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Miles Davis’ Jazz Fusion

by Brian L. Knight

Columbia’s Legacy Label has released 5 titles from trumpeter Miles Davis’ highly experimental period during the early 1970s. Legacy specializes in re-releasing classic jazz albums and they couldn’t have picked a better vault to dive into. The "new" albums cover five live performances which occurred during a four year period. During this time, Davis played with some of the best musicians in modern jazz to create some of the funkiest, jazziest, spaciest, rocking stuff that was to come from the genius mind of Miles Davis. All of the albums were originally produced by Davis’ longtime associate Ted Macero. Approximately 25 years later, the original recordings from this period have been remastered using the new Single Bit Mapping technology(SBM). The albums also feature the original liner notes plus updated notes from the musicians who played during the given performances. The end result is phenomenal music which helps you understand Davis’ impact on the world of both jazz and rock music.

These albums also provide a tour of music’s greatest music halls. From Bill Graham’s Fillmore West to New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Miles Davis managed to play in some of the hottest venues. The diversity of playing locations is also indicative of the fans who came out to see the great trumpeter. The Fillmore shows were swamped by the counter-culture while Carnegie Hall brought out the jazz aficionados. Just as Miles’ music touched upon different styles, he also touched many different types of people.

Some of the best rock and rollers have graced the stages of the Fillmore East: Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Who.....the list goes on. There have been many live albums associated with the Fillmore East: The Allman Brothers Band, Santana, and Frank Zappa, but one of the best live albums to come from the Fillmore is Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West. This album was recorded during the summer of 1970 and featured the piano work of Chick Corea, the rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira and Dave Holland and Steve Grossman on saxophone. On the liner notes, Chick Corea describes the Miles Davis musical experience: " Beyond all that has been, could be, and will be said about Miles’ styles and techniques, the importance of his effect on our lives can best be estimated by his constant demonstration of creative disagreement with the status quo. In other words, the open exercise of his freedom of artistic choice and willingness to hold firm to these choices, one after the next in his long and fruitful career, empowers the music, gives it its bite and endures its longevity in the heart of future generations."

Two months after the recording of Black Beauty, Miles released Miles Davis at the Fillmore. This album features different songs but the same band with the addition of the young Keith Jarrett on organ. Dueling with Chick Corea on electric piano, Jarrett was am exciting addition to the band.

During the winter following the Fillmore East shows, Miles Davis recorded the tracks for Live - Evil which featured both live and studio performances. The live tracks were recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington D.C. and the studio work was done in New York City. The live tracks consist of Gary Bartz on saxophone, Keith Jarrett on electric piano and organ, Michael Henderson on electric bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Airto Moreira on percussion. The great John McGlauglin, who played guitar for Miles in early incarnations of the band, sat in for the live performances. During the live shows, the band was known as "The Hardest Working Band in the Jazz Business" or "Miles Davis and the House Rockers". The studio tracks feature the who’s-who’s of the jazz world: Ron Carter, Steve Grossman, Herbie Hancock. Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, and Billy Cobham. Some of the musicians from the live tracks also joined in on the studio cuts.

As this album attests, Miles Davis hosted the farm league for modern jazz. Just like the modern day Montreal Expos spitting out MVPs, Cy Young Award winners and home run kings, Mile Davis knew how to pick the right musicians. This was also a similar feat of Frank Zappa who introduced Aysnsley Dunbar, Adrian Belew and Steve Vai to the music world. Live-Evil is the ultimate in jazz-fusion as it is characterized by spaced out, electric jams that reach a climatic escalation and then spiral down again into a mellow groove. Once the jam has been played to the extent, the jam picks up another groove and does it all over again. Saxophonist Gary Bartz describes the band’s music during 1970: "Each songs turns into the next, just as day turns into night. Each concert would begin where the last one left off."

These first three albums covered a very exciting year for Miles Davis. Over a twelve month period, Davis played with the best musicians, created some of the most experimental jazz to date and played in rock and roll’s finest venues. The next two albums signify Davis’ departure from the rock and roll venues and his return to the music halls that were more often frequented by jazz musicians. The first album, Miles Davis in Concert, was recorded at New York City’s Philharmonic Hall on September 29th, 1972. For this performance, Davis was pushing the limits of jazz to the full extreme. With the incredible percussion section of Al Foster(drums), Badal Roy(tabla) and Mtume(percussion), Davis headed down new rhymic roads of experimental genious. During this stage of his career, Davis started plugging his trumpet into a wah-wah pedal, and he recruited the sitar work of Khalil Henderson. With these bizarre instruments and sound effects, the band depended on saxophonist Carlos Garnett, piano player Cedric Lawson and guitarist Reggie Lucas to keep the band rooted with traditional jazz elements.

Two years later, Davis released his March 30, 1974 performance at Carnegie Hall. The album was mysteriously called Dark Magus and like all his other albums, Dark Magus was a journey into the jazz unknown. The band members employed a wide variety musical effects and there seemed to be no start or end to the songs. The songs on the album are titled Moja(part 1&2), Wili(part1&2), Tatu(part1&2) and Nne(part1&2) and further contribute to the enigmatic quality of the album. The lineup on Dark Magus consisted of Dave Liebman(flute, saxophone), Azar Lawrence(tenor sax), Reggie Lucas(guitar), Pete Cosey(guitar), Dominique Gaumont( guitar), Michael Henderson(electric bass), Al Foster(drums) and Mtume(percussion). The three guitarists in this lineup signify the album is jam packed with jams(sorry about the play on words). In addition, the album features Davis’ tinkering with a Yamaha synthesizer, a rare occurrence during a Miles Davis performance. Bassist Dave Leibman describes the 1974 concert: " On the surface it was a mixture of funk/pop rhythms, riff-like vamps, electronic and percussive colors, in and out key improvisations. But what it really came down to was the relentless, screaming sound and energy of the music as well as the spontaneous direction of the leader.....He did what he wanted, when he wanted - never predictable- and the sidemen had to be on the case all the time. We had no modus operandi - it went from night to night."

In reading the liner notes to all five albums, this last quote was a sentiment shared by all of the musicians. They all were impressed by Davis’ qualities as a band leader and his ability to explore the intricate world of jazz-fusion. These albums were recorded during a four year period which was just a small snapshot in the career of Miles Davis. His foray into fusion was just one of many styles that Davis pursued. When you listen to Davis’ work with cool jazz, techno and pop, you will still see Davis’ drive and ingenuity for creating his own unique style of music. Miles Davis was a legendary player and composer who laid down the foundation for many more musicians to follow. His influence is destined to be eternal.

Read about Miles Davis' pre fusion years here.