Saturday, November 17, 2012

Miles Davis: Live-Evil

It was back on this day in 1971 that Miles Davis let loose another shot across the bow of the jazz academy. After the astounding and confounding Bitches Brew and the guitar-and-rage-driven assault of A Tribute To Jack Johnson, along came Live-Evil, which was at times both of those things and at times neither. Assembled by secret weapon Teo Macero from recordings made at the Cellar Door in DC and shorter pieces recorded in the studio, the album was a sprawling affair. The expansive live tracks were closely miked, however, and blend in perfectly with the studio material.

The sounds ranged from the bite of John McLaughlin's guitar as it opens Gemini/Double Image, to the soothing vocalise of Hermeto Pascoal on Nem Un Talvez, and everything in between. Michael Henderson's bass and Jack DeJohnette's drums provide a nearly non-stop locomotion on the live takes, dividing and subdividing the rhythms like atomic scientists. Of course, there was also Miles's trumpet, sometimes processed through a wah-wah into an almost purely electronic texture, and sometimes a breathy and ethereal exhalation. The transformation of his horn into something synthetic is emphasized by the musical conception of his solos, often assembled from short rhythmic bursts that grow increasingly knotty.

As on Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, Macero deserves most, if not all, the credit for the structural integrity of the final product. As I understand it, Miles would record, record and record - and then go on the road, leaving Macero to sort through the tape and assemble something that made sense. Obviously, the live material was spectacular, (The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, which includes six sets from his residency at the club, is essential listening), but Macero made something that stood on its own as a work of art. Finally, Live-Evil was a confirmation that this new direction of Miles's was no passing fancy, but something he was going to pursue as far as it went. He continued to refine and expand the approach of these three albums until 1975, when he retired for five years due to drug and health problems.

Miles was so far ahead of his time during that period, that perhaps it was for the best that he took a pause. However, it took longer than five years for the world to come to grips with what he achieved from 1970-75 - and I was no different than the average jazz fan in this regard.

Kind of Blue and In A Silent Way were staples of mine from high school through college, but it wasn't until around 1997 that Miles grabbed my heart completely - and it turned out to be his electric period that did it. After years of disarray, Columbia had launched a massive reissue campaign and I found myself confronting Live-Evil in the listening station at J&R Music World. Even though I had found Bitches Brew baffling, I thought I'd give it a try and selected the track called What I Say. And then...WOW. I literally began to cry when, after what seemed like several minutes of fabulous funk intro, his horn entered - gloriously.

Although many different motives and impulses have been assigned to Miles's push into this terrain, it occurred to me that by assembling these big groups of electric and eclectic players, he was just creating a place where he could BE. And isn't that something we're all looking for?

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