles' effect on music and musicians with great style, often using the words of the musicians themselves, but viewing things though a lens that is concise and clear. Tingen's take on how Miles came out of the blues, and how everything may have sprung more from that than anything else, is definitely food for thought.
Other writers were quick to criticize electric Miles, so great was his acoustic music and so heavy, apparently, was their sense of loss or betrayal. But Tingen shows that Miles was, as usual, ahead of the pack. Consistently. He describes a science theory in which there are paradigm shifts significant events that have immense and wide- ranging impact that effect every aspect of society, including art. In music, Miles was responsible for several of those shifts, both in sound and style. And he shows the logical progression of the artist and conveys the complete sense of creativity and sacrifice that had to take place for the music to come to being. It flat out debunks any notion that Miles buckled under to record company pressure, or didn't like the music he was playing, or chased dollar signs. Miles progress, Tingen shows, was made while always taking with him a piece of what went before.
Why would someone listen to critics with a chip on their shoulder when here are the words of people like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Sonny Fortune, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin and others who still marvel today at how creative the music was, how groundbreaking, and how unique was the way in which Miles called at various times a "mystic," "guru," "shaman," or "Zen teacher" made it come to life? And Tingen's commentary is very precise in support of it all. He doesn't like every album or every band and lets us know. You can agree or not. But he has a solid feel for the music and there is painstaking detail in his assessments.
Interspersed throughout, he tells Miles' story, personal troubles and triumphs, using the first-hand words of many of the people who were there, including former lovers. What is painted is a realistic portrait and a supreme artist, who, like everyone else, battled some problems. Many of those problems came from his upbringing (which, as we know, is usually the key element) by a violent mother and misogynist male influences. Others came from the pain of many serious ailments that had to be constantly soothed by painkillers prescription and not that eroded his patience and sometimes his reason as he embarked on his relentless pursuit of art.
There are great anecdotes from the musicians about the various recording sessions, the way they felt when they met Miles, the things they learned and events that took place on the road. It's enlightening and even fun to know the stories. There are also first- hand observations of Miles and his life that are revealing at times warm, at times troubling.
There's even a chapter on Miles' infamous layoff period, 1975-80, which shows that there was music going on in his life, even though some accounts have him holed up and getting high. There was decadence, but the ember of creativity would still glow from time to time, and things were not always as dark as they are portrayed elsewhere.
Tingen captures with great style Miles' influence on people and music. He was a pure genius who simply saw and heard music differently, more clearly, than others, almost savant-like. The interior and not the exterior, Tingen says. The ever-changing creative process
"You can?t wait for someone to agree with what you're doing," says Corea in the book. "That?s why it's so ironic he was accused of 'selling out' when he went into this direction. But that was simply what happened around that time. Anyone who played electric instruments, and it didn't matter what he played on it, he was accused of 'not being honest' or something like that."
Says Wayne Shorter, "There's nothing mysterious about the way we put things together. There was just more courage involved. The courage to say: 'to hell with the critics.'"
This book is a must for fans of Miles, fusion and music in general. It involved, and detached, eye opening and unapologetic.
"The future is still catching up with Miles," says Tingen.
Still Miles ahead, no doubt.