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Greasy Listening

New Box Set Maps The Blueprint For Miles Davis’ Thermonuclear 1970S Rockfunkjazz

Alex Fine

By Jess Harvell | Posted 1/18/2006

There are too many damn Miles Davis albums, right? Even discounting the endless string of bonus track-stuffed reissues and “complete sessions” box sets unleashed since the late ’90s, Davis recorded enough albums from 1949 to 1991 to keep you happy for years. So with all that in mind, why should you care about another handsomely packaged six-disc slab? Because dude is the alpha and the omega of 20th-century music, or something close to it, and his 35-years-ago can still whup your last week. Who else you got? Young Jeezy? TV on the Radio?

The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Legacy) are essentially the raw materials that went into making 1970’s Live-Evil, recorded at the height of Davis’ royal badness period, whose cover explodes the velvet-painting Afrosurrealism of Bitches Brew: On the front (“Live”), a very pregnant, dark chocolate-colored naked woman presents her ripened belly, a flaming head rising from her flowing robes, almost kissing it. On the back (“Evil”), an obese manimal—a frog crossed with a pregnant white woman?—squats over the maggoty ground. It’s a world removed from the blank, matte cream background and understated red lettering of The Cellar Door Sessions.

Live-Evil’s music oozes a similar mix of beauty and dread. Comprising just one night, Dec. 19, 1970, of the band’s four-night stand at Washington, D.C.’s tiny Cellar Door, Davis and producer Teo Macero (one of the all-time heroes of the tape splice) went crazy with the scissors after the fact. The final product snips away the melody, clips the band’s bubbling funk into a series of stuttering fugues, opens up pits and gaps and uncomfortable yawns. If it’s rock, it owes more to the sooty clouds of Black Sabbath than the San Fran hippies Columbia tried to market Davis to at the time. If it’s funk, it’s the most inhibited and anxious funk until, well, Davis’ own On the Corner in 1972.

Davis was already a giant, even without the high-heel boots. The pay for playing a club was so negligible at that point that the only possible reason was to experiment outside the airless conditions of a recording studio. Davis’ bands at the time were less fixed units than a gypsy caravan in which players came and went, sometimes appearing on records released years after they had left the group. At the Cellar Door, he was flanked by Keith Jarrett on keyboards (at a time when Davis’ band could feature as many as three), Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira on percussion, Gary Bartz on saxophones, and Michael Henderson on bass. Guitarist John McLaughlin, who frustrated Davis for years by refusing to join the band full time, and who is all over the finished Live-Evil, appears only on the last night, and final two discs, of the Cellar Door Sessions set.

Henderson is the big difference here, fresh from stints with Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. He plays with the blunt-edged throb of his R&B roots, a world away from the relaxed swing of Paul Chambers on Kind of Blue a decade before, and he’s the foundation around which the other players circle, adding a street swagger to Davis’ music. Moreira and especially DeJohnette swing wildly around Henderson, intimating a funk pulse before straying with a splash of pure color. Even Jarrett, who would shortly leave the group due to his distaste for the electric keyboards Davis had favored since the late ’60s, feels the funk. On the set-opening take on Joe Zawinul’s “Directions,” Jarrett drops a series of stoned-to-say-the-least notes in a solo that crosses low-rider music with cosmic rock.

Davis is, of course, Davis. Many critics were aghast at his ’70s decision to smother his playing in wah-wah, seeing it as a simplistic device for being heard over the three-car pileup of his electric bands. (When Davis ditched the horn in favor of a creaky organ, which he seemed to play through a pair of cowhide mittens, they really lost it.) But here he rocks that shit, the most controlled use of the wah this side of Hendrix. On the first version of “Honky Tonk,” on Cellar Door’s Disc 2, he sounds like a cosmic harmonica, smearing gutbucket chords like Crisco. Not for nothing can you hear the crowd shouting its approval at the beginning of the disc.

Things really get greasy when McLaughlin shows up on the final two discs, though. The first set he played with the band that night is lost for good, but the second two are like Live-Evil with all the passion reinjected. It’s not necessarily “better,” but it sure is different. On Disc 5, “Directions,” McLaughlin beetles away at a handful of needling chords in the background before firing off a solo that rubs up against the groove like it’s committing a sex crime. Everyone is playing so speedy and taut that it’s like virtuoso punk. On Disc 6, “Directions,” McLaughlin again takes the prize, spitting fire between Bartz and Davis’ streams of gasoline. So leave it to Davis to close out the box with a little of that lyricism everyone was complaining he had lost.

Naturally, six hour-plus discs running through variations on seven songs necessitate a bit of meandering, the occasional bum note or stretch of less-than-gripping playing. Davis’ ’70s groups are typically lauded in the 21st century for their studio innovations, held up as prototypes for hip-hop or drum ’n’ bass or postrock or any number of genres they really have nothing to do with. The Cellar Door Sessions are a reminder that, removed from the freaky-deaky edits and post-facto rationalizing, the Miles Davis groups were still flesh-and-blood humans playing jazz onstage. They played jazz with their ears wide open, yes, but still improvised around a theme, trying to ignite, night after night. How much Davis is too much? I doubt we’ll ever know.

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