On what day did the music die? For jazz buffs, the answer certainly isn't contained within the elaborate Jesus-meets-Elvis imagery of Don McLean's tired old rock staple "American Pie." The answer is, in fact, Sept. 28, 1991. Ten years ago. That's the day the restless spirit of Miles Davis abandoned its worn out bones and flew off like a cantankerous bird--either heaven-bound or hell-bent.
Of course, given his mercurial temperament, nobody's sure just where Miles is spending eternity. As a man, Davis was hard to figure: a brooding Prince of Darkness who could break your heart with a terse "hey muthafucka," or honey you up with a smile so sweet and unexpected that it meant, well, everything.
He loves me. He loves me not. Davis' friends were never certain.
As a musician, however, he was without peer. Following an apprenticeship with saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, the founder of modern jazz (bebop), Davis spent the rest of his career pulling jazz by the nose through a maze of stylistic changes. Circa 1949, Miles discovered hepcat cool, which gave way to blacktop-tough hard bop. Then wham!--another switcheroo: He wrapped up the '50s with the modal masterpiece, Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz record of all time.
But Davis wasn't finished. During the '60s, he fronted a freewheeling though not particularly popular acoustic combo which, 35 years later, is oft admired for its high-wire improv approach (sans net). Today, that quintet is mentioned--in the same breath as Louis Armstrong's miraculous Hot 5 and Duke Ellington's rollicking orchestra of the early '40s--as one of a handful of jazz bands to die for.
But it wasn't until the late '60s that Davis executed his most notorious about-face, reminiscent of Dylan's folk-to-rock turnaround at the '65 Newport Folk Festival. Davis plugged in. The "Electric Miles" was born 'round about 1968, symbolized by the trumpeter's change in wardrobe. Exquisitely freaky-deeky, Davis slipped out of a Brooks Brothers suit and into a dashiki accessorized with Hendrix-inspired rainbow scarves and spangled whoopass shades. Fingering a day-glo trumpet that buzzed like a rampaging hornet, Davis embraced the earthy beats of James Brown and Sly and, in the meantime, managed to piss off a generation of jazzheads who were possibly more than just a little afraid of the accessibility of rock 'n' roll.
Peter Ingram, drummer and former owner of the legendary Frog & Nightgown club in Raleigh, succinctly describes the Electric Miles. "He managed to synthesize all the crap in rock music and kept only what was essential," Ingram says. "He broke it down to its simplest elements ... just beautiful," he says, sighing.
A decade after Davis' demise, Columbia/Legacy Records, in a fit of inspired capitalism, is reminding all Miles-o-philes that there's a lot of life left in those bones. As bold as ever, the Electric Miles is back, framed by a pair of exquisite bookends: One is wild, the other innocent. Although long-available as a bootleg, the swashbuckling double-disc Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) makes its first legit appearance in the marketplace, while the three-CD set, The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, blends tracks from Filles De Kilimanjaro and the original In a Silent Way, plus eight unreleased performances that summarize Davis' transition from straight-up jazz to, well, whatever you wanna call Davis' electric stew.
Somehow, familiar handles like jazz-rock or fusion don't measure up to the magic in the music. The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions captures Davis making not just one transition but many. Like a master artist, alternating his medium from pen-and-ink to dense, color-saturated oils, the trumpeter outfitted his band with new, electrified tools. Exit the grand piano (the bedrock instrument of modern acoustic jazz) and enter the Fender Rhodes with its many electronic accouterments. The now-familiar, gauzy Rhodes piano sound of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea noodling in tandem was echoed and over-modulated, hovering over the music like forbidding clouds.
Jazz was struck by lightning. Electrons collided, then coalesced into unprecedented new shapes. With a mere 38 minutes of music--the length of the original LP--the landscape of improvisation was changed forever.
In a conversation with Bob Belden, the co-producer of the reissue, Corea recalled Davis' whispered instructions during the sessions. "[Play] some of that crazy shit you like," Corea recounted. It was a typically cryptic Davis-ian suggestion: a few words that could be interpreted in a thousand ways. Somehow, Corea figured out exactly what the boss wanted.
Revelatory of what was spinning on Davis' home turntable--Jimi Hendrix!--the inclusion of electric guitar was an important element in his newfangled strategy. Ignoring the lightly swinging, hollow-body twang of conventional jazz six-string, Davis yearned for something heavier. Brit John McLaughlin, who had landed stateside only days before, was anointed as Davis' secret weapon.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter described the meeting in a 1976 interview: "We were sitting in the studio," he says, chuckling, "and in walked Prince Valiant." McLaughlin's coifed 'do may have framed a look of bug-eyed innocence, but his guitar rang out with the assured clarity of an old pro. Young Johnny Mac's eerily abstract, single-note lines coiled around the horns and keyboards like spiraling snakes. Davis, not yet ready for the audacious feedback-laden antics of Hendrix, coaxed a certain moody ambiguity from McLaughlin--just the right flavor for In a Silent Way.
Recorded in 1968-'69 and released a month before Woodstock, In a Silent Way garnered strong sales as Davis snatched up a new audience of rock-inclined ears. Predictably, the response by stodgy jazz critics was lukewarm bordering on angry. Dig this excerpt from a review by the late Martin Williams, an established and observant scribe of the time: "The editing is ... horrendous," he fumed. "Through faulty tape splicing, a portion of the music even gets repeated. ... "
Williams was exactly right. And very wrong. Yes, 10 minutes-plus of the final theme and variation is an identical repeat--IASW producer Teo Macero created a seamless thematic whole by essentially stretching the band's performance of Josef Zawinul's heart-breakingly lovely title track--but the trick works splendidly.
Foreshadowing the extreme cut-and-splice technique he would employ on subsequent Davis records like Bitches Brew, Macero was simply interested in creating the most cohesive document. Accordingly, In a Silent Way was never conceived as a sonic snapshot of exactly what happened in Columbia Records' cavernous Studio B during those sessions. Williams, the critic, wanted to hear what he thought of as jazz, but the Davis-Macero juggernaut achieved something even more sublime: music.
Though groundbreaking at the time, the ethereal hot-tub groove of In a Silent Way merely hinted at the heat various Davis bands could generate onstage, with Live at the Fillmore being the acid bath. The music is loud. Tempos rush. Jack DeJohnette's drums chatter. Chick Corea's Rhodes distorts. Dave Holland's bass rumbles. Davis' trumpet coughs.
And saxophonist Shorter, playing his last gig as a Davis sideman, wails like the reed is burning his lips. On both tenor and soprano, Weird Wayne spits unwieldy clusters of notes in solos that rise and fall in asymmetrical patterns of unpredictability. Shorter, more typically a master of understatement, uncorks one flamboyant solo after another, culminating in a rip-saw tenor ride on Zawinul's "Directions." Co-mingling with a grating parade whistle (tooted by percussionist Airto Moreira), Shorter's Armageddon-time sax leaps into the upper register and refuses to come down. Perhaps mercifully for the listener, Shorter finally sputters into a pool of breathless silence and the music relaxes, but only for a minute, as "Directions" mutates into "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down."
All the cats in the Fillmore band--save for Moreira--also played on IASW, yet the language of Davis' music had clearly metamorphosed. Davis' Fillmore sextet--rivaled only by his audacious dueling-guitar bands of the early '70s--was one bona fide mutha.
And that's a word that Davis, wherever he may be, understands.
A quartet of Triangle jazzheads check in on the Electric Miles
Chip Crawford, pianist and music professor at Duke and N.C. Central University: "The first Electric Miles I heard was Bitches Brew. Me and my drummer were grooving to it. Of course, we didn't get much support from our other friends (laughter). A lot of people just didn't get it. The first time I heard it, though, I thought the floor was falling out from under me. Bang! Just like that. Amazing. That was just my teenage reaction."
Natalie Bullock Brown, UNC Public TV producer and associate producer of Ken Burns' Jazz: "I'm not one of those people who feels like Miles sold out by going electric. No doubt he saw the kids flocking to rock music. I think he realized that there was something in rock that got the blood pumping, so he mixed that with his own jazz approach and came up with something new. The result was incredibly expressive--and very different from the other jazz-rock of that era. Miles was something of a genius."
Drew Lile, member of House Arrest and N.C. Jazz Repertory Orchestra: "I think the Electric Miles was a natural and inevitable step in his evolution. As a guitarist, I embrace the enhanced tonal palette of electric instruments available in the post-Hendrix era. After all, wasn't Duke Ellington famous for the wah-wah effects of his horn section? I want to thank Miles for kicking open the door for good."
Peter Ingram, drummer and former owner of Raleigh's Frog & Nightgown jazz club: "I never heard Miles live--electric or otherwise. And I will regret that until the day I die. I actually booked him for a show on May 5, 1975, but he canceled at the last minute. As you know, Miles had a reputation for not making gigs, so I was suspicious when his manager told me that he was in the hospital. 'Send me a copy of his medical certificate!' I insisted. As it turned out, Miles was seriously ill, indeed. Since I was considering shutting down the business anyway, I decided to close the doors to the Frog & Nightgown once and for all the following day, May 4. I guess that was my way of paying tribute to the man I consider the most influential jazz musician of them all."
The Electric Miles total sensory experience: new books, Web sites and exhibits
Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, by Paul Tingen (Billboard). Oddly, there has been precious little ink spilled over MD's later music. So this heavily researched tome by guitarist Tingen is a godsend if you're freakish about the man and his muse. Says Roxboro-native Frank Kimbrough, pianist for the New York-based Herbie Nichols Project: "The session-ography is illuminating to those of us who were left wanting by Miles' intentional lack of personnel listings on some of his '70s albums. Thanks to Tingen, it all becomes clearer now. Comprehensive and essential."
In a Silent Way: A Portrait of Joe Zawinul, by Brian Glaser (Sanctuary). The role of keyboardist-composer Zawinul on IASW was analogous to Bill Evans' critical participation in the landmark Kind of Blue. Of course, Zawinul soon after reached beyond Miles by fronting Weather Report and writing other timeless tunes like the jaunty "Birdland." Though Glaser's prose is conventional at best, the behind-the-scenes peeks at Davis and fellow Reporter Wayne Shorter tantalize.
Miles Davis and American Culture, edited by Gerald Early (Missouri Historical Society Press). A sociological text that is, by turns, a bone-dry bore and loads of fun. The nostalgic recollections by Quincy Jones and trumpeter Clark Terry shine, but better still is the Miles-inspired poetry and retro-peeks at Davis' youthful stomping grounds, aka East St. Louis.
Miles Davis and American Culture is published in conjunction with Miles: A Miles Davis Retrospective, a marvelous exhibit currently on display at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. Gathering a rich lifetime of memorabilia (Davis' red horn!) plus never-before-seen vintage photography, this is a top-of-the-line, Smithsonian-caliber presentation. It runs through February 2002 and--according to the Museum--will not tour. (314-746-4599 or visit mohistory.org)
Mainstream eMiles sites include milesdavis.com, miles-davis.com and miles-beyond.com. Those who enjoy the lilt of a musical giggle can link to oddball pages like The Extremely Unofficial MD Mailing List Website: MF's Anonymous, for muthas only.