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Miles Davis

  • Bitches Brew [Columbia, 1970] A-
  • Miles Davis at Fillmore [Columbia, 1970] B
  • Jack Johnson [Columbia, 1971] A+
  • Live-Evil [Columbia, 1971] A-
  • On the Corner [Columbia, 1972] B+
  • Miles Davis in Concert [Columbia, 1973] A-
  • Big Fun [Columbia, 1974] A-
  • Get Up With It [Columbia, 1974] A-
  • Agharta [Columbia, 1976] A
  • Water Babies [Columbia, 1978] B+
  • Circle in the Round [Columbia, 1979] B+
  • Star People [Columbia, 1983] A-
  • Decoy [Columbia, 1985] B+
  • Tutu [Warner Bros., 1986] B+
  • Pangaea [Columbia, 1990] **
  • Live Around the World [Warner Bros., 1996] Dud
  • Black Beauty [Columbia/Legacy, 1997] A-
  • Dark Magus [Columbia/Legacy, 1997] A
  • Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974 [Columbia, 1998] A
  • Love Songs [Columbia/Legacy, 1999] A
  • Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) [Columbia/Legacy, 2001] ***
  • The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions [Columbia/Legacy, 2003] B+
  • Evolution of the Groove [Columbia/Legacy, 2007] ***

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Bitches Brew [Columbia, 1970]
If this historic set is about any one thing it's electric-meets-acoustic: the theme of the twenty-seven-minute title side, in which Miles's horn combines with an electric instrument for a two-note motif that's suddenly resolved after a dozen repetitions in a single echoed trumpet blat, says it all. But it's not about any one thing--it's a brilliant wash of ideas, so many ideas that it leaves an unfocused impression. That's probably why I don't return to it as I do to the quieter electric-meets-acoustic of In a Silent Way, although maybe it's just that this one rocks less--three different percussionists replace Tony Williams, whose steady pulse is put aside for the subtle shades of Latin and funk polyrhythm that never gather the requisite fervor. Enormously suggestive, and never less than enjoyable, but not quite compelling. Which is what rock is supposed to be. A-

Miles Davis at Fillmore [Columbia, 1970]
And I thought Bitches Brew was unfocused. Well, it was--and it was also pretty great. This is more unfocused, and not great. Comprising four (apparently unedited) twenty-five-minute swatches entitled "Wednesday Miles," "Thursday Miles," etc., it noodles unforgivably--the electric keyboards of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on Wednesday provide one of the most aimless patches. Every side does offer at least one treasures--the cool atmospherics that lead off Wednesday, the hard bop in extremis toward the end of Thursday, the way Miles blows sharply lyrical over Jack DeJohnette's rock march and Airto Moreira's jungle sci-fi for the last few minutes of Friday, all the activity surrounding Steve Grossman's solo on Saturday. Just wish the damn records were banded. B

Jack Johnson [Columbia, 1971]
In which all the flash of Bitches Brew coalesces into one brilliant illumination. On "Right Off" (i.e., side one) John McLaughlin begins by varying a rock riff I'll bet Miles wrote for him over Michael Henderson's blues bass line and Billy Cobham's impressively rockish pulse and then goes on to cut the leader, who's not exactly laying back himself. "Yesternow" (side two) is mellower, mood music for a vacation on the moon. A great one. A+

Live-Evil [Columbia, 1971]
"Inamorata" wanders when Gary Bartz isn't making Coltrane noises and ends up with a recitation in which music is equated with "masculinity," but the three other long pieces are usually fascinating and often exciting: "Sivad," which begins fast and funky, then slows down drastically, and finally revs up again; "Funky Tonk," Miles's most compelling rhythmic exploration to date; and the gospel-tinged "What I Say." The four short pieces are more like impressionistic experiments. Two of them, "Selim" and "Nem Um Talvez," hark back to the late '50s. Sound quite appropriate, too. A-

On the Corner [Columbia, 1972]
Because the tracks are very short, because Miles plays more organ than trumpet and not much of that, and because the improvisations are rhythmic rather than melodic--often on a theme from "It's Your Thing" that I'm not swearing the Isleys (much less Davis) invented--most jazzbos have thrown up their hands at this one. Well, poo on jazzbos. But that's no reason for rockbos to sing hosanna to the highest--rhythmic improvisations are hardly the equivalent of a big beat and don't guarantee a good one. I'd like to hear "Black Satin" right now. But the rest I can wait for. B+

Miles Davis in Concert [Columbia, 1973]
Although it takes a while to get into gear, this two-record set, "recorded live at Philharmonic Hall, New York" by an unidentified six- or seven-piece band, has more going for it rhythmically than On the Corner. On side three, the bass throbs like jungle drums, and except for occasional guitar introjections only Miles's trumpet and organ get to work on top of the pulse. Pretty narrow in function, I admit, but what do you want from urban voodoo? A-

Big Fun [Columbia, 1974]
Four side-long "pieces" that serve as a sampler of Davis's pre-On the Corner early-'70s music, with Miles playing trumpet throughout (intermittently throughout) and such luminaries as Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin doing a lot to define their respective segments. The sitar-and-tamboura interlude that untracks the gently loping "Great Expectations" about two-thirds of the way through is typical of the album's failures--the only side that doesn't wind down prematurely is "Lonely Fire," which after meandering at the beginning develops into lyrical mood music reminiscent in spirit and fundamental intent of Sketches of Spain. But for the most part this is uncommonly beautiful stuff, and it gets better. A-

Get Up With It [Columbia, 1974]
Only two of the six "short" tracks--they total about an hour--are more than good background. "Maiyisha," which recalled his most lyrical early-60s stuff, and "Honky Tonk," a snazzy blues. Even the rocking "Red China Blues" is marred by a Wade Marcus horn chart, and "Rated X" is an experiment in organ noise that's not so great in the background either. But the two long ones--they total over an hour--are brilliant: "He Loved Him Madly," a tribute to Duke Ellington as elegant African internationalist, and "Calypso Frelimo," a Caribbean dance broken into sections that seem to follow with preordained emotional logic. Not necessarily music to fill the mind--just the room. A-

Agharta [Columbia, 1976]
This is the most commonly disparaged of Davis's many '70s double-LPs--it's said that Davis was so unhappy with his own playing that he abandoned the release to Teo Macero half-way through. But Miles isn't the hero here--he gives the album to the band, whose virtuosity is the ground of four apparently unstructured segments. Mtume, Reggie Lucas, and especially Michael Henderson provide the variable pulse, with drummer Al Foster moving from body to spirit rhythms in an effortless, guileless show of chops. Sonny Fortune triples on alto, soprano, and flute in the best reed playing on a Davis record in this decade. And guitarist Pete Cosey is simply astonishing--the noises he produces for the second half of side one comprise some of the greatest free improvisations ever heard in a "jazz"-"rock" context. Angry, dissociated, funky, and the best Davis music since Jack Johnson. A

Water Babies [Columbia, 1978]
Double whammy. Not only isn't this new Miles, as people were quick to figure out despite the pseudo-streetwise On the Corner-style cover, but it isn't quite vintage Miles, either. Recorded in the late '60s, these were outtakes, and one of them--"Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony," a thirteen-minute piano ostinato showcase without even the justification of a heavy funk beat--should definitely have remained one. The rest is better, but I thank CBS's marketing whizzes for sending me back to Davis's great work with the same group--like Sorcerer and Nefertiti, both still in catalogue. B+

Circle in the Round [Columbia, 1979]
Miles tastes better out of the can than fresh watermelon or even V.S.O.P., but these tapes, mostly from when he was working out his '70s concept a decade or so ago, are damaged goods. Oddity: David Crosby's "Guinnevere," itself based on a three-note motif from Sketches of Spain. B+

Star People [Columbia, 1983]
It's said that Miles has soloed better recently, and that the music relies on blues clichés. But like Agharta, this is the band's record, although unlike Agharta it works because Miles reins the band in--Mike Stern's blues duties keep him unfused, John Scofield gains needed muscle, Bill Evans hardly opens his embouchure. Anyway, blues is supposed to be a music of reinvented clichés. And Miles sounds fairly fine. A-

Decoy [Columbia, 1985]
Like so many groove albums, this one is now-you-hear-it now-you-don't. But once you learn to live with the synthesizer colors of Robert Irving III, the only weak link in the band the leader's been forging since his comeback, you stop worrying about why he's making a conventional fusion record and realize that between his own muscle-mouth and John Scofield's sweet-and-sour licks and the quite audible Jones-Foster pulse he's made a pretty damn good conventional fusion record. B+

Tutu [Warner Bros., 1986]
Miles's endgame at Columbia was true fusion--improvised jazz-rock, pretty good of its sort, but what a sort. This is more like pop-funk Sketches of Spain, with the starperson's trumpet glancing smartly off an up-to-date panoply of catchy little tunes, beats, and rhythm effects. I cried fraud at first, and if you have no use for catchy little anythings you'll agree, but I changed my mind. Marcus Miller acquits himself in the Gil Evans role, George Duke gets off a nice lick, and Scritti Politti provides a snappier cover than Cyndi Lauper. Minor, and his best in a decade. B+

Pangaea [Columbia, 1990]
can the flute and add track listings ("Zimbabwe") **

Live Around the World [Warner Bros., 1996] Dud

Black Beauty [Columbia/Legacy, 1997]
Live at the Fillmore West, 1970. April 1970, that is--things moved fast in those days. Soloists' music, and hence the corniest electric Miles on record, this double-CD preserves an inkling of why the jazz-rock idea seemed so auspicious before it found form in fusion's flash and filigree. Wailing through "Directions" or blasting the blues from out "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," Chick Corea's keybs sound more audacious and grounded than they ever will again, with an uncommonly muscular Miles challenging his facility and fledgling soprano whiz Steve Grossman mimicking it. Beyond a few dollops of needless noodle, Jack DeJohnette keeps the troops in order, injecting more notes and accents than Ginger Baker on double amphetamines into a beat that rocks. A-

Dark Magus [Columbia/Legacy, 1997]
The guru-manipulator shifted gears at will in his early-'70s music, orchestrating moods and settings to subjugate the individual musical inspirations of his young close-enough-for-funk subgeniuses to the life of a single palpitating organism that would have perished without them--no arrangements, little composition, and not many solos either, although at any moment a player could find himself left to fly off on his own. Harsher and dreamier than In Concert, louder and sweeter than Agharta or Pangaea, this well-tweaked 1974 concert culminates the aesthetic. Where pure funk subsumes jazz and rock in a new conception, albeit one that privileges rock, Miles leaves the two elements distinct and recognizable. Dave Liebman is good for wild-to-mellow jazz input that's solidified by a Coltranesque house call from Azar Lawrence, and for rock there are three guitarists: Reggie Lucas and Dominique Gaumont wah-riffing the rhythm as Chess session man turned cult hero Pete Cosey launches wah-wah-inflected noise into the arena-rock stratosphere. The beat belongs jointly to Michael Henderson and Al Foster. And Miles is Miles whether blasting out clarion notes or letting his Yamaha drench the scene. A

Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974 [Columbia, 1998]
Tapes of these Bill Laswell remixes have been around almost a year, and for the longest time I didn't get the point. When the original albums were edited down for release by Teo Macero, that was Davis's choice; alive, he was free to object should Macero's forays into formlessness strike him as too discursive, or too commercial. Anyway, learning to distinguish among the author-authorized variants was tricky enough. Hand them over to the ambient-techno brigade and the tide would never stop rising. But one night I listened with a first timer and got the message. Metastructures condensed, themes highlighted, beats punched up by a master tinkerer who's loved them forever, the transcendent buzz of electric Miles nevertheless remains undulant, unpredictable, perverse--and so relaxed about getting where it's not actually going that newcomers will find it hard to imagine how much more unhurriedly it might arrive. For me this will get played like In a Silent Way and Jack Johnson before it. It's a passport to provisional utopia. A

Love Songs [Columbia/Legacy, 1999]
Although in theory I like my makeout music instrumental--who needs a peanut gallery?--in fact I prefer undistracted silence. But I'll happily make an exception for the consensual intimacy summoned by Miles's quiet cool and taciturn affection for the limits of the melody at hand. Unless you can't keep your ears off Someday My Prince Will Come, which gives up three of nine cuts, this definitely won't kill the mood. A

Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) [Columbia/Legacy, 2001]
in the predawn of Bitches Brew, Wayne Shorter plays jazz, Chick Corea plays fusion, and Miles Davis plays trumpet ("Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," "It's About That Time/The Theme") ***

The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions [Columbia/Legacy, 2003]
Fewer than half of the 42 tracks are previously unreleased--dark magus Teo Macero broke up and relocated most of the others onto Live-Evil, Big Fun, Get Up With It, the obscure late catchall Directions, and, yes, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the landmark album that climaxes this five-disc collector's indulgence. Outfitted with the usual pricey packaging and elaborate notes, it's "complete" only if the four missing "Duran"s, 15 missing "Nem Um Talvaez"s, etc., were false starts. But it's a mother of a motherlode. I'm glad Macero imposed his sense of form on Miles's '70s experiments, and definitely don't need the Bitches Brew box. But though the "Go Ahead John" Macero pieced together for Big Fun gets the good bits, I'd rather listen to the raw material that takes up 45 minutes of disc two. Though the multiple Hermeto Pascoal takes add up to a quiet disc four, they're as soothing as they wanna be. With major input from John McLaughlin and the bass tandem of Dave Holland and Michael Henderson, these jams were why electric jazz was once a thrilling idea--and still is sometimes. B+

Evolution of the Groove [Columbia/Legacy, 2007]
Four uncommonly brief double-funked remixes add up to collector's curio ("Freedom Jazz Dance [Evolution of the Groove]," "It's About That Time"). ***

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: Miles came back in the '80s. No longer a recluse, he pursued a recognizable recording career, even changed labels, as he cashed in on the fusion movement his brilliantly unreadable post-Bitches Brew work transcended in advance. Star People reinvented blues cliches, and even schlock like Tutu and Amandla showed gratifying groove and class. But his best album of the decade was the serialist tribute Aura, in which Palle Mikkelborg wrote the themes, arranged the music, and picked the players, and Miles just soloed. It's at least as tasteful as anything Mikkelborg's mentor Gil Evans ever put his mind to. And I'll take 1976's classic, ad hoc, out-of-print Agharta in a minute.

See Also