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Jazz

Miles outside the funk

Two big reissues of the constantly shifting sounds of a jazz explorer.

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Published 10/17/2001

Although trumpeter Miles Davis had been a one-man cutting edge since the mid-’50s, stylistically unique and much imitated, by the mid-’60s his innovations had speeded up to where his studio albums lagged behind his live performances. I remember catching him at Cobo Hall in late 1965, expecting the sort of restrained, almost chamberish music found on his then-most-recent release, E.S.P., only to be blown away by a combo that had moved deeper into avant-garde fury and spacey abstractions.

The pace quickened even more when Miles turned his attention away from the flexible possibilities of acoustic jazz to the rhythmically tighter potentials of funk and rock rhythms and electronic tonalities. Miles always wanted to be popular — to sell lots of records — but his artistic instincts overwhelmed his populist ones. Like Richard Wagner, who planned to knock out a little comedy and ended up writing the very intricate and 4 1/2-hour-long Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Miles’ bid to become the left wing of the new black funkateers resulted in reams of music so incredibly dense and seemingly bottomless that one could spend one’s life trying to sort it through.

Periodically, fresh help in the quest arrives from the vaults, most recently in the form of The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions and Miles Davis Live at The Fillmore East (March 7, 1970), both on Columbia Legacy.

The three-CD Silent Way collection is a testament to the rapidity with which Miles’ music was then evolving at, covering only six months (from November 1968 to February 1969), but moving from the electric garnishings of two cuts which would appear on Filles de Kilimanjaro to the wholly new thing of Silent Way itself.

At the time it seemed as though Miles had invented fusion music in three incredible and expertly realized steps (not counting a little herky-jerky experimentation on 1968’s Miles in the Sky, which is the prologue): The elegant Filles (1968), the otherworldly Silent Way (1969) and the eternally badass Bitches Brew (1970).

But as subsequently released cuts appeared on various compilations, it became apparent that the road to fusion hadn’t been quite so smooth. These sounded a little like work tapes, jams that were trying on the new rock-funk threads, and they’ve been collected and put in chronological order on the Silent Way box (the main bonus here being the previously unreleased 26-minute “The Ghetto Walk” which meanders listlessly before abruptly ending — back to the drawing board, guys ...). This is caviar for the hardcore, but it’s telling that the most indisputably brilliant cuts here are the two that ended up being the original In a Silent Way LP.

As for the two-CD Live at The Fillmore East (previously available only as a bootleg), it’s the invaluable record of a classic mindfuck. Then (March 1970), Miles’ most recent release had been Silent Way and though that was his deepest incursion yet into the incipient fusion thing, it was also a rather soothing affair, gliding along in a funky trance. But between that album and this Fillmore appearance, Miles had recorded the yet-unreleased fusion template Bitches Brew, the album where a growing tendency became a new genre.

So instead of tentative and soothing, the Fillmore audience got a full blast of the kind of intense sonic experimentation which would culminate with 1975’s Pangaea and Agharta.

In retrospect, it seems curious that some jazz purists greeted early fusion efforts such as the two Fillmore sets as some kind of rock-oriented sellout, since much of the singularity of the sound here derives from this being an amplified version of the sort of avant-garde (though he would have never called it that) jazz Miles had been exploring since the 1965 Live at the Plugged Nickel dates. Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, in particular, seem only incidentally to be playing in an electric context.

And Miles, of course, who couldn’t help but be himself and who, whether surrounded by ruckus or eerie calm, pursued his own deep and wounding sound.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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