Is it weird that 1970 has become the most documented year of Miles Davis’s life? At the time, that wasn’t the case at all. He only released two albums that year—Bitches Brew, recorded the previous August, came out in April, and At Fillmore appeared in December, six months after its recording. An average year’s production, no more or less. But over the subsequent four and a half decades, more material (both studio and live) from 1970 has emerged than from any other year. At present, the tally includes a total of 14 sessions from January through June, the results of which are scattered among A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, the compilations Big Fun, Get Up With It, Circle in the Round and Directions, as well as the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions and Complete Jack Johnson Sessions boxes; and live dates from March, April, June, August and December, captured on Live at the Fillmore East March 7, 1970: It’s About That Time, Black Beauty, At Fillmore, Bitches Brew Live, and The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (itself an expansion of Live-Evil), respectively. And that’s just the official stuff; there are additional shows from August, October and November that presently reside only with bootleggers.
What’s great about having all this material available is the ability it grants the obsessive Davis scholar to examine the way his band and sound changed over the course of the year. In 1969, the trumpeter was fronting a working band that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, with percussionist Airto Moreira an intermittent presence. Though the core quintet never did much studio work, they can be heard on the three-CD/one-DVD set Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2. Transition began on March 7, 1970, Shorter’s final appearance with the band. His replacement was Steve Grossman, first heard on the April 10 Fillmore West show documented on Black Beauty (originally released in 1973). Between the April gigs and the June shows at the Fillmore East, Keith Jarrett joined the band as second keyboardist. This dual-keyboard septet lasted until autumn (minus Grossman, who was replaced in late summer by Gary Bartz), when Corea and Holland left to form the avant-garde group Circle with Anthony Braxton on reeds and Barry Altschul on drums.
The loss of Corea and Holland was a major turning point for Davis. He replaced the bassist with Michael Henderson, a 19-year-old funk player—recruited from Stevie Wonder’s band—who had to be told by older peers how prestigious a gig with Miles Davis actually was. (Before joining full time, Henderson played on the April 7 session that yielded much of A Tribute to Jack Johnson.) As a consequence, the music began to move to a much more bottom-heavy, throbbing groove. The movement to this new sound—which is unmistakable on the six-CD The Cellar Door Sessions 1970—was the beginning of the end of Davis’s career as a jazz musician.
That’s the thing that has to be understood, really—1971 was the last year that Miles Davis was playing music that could reasonably be categorized as jazz. Electric jazz played at high volume, yes, but jazz nonetheless. There were loose melodies that were mostly platforms for extended improvisation; there were organic exchanges of ideas between bandmembers; there was rhythmic flux. It was loud, it was raucous, it had aggression to spare, but it was still more jazz than anything else. It wasn’t until 1972’s On the Corner that Davis broke away once and for all, embarking on the funk/rock/groove/soundscape explorations that would define the remainder of his career.
But that’s an argument for another time. (I’ve made it before, at great length.) Limiting ourselves strictly to 1970’s musical output still offers a tremendous amount of fascinating material for analysis. The latest release, the four-CD set Miles at the Fillmore: Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, is out this week, and it’s great on its own but even more so in context. (Buy it from Amazon.)
This is a document of the dual-keyboard septet mentioned above: Davis, Grossman, Jarrett, Corea, Holland, DeJohnette and Moreira. It contains the complete sets performed at the Fillmore East on June 17-20; medleys from each night had previously been culled and released as “Wednesday Miles,” “Thursday Miles,” “Friday Miles” and “Saturday Miles” on At Fillmore. Cacophonous and disjointed, At Fillmore is by far the least essential of Davis’s six 1970s double live albums (the others being Black Beauty, In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall, Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea). The full recordings, by contrast, are fantastic.
The sound quality is amazing—these recordings have been remastered to a level of loudness and clarity that rivals any rock album of the period. DeJohnette’s drums are explosive, with a thick bass boom; Holland gets space to wander around in the mix; Corea’s and Jarrett’s keyboards are clearly discernible from one another, and frequently at quite deliberate cross purposes, offering electric stabs and bursts of raw noise before one man or the other takes the lead and sets up a surging riff; while Moreira’s hand-held instruments are less decorative than disruptive—he creates noises like crying babies or whimpering animals in the corners of the stage, and occasionally erupts in weird vocal cries. Davis and Grossman, meanwhile, take very different approaches to the music. The trumpeter, at this point, was more brash than he’d ever been; the legendary cool of his acoustic years, when he darted in and out like a wasp, stinging and retreating, is gone. He’s up front here, blowing hard through an open horn, hitting sharp, even cruel notes, goading band and audience with the sudden force of his sound. Grossman, by contrast, sounds like he’s playing through a staticky phone connection, and very little of his work is truly memorable; when he doesn’t seem like he’s imitating Wayne Shorter, he’s just meandering around. Still, he makes himself heard through the snarls and zaps coming from the keyboards, and doesn’t let DeJohnette’s bombastic drumming throw him—he’s definitely at home in the music, just not possessed of a strong individual style.
Multi-night documents of this type allow fans to hear a band adjust its approach to material night after night, based on any number of variables including but not limited to the mood of the crowd, the physical condition of the players, or anything else. (Davis has three other sets in this vein: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, The Complete Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, and The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965. All are killer.) The shortest performance here, from June 17, lasts just over 45 minutes; the June 18 set is the longest at nearly an hour, and includes an encore. The final two nights are in the 50-55 minute range as well. Each begins with “Directions,” the fanfare-like tune he opened almost every set, every night, with from 1969 to 1971. (The only performances where he doesn’t use “Directions” as the kickoff are on Disc Two of The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, where for some reason he begins with the much funkier “What I Say,” and Disc Three of Live in Europe 1969, where “Bitches Brew” is the opener.) “Directions” could last anywhere from nine to 19 minutes, depending on the night; on Miles at the Fillmore, the shortest version is 10:10, the longest 12:50. Its piercing melody isn’t all that catchy—it’s more like a spike being driven into your brain, and after exposure to enough live recordings from this era, no matter how fierce the solos may be on a given version, when That Tune comes around again, it’s hard not to wince. Anyway, each night at the Fillmore, the group follows “Directions” with “The Mask” and “It’s About That Time,” each of which shift from abstraction (much of it courtesy of Jarrett and Corea, whose electric organ and Fender Rhodes are in vicious combat throughout) to groove and back again. “The Mask” actually begins with several minutes of noisy keyboard improv backed by barrage-like drumming, before launching into a slow, low-slung, almost swinging groove. On the Wednesday and Thursday night discs, the next tune is “Bitches Brew,” which surges and ebbs much more drastically than the lush studio version, followed by “The Theme,” a showbizzy little blues riff Davis had been using as a set-closer since the 1950s. On Thursday, the night the band got an encore, they play “Spanish Key,” then run through “The Theme” again, as if to say, “OK, this time we’re really out of here.” On Friday and Saturday, with more room to stretch out, the crowd gets to hear brief snippets of the standard “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and Wayne Shorter‘s “Sanctuary,” and on the final night the band throws in a run through “Willie Nelson,” an exercise in metronomic groove the studio version of which wasn’t released until Directions came out in 1981.
The three volumes of the Bootleg Series to date have all been terrific, filling much-needed gaps in the Davis corpus. The first, which gathered live sets from 1967, allowed fans to hear what the trumpeter’s final acoustic quintet sounded like onstage in its last year (the only previous live recordings to be released had been from 1965, at the very beginning of the group’s existence, and they evolved with shocking speed). The second, featuring shows from 1969, documented a band with barely any recordings to its name. This third volume salvages a regrettable live album, turning it into a vibrant, essential document of a player and band at the top of their game. If I could pick any period to appear on a Vol. 4, it would be a fall 1971 European tour on which, again, the band was in transition, with Davis joined by Bartz on saxophone, Jarrett the sole keyboardist, Henderson on bass, Ndugu Leon Chancler on drums, and Charles Don Alias and James Mtume Forman on percussion. But we’ll see where Legacy decides to go next.
Stream the whole set on Spotify: