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Tucson Weekly Covering Miles

At last, the years are kind to the late godfather of progressive funk.

By Dave McElfresh

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  APART FROM THE 1913 riot against Stravinsky following the debut of his "Rite of Spring," probably no one other than Miles Davis has been so hated for creating music that later proved to be so visionary. Thanks to the Columbia/Legacy label, you can now hear for yourself his most despised music on the five, double-album collections now available on CD: Black Beauty, Miles Davis At Fillmore, Live-Evil, In Concert and Dark Magus. If you're turned off by what you hear because you're used to earlier Davis albums--and most Miles fans still are--you're feeling what the fans, peers and critics felt back in 1970.

The music was appalling in itself, but the '70s version of Davis wouldn't have been as shocking had the loathing not been preceded by nearly three decades of respect for the trumpeter's work.

His hand in creating bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s was highly respected, as was his role in developing cool jazz in the '50s. 1959's Kind Of Blue is the album most jazz fans would say is the best jazz album ever recorded; soon to be followed by the formation of his famous quintet, featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter--possibly the best jazz band ever. The '60s ended with Davis successfully moving into rock terrain with the highly touted In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. No one in jazz--or any genre of music, for that matter--had ever had so prominent a hand in shaping decade after decade of music history.

But then he went too far. Davis made a quantum leap into an utterly outrageous mix of atonality, favoring rock instead of jazz rhythms, and churning out the nastiest funk ever to make it to vinyl--all of it colored by either Brazilian, African or Indian influences. Between 1970 and 1975, Davis recorded what would become an unprecedented series of seven, double-disk live albums. The final two, Pangaea and Agharta, were previously released on Columbia; the following five have recently made it to CD in the states, for the first time.

Black Beauty, Miles Davis At Fillmore (previously only available as a Japanese import) is a recording of Davis' second gig at one of Bill Graham's famous auditoriums--this one featuring him as an opening act for the Grateful Dead in 1970. Davis understandably wasn't sure how his music would go over with a non-jazz crowd, a legitimate concern considering the abrasiveness of his new sound was turning off even hardcore fans. But Graham says in his autobiography that many of the Deadheads danced even to Davis' chainsaw jazz.

Two months later he was opening for The Band in New York's Fillmore East. His sets over each of the four nights were comprised of one long piece lasting 45 very aggressive, testosterone-driven minutes. (The final night's pounding, definitely un-countrified closing section, was entitled "Willie Nelson," whom Davis admired for his similar tendency to intentionally lag far behind the beat.) The shows, found on Miles Davis At Fillmore, received less than wonderful reviews in the morning papers and jazz rags.

And it got worse. Only a month later, Davis' date at the Washington, D.C., Cellar Door showed him tearing off vicious, guttural funk that made the intimidating earlier recordings sound tame by comparison. Mostly to blame for the raw music on Live-Evil was the addition of funk bassist Michael Henderson, and a guest appearance by guitarist extraordinaire John McLaughlin. The radical change in the band's sound was so severe that one would think years rather than days had passed in developing the overwhelming, ominous groove into which Davis had settled. Gary Bartz complained that the music was so loud he couldn't hear his saxophone.

Two years later, as documented on In Concert: Live At The Philharmonic, the trumpeter and his band were playing even meaner music. The trumpet was now equipped with a wah-wah pedal, and a sitar player and Indian percussionist were on board, but the result was a far cry from any George Harrison album.

Critics who had a hard time with number four in this series of live recordings were floored by the intensity of the fifth. Dark Magus: Live At Carnegie Hall (also only previously available as an import) stands as one of the toughest, intentionally primitive jazz albums of all time. The opening "Moja" is the aural equivalent of The Exorcist, with Miles' trumpet screaming more than playing above the relentless rhythm section. Twenty-three years later, the id-driven music still makes you want to either screw or screw with somebody.

Davis' peers and critics almost unanimously offered a third option: The music itself got screwed. Previous Davis mentor Clark Terry referred to it as a "background for a scene in a jungle movie." Trumpeter Blue Mitchell said it sounded like Davis was "trying to kill some time until the set's over." Pianist Horace Silver doubted he'd play Davis' music even if it were given to him. And Doc Severinsen had trouble even identifying Davis' instrument as a trumpet, due to the wah-wah pedal. Downbeat, the king of jazz rags, consistently slammed the releases with one-star ratings.

But finally, we're catching up with the departed legend. In a recent anniversary issue, Downbeat re-evaluated some of the trumpeter's recordings from this era and gave them five stars. Hardcore funkster/jazzers like James Blood Ulmer, Bill Laswell, Living Colour's Vernon Reid and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have built their careers on Davis' sprawling, in-your-face jazz. Listen to the five reissues and you'll hear the roots of most contemporary progressive funk.

Following his initiation of this aural Armageddon, Davis retired for five years. He had myriad health problems, including a failing hip and drug addiction. And he was empty: "Musically, I didn't have anything else to say," he told a reviewer. His reappearance in 1980 with Man With A Horn was a welcomed return, but he would never sound as badass again. In fact, no one, including any of his protégés, has sounded as badass since. Watch how time will even further validate these previously rejected recordings. It's a safe bet that in another decade they'll be considered some of his best output.


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