Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue [Miles Davis Documentary]

I didn't really get Miles Davis till watching this documentary on his switch to the use of electronic instruments but now I understand him more fully as an uncompromising artist. I'm looking forward to digging around Youtube.

Couple of great quotes from this. One describes Miles style as a boxing methaphor, 'it's all about the final note, jab, jab, jab and then the final note'. The other was the origin of Jazz. Madams in Brothels would tell the piano player to Jazz it up if a customer was taking too long with a hooker upstairs. I think that's brilliant that and far less intrusive than sending one of the girls.

Miles Davis
Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue
British Isle of Wight Festival
August 29, 1970

By the time Miles Davis hit the stage at the British Isle of Wight Festival on August 29, '70, he was fomenting yet another stylistic leap forward, this time with a concept that revolved around extremely loose sketches that were mere starting points for collective improvisation in an aggressively electric context. Unfortunately, he had also alienated much of his core constituency, fans who were more accustomed to the acoustic Miles of the second quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, the Miles of Kind of Blue and Miles the interpreter of the Great American Songbook. If Bitches Brew was a calling card to a more dense, rock and funk-inflected Miles, the group that followed - saxophonist Gary Bartz, electric bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Airto Moreira, electric pianist Chick Corea and organist Keith Jarrett - pushed the limits even further, with a thick and, at times, nearly unfathomable chaos that clearly challenged anyone who thought that Miles had "sold out."

Miles' evolving electric approach may have targeted the younger audience that he ultimately acquired, and the music may have relied more on danceable or hypnotic rhythms, but there was no sense of compromise in his music, as the concert footage from the Isle of Wight Festival on the new DVD, Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue clearly attests. This music is as free as anything Miles ever did. Sure, Holland, DeJohnette and Moreira would loosely maintain a semblance of rhythm, but Corea and Jarrett were layering ever-shifting dissonant harmonies for Miles and Bartz to expound upon, making this music challenging, and hardly a concession to anything.

The ever-irascible Stanley Crouch, in one of the many interviews that comprise the documentary surrounding performance footage on the DVD, asserts "That's bullshit, see that was all just part of the Miles Davis myth. Miles Davis was trying to make some money. Miles Davis was so great that to see him grovel before these commercial arenas by the end of his life was really very difficult. So people had to say 'no, no, no, he didn't sell out, he's moving ahead.'" It may be true that Miles was, on one level, motivated by more worldly concerns, but on the evidence of his performance at Isle of Wight it becomes clear that the music he would make from Bitches Brew through to the mid-'70s when he went into temporary retirement was more strongly compelled by a lifetime characteristic of never looking back, always looking forward.

By this time Miles was clearly influenced by artists including Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, but while his trumpet playing would ultimately emulate some of Hendrix's style, including his sharp, staccato attack and wah wah effect, he was still speaking the harmonic language that had been evolving since the second quintet of the mid-'60s. And as the rhythms became more jungle-like, the grooves more hypnotic, the harmonic backdrop more convoluted and outré, Miles would maintain and develop this harmonic conception.

All this points to Miles' 38-minute performance at Isle of Wight in '70, which is the centrepiece of the DVD, and exhumed footage that fans of Miles' electric period will find essential and naysayers may find illuminating. The interviews that surround the performance shed light on Miles the man, the musician, the innovator. Keith Jarrett, who self-admittedly hated the instrument he was playing, nevertheless asserts in one of his somewhat uncharacteristically congenial interview segments, that the Isle of Wight performance was truly a history lesson of jazz, that it had it all. And if one looks at the individual contributions of the players, it becomes clear that Jarrett's comment is spot on.

And while some of Miles' band members talk about how they were thrown into a "sink or swim" scenario with the use of electric instruments — Hancock and Corea in particular - they all, with the exception of Jarrett, not only found new possibilities with these instruments, but would ultimately go on to make them an integral part of what they would do with their own projects. Hancock demonstrates the richness and mystery of the Fender Rhodes electric piano, while Corea illustrates the odd dissonances that become possible when feeding it through a ring modulator.