Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Miles Davis - live + reissue + memoir reviews

The Royal Festival Hall, London
Melody Maker, 1987

by Simon Reynolds

I've never approached a typewriter with a stronger sense of temerity. I feel barely qualified to write down the man's name, let alone pass judgement, seek to pick apart the music.

On the night, it seemed a different matter, at least at first. Things weren't really happening. I could even tell what was wrong. Miles' band were laying down a frenetic funk-jazz hyrbid not dissimilar to that of Ronald Shannon Jackson or Defunkt; to me, it seemed that the funk regimen was too tight, too much of a rush, to give any player a chance to blow free, least of all Miles. At the same time, the sound was too fussy to work as funk - too much detailed work along the vertical, not enough thrust along the horizontal. On the roomier pieces, Miles was, to put it euphemistically, "over-democratic", sitting out almost entire songs with his back to the audience, while the guitarist or saxophonist soloed to their heart's content.

Then suddenly, Miles and band hit their stride suddenly I'm at a loss for words. Agape, i can only gesture at this sound with a phrase like "Neptunian funk"--a ghostly abstraction of terrestial dance shapes. Funk far too polymorphous and wayward to be contained by stable referents like "soul" or even "the body". There's no singular groove here, but a surplus of tangents. Too many colours. The keyboards spiral off into abrupt lunar pirouettes and backflips: the garrulous sprawl of the sound will lift off like a lagoon of flamingoes taking fright, or it'll collapse in on itself like a house of cards. In this decentred funk, Miles dovetails as a componment rather than star, his trumpet ranging from an involuted, hieroglyphic scribble to a broad blare.

On the cover versions, Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature", Miles dominates - swoonily gorgeous, of course ("Human Nature" dwindles into an unbearably lovely meander) - but these toons are a just a little trite next to the unmoored oceanic swell of the rest of the set. I like it when Miles takes me out of my depth.

These are great players he's working with, and he gives them plenty of opportunity to shine (in the case of the guitarist, rope to hang himself). I particularly treasure the memory of Daryl Jones and his sweet, agonisted expression as he squeezed loose a chain of hexagonal bass clusters, half-squatting as though undergoing a difficult birth; also, Mino Cinelu's bloodcurdling percussion solo. But it's the sight of the man himself that lives in the memory. A slight, hunched figure, leonine - in his glitter pants, spangled jacket and shades he looks like an ancient Michael Jackson. His tongue, unfurled to signify exhaustion, is tree frog pink.

At the end, a large number of white, middle class, middle-aged people stream to the front to wring his hand in gratitude: it could be cringey, but somehow it's genuinely touching. Despite the barrage of obsequious palms, Davis remains untouchable -- something in his best music clings to him like an aura, makes him seem not of this world.

In A Silent Way
Melody Maker, 1988

By Simon Reynolds

Reissued under the auspices of CBS's Jazz Masterpieces budget-price CD series, In A Silent Way should present no problems for the jazz ignoramus. No homework or thorough schooling is required: In A Silent Way is as immediately captivating as it is infinitely complex. Besides, it belongs to "us" as much as to jazz - and this year more than ever. For In A Silent Way was the birth of "oceanic rock" (it was recorded in 1969, which surely has as much to do with A.R. Kane calling their album 69 as their undeniable obsession with oral sex). Like our own oceanic wanderers, In A Silent Way surfaced against a backdrop of impending apocalypse: it was a subaquatic Arcadia, an atoll of serenity in turbulent times.

Miles is at the heart of it, siphoning sheer serendipity from his instrument: the master of economy, every inflection is telling. But ever the democrat, he's economical with his own presence, and shares star-billing with a constellation of luminary players (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul on electric piano, John McLaughlin on guitar, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, Tony Williams on drums). What they create for him to coast in and out of is an indolently funky swirlpool of sound as warmly wombing as the gulf stream. It's so seamless, so organically fused (this was the genesis of "fusion" , after all) that it's impossible to believe the fact of the matter, which is that these pieces are edited together from numerous sessions. Hancock, Corea, Zawinul and McLaughlin dart and dilate like a shoal of exotic marine life, conjuring up a cosmic Jacuzzi of spume and spindrift, anemone-intricate whorls of sound, "froth on the daydream".

"Shhh/Peaceful" is like learning to breathe again. "In A Silent Way" itself slows your metabolism down so far you feel you're watching dewdrops bud and blossom, with McLaughlin's guitar deliquescing in delicate traceries over the soft, somnolent single-note growl of Shorter's saxophone. "It's About that Time" makes you feel like a corpuscle in the bloodstream of God.

The Miles Davis ensemble convened for In A Silent Way recorded other amazing records, most notably the incomparable Bitches Brew. Afterwards, each went on to pursue their own version of what they'd discovered with Miles: Zawinul and Shorter in Weather Report, Corea with Return to Forever, McLaughlin with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Holland on ECM. For Miles what lay ahead was the fucked-up funk of On the Corner and the gloom catacombs of Get Up With It - some of the most disturbed and disturbing music ever made. In A Silent Way is like a little oasis of asylum before the storm. It makes a lot of sense, listening now. Immerse yourself in these healing waters. Prepare for a baptism of bliss.

Melody Maker, 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Aura is a most curious work. It was composed by Palle Mikkelborg in 1984, when Miles Davis was awarded the Sonning Music Prize, and recorded in '85 when Davis was in Copenhagen to receive the prize. Aura is intended as a portrait of the artist: eight pieces that each draw on different phases of Davis' oeuvre and each of which is named after a different colour that Mikkelborg detects in Miles' "aura". The ten letters of 'Miles Davis' have been rendered into ten notes,
from which Mikkelborg has derived a scale for the entire composition. And already Aura has been hailed as the most stimulating Miles release for at least a decade.

Mikkelborg's compositions provide the trumpet visionary with an adventure playground to test his genius. His recent WEA albums with Marcus Miller have been grounded in
state-of-art pop funk, and accordingly have run a rather straightforward gamut of emotions (from gaiety, happy-sad, mellow melancholy). Mikkelborg's complex compositions provoke the kind of unfathomable, untranscribeable emotions
we haven't heard from Miles since maybe On The Corner or Get Up With It. Once again, praise the Lord, Miles sounds lost in inner space.

Some of Aura falls into the fold of fusion. After a brief moment of cathedral immensity, "Intro" sets off into a jarring future-funk groove over which John McLaughlin writes his signature in white lightning. "Orange" is extrovert, even
swanky, powered by McLauglin's stratospheric graffiti and garrulous, amphetamine-gabbling keyboards. And "Blue" is a hodge-podge of 21st century reggae. But the best parts of Aura are closer to ECM. Where "cool jazz" (which Miles more or less invented) slowed down bop's frantic metabolic rate, ECM music is a quest for absolute zero, an almost petrified serenity. (There are creatures who live in the ocean underneath the Antarctic ice-cap, whose metabolic rate has been slowed down by the cold to the point where they live for centuries).

"White" is a pensive Miles soliloquy in an abbey courtyard full of apprehensive chimes and percussive rustlings, and coloured by an ominous synth glow. "That
silence is loud", quoth Davis of "White" in the sleevenotes. "Yellow" is a majestic, orchestral piece: twinkling clusters of harp against canopies of woodwind (together, it's like the night sky snowing stars) alternate with abrupt avalanches of horns that are terrible to behold. And "Green" is a tundra wilderness for Miles' bewildered musings, a basin of silence edged around by whispers and murmurs.

Aura is fifty per cent awesome, and never less than intriguing. I shudder with anticipation (and frustration) at the thought of the thousands of hours of unreleased Miles Davis tapes that still reputedly lurk in the CBS vaults.

Miles: the Autobiography
Melody Maker, March 3rd 1990

by Simon Reynolds

On the Corner
Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

In the late Sixties, the influence of the counter culture percolated into Miles Davis' music. In A Silent Way was jazz's answer to Hendrix' "1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be", a beatific lagoon of serenity. On 1970's Bitches Brew, oceanic rock turned murky and miasmic; Miles' labyrinth of cthonic catacombs perfectly caught the era's apocalyptic aura. The Sixties drive to "break on through" had unleashed terrifying voodoo forces; venture too far into the unknown, shed too many repressions, and you risk psychosis, the loss of the brakes and boundaries that make you human.

By 1972's On The Corner, the counter culture's boundless psychic spaces had suffered contraction. On The Corner is implosive, seething with volcanic but caged energies: it's jazz's answer to There's A Riot Goin' On. In the funk of Sly Stone and James Brown, Miles found a perfect musical analogue for the early Seventies 'the world is a ghetto' vibe. The bulk of the album consists of feverish, minimal-is-maximal varations around a single bass and guitar riff. The sulphurous fizz of the polyrhythms, the viscous malignancy of the bass, rhythm guitar that etches livid weals in your frontal lobes, wah-wah riffs that coil and bristle like rattlesnakes, or choke on their own venom: this is the sound of paranoia, totally wired, uptight, and coked to the gills. You feel like the air's burning in your lungs, like your heart's hammering against your ribcage and your nerves have turned to cheesewire.

Sometimes the feeding frenzy of sound subsides into a morass of despondency; Miles's trumpet gropes through dank chambers of the soul, inscribing cryptic hieroglyphs of despair on the dungeon walls. "Vote For Miles" is a unhinged sprawl of Indian raga drones, strangulated wah-wah paroxyms reminiscent of Loop's "Thief Of Fire", random volcanic-mud squelches of funk bass. On "Black Satin", a jaunty horn motif sashays with the murderous nonchalance of a whistling pimp; underneath the deadly cool, percussion simmers like a pressure cooker; overlapping waves of handclaps and tambourine veer up to smack you round the chops.

Like Bitches Brew, Dark Magus, Get Up With It and other Miles Davis' albums from this supremely fertile and fetid period, On The Corner combines a sense of claustrophobia and oppressive density with foreboding space and unfathomable depths. This music has the listener's faculties reeling in paradox: entrapment and liberation, dread and rapture, agony and ecstasy. On The Corner is one of the dozen albums (for a list, send a SAE) that anyone interested in the outer limits should own, or be owned by. Because it cleaves closest of Miles' masterworks to funk groove and rock impact (Davis was trying to reach out to a young, black audience), it's easy for the jazz novice to get into. But once you're into it, it'll take you as far out as anything Davis (or anybody else) ever recorded.

Melody Maker, 1992?

by Simon Reynolds

Recorded in 1975, Pangaea was Miles Davis's last album before he disappeared into the mire of illness and drug delirium that detained him for five years, a period in which he seldom left his penthouse dungeon and never picked up his trumpet. This album is the last in the series of live doubles Davis recorded in the early Seventies, but unlike Dark Magus, Live/Evil and Agharta, it has hitherto only been available in Japan. Throughout this period, Davis was engaged in taking on funk's groove appeal and rock's wig-out attack: On The Corner took its cue from Sly Stone and James Brown, "He Loved Him Madly" (off Get Up With It) was an avant-jazz take on the cinematic-panoramic bad vibes of "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", and since 1970 Davis had been playing his trumpet through a wah-wah (both to enhance it's voice-like qualities and its sheer alien-ness). As a commercial gambit, this hi-jacking of popular forms failed: funk kids couldn't cope with the avant-garde density of the music, while the jazz old-guard were alienated by the sheer volume assault. But artistically, this was one of Davis' most fertile phases.

Pangaea consists of two tracks that both clock in at around 45 minutes. The hectic funk-out of "Zimbabwe" would probably have been enhanced if subjected to the kind of studio necromancy wreaked upon On The Corner, but it's still a terrific blast. Better still is the meandering, brooding "Gondwana". The title of this piece is a clue to what Miles Davis was trying to do in those delirious days before he "retired", burnt out. 500 million years ago, Gondwana was the original super-continent, from which Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica eventually split off. 200 million years later, Gondwana collided amidships with another super-continent, to form Pangaea, which contained practically all the Earth's land mass. Miles Davis' early Seventies music - drawing as it did all the dots between jazz, funk, African polyrhythms, Indian drone-music, and 20th Century European avant-gardists like Stockhausen - is an attempt to invent (or recover) a world music: the body-and-soul language that existed before Babel, before our Fall into difference and division.

Black Beauty: Miles Davis At Fillmore West
In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall
Dark Magus: Live At Carnegie Hall

The Wire, October 1997

by Simon Reynolds

“Can the ocean be described? Fathomless music…” intones Conrad Roberts in a slightly hokey paean to Miles midway through Live-Evil’s “Inamorata”. I know what he was getting at, though, vis-à-vis Miles Davis’s early 70s output. No music makes me feel more inadequate or induces a stronger feeling of temerity--for ‘description’, however floridly imagistic, always seems like a reduction, and ‘explanation’ can only ever be a foolhardy projection.

In his brilliant 1983 essay ‘The Electric Miles’, Greg Tate argued for Davis’ early 70s music (still languishing in critical neglect when Tate wrote) as a sort of simultaneous culmination/dissolution of the jazz tradition. 15 years on, it’s tempting to align the electric Miles with aesthetic kinsmen outside the jazz lineage: the ‘oceanic’ tendency in post-pychedelic rock that encompassed Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, Yoko Ono’s Fly, Can’s Tago Mago/Future Days/Soon Over Babaluma trilogy, Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, John Martyn’s “I’d Rather Be the Devil” and “Big Muff”. To varying degrees, all this music was animated by the same impulse that drove Miles, a quest for a “One World” music, a fissile fusion of jazz, funk, rock, Indian music, electroacoustics. To varying degrees, all this music shared the same split methodology that underpinned Miles’ Teo Macero-produced studio albums of that era: freeform, unrehearsed improvisation followed by extensive studio-as-instrument post-production and editing in order to sculpt jams into coherent compositions.

As with the aforementioned avant rockers, chromaticism--rather than melody or harmony--is what the electric Miles is all about. David Toop notes in Ocean of Sound how Stockhausen inspired Miles to organize his music around “textural laminates and molten fields of colour”. But it was Jimi Hendrix who hipped Miles to the chromatic potential of distortion and effects processing; during this period Miles played his trumpet through a foot-controlled wah-wah unit, guitarist Pete Cosey deployed an arsenal of effects pedals, and percussionist Mtume spiced the polyrhythmic paella with exotica like log drums and kalimba. As a result, Miles’ music of the early 70s is as livid as a tropical disease, as lurid as the patterns on a venomous snake, as lysergic as his own cover art (Mati Klwarwein’s Afrodelic fantasia, Corky McCoy’s Fauvism-meets-Blacksploitation street scenes of superfly guys, true playaz and fine bitches in hot pants and high heels).

Getting back to Miles’ kinship with the post-psychedelic starsailors and aquanauts, the music of Dark Magus, On the Corner, Agharta, et al offers a drastic intensification of rock’s three most radical aspects: space, timbre, and groove (by which I something altogether more machine-like/mantric than jazz’s free-swinging drive). Making what he imagined was a sideways shift towards the pop mainstream (ha!), what Miles actually achieved was a culmination of rock’s trajectory towards kinesthetic abstraction, a.k.a the textured groovescape.

The music on these four double albums seem like excerpts from some continuous monster jam that lasted from 1970-75, when an understandably shagged-out Miles collapsed and retreated into coke-addled hermithood. Black Beauty and Live-Evil are both from 1970, and feature the instrumental line-up of the In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew era (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette et al). The music is a darkside counterpart to Can’s halcyon flow motion universe. Miles’s ocean is no coral-reef arcadia or wombadelic paradise, but altogether more murky and miasmic, full of rip-tides, treacherous currents and chthonic undertow, not so much Jacques Cousteau as EA Poe (as in “Descent into the Maelstrom”).

It’s a realm of grace and danger. On Beauty’s “Directions”, Chick Corea’s Rhodes keyboards dart and dilate like shoals of poisonous jellyfish; Dave Holland’s bass sustains terrific tension (although his sound seems monotone and two-dimensional compared to the plasma-morphic, pulse-sculpturing of Michael Henderson--the missing link between Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins--on the later albums). “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” begins with the brontosauran heavy rock gait of Mountain, swiftly comes to a seething roil -- like magma in a caldera -- then subsides into an amazing drumless interlude of itchy-and-squelchy insectoid interplay. Lacking the grotto-like recessive depths of the Macero-sculpted studio version, “Bitches Brew” is over-run with scrofulous, scurrying detail, then unravels into a post-fever stillness of necrotic ambience. On Live-Evil, highlights include the discombobulated, three-legged falter-funk of “Sivad”, the eldritch timbre poem “Little Church”, and “What I Say”, which shifts from strident freeway boogie (imagine James Gang jamming with Art Ensemble of Chicago) to an amazing drumspace interlude before careening back onto the two-lane blacktop.

By 1973’s In Concert, Miles’ group was the On the Corner ensemble that included Michael Henderson, guitarist Reggie Lucas, drummer Al Foster and electric pianist Cedric Lawson. The album was a stop-gap release, offering loose and intermittently inspired versions of “Right Off” from A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the awesome sitar-laced acid-funk of On the Corner’s “Black Satin”, plus previews of “Rated X” and “Honky Tonk” from the next studio album Get Up With It. Even the Corky McCoy artwork reiterates the ghettodelic imagery of On the Corner, testifying to Miles’ determination to reach out to a young audience of black funkateers.

Throughout this period, Miles was infatuated with Sly Stone’s music; in the sleevenotes for Dark Magus, saxophonist David Liebman tells of how Miles made him listen over and over to one track on Fresh. From the Family Stone’s polyrhythmic perversity, Miles seems to have derived a model of musical democracy. But by Dark Magus, Miles and co-conspirators had gone several steps beyond Sly’s utopian funkadelic commune or Weather Report’s genteel “everybody solos, nobody solos” equality; this music was far more turbulent, closer to mob rule or flash riot. By this point, conventional structuring principles have long since been smelted down by the infernal heat generated by the ensemble, leaving just riffs, vamps, blips and blurts of sound, and irregular escalate-and-ebb dynamics that resemble the feverish struggle between a body and a contagion, or a soup shifting between simmer and boil. This is a music strung out between spasm and entropy.

In mob rule, there are no ringleaders, but certain troublemakers stand out from Dark Magus's crowded mix: Pete Cosey’s writhing spirals of lead guitar agony; Mtume’s rattlesnake lashes of percussion and random eruptions of drum machine that recall Can’s “Peking O”, Reggie Lucas’ scalding, staccato rhythm guitar, etching itself into your brain like a branding iron. And of course, Miles’ slurred, smeary trumpet, breaking out across this music’s flesh like weals and blisters. Miles sounds poisoned, like he’s siphoning pus from a soul-turned-cyst.

“Can the ocean be described?” was Roberts’ rhetorical question. I think of chaos theory (Dark Magus as demonic Mandelbrot?) and Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizome (“musical form, right down to its ruptures and proliferations, is comparable to a weed”). I think of post-Deleuzian cyber-feminist Sadie Plant’s description of the information ocean as “an endless geographic plane of micromeshing pulsing quanta, limitless webs of interacting blendings, leakings, mergings…” I reckon Miles was half in love with, half in dread of the ‘female’ will-to-chaos, the mutagenic, metamorphic lifeforce, exalted by Plant in her book Zeroes + Ones, that’s why Miles’s misogynist nickname for oceanic flux was “bitches brew”. I think also of the Afro-diasporic baroque that is wildstyle typography, then remember Greg Tate got there first with his description of Miles “scribbling blurbs of feline, funky sound which under scrutiny take on graphic shapes as wild and willed as New York subway graffiti”. Finally, I think of the word “protean”, which derives from the name of a shapeshifting sea god. That’s what Miles was, in his electrifying Electric Period: a Modern Proteus.


Kangiskan said...

"On The Corner is one of the dozen albums (for a list, send a SAE) that anyone interested in the outer limits should own, or be owned by."

sending an SAE! kagankad a t carleton dot edu



some people actually did send in a SAE when that review was originally published. obliging me to come up with a listand mail it to them. can't remember what was on it--quite a bit of krautrock--but by today's standards it'd probably be regarded as upper-middlebrow at best.

as for today... no idea. plus, the special offer expired 17 years ago, Kangiskan!

Kangiskan said...

ah i missed that part in my excitement. oh well, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Miles and Sly had a powerful relationship that definitely influenced On the Corner. I write about this and more in my book, Sly: the Lives of Sylvester Stewart and Sly Stone. I hope you'll check it out.