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Book Reviews

Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis

By Published: January 10, 2006
Philip Freeman
Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis
Backbeat Books
ISBN 0-87930-828-1
2005

With the plethora of books out about Miles Davis, a fair question would be: do we need another one? Even Miles' electric period has been covered in detail in Paul Tingen's outstanding Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard, 2001), and George Cole's editorially-flawed but factoid-rich The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991 (University of Michigan Press, 2005). And, truth be told, both of those books—which reference exhaustive interviews with Miles collaborators throughout his electric period—are the place to go if you're looking for a detailed chronology and information about Miles' many sessions.

What thirty-something author Philip Freeman brings to the table with Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis is a perspective that neither Tingen nor Cole can. Freeman was in his teens, and a self-professed metal-head to boot—when he first heard Miles Davis in 1987. As a result of reading an article in Rolling Stone, Freeman picked up both Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, certainly a quick entry point into the diversity that defined Miles' career. Surprisingly, Freeman'"whose tastes, at the time, ran to artists including Public Enemy, Ice-T, Motörhead ands Slayer'"loved Kind of Blue and hated Bitches Brew.

Still, it was enough to convince him to dig deeper into the Davis discography, although Freeman didn't pursue it with any kind of exclusivity or logic—buying, instead, whatever his small-town record store had in stock. Over time, Freeman's investigation would become more exhaustive, but it was On the Corner—arguably Miles' most controversial album, one that seemed to make more enemies than it did friends when it was first released in 1972—that resonated most with Freeman and, to this day, remains his favourite Miles Davis album.

That On the Corner has, in subsequent years, become better-accepted, especially by contemporary artists working in hip-hop, avant-garde rock, dub and other musical circles—artists Freeman was already following as these styles became increasingly popularized throughout the 1990s—makes his overall assessment of Miles' electric period a fresh look that, perhaps, best contextualizes the last 25 years of Miles' life.

While Freeman's book is factually accurate, Running the Voodoo Down is more a personal critical viewpoint, dovetailing nicely with both Miles Beyond and The Last Miles. That Freeman, being a younger writer, is clearly capable of seeing incontrovertible ties between what Miles was attempting in the 1970s and what a generation of artists are doing today is what gives his assessment weight. And while Freeman has, in the ensuing years since first exposure to Miles, clearly dug deeper into the jazz world, he comes to the material without some of the inherent biases that even the most open-minded jazzer can.

That Miles was looking at Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix when he moved towards a more funk- and rock-driven approach is nothing new. But Freeman spends significant time describing their careers in detail, making it clear that Miles' interest in their music ran much deeper than the superficiality many have suggested.

It's also old news that the reaction of most jazz critics of the time to Miles' plugging in—that Miles was "selling out —was clearly unsupportable. There was nothing radio-friendly about anything Miles did from the watershed of Bitches Brew through to Agharta and Pangea—the two live albums that were his last releases before the 1975-1980 "dark years/ While On the Corner had funk rhythms, its angularity and totally off-the-wall extremes frightened almost all audiences—rock, funk and jazz—equally. But the attention Freeman devotes to the period 1970-1975—half of the book's roughly 200 pages—revisits the music under a more contemporary microscope. The relationship that Miles had with producer Teo Macero—whose innovations in terms of looping, and creating collage-like soundscapes were unprecedented at the time—is covered in detail; but so too is the Grand Canyon-like chasm between Miles' studio work of the time, and concert recordings including In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall and Dark Magus.

Freeman is also the first to really dig into just how important guitarist Pete Cosey was, and how—while he never achieved the degree of fame of his predecessor, John McLaughlin—he was just as crucial to Miles' music from 1972-1975 as McLaughlin was on albums like In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

Freeman assesses Miles' increasingly-unfriendly music of 1972-1975 in a purely non-jazz context for the first time. Because most writers tend to come from a jazz-centricity, it's Freeman's dissimilar background that makes Running the Voodoo Down such an essential read.

Even Miles' last decade—to which, at only 30 pages, Freeman gives relatively short-shrift—is analyzed from a broader perspective. If any period of Miles can be construed as being a "sell-out, it's those final years. But Freeman puts Miles' motivations in a larger context. If jazz was becoming an increasingly marginalized genre, would being remembered as a member of such an exclusive club have really been appropriate for Miles? Clearly Freeman thinks not, and it's a compelling argument.

That's not to say Freeman isn't critical of certain moves.. But he's one of the first to recognize that the largely-derided Doo-Bop, despite its admittedly appalling vocal tracks, has some merit, and was even forward-looking; with some of the music fitting the definition of trip-hop before the term even existed.

Freeman's clear pro-electric bias means that there's the occasional misstep. Fortunately, suggestions including Keith Jarrett's move from his exploratory work with Miles—especially on the recently-released The Cellar Door Sessions 1970)—to acoustic-only playing was "a retreat (and it sure feels like exactly that) are few and far between, with Freeman generally coming across as open-minded and stylistically-unprejudiced.

Freeman spends the final chapter of the book discussing recent "post-Miles projects including Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser's Yo Miles!, Burnt Sugar, Tim Hagans' Animation-Imagination and Bill Laswell's Panthalassa. It's hard to imagine what Miles would be doing were he alive today—Freeman suggest, and rightly so, that Miles would be turning 80 this year, so the ravages of time would likely impact his capabilities. But Freeman makes it clear that there's a wealth of artists today moving forward the innovations and ultimate desertion of the jazz tradition that made Miles such a controversial (and, in some cases, loathed) figure.

Running The Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis won't likely change the minds of those closed to the possibility that breaking down musical boundaries is, perhaps, more important than bolstering them up. But it's a refreshingly youthful perspective that places Miles Davis in a broader context, suggesting his ultimate importance and influence extended far beyond the confines of jazz to hip-hop, electronica...even punk. Miles would have been thrilled.



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