For the Artists: Critical Writing, Volume 2

Greg Masters BY

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Miles' music of the 1970s is not just a rejection of beauty, but a beautiful embrace of the rejected.
—Greg Masters
Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions Sony-Legacy Music, October 2007

"There is no architecture and no build-up. Just a vivid, uninterrupted succession of colors, rhythms and moods."

—Arnold Schoenberg, describing his Five Pieces for Orchestra in a letter to Richard Strauss, 1909, quoted in The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

The music Miles Davis forged in the first half of the 1970s, his so-called "electric period," is not jazz. In a determined effort to keep his sound fresh, he took the audacious step of leaving behind all the frameworks of the art form which had made him a recognized and venerated figure throughout the world. In an effort to open himself up to new ideas and to expand his audience, his new sound maintains elements of the jazz style he'd evolved for the previous 30 years, while appropriating styles of music outside the jazz repertoire, namely the propulsive dance groove of 70s funk (particularly James Brown and Sly Stone), the raucous, rough-edged, electro-charged brashness of Jimi Hendrix, the metallic sparkle of India's Ravi Shankar, the European classical avant-garde methods of Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as the traditions of jazz going back to Dixieland and ragtime. It's also indebted to the free playing of Albert Ayler and late John Coltrane with Pharoah Sanders.

And what does this add up to? All I know is that the music manages to expresses feelings I've yet to find in any other art form. Complex, raw, primal feelings splayed and made tangible.

The music Miles made in these years—particularly with the scorching electric guitars of Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, grounded in the steady, incantory pulse of Al Foster's 4/4 rhythm on drums and Michael Henderson's unswerving definition of tempo and key via electric bass—defined an organic, body-centered response to nature. Bird calls and the sound of wind through the trees is as much a part of the pastiche as is the dance of the inner psyche. We've heard these sounds on walks through the woods.

But the music is—despite the assault of its unfamiliar gestures and its straying beyond bar measures—rooted in blues. The whole thing is still a child of the body and spirit-form called blues. Miles was clearly intending to move his music out of the elite confines of the music hall and into the street, or at least onto the radio.

Miles' generosity of spirit, his openness to influences from outside the expected, his need to dig deep into emotional recesses never before expressed so vividly, make it seem that the music is contemporary. To these ears it is not at all dated or relegated to a nostalgic dip into the past. It was so far ahead of its time that we're still catching up to it nearly 40 years later.

The Complete On the Corner Sessions (Sony-Legacy Music, 2007) is the eighth and final set in a series of Miles Davis boxes. This six-CD package includes six-plus hours of music, including 12 previously unissued tracks, plus five tracks previously unissued in full. The package contains a 120-page booklet with liner notes and essays by musician/co-producer Bob Belden (Michael Cuscuna is the other co-producer), journalist Tom Terrell and arranger/musician Paul Buckmaster.

The Complete On the Corner Sessions is an inaccurate and misleading title in an academic sense. The tracks he recorded at Columbia Studio B over the course of 16 sessions presented in this set from March 9, 1972 to May 5, 1975 offer up at least two very different artistic intentions. The first is the material realized for what would be released as On the Corner in July 1972 —the "extended grooves," as bassist Michael Henderson explains in the liner notes. This is a singular event in the Miles chronology, although it can be seen as an extension of the sound he had developed in 1970 in an ensemble that included Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Henderson, Gary Bartz, John McLaughlin and Airto Moreira (represented on The Cellar Door Sessions, released as a six-CD box set in 2005).

Other tracks collected here, particularly those assembled on Get Up With It (released November 1974), are another matter. Following the June 1972 sessions that resulted in On the Corner, Miles moved the ensemble sound away from an insistence on a churning, full-speed-ahead jam on one chord. On a handful of sessions over the next few years, orchestral colors are explored and there's room for chord changes and melodies. Perhaps it's quibbling, but I'm more comfortable with distinguishing each of the original LPs as distinct periods, or moments, in Miles' continuous evolution.

The new solo

In the early 1970s, Miles could not play trumpet with the intensity, force and bravado he'd exhibited throughout his career and which had been at a peak in 1969 and 1970 as he put himself on display to a whole new audience of rock crowds at the Fillmore East (March 6-7, 1970 and again June 17-20, 1970) and Fillmore West (April 10-11, 1970 and again Oct. 15-18, 1970), at huge rock festivals (Isle of Wight, Aug. 29, 1970) and other venues larger than the night clubs and corner bars he'd been playing for decades.

His embouchure was compromised. He was in ill health. His use of recreational drugs was reportedly abundant. Playing trumpet is physically demanding and Miles, in the 1970s, was willing, but his body was just not near the same levels as it had been. His soloing and his steering of the ensemble sound via his horn was diminished from what it had been.

But what he lacked in physical stamina, he made up for by taking huge risks in exposing his every vulnerability via a shift in musical intention. He refused to rely on playing crowd favorites or tunes from his past repertoire. He was intent on forging something entirely brand new, of presenting something which hadn't been seen or heard before.

The case could be made that he was insulting his devoted audience by merely presenting incomprehensible noise. But I am in the camp which believes this music is valuable in its revolutionary intentions.

The Complete On the Corner Sessions box showcases Miles' power as a leader. While the musicians are not playing charts, within their prescribed roles each player contributes an individual intensity and voice while fitting into the ensemble sound.

Miles' conducting of the group improvisation is firm enough to give a recognizable shape to the tune while trusting enough of the individual voices to bring out their best. Not many of the musicians who passed through Miles' various groups ever sounded better than when they were with him. Why? Because part of Miles' genius was in encouraging his partners to reach for expressions they hadn't known were within them. As leader, he afforded them the time to expand on their ideas, while at the same time maintaining a unifying order to contain the amalgam of personal contributions.

However, here the soloing is less rewarding to listen to because the musicians aren't as skilled as were the musicians in Miles' previous ensembles. And there's often less gradations to which the improvisations can respond. Often the solos are enlisted to override the churning, molten funk of the groove laid down by the rest of the pack. So, less skilled and less brave than Miles was when he complemented Charlie Parker's fusillade attack with a whole different approach, the soloing musicians on these sessions take less risks and resort to sounding off on their horns in a frenzy of notes in their attempt to meet the demands of the ensemble sound. There's little nuance, little chance to explore and test, as the musical concept is forceful and deliberate.

But this is less a liability because the act of soloing acquires a new purpose and intent on these tracks. Each solo is less ego-based than solos from the 60 years of improvisational music dating back to Louis Armstrong's emergence with King Oliver. Here, the solo is not the showcase for virtuosity it was before. While each player's skill is on display and each brings his own personal touch to the solo, it's more directed to serve the music. The solo is a momentary display within the textures of the process. It's a thread in the fabric.

Too, while Charlie Parker in the 78 rpm era only had three minutes to make his statement, Miles in the LP era can take his time and uses the space to elongate the music-listening experience so it can extend the range and incorporate moods and tones beyond bebop and standards boundaries.

The argument could be made that the level of musicianship in the ensembles Miles led throughout these electric years was not as skilled as it had previously been. These musicians lacked the virtuosic capabilities of the now recognized jazz masters who had played with Miles throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, players who were capable of soloing at the proper time in their prescribed roles as sidemen—beautiful statements that adhered to the chord changes and showed off their technical facility and aesthetic craft in the service of making art music.

This was the basic structure: A small team of musicians would play a theme, then each would take a turn soloing, the theme would be stated again by the ensemble and the piece would end. The audience knew what to expect. The thrill was in how articulate the soloists could express themselves.

Miles, even at 19 years old when he joined the Charlie Parker band, added something different to the pyrotechnic virtuosity of players like Parker. Miles' sound brought a softer, feminine element, a brooding, reflective wistfulness that countered the alpha male assertiveness of most other jazz music of the time and of the preceding 50 years.

There are several reasons why Miles' music of the 70s may be less attractive to listeners. For one, it's nasty. It digs deep to express dark recesses of feelings and sustains those moods for long stretches. It is not enjoyable in the sense that art had served previously. As Theodor Adorno says, in discussing the music of Schoenberg, affability ceases. The music is less about serving as entertainment and is more an unrestrained attempt to express the rawest emotions. It's beyond entertainment. Miles was through pandering to audience expectations. Too, with his trumpet-playing limited because of poor health, he began using an electric organ to produce occasional howls, chords not heard before, eerie, dark blocks of sound.

Defiling the Cult of Beauty: The Influence of Stockhausen and Messiaen

The music deserves more serious examination and certainly more recognition and acclaim. It is remarkable music in that it integrates a universe of sounds. It's not simply bringing in the ethnic influence of a foreign culture, as Dizzy Gillespie did decades earlier by bringing Caribbean dance rhythms into his sound. The music adds textures and complexities learned from European avant-garde—particularly the collage effects of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose pieces since the 1950s, besides traditional orchestral instrumentation, were making use of electronic effects (synthesizers, amplified soloists, ring modulators), as well as short wave receivers.

In the liner notes, Paul Buckmaster, a British cellist and composer who had experimented with tape loops, recounts how he exposed Miles to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen at this time. The influence this had on Miles' sound is easy to imagine. Stockhausen's music is a radical break from the classical music tradition in that it does not rely on narrative. Like a Godard movie, it interrupts the spoon-fed story-telling structure to offer up a new palette of sensual and intellectual effects. It is full of surprises, as the listener can never anticipate what's coming next. It's a music free of sentiment, unencumbered from the Romantic strategy of appealing to common urges (assuming agreement is pleasing).

After an absorption in the compositions of Stockhausen, as well as those of Olivier Messiaen, with their open-ended structures, Miles' methods can be seen to jettison the traditional thematic structure left over from the Romantic era, where a piece of music follows a pattern, or narrative, describing a set of experiences or feelings through time. Miles begins here, like modern composers Messiaen and Stockhausen, to make use of the moment. The allegiance to a story is abandoned. Each moment of the musical piece is attuned to the extraordinary. Miles acquires a new tonal palette incorporating ominous and chilling explorations, such as examined in the music of Stockhausen and Messiaen.

Also, with the use of silences, the band's forward progression coming to a sudden halt, a strategy also likely picked up from Stockhausen, the music emphasizes the collage-like, fragmentary nature of perception, not an ideal make-believe illusion. The listener can enter and leave anywhere.

Too, not answerable to any agenda, the music's idiosyncratic path is decidedly not intended to placate audience expectation. Pure art seeks to explore and enunciate more than entertain.

These expressions take art away from the merely beautiful and the artifice of luxury. The illusion of safe extravagance is removed in order to portray less-than-polite feelings. Left behind is good taste, decorative entertainment for the comfort of paying patrons.

The music is so densely layered and there is so much musical activity that repeated listening is rewarded as moments and threads are heard differently each time. And, without the formal dependence on theme and dramatic progression, our listening experience is splayed out to concentrate on the moment, not the anticipation of a climax and resolution.

Much of the music contained in this package could be designated "new age," though it's often more raucous than what we typify today as the calming ambient music we use for relaxing or performing yoga.

While Miles' intentions with his music might have been to get people up to dance, at the same time he created a panache of listenable grooves filled with surprises and unprecedented ensemble sounds that still retain their freshness and audacious attitude.

Dissonance, Our Friend

Miles' music of the 1970s is not just a rejection of beauty, but a beautiful embrace of the rejected.

For Miles, dissonance was an acknowledgement that there was more to be expressed in music than comfort and resolvable sensations. The musical vocabulary of traditional Western harmony—the I, IV, V form, the basic foundation for everything from church hymns to blues, standards and rock 'n' roll —imposed limitations to exploring and expressing a range of emotions and a depiction of possibilities beyond the familiar tonal centers available in major and minor patterns.

His departure from these confines might be traced back as far as 1959's Kind of Blue, which broke from the blues-based form by using modal scales that gave an effect of suspension, as chords didn't resolve back to the root chord as in the familiar traditional manner. Pleasing an audience with tasteful, familiar songs, providing entertainment, became too tired. Miles wanted to grow as an artist.

Miles' group of the mid-60s took it even further. Pushed by Wayne Shorter's spiral compositions and fragmentary style of soloing on sax and by keyboardist Herbie Hancock's schooling in Debussy and Ravel and drummer Tony Williams' aggressive splattering of bar lines, this music too offered a sense of suspension as it uprooted the root and tonic.

The shift from the traditional standards repertory to a push into something new is discerned in The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel set from Dec. 22-23, 1965 (released as an eight-CD box set in July 1995). Miles, the leader, seems in poor health. His trumpet playing lacks breath and his soloing comes in short bursts which he can't sustain. He, in fact, does not play a lot over the course of the seven live sets over two nights. His weakness gives more of the spotlight to his young, energetic sidemen, who are eager to advance into new realms beyond the standards repertoire to which their boss has been anchored.

Later in the decade, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea would even be nudging the music into totally free territory—leaving behind the grounding in a common key and time signature—before Miles, not quite convinced of the emotional impact of a total abandonment of order, would rein the group back down to a place of agreement.

Fortunate to be working for a record company—Columbia (now Columbia/Legacy, a division of Sony BMG Music Entertainment)—that indulged his direction and allowed him to pursue his project, Miles ran with it. Not obliged to the record company to fester as a recognizable brand, Miles could use the studio and countless live dates, to continue developing and pushing into unexplored territory to create sounds which were unheard and unimagined previously.

The Tunes

There are some gems among the previously unreleased tracks, particularly "On the Corner (take 4)" and "Mr. Foster," and the release of unheard music from this phase of Miles' career will thrill devotees of his electric music.

"On the Corner (take 4)" offers up the entire universe in one chord. It's a five-minute studio fragment that propels the listener via one effect: a determined mining of a vamp pedaled to one chord onto which the musicians, particularly John McLaughlin, augment with furious yet mannered waves of variation. It could have fit onto side one of A Tribute to Jack Johnson (released Feb. 1971).

On "On the Corner (unedited master)," as well as the unedited master and issued take of "Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X," some new variants are heard, dark colorful chords on organ, but pedestrian, Theremin-like keyboard noodling by Harold Ivory Williams (my guess, the other two keyboardists were Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, or possibly it's Dave Creamer on guitar) is amateurish and grates after awhile. We hear for the first time instrumental solos by Keith Jarrett on electric piano, John McLaughlin on electric guitar and even Miles on wah-wah trumpet that were excised in the final mix, sacrificed for the ensemble concept.

The idea here is that individual efforts contribute to a whole. Ego is gone. What's important is the ensemble.

"Ife" repeats a riff over and over to induce a trance-like fixation on the spiral pattern. Onto that is layered Miles' solo, which wrestles with the rhythm, punctuating oscillations. Paul Buckmaster is noted on electric cello, but I can't discern his presence in the mix.

"Chieftain," another previously unissued track, has a startling, almost Caribbean multi-rhythmic groove provided by Al Foster on drums and Reggie Lucas on electric guitar, with Badal Roy on tablas and Mtume on congas. Michael Henderson provides a bass drone pulse and Miles solos achingly through the wah wah. It's nice to hear a sitar in the mix, but Khalil Balakrishna is no Ravi Shankar.

"Rated X" begins with Miles playing eerie chord clusters on electric organ. Michael Henderson enters on electric bass with an adrenaline-chilling vamp repeated over and over, with Al Foster laying down his basic pulse-enhancing 4/4. The tune proceeds as an exploration of the colors with no actual soloing, like a masseuse touching a nerve ending you never knew existed. It's a diagram of a mood, unexplained before, reaching foundation feelings rooted in primitive needs.

The previously unreleased studio takes of "Turnaround" and "U-Turnaround," a tune that would become a staple of his live shows for the next few years, doesn't quite get off the ground in this premier rendition. The elementary theme is stated repeatedly over the funk groove with Miles stretching the head statement into varying permutations, but there's little transcendence. Perhaps it's effective as a dance groove, but as concert music this doesn't provide enough complexity. Note: On his Miles Beyond website, Paul Tingen, in consultation with Miles discography expert Jan Lohmann, disputes the record company's titling of these tracks. They agree that "Turnaround" and "U-Turnaround," in fact, are two early takes of "Agharta Prelude."

The tunes which would be gathered on Get Up With It (collecting tracks recorded between 1970 and 1974 and released as a double LP on November 22, 1974), generally employ the churning groove layers of musical activity, but add reprieves in the form of chord changes and choruses, such as "Maiysha" and "Mtume." The earliest recorded track in this box, "Red China Blues," which would end up on GUWI, is another matter. This is a standard 12-bar blues with a compact horn arrangement. Miles' other-worldly-sounding solo through electronic effects is the only aspect that makes it unusual. It might have been an attempt to create a reasonably marketable track.

Miles is in fine form on "Mr. Foster," presumably so named in honor of the fine drummer keeping a steady, propulsive pulse with him. After the band sets up the groove and intones a sad mood, Miles enters on muted trumpet played through a wah-wah pedal and begins a long declaration, growling in the low register, meandering assuredly through the mid-range and even pushing into the high range, as expressive of states of sorrow as possible.

Miles knew how to shape a solo. For the most part, his solos have something to say. They express an emotional theme. The other soloists—Dave Liebman and Pete Cosey, especially on this box—decorate the music, but don't have the lucidity of Miles' statements. But, at 15 minutes, the track ends too soon.

"Calypso Frelimo" rides on a jaunty texture, with Al Foster's cymbal work shuffling, allied with a simple, child-like statement played on the electric organ, which Miles would subsequently use frequently in concerts. Miles plays with a mournful pleading sound, as if appealing to the life forces from hell. At around 10 minutes in, a new movement begins quietly, with Henderson's bass figure repeated as an ostinato, setting up an eerie, mysterious, almost reverential atmosphere. Guitar chords are spread to open fields and the organ figure repeats, this time with other instruments joining in and answering. The figure has earned a presence. Miles again enters and begins his statement, calmly engaging the wah-wah to spread his notes with a feeling of suspension. We're enticed to slow down until the ensemble returns to the jaunty vamps of the first movement and we're restored to the surface of the earth. Miles is still expressing darker feelings, but gradually the bounce of the band's groove proves too infectious and his playing becomes more playful and as full of the celebration as the others. A re-statement of the organ figure closes the piece as if to wrap things up.

"He Loved Him Madly" is the most astounding of compositions, seamlessly assembled from five different tracks. A dirge for the recently deceased Duke Ellington, it begins with Miles playing chilling organ chords, or, more accurately, tone clusters—the likes of which I've heard before only in the music of Olivier Messiaen. Guitar shadings seem to be picking through bones, while Al Foster taps out a graveyard blues as the cortège passes. Things change when the bass enters at almost 11 minutes in and Foster, in a rhythmic chant never heard in music before, starts tapping out a slow 4/4, accenting each beat. Liebman enters on flute (through echo) for the first melodic improvisation, a tasty solo that picks up for a second iteration after a trumpet solo from Miles, which begins 16 minutes into the piece. He, too, is playing through an echo, which adds to the chill of his haunting cavernous utterances, an eloquent communication of grief over the loss of his much beloved and venerated predecessor, until it dissipates for all time.

Each track is astounding, but not all are completely successful as refined artistic statements. It's the nature of the improv business.

On "Jobali," for example, Michael Henderson lays down a riff, the sort of structure he's used before and will use again, but here it's just not as interesting and feels unrelenting and insistent, rather than a structure onto which a composition may develop and unwind.

In a typical funk or R&B song, after 12 or so bars, the vamp shifts into a chorus or refrain, but here it plods along as a root onto which Miles solos like a low-flying bird, texturing on an investigative explication. While the structure is a radical departure from traditional American song form, with lucid melody and an underlying chordal and harmonic structure to support and embellish it, here, there are statements, but they're more like calls, summonings.

Other previously unheard tracks in this set—notably "Big Fun" and "Holly-wuud" (really two different takes of the same material, 7/26/73), as well as "Minnie" from 5/5/75—seem to have similar commercial intent. They foreshadow the pop sound Miles would emerge with in 1981 after a six-year hiatus, while retaining some of the eccentricities of the other, more formidable "serious" tracks gathered here. Note: Tingen claims that "Minnie" is, in fact, a tune Miles titled "Mr. Foster" when it was recorded. As for the tune called "Mr. Foster (from 9/18/73) discussed earlier, who knows?

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Is this box too much of a good thing for those just getting initiated. I'd steer those seekers away from this package and toward the individual releases, especially On the Corner and Get Up With It. Then, you can work your way back to In a Silent Way, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew and forward a bit to the live Agharta, Pangea and Dark Magus. From there, the road is open.

As Bob Belden says in the liner notes, the box set is also a testament to the genius of producer Teo Macero, who sculpted the hours of studio jams down to artful form, excising weak sections, splicing together complementary movements, layering and performing all manner of tape acrobatics to fashion finished and refined musical compositions. He is more than an able producer, he is a collaborator.

Once again, I must fault Legacy's design department for the packaging of these Miles sets. While this package is beautiful to look at, for practical purposes it's irritating to use. The 120-page booklet, while colorful, is bound into the spine of the package, which makes it harder than necessary to peruse and the sans serif typeface is not easy to read, especially when blue type is used over a blue background. Worse, each track's discography data is scattered amidst the CD sleeves and various pages.

The photos add a lot of information, namely a sense of the theatricality of a live Miles Davis show during this era. The tableau we see is equal parts African warrior, Haight-Ashbury, Carnaby Street and Harlem street.

Another quibble is that the sequencing is hard to figure out. There seems to be a stab at positioning the tracks chronologically, as recorded, but that order breaks down with disc six, thus grouping the OTC material as originally offered on LP with unrelated tracks that diffuse the coherence and impact of the original OTC issue.

For more on electric Miles, Paul Tingen's Miles Beyond (Billboard Books, 2001) is the must-have book for its thorough and dependable documentation of the facts and extensive interviews. Philip Freeman's Running the Voodoo Down (Backbeat Books, 2006) has justifiably come under attack for its sloppy research resulting in a slew of historical inaccuracies (corrected by Tingen on his Miles Beyond website), but for its impassioned yet reasoned descriptions of the music and its discussions of how the music fits into the trajectory of its time, it is an invaluable aid and pleasant accompaniment to Miles' electric music.

From For the Artists: Critical Writing, Volume 2 (Crony Books, September 2014; this article originally appeared on All About Jazz, October 31, 2007)

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