The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 is the eighth box set edition in a series begun in 2004, moving chronologically through the trumpeter's career with John Coltrane and Gil Evans, recorded output for Columbia from 1963-68, and extensive investigations into the sessions that yielded In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. This collection, however, has less to do with this series conceptually than it does with mid to late-'90s releases highlighting live Miles (such as Live at the Plugged Nickel or Miles Davis At Fillmore). The material on this six-CD set was recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington DC and is almost all unreleased, except for parts of the Saturday night show, which were presented in edited form on 1997's Live-Evil.
It's not surprising that the box sets have emphasized Miles' albums. Given that he released some of the most musically and culturally significant records in jazz, analyses of his career have usually focused on results. Perhaps more than any other jazz player, Miles is defined by his albums, a rolling snapshot of every innovation (good or bad) that came or he brought to jazz during his career. But here are six discs that are nothing more than a live document of a Miles working bandnot as important as the second quintet, but consistent in concept at least. By these shows in December the lineup featured Gary Bartz (alto), Keith Jarrett (electric keys), Michael Henderson (electric bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Airto Moreira (percussion for most of the sets), and guest John McLaughlin for the last two discs.
Since these gigs were just gigs (albeit in a time when the rock performance aesthetic was firmly entrenched even in jazzremember fusion was just around the corner), a listener should only assess whether the performances are worthwhile instead of getting bogged down in the group's significance. And the performances are worthwhile mostly. The first two discs (Wednesday's first set and Thursday's second set) start off roughly with some misplaced energy.
By the second disc's "Inamorata, the band has finally gelled and performs the signature pre-fusion/funk explorations Miles spearheaded during this period with excellent results. The energy level is consistently high for discs three and four (Friday second and third sets) but drops somewhat when the band has to make room for the rambunctious McLaughlin on discs five and six (Saturday second and third sets).
It is a pleasure to hear Jarrett in this non-reflective energy setting and DeJohnette in full bash mode. Bartz is a different saxophonist than those who preceded him in Miles' bands, but the contrast is a compelling one. McLaughlin's contributions are not his best, but it is clear what ideas he would take with him to his soon-to-be-formed Mahavishnu Orchestra.
As box sets go, this is not the revelation that Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson were. But it does show that Miles worked things out on stage like everyone else, even if what he worked out was better than most.
Track Listing: CD1: Directions; Yesternow; What I Say; Improvisation #1; Inamorata. CD2: What I Say; Honky Tonk; It's About That Time; Improvisation #2; Inamorata; Sanctuary. CD3: Directions; Honky Tonk; What I Say. CD4: Directions; Honky Tonk; What I Say; Sanctuary; Improvisation #3; Inamorata. CD5: Directions; Honky Tonk; What I Say. CD6: Directions; Improvisation; Inamorata; Sanctuary; It's About That Time.
Personnel: Miles Davis: trumpet; Gary Bartz: soprano saxophone, alto saxophone; Keith Jarrett: Fender Rhodes electric piano and Fender electric organ; Michael Henderson: electric bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums; John McLaughlin: guitar; Airto Moreira: percussion.