Sunday, March 03, 2013

Do The Cut & Paste

It all starts with Edgard Varese. In a 1997 interview, producer Teo Macero claimed Varese as a "second father," specifically citing his Poeme Electronique (1958) as the inspiration for the radical studio manipulations Macero introduced to the work of Miles Davis in the late 60's. Watching Varese assemble the pieces of his remarkable Poeme must have triggered something in Macero's mind: recorded music (and sound) is plastic, in the original meaning of the word. Today, the idea of jamming with musicians and then looping, editing and adding to that material to manipulate it into a composition is just one tool in the record-making arsenal, and a common one at that. But when Miles Davis's In A Silent Way was released in 1969 the idea of taking whole sections of recorded music, copying them and splicing them to other sections, essentially composing in the studio, was a rare thing indeed.

So that makes Varese the spiritual father of so much of today's music, including Atoms For Peace, the extra-curricular project of Radiohead's Thom Yorke, which has just released its long-awaited debut album, Amok. The all-star group was originally formed to do live shows of material from The Eraser, Yorke's solo album from 2006. Including Radiohead's producer Nigel Godrich, Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass, studio maven Joey Waronker (Beck, etc.) on drums and Marco Refosco on percussion, the band put in studio time over the past few years, creating a wealth of material for Yorke and Godrich to work with.

Since I find Red Hot Chili Peppers loathsome, I will admit to some anxiety around Flea's involvement with Atoms For Peace. I needn't have worried, however, as he avoids the dreaded thumb and seems to take more inspiration from Jah Wobble than attempting Larry Graham, blending perfectly with the other musicians. The end result is a consistently fascinating assemblage of Afro-pop guitars, deep bass, chattering percussion and rich electronic sounds, from chordal washes to astringent jabs of sound, all with Yorke's feather-light voice, often in falsetto, floating above. Amok is a great headphones album, with layers of sound buried in the mix, waiting to be teased out with repeated listens.

There are no songwriting credits per se, but it is safe to assume that York's melodic and lyrical interests were the strongest influence on how the songs finally shaped up. In both cases it follows close on the heels of Radiohead's The King of Limbs, which contained similarly ambiguous harmonies, circular melodies and, in the words, a general sense of anomie and bruised disillusionment. On the whole, however, it's a more satisfying album than TKOL, feeling more complete and less like a blueprint for endless remixes, although I'm sure there will plenty of those to come.

For anyone familiar with Radiohead, there is nothing intrinsically surprising about Amok, but working with some new collaborators has definitely introduced more dynamics and rhythmic flexibility into what we've come to expect from records featuring Thom Yorke. As wonderful as Amok is, it should be said that it seems to continue a retreat from the more soulful and direct communication represented by In Rainbows, which is sounding more and more like a culmination of sorts with each passing year.

In the same interview, Teo Macero also illuminated the process that led to such towering achievements as Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and other classics from Miles Davis's first electric period: "His stuff was mostly written down. I mean it was worked out in the studio. But I would record from the time he got there...until he left. And then...I would edit everything."

But before Miles and his musicians entered the studio, the music was also worked out on the road. We have ample evidence of that part of the process on an extraordinary new set, Live In Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2, which features four concerts from the fertile period in 1969, between In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The band here, featuring Wayne Shorter on sax, Chick Corea on (mostly electric) piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, was famously short-lived although each member was part of the expanded ensemble that made Bitches Brew. Versions of moody masterpiece Miles Runs The Voodoo Down recorded in Antibes a month before the Bitches Brew sessions, as well as Wayne Shorter's Sanctuary, which appeared on the same album in a very different form, provide a feast for the analytic mind when comparing them to their well-known studio takes.

But analysis is mostly shunted aside by the spectacular and fiery attack of this group, which played without pause each night, blasting through a varied set of old and new material. Miles was in a period of transition and this collection showcases one fulcrum point in his legendary career, with two concerts before the Bitches Brew sessions and two after. One thing that is immediately clear is that he was in top form, playing with power and blasting off 16th note runs with impunity, applying a style he perfected in his previous period to the new electric context. As he got deeper into rock and funk, his trumpet playing included more atmospheric textures, rhythmic wah wah excursions, and he began a deepening involvement with playing the organ. Some of that was due to the poor health (from drug use and other factors) that led to his retirement in 1975. But not here - he leads the band with command and control, taking classic tunes like Nefertiti to new and more dynamic heights and presenting new material with an assured swagger.

The fourth disc in the set is a DVD, featuring a concert in November 1969 in Berlin filmed in living color. It's well-edited and makes for illuminating viewing - Miles and the band were completely engaged and listening carefully to each other. The concert, like all the shows presented is brilliant, full of complex interplay, melodic invention and occasionally touching on the outskirts of free jazz. Though there is nothing tentative about these concerts, Miles and his players were still finding their way in the new world they were creating. Some of that future included Teo Macero in the editing room, cutting and pasting, but Live In Europe 1969 is a glorious reminder of the potency of live, uncut performances, and is now an essential part of the story of Miles Davis.

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