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Running the Voodoo Down by Philip Freeman

“Everyone has their own Miles,” music critic Philip Freeman writes at the beginning of his new book, Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis. Word is bond. My Miles wasn’t the Miles of Sketches of Spain, Kind of Blue or Porgy and Bess: That was the Miles of my parents. My Miles Davis, in the beginning, was that hard-to-figure horn player on one of his so-called “comeback” electric albums, 1981’s The Man With the Horn.

I was a teenager, and the electric sound that Miles had dared to embrace was beautiful and compelling all at once. Relentless, soulful and liberating, The Man With the Horn wasn’t postwar blues orchestration; it was modern.

So it was shocking to read Freeman refer to one of my favorite songs on the album, “Fat Time,” as a song that has “nothing to do with jazz.” This is fine; in 1981 I didn’t understand, now I do.

But regardless of “Fat Time” or anything else mentioned in Running the Voodoo Down, Freeman deciphers Miles’ electrical excursion into jazz carefully and with exacting detail. He is a critic and a reporter all in one. It has been stated by many that the book is full of factual errors, but this is not so important to the book’s overall reach right now. Granted, someone should get the facts straight if there are errors here, but the true point of Freeman’s book is to make clear once and for all that Miles’ electric period, no matter what the motivation, is substantial musically.

“Miles played acoustic based jazz from 1945-1967,” Freeman writes, “but he began experimenting with electric instruments at the tail end of that year.” Freeman further asserts that “half Miles’ professional life was spent playing electric music.” Wayne Shorter, Freeman states, believes Miles’ electric period simply had more “courage.”

All of this is interesting. Davis’ electric period is often viewed as a brief sin against the traditional jazz world the trumpeter helped shape in the 1950s and ’60s. But it isn’t. The electric period occupied much of Davis’ life as a musician, culminating with his famous hip-hop coda on an album called Doo-Bop in 1991.

Freeman gets it all down. He relays and examines the stories behind all of those legendary electric albums long condemned by jazz purists as rubbish. Freeman makes it clear that, after recording the seminal electric albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, “nothing would ever be the same” for Miles Davis, “or for jazz.” Tutu, another fine later recording, Freeman believes to be one of Miles’ “most enduring albums.” According to Freeman, Tutu embraces “digital coldness as an aesthetic strategy.”

Running the Voodoo Down also creates hundreds of questions, opening the door to so many stories never before discussed. It is an explicit rather than implicit book: This is evident in Freeman’s discussion of Jimi Hendrix’s influence on Davis. To Freeman, this influence is obvious, just as Sly Stone’s influence on Davis is obvious. However, the link to Sly Stone is a lot more elusive than Davis’ well-known connection to Jimi Hendrix.

Yet the most important thing about Running the Voodoo Down is the fact that, along with books like Wayne Shorter’s Footprints and George Cole’s The Last Miles, it begins to document the fusion period. For that alone, this book deserves to be examined.

Originally Published