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Miles Davis

Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It's About That Time

(Columbia/Legacy)

Bill Graham ran New York's Fillmore East, 1968-1971, the way he ran his Fillmore West: booking varied triple bills to tempt broad audiences, and maybe to turn listeners on to something besides what they came for. One weekend in 1969, for example, you could have heard Woody Herman and Led Zeppelin back to back. The Fillmore didn't present much jazz, but Graham thought big: Nina Simone, Charles Lloyd, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

And so, one Friday and Saturday in March 1970, Miles Davis opened for the Steve Miller Band and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. (Miles, it was said, wanted to play first--didn't want to wait for rock acts to wrap it up.) Guitar-toting Neil and electric Miles was an ingenious pairing. Both leaders stretched their improvising over open-ended, harmonically minimal backdrops. The two-chord blowing sections on Crazy Horse's "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" refracted Miles's modal jazz of a decade earlier, however faintly. And both leaders mined amplification for grit.

To judge from the feeble applause Columbia's tape recorders picked up at Davis's early and late sets on Saturday--now on the belatedly released Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It's About That Time--the audience didn't make the connection. (Only at the late show do any diehards yell for an encore.) The previous night I'd been there myself, to see Crazy Horse, and I sure didn't. This was a bunch of noise--but hard to dismiss. It had the weird glow of a UFO sighting: you're not sure what you're looking at, but you won't forget it.

Jazz was alien to me at 17; I had no idea how much jazz folks hated this new Miles. Looking back, I can now see how hard it was for any of us to put this stuff in context. Bitches Brew, the set that would really announce his new direction, wouldn't be out for another month, and it was already obsolete.

Other live Miles from the period was released back when: Black Beauty, recorded at the Fillmore West that April, and At Fillmore, back in New York that June. (They're currently in print.) Both sizzle with nervous energy, but the March set is more ferocious than either, catching the band a second before saxophonist Wayne Shorter left, after six of the most tumultuous years any jazz band ever lived through. (Shorter was the last holdover from Miles's peerless 60s acoustic quintet.) The new set also catches Miles's now-electrified rhythm section wrenching the music from his control for long stretches.

During Shorter's tenure, there'd been a curious split between Miles's records and gigs. The quintet would play abstract new pieces in the studio but a handful of old standards on the road, although either way, they radically opened up and altered tunes in performance. By 1969 this split had taken a new shape: in concert, they'd play stuff they'd recently recorded, but in a very different, more frenzied style. By the time Davis recorded In a Silent Way (the subject of a three-CD box coming in October) and Bitches Brew, in '68 and '69, he was trying to jump start a new rhythm music. The studio sides, with many ringers passing through, are percolating funk, horns bubbling up over gurgling bass and electric piano, cut with slo-mo tone poems that anticipate the wispy mood music Shorter and guest keyboardist Joe Zawinul would soon make in Weather Report.

By late '69, the trumpeter's traveling band was Shorter, Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on electric or acoustic bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The quintet did a European tour starting around Halloween, documented on the unauthorized Italian CD Double Image (Moon). There are moments when the band sounds oddly like its acoustic predecessor, and there are some feints at free jazz, but the most curious episode, unlike any other live Miles I know, is a long spacey improvisation using wood flute, related less to the twiddly studio jams than to the ritual atmospherics of Chicago's creative-music vanguard. (DeJohnette had played with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell in and out of the pre-AACM Experimental Band before leaving Chicago in '66.) Miles, taciturn, eventually reasserts control with an editorial comment, going into his mellow 50s staple "'Round Midnight."

Back in New York, the studio sessions continued as before. On March 3, 1970, Miles recorded "Go Ahead John," 28 minutes of hypnogroove with guitarist John McLaughlin. (It's on Big Fun.) Holland and DeJohnette were in on that, but on the weekend they gave Miles something pointedly else.

Corea was by then the band's pilot. Two years earlier, drummer Tony Williams held the tiller, setting moods and tempos by virtue of being the loudest guy on the platform. Now Fender Rhodes in overdrive was the band's battle cry and rocket fuel. On Double Image, you can trace Corea's telegraph-key phrasing back to Herbie Hancock's jittery backing chords in the acoustic quintet, chords that etched a rhythm while sidestepping the pianist's traditional role of marking the changing harmonies. But Corea's makeover was more percussive, throatier and grungier.

Over the next few years Miles's bands would turn into one giant log drum or wah-wah pedal, and Corea pointed the way. Rock music's recent embrace of improvisation inspired all of them, gave them a shot at the gold. But electric Corea had other sources too: Cecil Taylor's dense clusters and polyrhythmic pileups; Sun Ra's love of sound breaking up in a speaker cone; Monk's beloved clanking on adjacent keys, which Corea drops an octave or two and cranks up to a blurry roar. To older jazz fans raised on sweat-and-blood cutting contests, to blow folks away by twisting a knob was a cheat, but Corea's allure is about distortion, not volume.

Holland was Corea's coconspirator. Back home in England he'd already played loud with McLaughlin and free with Evan Parker. On electric bass, he's unusually percussive for those pre-thumbpop days, when money players never changed their strings. His bump patterns sound informed by Memphis and Muscle Shoals, but he's quick to abandon them, to mimic Corea's fast hammered riffs and then run his own variations. The skeletal, harmonically neutral tunes Shorter had popularized within the band provided ample opportunity to run with a simple figure.

Shorter was also in on this leapfrog game, on tenor anyway. There are moments on the early show's "Directions" where he and Corea and Holland seem to jump in and out of each other's shoes. (When he doubles, though, he gets soprano's disease: his tone gets whiny, and he fixates on scale fragments.) Miles employs the stabbing staccato attack he always held in reserve, like Norman Bates's carving knife. He doesn't have the speed or articulation to get down in the vortex like Shorter, but you can hear why he'd keep a rhythm section so eager to ditch him: they lay him down a fleet flying carpet, raising the Bitches Brew simmer to a full roil on "Masqualero." DeJohnette, who deals in longer arcs, leaving rhythmic micromanagement to others, comes into his own here, his accents setting and resetting everyone's rhythmic feel.

Or almost everyone's. This quintet is really a sextet, the odd man out recent recruit Airto Moreira, a Brazilian trap drummer Miles had cast against type (forever) as a reactive percussionist. He's dispensable even when audible. His squeaking cuica, peeking out from behind the din only in the rhythm trio's stop-time breaks, is a running joke on "Masqualero."

The funk and the noise, free jazz and terse trumpet cries, commingle with surprising ease. There's no fear of information overload, none of the awkward backseat gropes common to less reckless crossovers (including some of Miles's: sitar and tamboura as window dressing). That weekend in 1970, the sextet made the punkiest noise within earshot, streaming multiple layers of information over a shifting foundation. But this amazing feat of pomo juggling was way beyond his new or old audience, and Miles cracked down. A month later at Fillmore West, DeJohnette locks into more overt funk, pulling every floating thing a little closer to anchor. By June, Keith Jarrett had been added on organ, ending Corea's keyboard filibuster. The band stepped back from the brink. The applause increased.

On Friday, March 6, 1970, after Miles's set ended, many of his fans split. Steve Miller played a bunch of guitar and sang "Space Cowboy" and got off, and then Crazy Horse played the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere songbook. They were fine. But a few years later I was in a band making as much dense noise as we knew how, so you never know which influences will stick.

All this mulling gave me an itch to revisit Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere after a very long time, to hear why we Fillmore folk missed the conceptual kinship. The record deftly deals with stasis in many forms, from the (almost) one-note guitar solo on "Cinnamon Girl"--rock's answer to Monk's "Thelonious"--to the sardonic stuck-here lyrics of the title track. But nothing goes nowhere like the album's big nine- and ten-minute jams. Young shows off the pick-splintering attack, sore-throat tone, and caffeine vibrato that would still serve him well on the stark sound track to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. But the barely developed fragments that make up these solos never build to anything, could be shuffled in any order--which gives the jams a timeless, sunstruck quality.

Ditto Crazy Horse's almost uninflected backing. They never upstage the boss, never play anything to knock the music off the scale in any sense, never shake up the rhythm. The unbridgeable gap that weekend was really between the bands. Crazy Horse minded their place (and kept their gig); Corea and Holland didn't (and didn't). By the end of the year they'd moved on to play with ultra-outcat Anthony Braxton in the quartet Circle.

Throughout his career, Miles Davis exploited his sidemen, stealing their tunes and claiming authorship of jams they'd played when he wasn't even in the room. But onstage it was payback time. For this brief moment at least, he let his horses run wild, even if they trampled him, even if they turned his rocksters coming-out party into Carrie. That's no ordinary star trip. He took the long view. As Monk advised: Play what you want, even if it takes the public 15 or 20 years to catch up. Or 31, by Columbia's reckoning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Terrell.

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