The first sounds you hear on this two-disc live set are notes from Miles’s Yamaha electric organ before they’re joined by a dense, chugging, funky groove from the rest of the band until about the 1:30 mark when Miles blasts the sound with a dissonant cluster of notes on the organ. In this opening, a far cry from the delicacy of “So What,” the textured beauty of the orchestral albums with Gil Evans or even the fractured bop stylings of the second quintet, you get an immediate sense of what kind of sound you can expect from this record. Even if you’ve been following his notorious 1970’s electric period through to this point, this record still provides something new and challenging compared to the murky strangeness of Bitches Brew, the relentlessly nagging rhythms of On the Corner or the muscular bravura of Live-Evil. I own every record Miles released in the 70’s and I like this one better than any named above – and almost any of his albums of the electric era, period (though 1970’s Tribute to Jack Johnson or 1969’s In A Silent Way might give me some pause). Miles changed quickly at this time in his career and never looked back, so liking one record gives you no guarantee that the next one will be to your tastes. And that first couple minutes will let you know right away if this work is for you. It won’t tell you everywhere it’s gonna take you on the ride, but you know from the get-go that the protean Mr. Davis has changed his sound drastically yet again here.
As always, what Miles is doing is much more than just playing trumpet and writing or adapting musical themes – as much as any bandleader in jazz, he’s utilizing the unique skills of his players and “playing” the ensemble. So after he comes in and solos relatively quietly through a wah-wah pedal for several minutes starting around the 2:30 mark – hardly the delicate beauty of his 50’s solos or the robust open horn playing of only a few years before – he hands the reins over to Sonny Fortune’s alto sax. It’s something he’s unafraid to do throughout the record (and throughout his career, actually) – allow other players to take the spotlight even knowing that they may outshine him. And Fortune sounds great here, though after a bit Miles decides that his solo is done by signaling with another blast from the organ that tells Pete Cosey it’s time for his guitar to come in. Let’s talk about Cosey for a minute.
Prior to joining Miles’s group in 1973, Pete Cosey was a session man at Chess Records, playing on records by Fontella Bass, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Rotary Connection, among others. But the only one that really gives an inkling of the music that would start coming from his guitar under Miles’ tutelage is the much-maligned Muddy Waters album Electric Mud, where the untamed noise he’d soon be issuing started to peek its head out. Among Miles aficionados, the septet that Miles worked with from 1973 until his temporary retirement in 1975 is often referred to in shorthand as “the Pete Cosey Band” because of the prominence of Cosey’s scouring guitar solos, compared in one stroke by jazz critic Greg Tate to both Hendrix for his use of distortion and effects and Cecil Taylor for his harmonic construction and the “out”-ness of his soloing.
So Fortune comes in and solos, but not without Miles continuing to work with the rest of the group, shifting the dynamics behind him and pulling the rest of the musicians out entirely at one point, leaving Fortune solo in the truest sense of the word. And then Cosey comes in and something else happens. The dense funk behind him is suddenly on fire – if the electric sounds leading up to this point were operating at a strong 100 volts, Cosey pushes it to 500 – probably not enough to kill you, but enough to break the skin for sure. And his solo here is a marvel, a wild, bluesy, psychedelic, noise-drenched beast with the band tightly wound underneath him. Once his excoriating turn is done, a mellower groove kicks in, with Davis’s prickly keyboards shining out through the ensemble before he picks up his horn again.
After more of the lead cut, the band moves into “Maiysha,” a piece that first appeared on the 1974 album Get Up With It, and it lessens the intensity a touch as Fortune switches to flute – but Cosey still rips into it with a solo even more “out” than the freaky one he derails the studio version with. And even so, “Maiysha” provides a beautiful, laid-back groove over which Miles takes a more lyrical solo than on the previous track – before Cosey steps in, of course. The piece then tails off towards texture and quiet near the end of the disc.
Disc two – a continuous medley of music broken into two titles here – kicks off at a rocketing tempo with the “Theme From Jack Johnson” (mislabeled as “Interlude”) and shortly works into a Fortune alto solo. Percussionist Mtume is much more prominent here than the first disc, especially when Miles is soloing. The two had a close musical kinship and when Miles solos, it’s worth putting your attention toward how sensitive and responsive Mtume is to Davis’s playing. The beat unexpectedly changes to a shuffle behind a Cosey solo then cools down for Miles’ solo, probably his best and most lyrical on the record, a reward for those who’ve been waiting to hear him solo like this after so much sound and fury – including much interaction with Mtume up in the mix. Miles ends his solo a little after the 13-minute mark, when bassist Michael Henderson drops in the bass riff from “So What” as Pete Cosey takes on a milder and also more lyrical solo, proving that he’s not just a noisy effects man. “So What” is repeated more obviously after the 17-minute mark before Fortune starts a flute solo and the band moves into an eerie, slower part of the music full of jungle menace and weird synth sounds. (I listened to it once at the Tropical Discovery exhibit at the Denver Zoo and it was the perfect soundtrack!) As it gains rhythmic force, they hit a new groove, and there’s a brief guitar solo that may be rhythm guitarist Reggie Lucas (I haven’t been able to confirm this with any of the Miles scholars I know, but I believe it to be true). Things cool back down again for a textural interlude before a majestic, heavy, and melancholy Cosey solo. This corresponds very closely to one Cosey plays in about the same spot on Agharta’s companion piece Pangaea – Agharta documents an afternoon concert, Pangaea was the evening show – and the Pangaea solo is probably the best bit of Cosey’s work of all four discs (followed closely by Agharta’s first disc one solo). The record mellows again after that, with Miles on organ getting funky for a little bit a little after the 44-minute mark until the band closes the whole thing on a mysterious fade out with Cosey’s sparking feedback, Fortune’s floating flute, and Miles having left the stage.
I understand those who don’t like this music – it’s too noisy for some, too difficult to discern the structure of the long, loosely organized pieces for others. Critics at the time mostly reacted badly to it as well, though it’s gotten a reappraisal lately (even by some who initially trashed it) and is rightly seen as a highlight in a career filled with many transcendent peaks. But here’s the deal – it’s ensemble music, not necessarily soloist’s music, despite my descriptions above of many great solos. It’s a dense weave of sound that challenges the way we’re supposed to hear “jazz.” Is it even jazz at all? Who cares!? If there’s a problem there, it’s with the word “jazz,” which isn’t broad enough to contain music like this, not with the music herein.
- Patrick Brown