Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Immortals #88 - Miles Davis

In Murray Lerner's Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, there's a moment in which percussionist James Mtume argues that Miles Davis' move to fusion and "jazz-rock" (a term that everybody seems as loathe to accept as I was to type it) was a natural progression by one of the 20th century's greatest musical innovators:

Look man, when the temperance scale was created- the 440- that was the synthesizer of its time. I'm sure there was some harpsichord players walking around talking about "they're not keeping it real..."
In the same film, jazz critic and noted cantankerous old crank Stanley Crouch had a different take:
That's bullshit. That's all part of the "Miles Davis" myth. Miles Davis was trying to make some money.
Is it too much of a cop-out to say that they were both right?

Rolling Stone's list of "The Immortals" includes more than one artist whose work was quite conspicuously not, or not really, of rock and roll or its tributary genres. We'll get to the assembled rappers and crossover stars as we try to reconcile those musics' place in "rock" history in just a little while, but sneaking a peak at what's to come, we note a peculiar absence of homage to any artists from that most uniquely American of all art forms: jazz. In fact, only one artist appears on this list that is more widely associated with jazz, and he's on here for the work that most conspicuously got him labeled as a sellout and rejected by true jazz fans. Not that he cared.

See, the truth is that Miles Davis was kind of a little fucker.

There's little to dispute that Miles did more for jazz in his six decades-long career (and particularly the thirty years spanning 1945 to 1975) than perhaps any single performer, bandleader, composer, or producer. He ushered his form into more new styles in more new eras than anybody, and had the virtuoso chops to back up every accolade he ever earned or should have earned. But for all his meaningful innovation and pure, unadulterated musical brilliance, Davis wasn't getting rich as a middle-aged jazzer. Nobody pays their rent in respect.

Add in to the equation that Miles had recently married the new Mrs. Betty Davis
, a firebrand funk/soul singer who introduced him to a few spiritual soulmates in the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The psychedelic sounds of acid-soul and zeroed-out funk inspired Miles, always restless and ready to push the boundaries of whatever came next, to plug in and riff, an event that might have ranked with Dylan at Newport in 1965, if not for the fact that, yeah, Miles was kinda-sorta hoping to cross over to the new generation of kids and hopefully make some real dough.

The results owed more than a little to his influences. Davis would later credit entire riffs from A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Big Fun (compiled mostly from his On the Corner outtakes) to Hendrix and Sly, lifted wholesale and warped beyond recognition by collaborators like Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, Tony Williams, and Airto Moreira, to name just a few. And while his live shows in the 1970s were uncompromisingly hard-edged and disputatious of the core audience who had followed him from jazz to... whatever this was, his records in that era were meticulously constructed from take after labyrinthine take, jam after endless jam in post-production to create his finished products. Be it "jazz" or not, the mercurial mixture was composed with an ear for something Miles specifically wanted his audience to hear, even if they didn't get it.

I'm not sure I get it, either. Listening to Bitches Brew for the first time revealed little more than dissonance for broad, almost interminable stretches, even having been primed in 2010 by my first adult excursions into jazz appreciation. I've trained on Coleman and Dolphy and Zorn, at least a little, but I'd be hard-pressed to explain what exactly was going on here beyond the fact that the pianos were electric. And while Bitches Brew is, for whatever reasons, heralded as the masterwork of "Miles Electric", I'd argue that there are far more examples of greater significance on his other big albums of this era for both impressions on jazz and rock musics.

On the Corner and Big Fun are terrific, freaky cousins to Curtis Mayfield, late-period Temptations, and Sly's There's A Riot Goin' On. Live-Evil bounces like a more propulsive Funkadelic, and would fit neatly on the shelf next to Maggot Brain (another 1971 classic.) And In a Silent Way contains more accessibly beautiful moments than arguably much of his "traditional" jazz works since he and Gil Evans interpreted Gershwin on Porgy and Bess.

And while Lerner's documentary would have you believe that Davis' electric work was most meaningful to lame jam bands, the sonic scope of what he achieved in these diversions had profound and far-reaching impacts on everything that came after it (Eno's Another Green World alone ties Miles to most of modern alternative music in six degrees or less.)

And that's pretty damned cool. Even if Stanley Crouch (and I) would rather listen to 'Round Midnight or Live at Newport 1958 again instead.


Steven said...

"[T]hat most uniquely American of all art forms: jazz"

The Peanuts and Krazy Kat compilations sitting on my bookshelf are disagreeing with you, screaming something about Django Reinhardt, but I'm not sure I totally buy their argument.

And you say that you just this year began to give jazz the old college try, which is more than I could say for myself. Query: Is it possible that with more seasoning you'd be able to "get" Bitches Brew?

Sub-query: Why the fuck is Miles Davis so low on this list? Particularly when the same publication claimed he recorded the #12 and #92 albums OF ALL TIME?

Brendan K said...

I have no idea where you're drawing the cartoon references from. And if you're going to say Django Reinhardt is more important because he came first, you'd might as well say Jelly Roll Morton deserved to be here instead of Davis, or maybe somebody with legitimate pop success like Louis Armstrong. (Spoiler: Louis Jordan is #59 and Fats Domino is #25.)

Bitches Brew is a fine record, but I think it might be a LITTLE overrated- it was, after all, Miles' first seriously experimental record. "In a Silent Way" is his first record with electric instrumentation, but the level of composition is far greater there than on anything we'd associate with Miles' forays into free jazz. "Jack Johnson" is similarly a BIT more focused. I'd say that "Bitches Brew" is Miles "best" electric album in the sense that it's maybe his most "out-there", which many people confuse as the same thing. What I should say is that I don't "get" "Bitches Brew" in the way that Carlos Santana apparently does, and I'm sort of cool with that.

To answer the other question: The Immortals list is focused on the most influential artists in rock and roll's first 50 years. We'll discuss it more when we get to NWA, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Run DMC and Public Enemy and reconcile hip-hop as apparently inextricably tied to rock and roll, but the simple answer to your question is that the other list that you mention wasn't predicated on genre. He also had the #352 album on that list.

For the record, Mos Def writes about "Kind of Blue" in some sentiments that I've heard echoed in hip-hop circles. Q-Tip described "Kind of Blue" as being like the Bible. You just always had a copy in your house, and it was impossible not to stumble across it and be awed at some point. I focused on Miles electric because, quite frankly, that's the only way I could justify him being so low on this list. If we were to be ranking the most influential music people of the 20th century, he's be top 10 for sure.