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Miles Davis: Live at the Fillmore East-March 7, 1970: It’s About That Time

Although the jazz community remains divided over the merits of Miles Davis’ electric music, the pendulum has swung lately toward those who consider it an innovative, intriguing and overall positive career development as opposed to the element who still regard virtually everything Davis cut from the late ’60s until his death a betrayal.

The fusion movement that Davis helped launch ultimately devolved into the dreary background slush radio consultants and label marketers call smooth jazz-something that Davis undoubtedly would dismiss with contempt were he alive to hear it. Thankfully Columbia, the company for whom he toiled for from 1955 to1986, has been emptying its vaults the past few years and giving everyone the opportunity to fairly evaluate Davis’ electric material. Complete Bitches Brew, as well as earlier CD reissues of sets previously available only as cost-prohibitive Japanese imports, reveal that contrary to the party line consistently trotted out by jazz’s flat-earth critical wing, Davis neither abandoned his previous high standards nor pandered to youth.

The latest two sets in Davis’ electric revival are the two-CD Live at the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970: It’s About That Time and the three-CD The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions. Viewed collectively, these releases present a band and a leader in transition.

The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions is more conceptually important than Live at the Fillmore East, which was recorded a month before Bitches Brew was issued, but Fillmore East proves equally instructive. It shatters the myth that a primary motivation for Davis’ musical decisions was that his skills were eroding. His lengthy, angular solos and driving statements slice crisply through the slithering patterns executed by drummer Jack DeJohnette, acoustic and electric bassist Dave Holland and percussionist Airto Moreira with a force and edge that’s often startling. Davis’ licks, slurs, pops and phrases sometimes mimic a guitar or piano rather than a horn. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter was just as intense, playing vividly and confidently on both versions of “Directions” and “Spanish Key,” “Masqualero” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.”

Chick Corea was trying to find his way at Fillmore East, but occasionally constructs a memorable solo within the clamor of electronic chords and dissonance. He sounds the most uncomfortable of anyone on Live at the Fillmore East, though Holland isn’t flawless when he shifts to electric bass. However, the band’s sometimes haphazard quality only adds to the excitement.

The audience clearly didn’t have a clue what was happening at the concerts. The long silences that greet magnificent solos and the uneasy applause that slowly builds at the conclusion of the sets punctuates the notion that the people came to hear Steve Miller and Neil Young and Crazy Horse and were either bowled over by or unsure of what they heard from the opening act.

Whether you accept or reject the notion that Teo Macero deserves joint billing on many electric Miles releases, the three-disc In a Silent Way package can validate either argument. The pro-Macero contingent can point to the significant differences between the rehearsal sound of “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” and “Shhh/Peaceful” and the final released version and proclaim Macero worked magic. The anti-Macero forces can point to previously unissued works like the nearly 27-minute long “The Ghetto Walk” or “Splash” and charge that Davis and company were so cleverly developing their flashy montages with various instruments and parts weaving in and out that they could have achieved the identical results if they were in charge of the editing and production. Whichever side you choose, The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions traces the band’s steady journey into more atmospheric sounds; music that hardly abandoned jazz or blues links in its solos but was eons away in its harmonic and rhythmic foundations from what had come before it.

The discs cover a six-month period in Davis’ development, and they reaffirm how quickly and steadily he and the band adjusted to the new sounds. Davis, Shorter, Corea, Holland and drummer Tony Williams recorded “Mademoiselle Mabry” and “Frelon Brun” on Sept. 24, 1968. While there’s an occasional suggestion on these tunes of the impending musical changes within the group, the music mostly follows the straight-jazz route: Corea’s playing is calm and rather traditional; Williams’ drumming and Holland’s bass support relatively staid; Davis and Shorter sound almost pastoral in their solos. On sessions that comprise the original In a Silent Way, almost two months later, however, Williams and Holland are more animated, Davis and Shorter more daring, the group looser and edgier. From this point, Davis began incorporating multiple keyboards and letting either Williams or, later, Jack DeJohnette tinker with tempos, accents, shadings and tunings, while he and Shorter limited their unison segments and concentrated on creating individual solos that were tingling, limber and delightful.

An amazing thing is that the original In a Silent Way album, despite its wonderfully hypnotic appeal, doesn’t seem as riveting incorporated within this three-CD offering. It was probably a shrewd marketing decision not to issue, at the time, a sprawling, off-center piece like “The Ghetto Walk,” but it’s not only a fabulous song, it’s superior to anything on In a Silent Way. No one should second-guess the record company for what it did release; both In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew are landmark works that deserve their glittering reputations. But we should also be grateful that Miles Davis’ complete recordings from this era can now be appreciated and understood the way they were developed in the studio.

Ignore the braying of the Luddites crying sellout. This was and is first-rate American music, some of the best made by anyone in the 20th century.

Originally Published