Monday, December 24, 2007

Miles Davis - 1971 - Live/Evil


Disc 1

01 - Sivad
02 - Little Church
03 - Medley: Gemini/Double Image
04 - What I Say
05 - Nem Um Talvez

Disc 2

01 - Selim
02 - Funky Tonk
03 - Inamorata And Narration by Conrad Roberts


There’s something about the way this music hits me. It’s not as if I haven’t been exposed to lots of hard, loud music – in fact, compared to some of the stuff that now gets called “fusion,” Miles Davis’ version can often seem quaint on the surface. At the time of the shows documented on this 1970 set, he was playing with a new band (something he was doing more often than in any period of his life theretofore), and playing music that, while broached in the previous couple of years by himself and very few others, was rather unheard of to most music listeners of the time, and certainly the canonical jazz guard.

Davis’ ability to pluck players from all over has been fairly well absorbed into the arcane annals of jazz history, and something which I think rock listeners usually take some pride in, especially given that so many of the ones he plucked at that time were at least as much on a rocky road than a jazz one. Maybe that’s why the music they made was so unusual. Whereas the literal fusing of jazz and rock made journalists, critics and DJs have very little problem pigeonholing the sound of a hundred bands with virtually nothing in common except the way they were misunderstood or dismissed by various music experts and traditionalists. You know, Blood Sweat & Tears wins a Grammy in 1969 for “Spinning Wheel” and the rock press cheers their eccentricity and radical introduction of jazz into the pop vocabulary – Davis responds by making fun of the song’s hook on Bitches Brew. It turns out mixing rock and jazz wasn’t always revolutionary. Of course, the rock press redeemed themselves by sheer fickleness in the coming years by writing off bands like BS&T as lightweight clowns.

In the hands of a curious, inspired artist, the exact same convoluted fusion could work. Davis made the initial, relatively clumsy stabs on albums like Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, and really got down to his genius business on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The way he progressed, mastering one element at a time, from picking his players, experimenting with editing and tape loops in the studio, to jumping headfirst into the rock circus, playing in front of crowds more accustomed to “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” as an encore rather than “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” This modular advancement was at once subversive and marvelously efficient. In fact, the only other act in rock at the time to ever make such a successful leap in so short a time was The Beatles (in the mid 60s), and it shouldn't come as a surprise that Davis was highly influenced by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And there really is something about the way this stuff hits me. Live-Evil was released in 1971, and details two sets at The Cellar Door, Washington, DC, in December of 1970, and two recording sessions completed earlier in the year. The session stuff generally finds Davis in full mystical mode, as if starting from “Nefertiti” and working his way through Messiaen and who knows what rootless, exploratory concept of what makes a jazz ballad. The live stuff is a different animal entirely, and is arguably as close as Davis ever got to actual integration of rock and funk into his music. The beats are there, and the bass is right up front, but there is something else.

On paper, you can see how the players would probably sound good: Davis, the ringleader, on his horn, often with the wah-wah and other assorted aggressive filtration; Keith Jarrett, a holdover from the Bitches Brew touring band, on electric piano; Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira as the rhythm makers, also from the Bitches Brew band; Gary Bartz on soprano and alto sax, and Michael Henderson, fresh from Aretha Franklin’s band, on bass. A pretty nice lineup, and then there was the last minute addition of one John McLaughlin on guitar – these performances were probably fated to be special, as this kind of apparently offhanded, yet rather essential, arrival (Bartz later said that the group had never played with McLaughlin before this date) generally signals good things to come.

The first music recorded for Live-Evil actually came from sessions just after Bitches Brew, in February 1970. “Gemini/Double Image” is a slow burning, blues-mourn featuring most of the people who appeared on the legendary studio album, and was actually written by Davis’ former keyboardist Joe Zawinul. McLaughlin begins the wail with some very Hendrix-inspired figures, and in fact some of this tune is reminiscent of the more bluesy offerings from Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys release. Miles plays something like a head, accompanied by various exotic percussion instruments, and a rock-steady, albeit intermittent drum pulse.

In the summer of 1970, Davis entered the studio with a different band (featuring Steve Grossman, Ron Carter and Brazilian transplant Hermeto Pascoal, in addition to most of Davis’ regular partners from the time), and commenced laying down more peaceful tracks than the earlier session. “Selim”, at just over two minutes, is the shortest piece of music on the album, but is also one of the most singularly beautiful. Davis plays the tune, pensive and vulnerable, and is joined by Pascoal’s disembodied vocal. It is reminiscent of the otherworldly, hymnal music from In A Silent Way. “Nem Um Talvez” is in the same vain, though slightly longer, and featuring some subtle, reverb-laden auxiliary percussion. Furthermore, the band recorded “Little Church” the following day, which uses what sounds like a church organ and Pascoal’s (who wrote the tune) whistling alongside Davis’s muted trumpet to enhance the mood a tad. After so many years, it’s still odd to hear the breadth of expression of which these guys were capable. Warm, more than a little spacey and perfectly realized. And this stuff never even made it to the road.

As engaging as the studio material was, it is the live music that gives this release its teeth. “Sivad” begins without any hint of hesitancy over playing fairly unprecedented music, and in fact jumps headfirst into the groove like no music had ever come before. DeJohnette and Henderson are major reasons why Davis’ music from the period retains its power and cutting edge: these men play like hawks, circling around the band, pouncing at all the appropriate (and many other) moments, and just playing LOUD. One aspect of this band, and most of Davis’ bands in the 70s is that they tended towards the rock dynamic even if they played with jazz instrumentation.

“Sivad” begins as hard funk, but soon transforms into a blues lament (again recalling Hendrix), stretching out the hazy vamp for Davis, McLaughlin and Jarrett to take a chorus or six. Conversely, “What I Say” just stays with hard funk. The groove is faster than the former tune, and is superficially less “evil”, though I would add that any tune featuring Davis’ screech hits can never really be all that nice. Henderson lays down an assured ostinato, and DeJohnette plays the rock beats like he invented the stuff. Jarrett wastes no time in launching a solo. The tune also features one of two drum solos by DeJohnette on the record, both of which are great examples of a mixture of abstract jazz exploration and sheer rock pummeling.

“Funky Tonk” is mostly famous for Jarrett’s amazing, unaccompanied solo in the middle of the tune, for which the audience – doubtlessly less familiar with the piano player than they were Davis – emphatically gives its approval. “Inamorata and Narration by Conrad Roberts”, despite featuring the rather stream of consciousness prose from Roberts referenced in the title, is still more prime hard fusion. It would be hard to imagine a band more on top of their game than this one was at the Cellar Door date, and given that Davis would go on to tinker with his lineups increasingly before his early retirement in 1976, that this group of people were playing this closely and passionately is practically a miracle.

And even beyond all the grooves and tunes and solos and mystical cul-de-sacs, there is still something about Live-Evil that hits me strangely. Most of Davis’ other live albums from the period are a lot spottier than this one, especially as he got closer to retirement. It could be that he hadn’t gotten so heavily into drugs and the “rock star” lifestyle by the time of this album that he couldn’t still have some semblance of control of his sound. Or, it could be that this band of players simply couldn’t go wrong, and were actually on the verge of becoming so powerful, they had to split off, one-by-one, to start their own journeys. But what I really think it is, what I really believe makes Live-Evil so great is its sheer aggressive spirit. Miles Davis didn’t claim to be the best bandleader or the best trumpet player, but he did lead by example, and his bands played harder than anyone else I can think of. Live-Evil is a testament to what can happen when a real leader and artist sets his group free to tear down barriers, and on these dates, they did like no others.
--Dominique Leone