Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Miles Davis's '70s:
The Excitement! The Terror!

Miles Davis's '70s--beginning with the widely admired modal shifts of 1969's In a Silent Way and ending with the widely disparaged funk sprawl of 1976's Agharta--are the most incompletely understood period in the recording career of any major jazz musician. This is mainly because the job of understanding jazz musicians falls to jazz critics, who until very recently were neither inclined nor equipped to put much heart or mind into such recondite records. For if this music is any good at all, it's not good the way jazz is supposed to be good. Altogether lacking in that casually hyperintelligent aura of guys sitting around talking to each other that is the great legacy of bebop, it offers little sustained improvisation and less brilliant composition. Like the distantly respectable "free jazz," it's not arranged, it does nothing with harmony, and doesn't swing properly; it table-hops and races to nowhere and spaces out staring at the ceiling. But unlike "free jazz," this music was electric, beat-heavy, and marketed to kids--and thus obviously worthy of suspicion if not contempt.

And then there is the little matter of fusion, many of whose perpetrators passed through Miles's '70s bands. Fusion has its loyalists, and in acid jazz its revivalists, and thus also its ideologues; like lounge at a more egotistical level of virtuosity, it lives off the tight and the tasty, and these days some contrarians dig it for that. But statuswise it's still stuck between Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. This is a music whose saving grace is mystagogy, as on Rhino's depressing Jazz Fusion Vol. 1, where early selections from Tony Williams and Larry Coryell (no Mahavishnu?) generate a forthrightly phony rock grandeur that's soon left behind by cute schlock--believe me, Chick Corea was bad enough without Flora Purim's oh-oh-ohs. Yet if these be the children of Miles, one peculiarity must be noted--pretty good or very bad, their fusion doesn't sound much like papa's. Without the hint of a doubt, they all compose, they all arrange, and they all solo to beat the band.

In the wake of his abstract-to-wan post-E.S.P. music, I was pro electric Miles, especially the early and late studio albums--In a Silent Way and Jack Johnson, Get Up With It and Agharta. But I also found him daunting, particularly on the three live double-LPs Columbia and Teo Macero unloaded between the fall of 1970 and the spring of 1973. I mean, was there anyone who didn't? Presumably the young potheads who bought the tickets were impressed enough to lie back and enjoy it, faking orgasm if perchance they should fail to achieve same. But reading the liner notes from saxophonists Gary Bartz and Dave Liebman that Columbia commissioned for its quintuple reissue--three originally U.S.-available live double-CDs (Miles Davis at Fillmore, In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall, and Live-Evil) plus two import-onlys (Black Beauty from the Fillmore West 1970 and Dark Magus from Carnegie Hall 1974)--you get the sense that Davis's musicians created in a state of excitement closely akin to existential terror. That may be the the music's greatest strength, but it's also one reason many found it off-putting at first. Anyway, it wasn't until 1980 that I got up the nerve to write about most of these albums--and discovered that except for At Fillmore, which I thought meandered overmuch, they were (a) all rather good and (b) all rather different.

On the one hand, this is a unique body of music. You want to hear '70s Miles, you don't pull out Mahavishnu's Inner Mounting Flame or Tony Williams's Emergency!, two rather good early fusion albums by Davis U. summa cum laudes. Only Miles sounds like Miles, even back in April, 1970, when Black Beauty preserved an inkling of why the jazz-rock idea seemed so auspicious before it found form in 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, and 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. Yet this unique sound is evolving fast. Still nominally beholden to theme-and-variation, Black Beauty is soloists' music, and as such the corniest electric Miles on record. Just two months later, on Miles Davis at Fillmore, the fun formula is breaking down. Like all '70s Miles, At Fillmore is more inviting in the wake of ambient techno than it was in 1970, or 1980, but like most ambient techno it fails to cull the mesmerizing from the soothing from the boring. Moreover, several of its high points are provided by some of the most Milesian solos of this era, and that is not what the era was for.

One reason jazz old-timers dismiss '70s Miles is that the bands aren't stellar. Here he is, boss-man of Coltrane and Cannonball, Hancock and Shorter, and suddenly the best he can do for self-starting sidemen is John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett, and DeJohnette. Solo, the likes of Corea, Mtume, and Michael Henderson all proved abnormally schlocky, and Sonny Fortune, who came on very late, was as near as Miles got to a name saxophonist. Live-Evil, out for Christmas 1971 after the definitive McLaughlin showcase Jack Johnson slipped past in April, flaunts this development. Tweaked by Macero like most of Davis's '70s albums, it arrays five contained, seductive early-1970 studio tracks featuring recent old-guardists Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Zawinul against four long jams--all from Davis's December 19, 1970 gig at the Cellar Door in Chocolate City, all anchored by Michael Henderson. Davis's first exclusively electric bassist, Henderson was only a Motown session man, and his vocals could make a fella love George Benson, but he was an amazingly supple and responsive player--along with Macero, Miles's key collaborator in the '70s. On Live-Evil McLaughlin plays the blues and Jarrett gets funky, and Henderson's the devil who makes them do it. By In Concert, almost two years later, Henderson is the sole survivor from the more talented prior band--although, crucially, Al Foster pushes like DeJohnette with less excess motion. The result is the purest jazz-funk record ever--not as quick or tricky as James Brown, but more richly layered, riffs and drones and wah-wahs and tunelets and weird noises and shifting key centers snaking along on a sexually solicitous, subtly indomitable pulse.

Saxophonist Liebman has described all too revealingly what it was like for the young cats plucked up into these bands: "Somehow, he would get you to play in a manner that in most cases you would never do again." To me, that seems like the secret--not so much what these close-enough-for-funk subgeniuses played as the single palpitating organism their playing turned them into. Regularly abandoning his trumpet for atmospheric organ, Miles the guru-manipulator shifted gears at will, orchestrating moods and settings to subjugate individual musical inspirations to the life of an ensemble that would have been nothing without them. No arrangements, little composition, and not many solos either, because at any moment a player could find himself swallowed up or left to fly off on his own. Kept the kids on their toes.

Harsher and dreamier than In Concert, louder and sweeter than Agharta or Pangaea, Dark Magus both culminates and casts doubt on this aesthetic. There's still that sense of an autonomous life-form that has evolved away from the intimate articulations of the small-group species. Yet this specimen is bifurcated, like jazz-rock again. If you really want a fusion you listen to some funk, which subsumes both in a new conception, albeit one that privileges rock; here the two elements are left distinct and recognizable. 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 and cult hero Pete Cosey launches his own wah-wah-inflected noise into the arena-rock stratosphere. The beat belongs jointly to Henderson and Foster and the music it defines. And Miles is Miles whether blasting out clarion notes or letting his Yamaha drench the scene.

Recondite once, this music seems almost natural now, which is not to say it ever was or can be pop. That takes more than electrification and street-smart jacket cartoons--maybe covering Cyndi Lauper and cheering on the fleet-fingered folderol of Mike Stern the way '80s Miles did. Rather it was what avant-garde's supposed to be--so far ahead of its time that eventually, like for instance in this soundscaping epoch, it feels right as rain. It was and remains its own place, a world apart from unmoored jazz experiments and dilatory rock jams then and the most humanistic electronica now. In the '70s this was because Miles admired the rhythmic commitment of such black coequals as Sly and Hendrix. In the '90s it's because his most arbitrary-seeming whims and conceptualizations worked to nurture a living organism. Does that mean there was no other way to achieve the same end, or that no similar end can match it? Of course not. But that was how Miles did it, and there is no longer the slightest question that it will endure.

Village Voice, Oct. 14, 1997