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Discovering Electric Miles Davis Through His Jazz Rock and Funk Music

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Sharing a passion for vintage progressive rock and jazz music.

Discovering Miles Davis Through His Jazz Rock and Funk Music

Discovering Miles Davis Through His Jazz Rock and Funk Music

Miles Davis: Not Your Granddad's Jazz

I am still amazed at how many people don't fully grasp what Miles Davis's legacy is all about. So many still only have this vision of the Italian suit wearing Miles circa 1959.

Albums like Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, landmarks in jazz, both had massive crossover appeal. Most people don't know that Davis revolutionized jazz at least five times during his lifetime.

Count me as one of those who didn't have a clue about the organic and breathtakingly original electric music he created from 1969 to 1975. This fusion of jazz, funk, rock, and electronica is still being figured out as to what its legacy is.

In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew are both important landmark albums for jazz rock. The funk-fusion, streetwise sound of On the Corner was hated by critics in its time. These albums may shock your sensibilities—and they just might lead you to the revelation I had, that Miles Davis and his music are not dead museum music, but music for today, with fire and passion, influencing a myriad of genres in the 21st century.

I'll share with you some really good albums that just might get you on your way into the full experience of Miles Davis's music.

Bitches Brew Cover and Vinyl

Bitches Brew Cover and Vinyl

The 3 Most Innovative Electric Miles Davis Albums

If you are an instrumental rock fan, say a fan of some of the over-the-top progressive metal of Dream Theater, some of Steven Wilson's solo work, or his band Porcupine Tree, you might be able to wiggle your listening habits into Miles Davis' 69-75 period.

Don't get me wrong though, you're not going to confuse Miles's "Spanish Key" with anything on Dream Theater's Images and Words. But rather, you'll appreciate the musicianship and freewheeling rock-meets-jazz arrangements that Miles and his various bands put together.

Albums like Bitches Brew, Get Up With it, and Big Fun are loaded with lengthy, stretched-out playing that could possibly blow your mind. Guitarists like John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, and Reggie Lucas should be mentioned with any of the rock gods you worship. I'll take John McLaughlin and Pete Cosey any day over some of the wank-fest shredders out there.

If you dig Soft Machine, Caravan, or Colosseum, I bet you could get into Miles and perhaps other jazz rock like Return to Forever and Al Di Meola.

The #1 Electric Album to Start With: Get Up With It

The album I recommend from Miles Davis above all others for the rock fan exploring new sounds is the double album Get Up With It. A thoroughly enjoyable mixed bag of everything but the kitchen sink. There's jazz funk, jazz rock, experimental jazz and funk fusions, electronic ambient styles, and even a few straight-ahead rock or R&B flag wavers. Tracks like "Honky Tonk," "Red China Blues," and "Billy Preston" will be easy to digest.

The most bizarre track is the proto-drum and bass "Rated X." This track is a tough listen, and certainly foreshadows drum and bass workouts in the future.

Then tracks like the 30 minutes apiece, "Calypso Frelimo," with its swirling funk and rock workout, and the ambient, ahead of its time "He Loved Him Madly" will take some time to dig into, but well worth the time.

Of all the electric albums, Get Up With It has become my favorite, and sort of the pinnacle of the electric music. A Tribute to Jack Johnson is second on my list, Followed by both of the Live Japan concerts Agharta and Pangaea.

Honestly, I can't think of any of the '69 to '75 albums not worth owning. I should mention Bitches Brew should be looked at a little more carefully, it's not nearly as commercial as some reviewers say. In A Silent Way is much easier for a rock fan to dig. It is much softer and more ambient than the avant-garde Bitches Brew, which might take you a while to warm to with really only one track, "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," as the one true commercial-sounding track, with its Sly-and-the-Family-Stone kinky bass groove. Miles absolutely kills the trumpet solo on that track by the way. One of the best of his entire career.

"Honky Tonk" From Get Up With It

2. Big Fun: Droning Double Slabs of Jazz Rock

Big Fun indeed: Miles was so ahead of the curve, these outtakes were from sessions released from 1969 and 1972, and not released until 1974. Big Fun was barely noticed at the time, 26 years later the digital remaster was released on CD.

Finally I think enough time has passed to give this music the needed space to catch up with the rest of the world's recorded music.

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So many things of note within the electric music of Miles Davis: Producer Teo Macero's production techniques were way ahead of their time, and the overall combination of Indian instruments with rock and funk must have seemed bizarre even for jazz rock.

There is no point denying how imperfect Big Fun is; at times, it does feel thrown-together like some cosmic stew of international sounds.

Big Fun has an interesting production technique from producer Teo Macero, who seems completely thrilled with just trying out every new gizmo and gadget Columbia Records could dream up in the studio.

Oh how fun this time period must have been, how exciting to create and break new ground on the fly like Miles did during the 70s.

The most overtly funky track from Big Fun is "Ife," a repetitive bass drone track that sounds like could have been on the On the Corner album. The rest of the album to my ears sounds like Bitches Brew outtakes, especially "Go Ahead John."

The first time I heard "Go Ahead John," it nearly drove me crazy. Teo Macero's channel switcher on Jack Dejohnette's drums almost ruined it for me. Years later I happened to give the track another shot, but this time without headphones.

The isolation of the headphones made the effect almost torturous to me. "Go Ahead John" turns out to be a fantastic 27-minute-long dirge. It also features only five musicians: Davis on trumpet, John McLaughlin on guitar, Steve Grossman on sax, Dave Holland on Bass, and Jack Dejohnette on drums.

Also, it is worth noting that "Go Ahead John" has no keyboard of any kind. It also comes from the Jack Johnson recording sessions. It's hard for me to find the exact musical terminology, as I am not a formally trained musician, but I hear a lot of late 60s funky James Brown groovin' on this track.

It's obvious to me Miles Digs JB. When you listen to the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions box, you will be amazed at the hard funk and Hendrix-style hard-rock grooves being worked out.

By the time Miles found Guitarist Pete Cosey near the end of 1973, Miles had settled into voodoo funk groove-based style that reminds me of this style a bit.

I have been dissecting this music for over 20 years, and I am still completely amazed how many new things I hear and how the discovery of new stuff seems to never end. Many times, I will put Big Fun on as background music; much of this music is good like that, as well.

"Ife" From Big Fun

3. Call It Anything: Live from the Isle of Wight, 1970

Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea playing piano in the same band? Then you throw in Dave Holland on bass and Jack De Johnette on drums—pretty hot band, huh?

For me, this music documented on vinyl as well as the DVD video performance available now as "Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue" is one of the best live documents out there of electric Miles.

The August 29th, 1970 show at the Isle of Wight Festival is a cookin' show; everything seems to run on all cylinders. Jarrett and Corea are both inventive, and somehow are making real music come out of these newly discovered toys.

As a longtime Miles electric music fan, I do endorse this Isle of Wight show on DVD. I like having it in audio form too, but the atmosphere is so good and the extra interviews are very nice, as well as the thick liner notes inside the DVD case.

The so-called electric piano toys are actually perfect for Miles' way of doing things, an instrument still in its refining stages then, and musicians were only starting to figure out its nuances. Miles recorded off-the-cuff, didn't care for second takes, and didn't like his "guys" to practice much. He wanted to retain a sense of uneasiness in the music, perhaps to avoid cliche?

The live Miles music of the early '70s always sounds like a freight train ready to derail at any moment, visceral music, real music. Music organically made for the listener who had better feel this vibe, or all hopes of understanding it are lost.

Miles's own playing here is superb. I have to laugh at those who knock Miles's chops—they still say he didn't have the chops of Dizzy or Freddie Hubbard, for instance. In the past, he may not have had the technical ability and certainly didn't play with as much speed or brashness as Freddie Hubbard, but Miles sure made up for that with his tone and his ability to take his foot off the gas to give those flourishes some heat.

Once electricity got involved in Miles's music, his trumpet chops got supercharged, too. Check "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," and "Right Off" from Jack Johnson. Miles is playing with speed there and when he bends notes in the upper register, his sound is wholly his own.

Miles offers some of this new speed and upper register flash throughout this Isle of Wight show. Miles really kicks some ass here too, it's a shame 90% of the crowd there that day probably could have cared less. Such is the situation with multi-genre festivals.

I would mention this show is interesting, not only having the ability to watch the show on DVD but also having a vinyl copy of it. You do indeed focus on the audio and the music itself on the record seems different somehow. Without having the distraction of the visual, I can focus more on the performances themselves.

I watched the DVD again after giving his vinyl a listen, and when you see all those people—600,000: yeah, over half a million!—Miles seized the moment, and damn that band might be the best fusion outfit Miles ever had.

You need the DVD. It's so cheap anyway, I don't know why you wouldn't get it. The DMM Vinyl pressing was very good too. That CD also appeared in the big 70 CD set Columbia put out in 2009.

"Call it Anything"

© 2016 GodsOfRock

Any Thoughts on Miles Davis?

Christopher Nowak on December 17, 2019:

Sorry folks but I consider Miles Davis to be a crook!!

Example: SOLAR was actually written by the great guitarist CHUCK WAYNE.

It was originally called SONNY in memory of the late trumpeter SONNY BERMAN.

There is also speculation that KIND OF BLUE was written by BILL EVANS.

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