|Miles Davis : Bitches Brew Who?
From our Department of Proud Confessions: I’m just not OCD enough to be qualified to write a piece about bootleg music releases. In the course of my most recent research into electric-era Miles Davis bootlegs, I felt like I’d walked straight into a funhouse-mirror of fandom, reflecting dazed, semi-crazed and often distorted images of…uhhhh… No sales, trade only, European re-release or Japanese import, Region 1 or NTSC format, board-mix or audience recording, discography by session or by release??? Where am I? Was that all a bad trip? (Shake head vigorously, blink.) But, on the other hand, if I were so qualified, I wouldn’t be able to write a damn thing, for the bootleg world seems to go on forever—no conclusions, no authorized issues, no final word, and certainly no agreement on which concert is the best, the definitive, the one wherein the true Miles may be found. One site lists fully 187 “liberated bootlegs” for Miles Davis. F’r instance. (And there are DVDs, too. Yes! Thanks to the documentary diligence of European and Japanese radio and television and the obsessive-compulsive online collectors of today, it is now theoretically possible to re-create most of Miles’ overseas tours between 1967 and 1991, from the comfort of your own computer.)
So I may not be a Howard Hughes-in-training, but I am the nostalgic type. I have my memories. A couple of years ago I nearly got drawn into this dark, elusive world. I hadn’t had a client walk in my office in weeks…I was listening to the dry staccato of rain on my desktop when SHE walked in… At the time, there weren’t that many bootlegs turning up in record stores, even on my beat, the best record store in the world (according to John Zorn, and brother, if he doesn’t know…): Amoeba Records, on fabled Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley—just a couple of doors away from the former burnt-out shell of the original Rasputin’s Records, where I had my first initiation into offshore electric Miles, a Japanese import double LP of Dark Magus. That was in 1980. Yeah, baby, we’ll always have Rasputin’s… Er, anyway, cue the organ and fade-in to 1999 or so, when, as I say, one didn’t see a boatload of Miles bootlegs in the Amoeba bins. But there was The Internet. Alright, gorgeous, uncross those beautiful stems of yours and bookmark this URL… A client’s record-collecting jones prodded me to open an investigation, and I turned up a Japanese site offering “Legendaly Collection Series” albums evocatively and weirdly titled Unreachable Station and Another Unity. Gold-pressed, expensive, unknown quality, overseas vendor, prices in Yen, unsecured site—a dicey proposition all around. I told my client about it and we agreed to buy one each and rip copies of the unbought one for each other. Pirating the bootlegs?—Avast, ye swabs! (Oops, sorry, wrong movie.)
When the package arrived from Japan, it glowed with the aura of contraband—feverishly my fingers fumbled with the wrapping—I tore it open and pulled out—a double CD-R! They had sold out of the gold CDs! [klunk] It felt as though my head was being kicked by the entire chorus line at Minsky’s… OK, well, they didn’t charge me for the gold, just a pricey CD-R. I threw it on the digital t’table and sat back, waiting for the sound and the wah-pedal fury…
“That was a transitional music.”—Gary Bartz
More recently, I turned to eBay to find some DVDs, and put some hefty money on some virtual dice-rollings. As often happens at that noisy marketplace, the results came out mixed. A Karlsruhe concert from 1967 was very good, while a video from Vienna, 1973, cost an arm and a leg, and, audio-wise, wasn’t too kind to the ears, either. Two other discs wouldn’t play on my laptop. These being semi-legal recordings at best, the sellers seem to hide themselves behind seven veils of virtual security. One transaction involved an eBay seller under one name with a contact address in California, but the PayPal records showed a second name and address in Brooklyn; emailing the seller produced a reply signed by a third party, and when the package finally arrived, the return address was the California one, with a fourth name on it. This for a DVD from “Godnoes Productions” in Flagstaff, AZ but sleeve “Printed in UK”. I bet if I dug deeper I’d hit Dick Cheney’s private bunker lurking underneath.
I did come up with one winner: Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue. Not a bootleg, it’s easy to find at the usual online emporia and well worth the seeking. Premiered at the 2004 New York Film Festival and released on DVD by Eagle Eye Media, this documentary brings together interviews with musicians from the post-Bitches Brew period, the centerpiece being Miles’ entire Isle of Wight concert from August 1970. It’s a unique document. If you’ve been subjected to a lot of Miles Davis on vintage video—the predominant source for his live performances—it’s a breath of fresh air to see a performance crisply captured on film. The footage has never been seen before (“never even bootlegged”, filmmaker Murray Lerner says with justifiable pride); and the band’s loaded with up-and-coming jazz stars, busting loose before an audience of over 600,000. Yes, that is the correct number of zeroes! Supposedly the biggest rock concert of all time, Lerner evidently filmed all three days of the festival, and in the course of the documentary we see bits of The Who and Hendrix ripping it up. Also included are clips of Joni Mitchell greeting Miles backstage and, later, pleading for respect from an unruly crowd—a tangential moment, but perhaps a necessary reminder of the hairy underbelly of the Woodstock generation. (It’s jarring, during Miles Electric, to be given a glimpse of the bill for that Saturday at Isle of Wight: The Doors and The Who headline, and at the very bottom is “Miles Davis”, below such immortals as Mungo Jerry, Spirit, Free, and Cat Mother.)
A serene sense of not-knowing prevails over the organization of the material, almost as if Lerner had taken a course at the Miles Davis Film School under a credo of “Film what you don’tknow”. Not that Lerner’s unschooled in the business of making documentaries, but he takes a novice’s approach to his subject, re-treading a fair chunk of familiar ground. And it’s not just Miles Davis that’s in the viewfinder, but practically the whole history and meaning of “jazz” itself. In the first hour, opinions and pontifications come in from all sides, unmediated and sometimes unwelcome. For instance, I doubt there are many electric Miles partisans who’d include Stanley Crouch on their shortlist of ‘gotta-get’ mouthpieces. But his presence has an electrifying effect (irony intended): After Crouch bellyaching about Bitches Brew marking the biggest sellout in the whole Holy History of Jazz, Carlos Santana begins to sound perfectly down-to-earth, Keith Jarrett’s a reasonable, easy-going fellow, and Pete Cosey—well, my goodness, there’sPete Cosey, soft-spoken, still hidden behind sunglasses, an honest-to-god genius, a galactic hipster without a peer in sheer fascination wattage—Cosey seems unmovable, utterly at peace with the world, and supremely knowledgeable about the history of music. (“Don’t say that word!” he pleads, referring to the J-word.) The interviews at first seem to set up a real critical discussion, but what unfolds is too discursive and anecdotal to make for a meaningful unpacking of Miles’ music. Finally the concert is aired—one uninterrupted 38-minute set—and all is swept before it. Lerner installed a multi-camera crew at Wight and shot presumably the whole festival. Four years ago he presented the Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsies set, titled Blue Wild Angel. Lerner’s multiple camera angles and edits keep things moving, even when the music is not—which isn’t often. The concert was timed to follow afternoon into dusk, and the skies dim dramatically—Lerner takes advantage, showing pensive profiles of Miles in a hot red shirt, blowing amid a kind of blue crepuscular heaven.
Isle of Wight setlist:
- Bitches Brew
- It's About That Time
- Spanish Key
As the musicians burn through this medley of bitches, we’re treated to all kinds of subplots bubbling away in the brew. Probably easiest to spot are the uneasy keyboard dualities of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, at opposites on stage and in temperament. While Jarrett does the wah-wah watusi over his electric organ, adding splashes of color and texture, Corea hunkers in a bunker, moodily staring straight ahead and dashing off postboppy lines and ring-modulated squiggles. Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette have a gas keeping the grooves light on their feet, Airto showers rainforest ambiance, and Gary Bartz—a fresh recruit, this was his third concert with the band—brings an innovative saxophone voice to Miles’ ensemble, eschewing burning Coltranesques for blues-dipped groans and moans. Bartz was an original in a generation of fusion-era saxophonists who today sound just as trapped in Coltrane’s shadow as they were nurtured by his halo. His sound has more to do with Big Joe Turner and Dewey Redman than Ohnedaruth.
“That was a transitional music”, says Bartz in Miles Electric. “Miles didn’t change—the world changed around him.” As Paul Tingen points out in his revelatory study Miles Beyond, Davis in these years embraced risk, which, predictably, led to uneven results. The risk came from not having set renditions of numbers: Tempos are never locked for any particular tune, the accompanying riffs evolve over time, instrumental tones and textures are at the whim of the performer, the harmonic support may change, pieces might receive a layered treatment, with one acting as the support for another. (A meta-modular approach that foreshadows the strategies of Anthony Braxton’s mature music.) Miles became even more dependent on sidemen—he once said “You have to have a band around you which is better than you are”—and as a result, even though Miles was pushing into rock, funk, and pop, his own music often retained the episodic, solo-driven structures of jazz. (It’s lamentable that Miles never got together with Bill Laswell except posthumously. How different his last releases might have sounded with a visionary producer like Laswell, rather than the schlockmeisters at Warner Bros.)
Yet, with accomplices of the intelligence and daring of Keith Jarrett (and, later, Pete Cosey), the music moves into complexly layered passages of orchestral magnificence that sometimes sound little like what we know as “Miles Davis”. Questions of sideman as inspiration versus uncredited co-composer go back at least as far as Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley; by the time passages such as Jarrett’s musical coup d’etat on “Funky Tonk” come along, the questions get even more troubling. Tingen points out this solo spot was a regular feature for Jarrett in Miles’ sets, but the character of the passage is so unlike what surrounds it, it’s as if someone changed the channel. Is it “Miles Davis”? Is it one of the “Directions in music by Miles Davis”? Is it Miles Davis saying, “Keith Jarrett knows what he’s doing, and I’m not gonna get in his way”? Just what did Miles mean when he told the rest of the band, “When Keith starts playing all that Catholic-school shit, lay-out, don’t play, don’t follow him”? Is it the direction of an expansive, inclusive bandleader, or just a joke played by a SOB who liked to fuck people up? Is it the zen-master’s challenge to young, headstrong men to get beyond their own little universes? (The “Catholic-school” quote and other evidence of Miles’ delightfully perverse leadership style are well-documented in Miles Beyond.)
The same questions apply to Miles’ last-minute decision to add John McLaughlin on the concert released as Live-Evil. Yes, the move challenged the musicians, but did their response really lift the music to a higher level? Miles changed his musicians so often between 1968 and 1973, nearly everything from those years sounds unsettled—if not unfinished. The musical passage in question is from Live-Evil—as good an example of “transitional music” as any. In the minutes leading up to Jarrett’s big solo, Michael Henderson, out of Stevie Wonder’s band, can be heard trying to emulate his predecessor, Dave Holland, by playing all over the place and following Jarrett and DeJohnette and McLaughlin into a shapeless free-for-all. In that instance, one might well surmise that Miles’ disapproval was unambiguously voiced—the leader hired the 19-year-old to stick to the groove. (In the later bands, Henderson does exactly that, brilliantly.) Miles couldn’t wait; he had to leave yesterday’s music behind.
For these reasons, this was a band that never came to a conclusive meeting of the minds. Live-Evil, then, is a compromised piece of art, as is Isle of Wight, and to varying degrees most other Miles Davis releases of the “transitional” period. Was the pace of album releases kept up out of expediency, was he caught up in the fervor of those sessions, or did he just need the money? Or should we trust Miles’ ability to TCB and cease our questioning? Miles wanted the music to speak for itself, but the music doesn’t answer these questions satisfactorily, and maybe that’s another reason our fascination with it never seems to ebb.
In any case, it seems ludicrous, in light of the lack of polish and tidy arrangements on the records, to charge that Miles Davis was a “sellout”, as Crouch did. The music may be confused, unfinished, ugly—but never, ever pandering (excepting some weird experiments mostly carried off by Teo Macero and distractedly green-lighted by Miles; i.e. “Red China Blues”).
Between 1968 and 1972—roughly the period covered by the albums In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Miles At Fillmore, Live-Evil, On The Corner, and Big Fun, Miles changed his music as often as he changed musicians, logging dozens of sessions and dozens more concerts. It never stays in one place. It’s an astonishing sustained flow of creativity, one that begs for comparative examples in any discipline, but the question of conviction keeps returning. If Miles wasn’t satisfied, as he claimed time and again in interviews, why should we the audience be? If it’s a “transitional music”, when do we get to the destination? Strange, too, that Miles’ bands of 1971 and 1972—relatively stable units, compared those of the 1969-70 period—are so little represented on record. (As shown in the review below, the 1971 band in particular had a lot to offer, consolidating the lessons learned from Live-Evil and offering a more seasoned repertoire.) Artistic burnout is certainly one possible answer. Miles’ personal hardships have been cited as reasons, too, but Miles always had a lot going on in his life. Come 1973 and new musicians, Miles builds a new band around them, and he’s inspired again. That band was intact for about three years, the longest he’d had a stable group since “the second great quintet”. The evidence from bootleg CDs and DVDs of that time suggests that Miles had finally found the group sound he wanted, and was more interested in fine-tuning that sound, rather than moving beyond it. By 1975, all the elements had finally clicked into place and the band breathes with him as one unfathomably brilliant, high-powered unit.
Don’t be fooled by the title—Miles Electric: Another Kind of Blue doesn’t deliver the cool, heroin-fogged sound of Miles’ most famous record. (Tsk, these misleading titles. Another Bitches Brew (see below) sounds little like its namesake, and Miles Electric has about as much to do with Kind of Blue as a Ferrari has with a T’Bird.) Nor does the Isle of Wight set make an easy fit with the LSD-tripped scene of 1970; it’s too tight and too loose at the same time, over-the-top aggressive and nervous, exploding with contingency. It makes you pay attention, not trip out. Which suggests another reason one keeps returning to Miles Davis and his music: Always defiantly himself, Miles didn’t buy into the mythology of his day, whether it was Eisenhower complacency or Vietnam tune-out. There’s something ever-fresh and unexpected lurking in the music, hard to analyze but nearly always evident. He seemed to move through history at his own tempo, never revealing his agenda—even to his associates and allies. Fiercely alone and unaccommodating, Miles Davis challenges the mythology of America, and for that reason will forever be unassailably American.
As for the mythology of “jazz”, he was always miles above that.
THE RINGSIDE ANNOUNCER
A blow-by-blow examination of a random sampling of bootleg CDs
“Being a jazz critic—that’s probably one of the lowest businesses there is.”—Dave Liebman
Belgrade, November 3, 1971 (disc one of Another Bitches Brew)
This is a bootleg with legs, being the rare and mostly well-recorded snapshot of Miles’ late 1970-1971 band, near the end of its life. It was the last band sans guitars Miles ever put together. This music is built from the ground up, and Michael Henderson held the keystone. (Try playing the bass line to “Yesternow” or “Honky Tonk” without losing your place or speeding up, and you may begin to appreciate Henderson on a new level.) By this concert, he’d dropped the Holland emulations and gotten back to his rock-solid rhythms, but he was not yet a player to look to for keeping things interesting and evolving, except perhaps by accident. Keith Jarrett, holding down two keyboards, ably takes on the mid-ground role of colorist. With so much space in the music and no guitars to fill it, it’s a big job. His organ playing here is subtle; so much so the CD producers list only electric piano. (Jarrett’s tenure lasted just a week or two past this concert.) Gary Bartz doesn’t get a chance to add much to his resume here, which is a shame (Miles’ post-1970 concept tended to treat saxophonists as an optional feature—in for a solo, then out again, never initiating a change in direction, always following Miles). The two-percussionist plus drummer setup—Leon Chancler, Mtume, and Don Alias—works well enough, but without guitar the rhythm sounds thin and at times a bit tenuous. The recording balance doesn’t help, being somewhat light on the bottom end (the engineers no doubt thought they were mic’ing and mixing a “jazz” gig—but the mix is clear as a bell).
The set is marked by tense, drawn-out transitions between themes. “Directions” floats in on a rocket before dropping into half-time at 3:27; the transition into “Honky Tonk” begins at 10:25 and stretches over two minutes, with Jarrett and Henderson musically arguing over where the music will go. Once it gets rolling, Jarrett builds some new modalities and nervous rhythm under the sax and trumpet solos, adding unexpected but just-right pokes and prods, then shouting out his own gospelly funk. For a wailing Bartz, he’s down home; under Miles, he goes off into exotic territory. One doesn’t usually think of Jarrett as having an accompanist’s nature, but here’s the evidence. In between the solos, Jarrett gets his groove on. At 23:44 Miles ushers in that stuttering, march-like bit which, after nearly four minutes of neither-here-nor-there-ness, begins to take form as a hard-driving “What I Say”. Too fast to funk hard, as the Live-Evil version does, the whole thing gets so frenetic it’s kind of silly. Jarrett’s post-bop arabesques fit the music a little better than the sax wails. The tempo turns fluid, halving and doubling ambiguously, before a conga duo takes center stage, backed by Chancler’s discreet hi-hat locomotion. This two-percussionist band with Mtume and Don Alias, with five or six congas onstage, is among the least-documented of Miles’ multitudinous incarnations. It’s gratifying to hear them take the spotlight in tandem so winningly. “Sanctuary” receives an atmospheric theme statement, before Miles screams a few times, turning up the juice.
At 55:17 Miles plays the “Honky Tonk” cue again, but Henderson goes into “Yesternow”. There’s a hole at around 60 minutes where Miles pops in a startlingly atypical muted sound, a lone bugler lost in acres of no-man’s-land. Moments later, Bartz stages a break-out by adding some through-the-horn vocalisms, but reins himself in after just a few spooky whoops. (Miles never seemed to care for anything too self-consciously “weird”.) At that moment, there’s an abrupt fadeout, just as things are getting really interesting. Leaving one lost in speculation as to whether a second set from this remarkable night exists on tape.
The 1973 concerts
By mid-1973 Miles had a mostly new tribe and a whole new quiver of beats and tunes. What makes the 1973 concerts engaging are the unexpected variations on those themes—as the musicians take chances they aren’t taking by 1975, gambles that of course don’t always pay off—and even more from the transitions, the in-between times. These latter take much longer to happen, in general, than they would two years later; the band isn’t moving in synch and often the grooves unfold over the course of some minutes, rather than seconds. (For a superb demonstration of the band’s tightening-up, look no further than the transition from “Tatu” to “Agharta Prelude” about 20 minutes into Agharta. It takes just a couple of bars of Miles stating the theme before the whole band’s in the pocket.)
Not only do these 1973 bootlegs give us a wider view of musicians like Cosey and Reggie Lucas and their capabilities and proclivities, longtime ‘lectric Miles listeners will also be able to glean more about the leader’s methods and tastes. Or perhaps this music’s better thought of as a glimpse of an evolving musical ecosystem in its (early) stages. The musicians involved have referred to Miles’ methods and the musical results as “organic”, and by the time the 1975 Japan concert tapes were made, the ecosystem was spawning multitudes of beautiful, dense foliage, prowled here and there by snarling beasts. In late 1973, things don’t sound all that more advanced than the Japanese or Montreux concerts from the summer. A few months down the road, Miles’ last-minute addition of spoilers Azar Lawrence and Dominique Gaumont to the Carnegie Hall concert of March 1974 (released as Dark Magus) set the music’s development back yet again.
Unreachable Station—Tokyo, June 19, 1973
Unlike all the other concerts examined here, Unreachable Station starts out quietly, stealthily, with the “Ife” bass line, bits of percussion, and strummed guitars sounding like zithers. Miles practically whispers the little theme—surely Miles’ anthem during those years—and the audience cheers a welcome. (Like Shakespeare and Joyce, Miles relished the poetry of the gutter as well as the heavens. A case in point is the “Ife” theme, which was composed by classical musician Paul Buckmaster for the On the Corner sessions. Miles pared it down to a cringeworthy trifle if there ever was one, similar to the 1980s inanities “Jean-Pierre” and “U ‘n’ I”.) There’s a chance to hear Mtume messing about with his Yamaha drum machine, adding vapor and unleashing a few hailstone bursts. Eleven-minute mark: The music starts to come alive, and a guitar solo ensues. Miles comes back and gives the theme a kick in the pants, making it for once sound right on. At17:40 the drum machine is used rhythmically for a couple of seconds, then Mtume goes over to log drum. Everything kind of peters out; ‘round about 20:40 Miles brings it back up in a coda. The band jumps right into “Agharta Prelude”, with Al Foster bashing his ride cymbal in clouds of tintinnabulation. Miles is far off-mic. So is Cosey, who plays a rather desultory guitar bit. After less than ten minutes, Miles brings in “Zimbabwe”, with another Liebman feature. (This piece is heard at 21:55” on the first disc of Pangaea.) After which Miles brings it down again—it’s a low-key set—with log drum in the background and Foster banging on a tambourine in the foreground while Henderson chugs the riff. It doesn’t go much of anywhere after that. All in all a rather jet-lagged feeling seems to hang over the proceedings.
The musicians seem to have woken themselves up between sets and give a good lashing to “Turnaroundphrase” to open the second go-round (“Turnaround” was Miles’ opener of choice, as on Montreux ‘73, Pangaea and Dark Magus, among others), though now there’s trouble at the mixing-board. Some of the balance problems of the first set have been fixed, with the horns and guitars brought forward, but Miles keeps dropping out. Then ensues a dialogue between Cosey(?), comping aggressively, and Liebman. At this point it seems Cosey’s a bit too forward in the mix. Miles—sans wah—barges in like a banshee, shoving Liebman aside. A boppish guitar interval, partially buried in the mix, makes an appearance. Miles pops in, foreground, then is shoved 50 yards backstage when he switches on the wah pedal. The back-and-forth is about as charming as the channel-hopping that disfigures the original release of “Go Ahead, John”. Just when the pointlessness seems inescapable, “Tune In 5”—not a tune at all, but a polyrhythm production of drums and percussion—saves the moment. Another too-short solo bit from Miles hints that all is not well with him or his equipment. Liebman takes over and the jerky rhythm digs in for just a minute, replicating the ambidextrous quality of a Trout Mask polyrhythmic boogie. After only a couple of minutes, Miles takes it all the way down again. Cosey, sounding McLaughlinish, trills a few convoluted licks before the trumpet doodles some hyperactive wah pedalings. Suddenly it dies, in the middle of a sax solo. A bit of applause interrupts, a supersonic “Right Off” erupts for 1:20, then quickly segues into a nicely realized “Funk” (a.k.a. “Prelude, Part 1”), with Cosey taking a more rockish tone of voice. Finally, everything seems to come into proper focus and Miles gets a decent chance to make his case. Liebman follows, on tenor this time, adding a bit of gutbucket spice with a big helping of Coltrane. Percussion carries on, with sly comments from the leader on organ. Unfortunately, this doesn’t lead anywhere. “Tune In 5” is brought in again, with Foster sounding the five beats on hi-hat and Henderson striking the tonic on every one. After just 3:30 it dies down to a trickle. A weirdly tender interlude follows. All in all, Unreachable Station has the least energy and coherence of the bunch.
Olympia—Paris, July 11, 1973
The Olympia concert is marred by technical problems, which seem to center on Miles’ pedal setup. Launching with a by-the-numbers smoke-out of “Turnaroundphrase”, about a minute along it seems the engineer decides to do one last levels check, while the concert proceeds. By turns, each instrument is faded out and in. Just making sure, folks… Just shy of five minutes, Miles crackles and is swallowed in the cacophony: We can hear him faintly, far off-mic, wailing, struggling to be heard. After another minute of the invisible wall not breaking, Liebman jumps in and burns. Miles chooses not to cut the ensemble, as he so often did during these workouts. Maybe he was conferring with a stagehand on his setup. (Conferring perhaps, as in, “Fix this motherfucker, motherfucker!”) By 8:30 the problem still isn’t worked out. About a minute later, he tries again, without the wah. In and out the sound ducks and weaves: Probably not the kind of ringside bout Miles wanted to give his fans. By 15:45 Al Foster has slipped into the “Tune In 5” groove, but Miles’ amplification problems persist. The chug finally relents at 17:50, the audience cheers, skies clear. At 20 minutes, the pent-up frustration explodes in a fusillade of screeches and feedbacking howls. Scattered catcalls punctuate a Mtume feature. The band goes into a slow-loping “Ife”, but Miles seems to’ve quit the ring. He doesn’t jump back in until nearly six minutes into the second cut (a continuation of “Ife”), but comes in swinging with a nasty syncopated lick that kicks the band into a tight little groove a la James Brown. This untitled passage is practically worth the price of the record. (Sadly, this sick little riff, “Untitled #4” according to the discographies, didn’t last out the year. A lazier, less effective version can be heard winding up the last cut of the Montreux ’73 concert. On a Stockholm concert, it’s the opener, and gets a decent workout.) Eventually the band goes back to ruminating on “Ife”, distinguished by a Cosey guitar solo that tenderly verges on the acoustic. Still, the feeling of having sat through an hour-plus-long soundcheck is never quite dispelled.
Belgrade, November 3, 1973 (disc two of Another Bitches Brew)
Miles opens the ‘73 Belgrade set with a freaky-deaky phrase scarred by distortion—a herald of the lousy engineering that tarnishes the concert. Neither the horns nor the guitars sound very settled in the mix. For a good long while, there seems to be a didgeridoo player hooting whenever Miles takes a solo—it’s a feedback gremlin. At 18:24 (frustratingly, no index numbers are employed on either Belgrade disk) the leader cuts the band out, unleashes one of those avalanches of plunging notes (accompanied by the feedback) and the music opens up and out. Mtume gets a good feature on congas at this point before a solo from Cosey, then Miles, and Foster kicks up his ride cymbal again. They subside, and again Mtume comes into the foreground, with Liebman tootling a tentative flute. When the band finally starts cooking on “Calypso Frelimo”, the guitars again come out overripe and punishing. If you can get beyond that, Miles gets worked up into an outstanding solo, and at 31:44 does a duck-and-weave with the “Calypso” theme, shadowed by Liebman, now on soprano sax. At about 40 minutes, Cosey dances in, sounding for all the world like Prime Time-era Bern Nix. (Ornette’s bands were always naturally jangly.) A few minutes later, after some haunting conga vocalizations, the ordeal is over.
It’s a jangly time overall, mostly due to the engineer’s, shall we say, choices. Twenty-first century Miles scholarship posits that very few engineers or producers of that day, including Teo Macero, really knew how to mix this music, a problem compounded by the limitations of the live setting. Even the 1973 Montreux sets suffer many of the same ills: Mic’ed and mixed as a “jazz” set, the mix doesn’t put forth the essential tidal waves of bass, drums, and guitar. Miles’ own Nagra portable recorder was responsible for capturing the superior board mix on Another Unity (see below). As Chris Murphy relates in his road memoir, Miles To Go, the two-track Nagra had a direct feed from the hall engineer’s mixing console. For the European concerts, the documents we have are most likely the result of broadcast tapes. Whoever was at the board in Belgrade ‘73 does a spiffy job bringing the guitars front and center, at the expense of the horns; and, as too often happens, the lower-frequency range is threadbare. Liebman’s flute passages sound thin and unsupported, his opening sax bit distorted and ugly. The more exciting experiments come from Cosey and/or Lucas, both still working out their guitar sounds, tunings, and effects. During the opening minutes, one of them (probably Cosey) takes off on a solo with a sound so close to Miles’ amplified trumpet sound, the ear is fooled. (Cosey’s range of experimentation is truly astounding, his ideas never-ending, and his success rate astonishingly high. He brought numerous guitars onstage with him along with his own tuning systems. On a 1973 Vienna concert, he can be seen for much of the set working a mutant twelve-string which has the doubling strings tuned in thirds.)
Another Unity—Tokyo, January 22, 1975
The fool’s-gold disk Another Unity turned out not to be the lost gospel of Miles, but just another concert document from another tour by a hardened corps of hard-working, creative musicians whose leader was ailing with multiple illnesses, mentally exhausted, and on more uppers ‘n’ downers than Rush Limbaugh riding The Thunderbolt at Coney Island. There’s a lot of rawness in the 1973 sets, which adds excitement to the already hyperactive brew, but what’s missing is the nuance and precision of the later concerts.By the time of the 1975 Japan tour, Miles had taught his ensemble to seemingly anticipate his thoughts and moods and directions, resulting in turn-on-a-dime changes of tempo, dynamics, and texture.
The first set mimics the first Agharta disc’s sequence of events, while the second recalls disc two of Pangaea, opening with “Ife”—only without Reggie Lucas’ fetching three-note guitar lick, and adding some far-out synthesizer yibbles from Pete Cosey. Then Miles pulls a fast one: After getting some fun out of “Ife”, he whips the band through an express-train medley of “Mtume”, “Turnaroundphrase”, and “Tune In 5”. Each clocks in at around five minutes—warp speed for this band to jump themes. “Turnaround” in particular is a proper horrorshow, with Lucas’ chainsaw-arm ripping staccato funk chords under Miles and saxist Sonny Fortune’s duet. Reggie Lucas hasn’t generated the cult status that his bandmate Cosey enjoys, which isn’t altogether fair. His rhythm work on all the live sessions plays a big part in whipping up the fervor, as well as adding an essential layer of color to Miles’ canvas. One can’t imagine the music without him. “Tune in 5” is overlaid with the riff from “Willie Nelson”, and Lucas grinds it out to introduce Fortune, who proceeds (badly amplified) with just synth, bass, and scattered percussion. Miles shakily offers a new riff, and an unidentified tune starts, described by bass and guitar harmonizing an 8th-note upandownphrase. This delightful bit chugs on for several minutes before the audience weighs in with a hurricane of handclaps.
At the end of this bootleg bout, we find the official concert recordings of the 1975 band—Agharta and Pangaea—still the champions of the electric Miles canon (they sport awesome covers, too). Simply put, those records are better recorded and better mixed (although no less than three different mixes on various CBS/Sony domestic and Japanese issues have been offered over the years, adding to the general confusion about this period). But the prime reason the official releases stand out is because the musicians knew that Columbia, in the person of Teo Macero, was rolling the tape, and that posterity might be standing in judgment someday. As Chris Murphy put it: “We had all worked hard on the Osaka recordings—Miles more than anyone—and had produced a great piece of art.”
Many thanks to Enrico Merlin for providing valuable information about these concerts.