During a break in a concert 35 years ago, a furious Gary Bartz walked into the dressing room. “Miles,” exhorted the saxophonist, “I hate what Keith is doing behind me! I don’t like what this motherfucker is doing. I want freedom, I don’t want him to play when I play!”
Davis replied, “OK, I’ll take care of it,” and sent someone to fetch the keyboardist. Bartz had left by the time the pianist walked in, and Davis told him, “Gary just came in here and said that he loves what you’re playing behind him. Gary said, ‘Play a little more.'”
By the end of the following set, Bartz was ready to go to blows with Jarrett.
Today, Bartz explains that the anecdote is an illustration of how Davis liked messing with his bandmembers’ minds, trying to get them to, as the trumpeter put it, “play above what you know.”
“Miles would always play games like that,” Bartz says. “We were onstage another time, and he walked over to me and he said, ‘What’s wrong with Keith?’ I looked at Keith, and Keith was looking at me. So after the show, I asked Keith, ‘What was going on?’ And it turned out that Miles had also walked over to him and had said, ‘What’s wrong with Gary?'”
“There were conflicts in the band,” says drummer Jack DeJohnette, “but the music always outweighed the personal. The great thing about playing with Miles was that you had to be on your toes. You always had to be alert. The most important thing was to be in the moment and drop any projections or expectations that you had. You always had to be prepared for the unexpected. He kept you thinking all the time, and that was fun. You never knew what was going to happen and that made it exciting and challenging.”
“Musicians tend to go back to where they have been,” adds bassist Michael Henderson, “and Miles didn’t want them in those pockets. Whenever they got in a pocket like that, he’d do anything-he’d stop the music, or look at you differently, just to get you out of the comfort zone or out of playing free. Anything not to go back there, not to do what you did before. So you had to adjust and make a thing that you didn’t understand make sense. You opened up your mind and your soul to it and you make it believable. Go with the flow and make it happen. Keep it exciting.”
“Exciting” is an apt adjective for the band consisting of Miles Davis, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett, Michael Henderson, Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moreira. Or, as Michael Henderson puts it, “we were vicious. This band was on the edge and off the rails.”
This particular sextet was together for just under a year, from November 1970 to July 1971, when Moreira and DeJohnette left, and has until now been undocumented on official releases. It could hitherto only be heard on Davis’ classic 1971 album Live-Evil, but in altered form: guitarist John McLaughlin was added for the December 19, 1970, performance, which dramatically changed the sound of the band.
In past interviews, Jarrett expressed some misgivings about the presence of McLaughlin on Live-Evil, scathingly speculating that it was “a marketing concept to add electric guitar.” Jarrett hinted that the band was better without McLaughlin-even as the keyboardist also appeared to put down the music and regular musicians in the band, repeatedly stating that he hated playing electric keyboards and only joined because he wanted to play with Davis.
Listening to those closely involved, it’s apparent that there were several huge fault lines running in the band, mainly between Jarrett and several of the other members. While Bartz says, “Keith is such a great musician, but he didn’t listen to me,” Moreira feels that “Keith had the attitude that he was better than everyone else, and that attitude came out when we were playing together.”
“Keith bumped his head with the other guys,” adds Henderson, “because he’s a pretty spectacular guy and he had his own concept of what the shit should be. Meanwhile, Miles was telling everybody behind the scenes not to follow Keith.”
The latter was indeed the trumpeter’s main instruction to Henderson: “He said, ‘Stay there and don’t follow those motherfuckers.’ So I had to figure out 19 trillion ways to play each riff.”
Davis had enlisted the bassist to be, as Bartz and DeJohnette put it, “the anchor for the band.” Henderson had played with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, and was the only band member with a nonjazz background. For him laying down a groove and sticking with it came natural, but other band members, who had their roots in jazz, were unimpressed with the cast-iron funk-lines that Henderson would lay down, sometimes barely changing over the course of 20 minutes.
“There were comments made by band members,” Moreira says, “that maybe Michael should change. Everyone was trying to take flight and come back, to move in and out of playing more free, but Michael didn’t have that concept at all, because he was a funk player.”
Whatever the others said or tried, Henderson stuck to his funk-bass guns. At times when he was, perhaps, tempted to play more jazzy, he probably had Davis’ penultimate instruction ringing in his ears, “If you learn any of that old shit, you’re fired.”
Gary Bartz ARGUES that the group featuring himself with Jarrett, Henderson, DeJohnette and Moreira was Miles Davis’ “last great band.” While I beg to differ, favoring the psychedelic funk band of the mid-1970s headed by guitarist Pete Cosey, it’s undoubtedly true that the lineup Bartz so loves was the last in this stage in Davis’ career to consist mainly of bandleaders. In becoming internationally celebrated players after their tenure with Davis’ band, Bartz, Jarrett, DeJohnette and Moreira followed in the footsteps of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Herbie Hancock, et al.
Listeners can now hear for themselves what all the fuss, and the internal conflicts, were about, as the band’s thunderous magic is unveiled on the six-CD box set The Cellar Door Sessions 1970. The collection details six of the eight sets that the band played at the Washington, D.C., Cellar Door nightclub over the course of four nights, Wednesday through Saturday, December 16 to 19. McLaughlin sat in with the band on the Saturday night, and two of the six CDs contain the material from which much of Live-Evil was culled, but without the dramatic edits that producer Teo Macero imposed on that album.
The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 is produced by Bob Belden, who has been closely involved in many of the previous Miles Davis reissues, and former Davis keyboardist Adam Holzman. In addition, Jim Anderson remixed the beautifully recorded eight-track tapes, courtesy of engineer Stan Tonkel. All musicians contribute to the liner notes, and are unanimous in their praise-even Keith Jarrett. The keyboardist enthuses, “You don’t usually see this kind of comet go by more than once or twice in a lifetime, and I really don’t care what people think they should call the music on these recordings.” He also comments on the trumpeter’s playing: “If it doesn’t knock your socks off, you aren’t wearing any.”
Thirty-five years ago, a series of small audiences witnessed history being made, and probably had their collective socks knocked off. Mastering engineer Donald Grossinger, who worked at the Cellar Door before it closed in the 1980s, says the club “was built on a hillside in the Georgetown part of Washington, D.C. The crowd would line up along the wall and down the hill. When you entered, you were directed either to the balconies left and right, with wrought iron railings, or down a flight of stairs to the ‘orchestra’ seating on stage level. The place had a terrific, intimate vibe: No matter where you sat you were really close to the stage, which was slightly raised. You definitely felt like you were sitting in a cellar.”
The Cellar Door opened in the early 1960s, and by the time Davis and Co. played there the tiny club, which could barely hold more than 150, had become known for the eclectic mix of artists who played there, from Joni Mitchell to Thelonious Monk. Davis’ Cellar Door concerts were the culmination of a U.S. tour that began in October 1970. No one can recall why Moreira wasn’t there on the Wednesday night (the percussionist believes he was there, but not picked up by the microphone), but most band members say that they were aware from the outset that McLaughlin would be coming down for the Saturday.
“We did know that the weekend was going to be for a possible recording,” Bartz says, “and that Mahavishnu would come for the weekend. Miles had in the back of his mind that this would be for a possible album.”
This disproves the oft-made suggestion that Davis added McLaughlin at the last minute because the bandleader wasn’t wholly pleased with the results from the earlier nights. The new recording was most likely to be the follow-up to either Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson. The latter had featured Henderson and McLaughlin and had been recorded in the studio from February to June 1970.
Stan Tonkel, who engineered most of Davis’ studio and live recordings during this time, says, “The Cellar Door concerts were recorded under very difficult conditions. It was a very small place, with tables and chairs, like a nightclub. Probably 100 people would fill it up. The stage was also very small; I don’t know how they all fit on there. We set up the recording in the basement, and I remember the first or second night it was raining very hard, and I was worried about the cables from the microphones that we ran out of the club’s window to the basement.”
The stage was so small, in fact, that it couldn’t handle the addition of anyone else: DeJohnette recalls McLaughlin having to stand on the floor, next to Jarrett, near stage right.
Tonkel and his colleagues couldn’t see the band, which probably explains the fade-in at the beginning of the first set on Wednesday. Because he didn’t have any visual clues, Tonkel most likely heard the band beginning to play and switched on his tape recorder. Still, the Cellar Door recordings sound astonishingly good-worlds away from the often fuzzy and grainy sound of the live albums recorded earlier in 1970 at the cavernous Fillmore-because Tonkel says the intimacy of the Cellar Door allowed for very clean recording. In addition, Tonkel says the Fillmore recordings had been complicated by the fact that “the moment a set ended, we had to rush upstairs to protect our microphones, because people were literally trying to steal them.”
Adam Holzman explains that he and mixer Jim Anderson approached the Cellar Door mixes as “a completely fresh concept. We had a video from the same era of the band playing live, and ended up laying out the mix to match the positioning of the band that we saw in the visuals.” The duo didn’t refer to Russ Payne’s original 1971 Live-Evil mixes either and as a result there will be calls that this is a matter of taking liberties with history-or worse, of defacing the legacy of Miles Davis.
In response, it’s probably best to approach the Cellar Door box set and the Live-Evil album as two entirely different artistic entities. Live-Evil was a concept and an album created in collaboration by Davis and Teo Macero, and it included both Cellar Door live material and studio recordings. The Cellar Door Sessions are simply a document of what one band was up to over the course of four nights.
Listening to the Cellar Door evidence after all this time, it’s hard not to marvel at this band’s achievements. That wonder and awe permeates the liner notes by the musicians involved; as Moreira notes, with justification, the music is “timeless. It could come out 10 to 20 years from now, and it would still sound fresh.”
In finally being able to compare the band with and without McLaughlin, the increased sense of excitement that emerges from the guitarist’s contribution and the band adapting to him, particularly in the way he and Henderson are interacting and sparking off riffs by the end of Saturday evening, is striking.
“John coming in led to creative tension and newness,” Bartz says, “and we knew we had something special.” DeJohnette adds, “Each night the music developed further. You can hear how the process of how Miles developed an electric jazz, or electric funk, approach to music. Saturday night was the culmination.”
One also wonders whether six hours of music is perhaps too much of a good thing. But Holzman says, “These pieces were canvases for creativity. If we had made a best-of selection, everyone would have complained and asked where the rest was.”
All in all, the Cellar Door box set is a momentous release for all lovers of Miles Davis and electric funk, or electric jazz, or whatever one wants to call it. It follows the release late last year of Miles Electric, the stunning DVD of Davis’ performance at the Isle of Wight in August 1970, with a band consisting of Miles, Bartz, Corea, Jarrett, Holland, DeJohnette and Moreira. Taken together, both releases may, with some luck, finally dissolve any of the remaining controversy that still appears to surround Davis’ forage into jazz-rock.
Bartz recalls the controversy well from his time in the band, when, for instance during a concert in 1971 in Belgrade, audience members were yelling and booing and walking out. It’s amazing that the controversy is still alive today. “For Miles and everyone in the band, there was no difference in listening to James Brown or to John Coltrane,” Bartz says. “But just like racism segregated people, different types of music were segregated as well.”
Like or dislike this music, perhaps 2005 will be the year in which some sections of the jazz community will finally grow up and throw off their segregated mindset. Jarrett writes about Davis’ electric period, “He wanted what he always wanted up until that time: to forge new ways of ‘coming at’ things.” Bartz noted, “The greatest lesson I learned from my time with Miles was the seriousness of what we were doing. Nothing was frivolous.” Serious enough, apparently, to nearly come to blows in the pursuit of, according to DeJohnette, “the magic that always happened when you were working with Miles.”
Paul Tingen is the author of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard, 2003). He maintains a Web site about the electric music of Miles Davis at miles-beyond.com. A few brief quotations in this article were taken from his book, by kind permission of Billboard Books.
Cellar in a Box
The sense of Miles Davis and his band taking risks and courting danger is manifest on the odd, angular, relentless, intense mixture of funk ‘n’ rock ‘n’ jazz that’s captured on the Cellar Door CDs. For Davis, it must have been the perfect culmination of 1970. Having reached a point of no return with the recording of Bitches Brew in August 1969, he went well beyond it during the following year.
Davis had begun his process of electric exploration during studio dates with his second great quintet in December 1967, when he asked Herbie Hancock to play electric keyboards and added Joe Beck on electric guitar. During the next two years, addition and integration were the essence of his creative process, with different guitarists, keyboardists, percussionists, a bass clarinetist, a sitar player and an electric bassist coming in for an avalanche of studio dates.
The first the public at large heard of all these changes was In a Silent Way, which was recorded and released in 1969. The understated playing of the enlarged ensemble heralded Davis’ revolution with a whisper. In addition, during the summer of that year, the trumpeter’s then quintet, consisting of Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, launched into ferocious versions of some of the experimental, rock-influenced studio tracks, with Corea on electric keyboards and Holland switching from acoustic to electric bass.
Airto Moreira’s arrival by the end of 1969 preceded the next big public step. Davis had until then played only jazz clubs and festivals, with Dave Holland saying, when he arrived from England in 1968, that he was “shocked at how few people were coming to Miles’ concerts.” But in the beginning of 1970, in conjunction with the release of Bitches Brew in April, Davis suddenly performed at rock venues, on the same bill as established rock acts like Laura Nyro, Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, often playing for audiences of thousands. (The results have been captured on three Miles Davis live albums: At Fillmore, Black Beauty and It’s About That Time.)
It’s fair to speculate that both performing for thousands of people, rather than a few dozen, and the massive commercial success of Bitches Brew galvanized Davis in forging ahead with the musical course that he had set. In fact, he didn’t just forge ahead in 1970-Davis jumped ahead and, rather than working with addition and integration, he began a process of subtraction and distillation.
The first results can be heard on the last few sessions that are documented on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, with Davis gradually paring down the size of his ensembles. Then, perhaps to prove a point he had made to a Rolling Stone journalist in late 1969, that he could “put together the best rock ‘n’ roll band you have ever heard,” Davis began working with small guitar-led ensembles. The result was the spectacular A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
After this there was no looking back. Unable to permanently enlist the only two guitarists he truly wanted in his band, Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin, Davis focused the rest of 1970 on developing an electric keyboard-led live band. Steve Grossman replaced Wayne Shorter in April, Keith Jarrett joined in May; Bartz in turn replaced Grossman in August, Corea left in September and Michael Henderson came in during the same month. After all these personnel changes, Davis finally had a sextet that would remain relatively stable, which allowed him to develop the music that can be heard on Cellar Door. Gary Bartz says, “Miles felt that ours was a real organic kind of band, that took longer to unfold.”
After DeJohnette and Moreira left in July 1971, and Ndugu Chancler, Mtume and Don Alias filled their places, the same repertoire continued to be played during the band’s extensive European tour of the fall of 1971. Another permutation of the same band briefly occurred in early 1972, with Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood, of Parliament/Funkadelic, on drums, further indicating the trumpeter’s funk ambitions, but this appeared to have come to nothing, and Davis disbanded the Bartz-led ensemble.
Davis’ next step was the recording of On the Corner in June and July 1972, and the launching of a wholly different band with an entirely different repertoire in September. Only Henderson and Mtume remained, and Al Foster came in on drums and Reggie Lucas on guitar. These four were also at the heart of the 1973-to-1975 band, featuring scorched-earth guitarist Pete Cosey.
The Bartz-led band is the essential missing link between Miles’ late-1960s studio experiments and the live bands that were an extension of his second great quintet, and the funk experiments that Miles undertook in the mid-1970s, beginning with On the Corner and culminating in the Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea live trilogy. Since the Bartz-led band has never been heard before in its original form, the Cellar Door box set is an essential, and very belated, addition to the Miles Davis canon. It further illustrates that Davis’ electric music developed along an unbroken line between December 1967 and his five-year musical intermission starting in the end of 1975.