Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Miles electric

Suppose I told you that I think Miles Davis' masterwork wasn't "Kind of Blue" but "Bitches Brew," or at least "In a Silent Way?" No, I haven't flipped and I'm not drinking, not right now. But I did just finish "Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis" by Philip Freeman, what amounts to an extended analysis of the music from Miles' electric period in a nifty, information-packed new book I recommend highly. (It's a good read, too.)

I've had a thing for Miles electric since reading John Szwed's excellent biography of Davis "So What" a few years ago, which prompted me to rethink my aversion to his 1970s-90s output. "Running the Voodoo Down" has left me with an even deeper appreciation for the music as I work through significant CDs from the period, like "A Tribute to Jack Johnson," "Agharta," "On the Corner," "We Want Miles," "Tutu" and "Dark Magus" and "Get Up with It," the latter two of which I just purchased recently because of Freeman's description of them. ("He Loved Him Madly" and "Calypso Frelimo" on "Get Up with It" are without a doubt two of the more fascinating pieces of music I have heard.)

I think of "West End Blues" or "A Love Supreme" (as well as Beethoven's Ninth, Sousa marches, Muddy Waters singing "Mannish Boy" and Bruce Springsteen doing "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" for that matter) as powerful music because of their ability to move me, emotionally and physically.

The electronically oriented music Miles Davis made starting with "In a Silent Way" in 1969 is powerful on a more intellectual level, because of the ideas, the musical conception, behind it, and yet it's often visceral in nature at the same time. As Freeman notes, it also mixes multiple genres of jazz, the blues, soul, funk, rock, punk, even classical and proto hip-hop, metal and techno elements, not to mention African and Indian musics, among others. How many people have pulled off incorporating that kind of diversity in their music? It's alchemy, man, about as amazing as turning taconite pellets into gold nuggets would be, made possible because the guy at the heart of it brought to the table three, four, almost five decades (depending on when you're talking about) of experience assimilating a variety of music into his and, periodically, altering his music radically. Not to mention a mind I don't think worked quite like yours and mine, mine anyway.

Rather than being throwaway stuff made to sell disks in a rock-dominated environment, I think much of it represents the apex of Miles Davis' musical odyssey. Not all of it is great, certainly. Yes, some of it was likely aimed at pop sales. ("Doo-Bop" for sure, which I like anyway.) But it also includes some stunningly intricate music and some of Davis' best trumpet playing. (See "Live at the Fillmore East March 7, 1970: It's About That Time.") Some of it is downright elemental. (Like all of "On the Corner" and "Mtume" on "Get up with It.")

As a technology writer as well as a music listener, I'm not bothered by the electronics or the post-production work that, often in the hands of producer Teo Macero, turned fragments into a coherent whole. They're just additional tools, additional instruments if you will. I heard Herbie Hancock (a former Davis sideman who's all over Miles electric) and Michael Brecker play together last year and they employed synthesizers, iMacs and an Electronic Wind Instrument as well as acoustic jazz instruments. It was one of the best concerts I've been to, ever.

Springsteen's "Born to Run," the Beatles' "Abbey Road," U2's "Joshua Tree," Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" (kidding), almost any great rock recording of the past 40 years was heavily worked over after recording and it probably wasn't recorded sequentially. All you have to do is hear the stuff live to know this. But the fact doesn't diminish the greatness of the recordings, or their power.

The music from Miles Davis' electric period is equally powerful to me, albeit it a power more difficult to access because it requires careful listening to really understand, and listening with an open mind. But I find the payoff well worth it.

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