Miles Davis, plugged in Review: The jazz legend's electric albums sparked controversy.


At the time, people thought he was crazy.

Back in the early '70s, when Miles Davis was releasing the albums "At Fillmore," "Live/Evil" and "In Concert," a lot of his fans thought he had lost his way, if not his mind. Davis had become the avatar of new movement, dubbed fusion or jazz-rock, and the big question among jazz fans was whether this was a revolutionary move or merely revolting.

It started in 1970 with "Bitches Brew," a moody, electric double album that quickly became the era's biggest-selling jazz album. Given the amount of ground jazz had lost to rock and soul in the '60s, you'd think the critics -- much less other musicians -- would have cheered the achievement.

Instead, it brought catcalls and consternation. In some ways, the reaction of the jazz community to electric Miles recalled the controversy Bob Dylan sparked in 1965, when he turned up at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar. Dylan, though, was merely denounced for having "sold out," whereas Davis was damned by the critics, accused of betraying the very art of jazz.

Even today, the issue is still far from settled. Apart from "Bitches Brew," Davis' electric albums from '70s were mostly ignored in the rush to put jazz on CD, passed over in favor of more conservative classics, such as "Kind of Blue," "Porgy and Bess" and " 'Round About Midnight."

Just recently, five mostly live albums from that era have been released on CD. Two of them -- "Black Beauty" (Columbia/Legacy 65138) and "Dark Magus" (Columbia/Legacy 65137) -- had previously only been available as Japanese imports; the others -- "At Fillmore" (Columbia/Legacy 65139), "Live/Evil" (Columbia/Legacy 65135) and "In Concert" (Columbia/Legacy 65140) -- have been out of print for more than a decade.

Not all gold

Although Davis' experiments unleashed a whole new wave of jazz acts, including such spin-off groups as Weather Report, Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, it also led to a lot of over-amplified drivel. To a certain extent, the missionary zeal of Wynton Marsalis and his ilk stems from the notion that they may yet save jazz from the sins of fusion.

It's not hard to understand why Davis' '70s recordings put traditionalists in such a tizzy. Since the birth of bebop, back in the '40s, jazz had been built around a vocabulary of complex harmonies and swing rhythm. Chord changes were of particular importance, because they provided the raw material for each improvised solo. As most jazzmen saw it, the more chords there were to work with, the more leeway a soloist had.

Davis, though, did away with all that. Many of the tunes he gave his post-"Bitches Brew" bands were built around just a couple of chords; some merely relied on a repeating bass line to suggest the basic key, reducing the specifics of chord structure to a few vague suggestions.

Moreover, his rhythm sections had none of the swing long-time Davis fans had come to expect. In its place were loping, funk-oriented cadences that came on like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. Needless to say, that sort of fare didn't mean a thing to those raised on swing, and Davis' eventual inclusion of more exotic elements, such as Airto Moriea's Brazilian percussion or Badal Roy's tablas, only exacerbated matters.

Still, it's hard to hear these albums today without recognizing the music as jazz, and these reissues chart the course of Davis' explorations. "Black Beauty" makes a useful starting point. Recorded April 10, 1970, at psychedelic rock's home field, the Fillmore West in San Francisco, it catches Davis a mere month before "Bitches Brew" was released.

As such, he and the band -- saxophonist Steve Grossman, electric pianist Chick Corea, electric bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Moriea -- bounce between the rigorous overdrive of semi-electric work like that on the album "Filles de Kilimanjaro" and such moody, funk-inflected fare as "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down." It's a heady mix, particularly when Davis shifts from the wah-wah-driven "Willie Nelson" into the airy melancholy of the old standard "I Fall In Love Too Easily."

"At Fillmore," recorded two months later, finds the band radically changed. It isn't just that Keith Jarrett has been added on organ, broadening the band's sonic palette; the energy level has also gone up, taking greater advantage of the plasticity electric music allows.

Anything goes

So "Directions," a Joe Zawinul tune that seemed edgy but still basically straight-ahead on "Black Beauty," is totally transformed here, its harmonies ringed with feedback and distortion, its pulse a churning boogaloo beat. The band plays as if nothing were sacred, rethinking its material from performance to performance; the title tune alone from "Bitches Brew" is given four treatments, each spookier than the last.

"Live/Evil," recorded at various points through 1970, pushes that fondness for stretching the music's limits even further, although for different reasons. A mix of live and studio recordings that were threaded into album form by Davis' producer, Teo Macero, its selections were originally considered too fragmentary to stand up as full-blown compositions. But to ears accustomed to the slice-and-dice approach of hip-hop and modern rock producers, "Live/Evil" seems remarkably prescient.

Naturally, its moments are amazing. Funk fans will be particularly drawn to "Sivad," which opens with Davis playing trumpet through a wah-wah pedal, and includes a brief organ-and-guitar interlude dope enough to have been sampled by the Beastie Boys. But it's "Funky Tonk" that makes the album a classic, particularly Jarrett's meandering, gamelan-flavored electric piano solo.

By contrast, the music on "In Concert" and "Dark Magus" is much less accessible. By 1972, when "In Concert" was recorded, Davis had an entirely new band, one that included tablas and electric sitar as well as synthesizer and electric guitar. It made for a much more colorful playing (check the textures on the dreamy, 27-minute "Ife") but, apart from the loping polyrhythms of "Rated X," lacked the dynamism of previous live albums.

Fortunately, "Dark Magus" more than makes up the difference. Taken from a 1974 Carnegie Hall performance with a larger version of the band that would turn up on the albums "Agharta" and "Pangaea," the music is dense and driving, with communal groove as strong as anything in Davis' catalog. Granted, the sound is a bit uneven -- Michael Henderson's bass gets lost in a wash of cymbals at the beginning of "Willi," and it's often difficult to distinguish between the three guitarists -- but the playing is strong enough to make you wonder why it took so long for the album to see U.S. release.

Pub Date: 8/27/97

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