I’ve been suffering from a bout of Tsundoku.
It is a 19th-century Japanese word for the 21st-century problem for acquiring an increasingly large pile of unread books.
Paul Tingen’s “Miles Beyond” was part of that pile. It covers Miles Davis’s life and music from 1967 until his death in 1991. It’s been sat in my bookcase for a year, having been bought directly from the author whilst searching around for a decent but different book on Miles’ career during that period. Published in 2001, the cover and the incredibly detailed appendices (details of where the edits occur on Miles’ longer tracks for instance) can make the book look a little academic from the outside but it is a cracking read.
The significance of the book is that Tingen is a rock fan. He set out listening to the likes of Roxy Music and King Crimson and graduated to Miles Davis via his electric period. He sets out his perspective early on, personally frustrated by jazz critics and writers who fundamentally don’t understand this music and at worse, debunk it as an inferior body of work when compared to Miles’ earlier music. When Miles’ continued his musical progression in the late 60s via “Bitches Brew”, he was labelled a sell-out with jazz critics accusing Miles of taking the easy route with the less demanding format of rock as a base.
Well, it’s a brave man that sells out by releasing an expensive 94-minute double album of initially impenetrable instrumental music containing only one track that clocks in at under 10 minutes and two that top the 20-minute mark. Miles was that brave man though and ran with his version of rock as played by a jazz musician until his retirement in 1975 due to a combination of exhaustion and general ill health. “Bitches Brew” has gone on to sell over a million copies but this is as much a testament to the excellence and its ongoing influence rather than it being an easy sell to the record-buying public at the time of its release. It earned Miles a Grammy and his first gold record and its success was possibly due to a confluence of events – rock fans expanding their horizons in the late 60s and their love/tolerance of lengthier tracks as the era of progressive rock approached. It still isn’t the first Miles album that I go to but I love my occasional explorations of it.
Tingen addresses Miles’ decision not to pursue free jazz, the abstract direction that the likes of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were heading as Miles time with his second great quartet was coming to an end in the mid-60s. It wasn’t an easy transition into the electric era for Davis. He was playing to crowds of less than 100 people and was in danger of being dropped by Columbia until he reluctantly agreed with the label’s general manager Clive Davis’s suggestion to start supporting the more commercially successful rock bands. Miles went on to open for the likes of Neil Young and Steve Miller in venues such as the Filmores and Madison Square Garden, playing to 5000 people per night.
The book is full of interesting anecdotes too, particularly around the friction that Davis deliberately caused in his band to force the creative process. He was an abrasive musician bringing to mind the Fall’s Mark E Smith. He cites Miles’s treatment of the relationship between the particularly prickly keyboard player Keith Jarrett and sax-man Gary Bartz. Percussionist James Mtume tells the story of a gig in Milan in 1971, where he is relaxing with Miles and his hairdresser backstage after the first set. Bartz comes into the room and complains that he doesn’t appreciate playing his solos over Jarrett’s keyboards. Miles assures Bartz he’ll sort it and the sax player leaves satisfied. Miles then calls Jarrett in and tells him that Bartz loves his playing and he should play more and louder during the sax solos. The outcome was a near fistfight in the following set with Miles grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Tingen is even-handed in his appreciation of Miles. He highlights that some of the lengthy tracks that featured on Miles’ early 70s period could have done with some pruning. He identifies that some of the editing carried out by Miles’ producer Teo Macero (who cut and pasted some of Miles longer tracks together from session tapes) results in some jarring and clunky transitions that affect that the enjoyment of the music. He recognises the increasingly frequent issue of dealing with the dichotomy of beautiful art generated by flawed people. It isn’t easy. Whether it is Captain Beefheart locking the Magic Band up to create “Trout Mask Replica”, Michael Jackson’s relationship with minors or any number of 70s rock band’s treatment of groupies, it isn’t easy to forgive unforgivable behaviour in order to enjoy music. The same applies in other artistic fields, be it Roman Polanski relationship with young girls or artist Eric Gill’s incestuous abuse.
Miles Davis pimped women. He abused them. He was a drug user and sometime dealer. He was mean to his fellow musicians. But constantly the women and the musicians pop up in and sing Miles’ praise. On the same fractious tour as the Bartz/Jarrett stand off, young drummer Leon “Ndugo” Chancler is receiving critical handwritten notes from Miles (“Don’t wear those shoes”, “Take the drum head off”, “Put the drum head on”). He was in a daze, not knowing which way was up and left the band within a year. However, he still contends that it was the making of him as a musician.
John McLaughlin’s first reaction after his initial session with Miles is telling. He came out of the recording of what would become “In A Silent Way” and said to Herbie Hancock:
“I can’t tell. Was that any good what we did? I mean, what did we do? I can’t tell what’s going on.”
Herbie reassured him that this was the norm but the records generally sound pretty good when they are released.
Tingen also addresses his 80s comeback objectively. He recognises the music wasn’t as groundbreaking as his work before his retirement but, let’s be honest, that bar is set pretty high. Tingen doesn’t share my love for Miles’ work on “Oh Patti” (read about it here), but he recognises that Miles covering the likes of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” was something akin to his take on “Someday My Prince Will Come” or “Bye Bye Blackbird” in the 50s and 60s. Tingen makes the point that jazz has always created a repertoire which draws upon popular music and even into nursery rhymes. Davis’ work in the 80s where he played his versions of Top 40 songs was no different.
Brian Eno’s name crops up frequently, both directly and indirectly. Eno stated that Miles’ epic “He Loved Him Madly” was the birth of ambient music. Eno is credited as the mastermind of ambient so it telling that he recognises Davis’ role. The title of the song is touching in itself. Ellington knew he was dying and in the spring of 1974, sent Christmas cards to his musical friends with the message “Love You Madly” hence the song title. Mtume had gone to Miles’ house:
Miles opened the door with tears in his eyes and said “Man, I just got a card from Duke. Isn’t that the hippest thing you can think of
The song appeared on “Get Up With It”, a 1974 collection of assorted Miles studio tracks. At over half an hour long, it’s meditative and gorgeous. Much of Miles work in the early 70s is dense and rhythmically repetitive such as the “On The Corner” album or the two Japanese live LPs, “Agharta” and “Pangaea”. They are brilliant LPs but not ideal entry points whereby “Madly” is slow, quiet and very approachable if you’ve got half an hour to set aside.
This isn’t Eno’s only debt to Miles. Miles constantly used aphorisms to entice the music out of his players, like “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there” or “Don’t fear mistakes – there are none”. These now feel like the precursor to Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards that he used throughout his 70s and 80s sessions, particularly when working with David Bowie. It just goes to show that Miles’ influence was wide-ranging.
The book is well worth a read. I scooted through it in the course of a weekend and will keep dipping into it as a resource. It is out of print but can be ordered directly from Paul Tingen at his online shop here.
And who knows? You may be fortunate enough to get a personally signed version as I did here: