There are a few things that are intimidating about getting into Miles Davis’ electric period. The tracks are bloody long. There are so many of them. There are re-issues on top of re-issues. Some of it comes across as a cacophonous row.
This post is intended to be something of a brief primer with a Spotify list of things to dip into. It comes on the back of my enjoyment of Paul Tingen’s “Miles Beyond”. Whilst the playlist only contains 13 tracks, it is over three hours long and therefore isn’t designed to be a greatest hits album.
Miles’ attitude to work in this period was to be prolific but treat live and studio work differently. The studio albums (“Bitches Brew”, “On The Corner”, “Jack Johnson”) are often created by a different group of musicians to the live albums. Miles had a rolling band of musicians who were referred to as his Stock Company Players and these would be freely added and subtracted to and from the sessions.
The live albums can be difficult to start with for a number of reasons. Firstly, Miles refused to announce songs (in fact, he refused to introduce his fellow musicians on stage and took to holding up foam boards with their names written on them). The refusal to announce songs was kind of redundant in any event as Miles did not break between songs. On a given tour, there was a baseline setlist and the band moved from song to song cued by a nod from Miles, a wink or a movement of the hand. Therefore, a four-sided double LP will quite often just have one song on each side. For example, 1974’s “Dark Magus” (released 3 years later) had four songs, each roughly 25 minutes long on vinyl (“Moja”, “Wili”, “Tatu”, “Nne”). Well, I say songs. They were freeform explorations of a groove, a feel, a riff. In the CD era, things got distilled down even further. “Pangaea” (recorded in Japan in 1975) has just two tracks – one per CD. He lets ex-Stevie Wonder bassist Michael Henderson take the groove and run with it. For an hour and half almost.
If all of this sounds intimidating then there are some more concise starting points. Whilst the music from “On The Corner” was roundly criticised by many at the time, we’ve caught up via electronic music and hip-hop. If you take the 5 minutes “Black Satin” then you hear a primal rhythm. It certainly wasn’t jazz but it definitely wasn’t rock music either. It was just new and different. At the time, Miles said:
It’s the white folks that need those labels. Here’s my secret man: I don’t tell no one my secrets. Nobody knows all the instrumentation that I had in “On The Corner”. They’re just guessing. I want to make the critics think.
(paraphrased to remove Miles’s frequent profanity).
Outtake “Honky Tonk” that cropped up 3 years after it was recorded on “Get Up With It” has a band containing such luminaries as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and John McLaughlin start playing a roadhouse blues riff, disassemble it and put it back together again in a 5 minute period – thrilling stuff.
I’ve also included a version of the “In A Silent Way” music put together on the “Panthalassa” LP by Bill Laswell. Tingen is very complimentary of Laswell’s approach and I concur with him. I think Miles would have been thrilled at the results of re-editing and remixing existing music. Whilst he was critical of his producer Teo Macero at times, he worked with his cut-up technique long enough to show that it had value as far as the trumpeter was concerned.
So dip in and out or play it start to finish. Your choice. But what I would say is play it on the best system that you have and turn it up a little. The engagement with the volume and the technical brilliance of the recordings will enhance your enjoyment and draw you further into the music.