Since Miles Davis died on September 28, 1991, the merchandising machine has been in overdrive, pushing repackaged classics (Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain), niche compilations and concert anthologies (Mellow Miles, Heard Around the World), and posthumous remixes aimed, as Miles himself often did, at a new constituency beyond the jazz audience. His two principal labels, Columbia and Warner Bros., have collated his work with saxophonist John Coltrane and arranger Gil Evans. More sumptuous is the boxed set of his appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1973 and 1991, twenty CDs and well over twenty hours of music. The Miles Davis estate has had the trumpeter’s famously lithe silhouette, familiar from re-issues of Sketches of Spain, registered as a logo. Even the art market was briefly flooded with Miles’s psychedelic doodles, the legacy of a time when he seemed to prefer sketching backstage to playing trumpet on it. It is an astonishing afterlife, though one that perhaps says more about the music industry than about the protean artist it celebrates.
True fans are always archeologists, and boxed sets are the potsherds of genius. But they’re also often long on chaff, a triumph of commercial packaging over musical insight, and some of the recent Miles Davis boxed sets have left one wondering, Do we really need to hear every note Miles played in the studio? The much-trumpeted Complete Bitches Brew Sessions was actually no such thing, but a bland collage of complete and unedited takes that offered little insight into how Davis and his team worked. The earlier Complete In a Silent Way Sessions boxed set was more fruitful, but left most listeners feeling that the original album edit was as close to perfect as anyone might wish.
The two most recent Miles boxed sets are exceptions to the rule. Nothing short of revelatory, they alter our understanding of two of the most overlooked recordings–indeed, moments–of Miles’s career. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, a work of electric jazz recorded in 1970, shows how an apparently minor soundtrack project led to one of Miles’s most dramatic stylistic and demographic shifts, a phase in his career when his and his audience’s understanding of “jazz” was robustly challenged. The straight-ahead jazz on In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete, a generously augmented version of two live LPs taped at the San Francisco club in 1961, seems, at first, a more routine affair. Yet it arguably contains even more significant revelations.
It’s a cliché that Miles Davis’s two instruments were the trumpet and the recording studio. It’s probably more accurate to say that just as the shimmering orchestral projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s were collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, the innovative and controversial work that came along at the end of the next decade represented a new form of collaboration between Miles and his producer, Teo Macero, who spliced and collaged the jam sessions into the sleek artifacts that were released as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It’s easy to satirize the way the men worked together: Turn on the machines, watch for the red light and play formlessly until you decide to stop, then hand over the material. For debunkers, Miles’s seeming abdication of basic musical control was seen as a symptom of artistic carelessness, if not lethargy. In this view, it was Macero who was the artist, not Miles Davis, who simply provided the raw material.
The argument doesn’t hold much weight, however. For one thing, Miles was always attracted to radical shifts in the means of production, almost as much as he was to new ways of playing. He was one of the first jazz musicians to experiment with overdubbing, and by the late 1960s he had come to see the studio as a new way to approach composition, a conviction that was reinforced by his awareness that studio-confected rock was fast encroaching on his audience. Yet within the enclosed space of the studio, Miles remained an improviser. And, as The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions demonstrates, he was seeking to generate structures from the impromptu discoveries of improvisation. Until now, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (the title of the 1971 release) was a sleeper in the Miles Davis canon. Columbia Records paid it scant attention, putting their marketing effort squarely behind Live at the Fillmore East, recorded a month earlier.
That very title suggests how far Davis had traveled in the previous ten years. By the end of the 1960s, he was reaching out to a new audience with a striking new sound. In March 1970, Miles and what has been called the “lost quintet” appeared at the Fillmore East, Bill Graham’s New York rock barn, as part of a strange-bedfellows billing with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Steve Miller Band. On those nights, they played material mainly from In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. During the days, though, something new was being run down at Columbia’s Studio B on West 52nd Street, a classic jazz address for such unexpected music.
At the time, Miles’s basic group consisted of Steve Grossman (who replaced Wayne Shorter on soprano sax), pianist Chick Corea, English bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira. Over the course of four months, though, Miles would recruit a number of other players. Many were veterans of the Bitches Brew sessions, but some were young, unseasoned musicians hardly out of their teens. Grossman was just 19; electric bassist Michael Henderson, poached from Stevie Wonder’s group, was also still a teenager. The most important voice of all, though, was an up-and-coming English guitarist by the name of John McLaughlin–the driving force on wild, improvisatory pieces like “Right Off” and “Willie Nelson.”
A Tribute to Jack Johnson wasn’t the first time a film project effected a change in the trumpeter’s stylistic thinking. Miles had recorded a moody and abstract soundtrack for the 1958 Louis Malle noir film Elevator to the Gallows. It was a spontaneous recording, made without pre-arranged themes or chord structures, and it opened up a dramatic new sound-world for Miles, more concerned with mood than with harmonic line and logic. The phase that opened up with Bitches Brew and took a fresh turn with the Jack Johnson sessions was both an extension of that abstraction and a deviation from its floating, almost unmetrical pulse. Along with McLaughlin’s guitar, Henderson’s almost primitively locked-in bass was the new signature sound, anchoring the funky, Day-Glo ostinati that Miles preferred as backdrops to his increasingly free improvisations. The dense keyboard textures and polyrhythmic percussion that became the signature sound of Bitches Brew gave way to something leaner, darker and faster on its feet.
Unlike the Malle film, William Cayton’s documentary on the life of boxer Jack Johnson–who won the world heavyweight title in controversial circumstances in 1908 and lost it again equally controversially seven years later–was close to Miles’s heart. Johnson’s flamboyance, conspicuous success and clashes with the white establishment seemed to prefigure Miles’s own. The trumpeter also liked to hang out in boxing gyms and spar, helping to build the image of a sharply combative little cat always ready to defend his turf. Many of the tracks on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions are named after great boxers: “Ali,” “Duran,” “Archie Moore.”
The original Tribute to Jack Johnson, released in February 1971, consisted of just two LP-side pieces, “Yesternow” and “Right Off.” Both were assembled after the fact by Teo Macero, but the basic performances remained surprisingly intact. At the April 7, 1970, session “Right Off” began as a vague studio jam. McLaughlin, presumably bored with waiting while Miles and Teo talked shop in the booth, started to play a shuffle vamp in E. Henderson and drummer Billy Cobham picked up on it and started to play. Herbie Hancock had been passing through and was drafted on organ. After a few minutes, the red light was on, and Miles was in the studio playing some of the fiercest trumpet of his career.
The “Right Off” that appeared on the original record consisted of edits from three takes of the theme made that day, together with an unaccompanied trumpet solo Miles had taped for Macero in November 1969. These takes are now available in full. “Yesternow” was compiled in a similar way, using takes of “Willie Nelson” recorded in February 1970 with a different band. This lineup included Chick Corea on electric piano, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet and a second guitarist, the heavily echoplexed Sonny Sharrock. Again, Macero reverted to the 1969 solo trumpet tape and to an orchestral accompaniment underneath actor Brock Peters’s narration. It’s a less surprising track, but no less powerful than “Right Off” and driven by the same visceral intensity, thanks to a twelve-minute bass riff ripped off from James Brown and Sly Stone.
When Miles returned to the studio two years later to record On the Corner, he made an even more blatant bid for a new rock constituency, with doubled guitars and an even skimpier bass line. Perhaps the message of Jack Johnson didn’t get across to the trumpeter’s satisfaction. It remains, however, the roughest, rawest electric jazz ever recorded. It stands on the brink of what was to be Miles’s most difficult decade, artistically and personally. The roiling anthems of Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea, guitar- and organ-heavy, with the scanty trumpet parts distorted and wah-wahed almost out of existence, weren’t considered releasable in the United States and originally appeared only in Japan. After that, illness closed in and Miles disappeared for the rest of the decade, an almost forgotten figure until the pained, painful comeback of the early 1980s.
Invisibility almost always leads to mythology. With no new records coming, fans pored over the back catalogue and critics cemented into consensus a whole set of casually unsubstantiated clichés about the trumpeter: that he had given up on jazz entirely, that his trumpet playing had always been “minimal” (a notion that dogged him throughout his career, no matter how many notes he packed into his solos), that he had never been a sufficiently able technician to manage the fast transitions of bebop, even that music mattered to him less than a certain mode of presentation. This myth can hardly survive The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, which highlights Miles’s mastery of improvisation at furious levels of speed and intensity. It certainly can’t survive the even more remarkable At the Blackhawk.
Long disparaged (by, among others, Miles himself) as an uninspired, “transitional” work, At the Blackhawk is long overdue for reappraisal. Miles’s first official live recording, it was taped on April 21-22, 1961, when he was just a few weeks shy of his thirty-fifth birthday. Like many a historical text before it, the record Columbia released that year was left full of lacunae and inconsistencies. Different release versions featured different songs; bootlegs circulated with incorrect titles; completist collectors were obliged to make do with Japanese liner notes. Now, after more than forty years, it is finally possible to hear all the music played on those two spring nights, spread over four ear-opening CDs.
The perfectionist Miles had thus far resisted making a club recording, but he was open to trying new things, since he was nearing the end of one of the most creative periods of his career. Miles had recently terminated an extraordinary but often troubled working relationship with John Coltrane. Trane was initially replaced by Sonny Stitt, a contemporary of Charlie Parker. But Stitt probably sounded like too much of a throwback for Miles, who soon replaced him with funky hard-bop tenor Hank Mobley. Despite an impressive pedigree of Blue Note releases, and despite the obvious attraction to Miles of a terser improvisor than Coltrane, whose solos could last close to an hour, Mobley seemed an improbable choice.
It was, however, consistent with other changes in the band, and with the same pattern of changes one sees in the late 1960s. Quite simply, Miles was looking for a “blacker” sound, for a less self-conscious and virtuosic approach than Coltrane’s. This explains his attraction later to Michael Henderson and Steve Grossman, both relatively raw teenagers. Mobley was far from that–in 1961, he was 31 and with a sequence of Blue Note and Savoy discs already to his credit. Yet he was deeply rooted in the blues and temperamentally averse to using ten notes when one would do. In his memoir, written with Quincy Troupe, Miles complained, “Playing with Hank just wasn’t fun for me; he didn’t stimulate my imagination.” Maybe so–but the evidence on record suggests otherwise.
Miles had also recently replaced his pianist, Bill Evans, with the 30-year-old Jamaican-born Wynton Kelly, a rhythmic, blues-based player whose work contrasted sharply with Evans’s Debussian lyricism and who could be expected to fit in with Mobley’s curiously hybrid tough-tender sound. The other members of the rhythm section–bassist Paul Chambers and the redoubtable Jimmy Cobb–had played on Kind of Blue, Miles’s 1959 masterwork. Even so, the overall sound of the group had changed significantly, and in a way that challenges the consensus view of Miles’s development in the 1960s.
As a document, the At the Blackhawk boxed set is clearly a different animal from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. The latter is a tissue of studio takes, music made with a certain sense of history being unmade, not only in the fact that we perceive it running through the projector backward–finished artifact first, raw components afterward–but also because Miles was deeply concerned with how history had dealt with a black hero like Johnson. There was no such hidden drama in 1961, no program to be followed and no effort to attract a new audience. The Blackhawk material is the record of a club engagement, offering, or so it would seem, the traditional satisfaction of straight-ahead jazz rather than the frisson of innovation. But, modest as they seem, these are revelatory recordings, and they prompt a wholesale reassessment of Miles’s mid-career. Is the playing cool? Minimal? Airy? Uneasy with bebop? Not a bit of it. Miles’s two nights at the Blackhawk witness some of his fieriest and most loquacious playing and some of his most complex harmonic improvisation. With supreme irony, almost the first thing one hears at the start of the first night, a Friday, is Miles fluffing his intro to a bebop classic, Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo.” He makes up for it immediately and delivers a blazing solo that must count as one of his best of the period.
The opening set of At the Blackhawk is dominated by a reading of the staple “No Blues,” which comes in at more than seventeen minutes. Here again both Miles and Mobley are in their element, but the key to this band is Kelly’s work on piano. Kelly has extraordinary hand speed, even greater quickness of thought and exactly the kind of spatial awareness Miles must have looked for in an accompanist. His fast, bluesy piano runs anticipate the horns, support them and pick up their cues almost telepathically. Kelly almost never cuts across Miles or the somewhat lumbering Mobley, and he never plays a facile or merely workmanlike phrase. Every note he plays counts.
After a long, passionate interpretation of Cole Porter’s “All of You,” the second set continues with another of the previously unreleased tracks, a theme known as “Teo,” after Miles’s producer, but here unaccountably titled “Neo.” How new it is in this interpretation is hard to gauge. It is not so much reharmonized as industrially strengthened. Kelly puts unbreakable spider-wires across the chords, Cobb and Chambers rev up the pulse and Miles fires off strings of notes that are as elaborate in construction as anything he had committed to record. It’s a tune that turns up again on the Saturday night, along with versions of “No Blues,” “If I Were a Bell,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “I Thought About You” and the little set closer, “Love, I’ve Found You,” which functions much like “The Theme” and rounds things off. After his uneasy pick-up, Miles doesn’t choose to revisit “Oleo” but starts off at a rather more familiar velocity with the release version of “If I Were a Bell.” The contrast between the two versions of the Frank Loesser standard would be hard to exaggerate. Whereas on Friday, starting off the third set Miles attacks the tune as if it were an air-raid warning, on Saturday he takes it with a much easier swing and bounce and relies on Kelly to fill in the harmony. He’s back on the attack for an unbelievably fast version of “So What,” which almost doubles the tempo of the version on Kind of Blue. Kelly’s open chords leave the field wide open for both Davis and Mobley.
Richard Carpenter’s composition “Walkin'” had been the centerpiece of the previous night’s second set, despite being marred by articulation problems and a couple of missed cues. The Saturday version is more than a tour de force. In twelve astonishing minutes, Miles deconstructs the tune. Five minutes in, he remakes it again as Kelly and Mobley join him in new harmonic territory. The intensity of Miles’s playing is remarkable. His solo is rich, maximal and far from introverted; he sounds almost malevolently focused.
There is nothing else quite as good on any of the four CDs. From a historical point of view, the inclusion of a complete late set from Saturday night–“I Thought About You,” “Someday My Prince Will Come” and a double-time “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”–is very important, not least because it illustrates the unexpectedly hard-swinging nature of this lineup. Leaving aside a few bad cues, miscounts (on Miles’s part, largely) and a foreshortened “Autumn Leaves,” which starts a little late because the tape machine wasn’t switched on, it’s hard to see why all this material hasn’t been released sooner.
The Blackhawk sessions are among Miles’s purest jazz performances. These are the proof that he could cut it as a hard-blowing and straight-ahead jazz musician, terms he probably regarded as demeaning even as he picked up his campaign medals. His seeming lack of interest in this kind of improvisation in later years didn’t disguise a lack of ability. Miles’s outward cool and sophistication ironically camouflaged a roots artist who constantly tried to take jazz back to the basics, in blues, dance and popular song.
Recognizing all this in turn reshapes our image of Miles in later years. Take that same hard-blowing, blues-laden bopper and see if you can still find him in 1969, when Miles was presumed to be off on another riff entirely. Is he there? On the evidence of Jack Johnson’s “Right Off,” emphatically yes. Davis may have changed obsessively, but he also obsessively remained the same, true to the rootstocks and wellsprings of jazz all the way from Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong to the revolutionary realignment of bebop.
Whatever its motivation and pitfalls, these most recent reissues have subtly changed our awareness of Miles in the round and not just in the minute detail. A Tribute to Jack Johnson stands as a more important and more radical work than Bitches Brew, which now seems partial and compromised, keeping too much of a footing in an older style. It is also a project on which Miles feels able to let rip at what he did best, playing the trumpet. At the Blackhawk does something rather different. It does not present a great jazz musician as ambitious auteur but as a passionate exponent of a great vernacular art form. The 1961 band spoke with a common plainness of purpose. Mobley and Kelly were important factors in that, but it was Miles Davis’s own strong utterance that makes these restored performances so compelling.
Norman Mailer, who crossed paths and swords with Miles at least once, wrote sententiously about trying to “capture the Prince of Truth in the act of switching a style.” The Prince of Darkness changed styles less often than he pretended. Miles spoke of change as if it were both vocation and burden, and superficially the Miles of 1971 was a very different artist from the Miles of a decade earlier. Look deeper, though, and it is a consistency of purpose and language that comes through. Miles changed in order to remain the same, and to remain true to what is still a radical understanding of what black American music is about.