The Cellar Door Sessions 1970
Styles: jazz, bop, post-bop, jazz-rock,
Others: Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock
The flood gates have opened (again)!!! I could say this is a highly anticipated release, but depending on who you are, every one of these beautiful, metal bound Miles Davis box sets have been highly anticipated. Miles Davis is one of those figures like Sun Ra, The Grateful Dead, or (insert your favorite musician here) where every note they played seems important in figuring out their entire story. Despite postponed and cancelled release dates on this box set (maybe they had to repress a bunch of copy-protected CDs), Sony is on a mission to make every note of Miles Davis available for you, the consumer. When I say the consumer, I mean, "Hey, look at the beautiful packaging on that box set!" Long ago, record executives discovered that even though these posthumous, "complete sessions" are definitely for completists and not the casual listener, anyone with money will buy anything if it is packaged correctly. Therefore, this is another box set that resembles a miniature coffee table book with hopes that the same people who get suckered into a gift shop at the museum will not be able to resist having this in their home. This is my cynical side speaking; I'm actually a brainwashed consumer like the rest and think this package is well thought out, ecologically conscious, and well worth its high dollar value.
Like most elaborate Miles Davis box sets, this comes with a giant book full of essays by every member of the band, explaining why everything Miles did was important. Unlike other box sets, the majority of this material has never seen the light of day and the music is presented in a tasteful way, where we get to hear unedited live sets that happened over the course of four evenings. Those extremely fascinated by the electric period of Miles Davis will study this music from head to toe, while the casual Miles listener will find this is way too much material from one very specific point in time. Although taking the time to listen to six discs worth of what only amounts to four evenings of performances is an experience I would fully recommend, there is a CliffsNotes version of these performances on the album Live-Evil. Although Live-Evil feels very fragmented and does not live up to its neighboring albums like Big Fun and On The Corner, it's a good place to start from a financial standpoint. Much of the fragmented and incomplete feeling of Live-Evil comes from the fact that half the album was culled from the December, 1970 performances at the Cellar Door featured on this box set, while the other half features session dates with almost a completely different band.
It was only a year prior to these shows at the Washington D.C. club, the Cellar Door, that the rock/jazz masterpiece Bitches Brew was recorded and featured sax player Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, keyboardist Chick Corea, drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John McLaughlin, and percussionist Airto Moreiera amongst others. Miles Davis was tackling the same transition that Bob Dylan had recently gone through. With much due to his need for constant evolution, his brief marriage to Betty Mabry (who became Betty Davis), and simply being tired of playing small clubs for little pay, he was suddenly a changed man in and out of the public eye. He had gone electric on the album In a Silent Way, but it was Bitches Brew, the biggest-selling jazz album at that time, that was critically panned and pinned Miles as a sellout amongst the jazz community. Wayne Shorter would quickly leave to begin working on his group, Weather Report, while Holland and Corea would take off to form the group Circle, with Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul. (Circle could kick Weather Report's ass in a water balloon fight any day.) Shorter was replaced by Steve Grossman and then by Gary Bartz, who is featured on the Cellar Door performances, while Holland's and Corea's duties were taken over by bassist Michael Henderson and keyboardist Keith Jarrett, respectively. Remember, this is all coming out of the highly inbred world of jazz where people are constantly changing line-ups and there's no such thing as the reality-movie drama of Jason Newsted leaving Metallica.
With the continuous changing of players, it's remarkable that this music sounds as fluid as it does. There are musical themes that reoccur and which the music is built upon, but they are only segues into and out of lengthy, free improvisations. When asked three months earlier at the Isle of Wight the name of his extensive improvisation, Davis said, "call it anything," which speaks to the open-ended, free nature from which this music is coming from. At the same time, Miles Davis is never thought of as an innovator in "free jazz" and maybe this music shouldn't be thought of as jazz at all. This band, however, relies almost completely on free improvisation, only it's under the influence of Sly Stone rather than other jazz contemporaries. Listening to this music played live is quite a different experience than listening to studio albums like Jack Johnson or On The Corner. In the studio, Miles generally had a large ensemble of players and took full advantage of editing and recording trickery. What gives those albums direction is not the jamming itself, but the way performances are layered and edited together. The Cellar Door shows feature a mere sextet, possibly at their creative peak, going out on long journeys, and getting deep into what it means to improvise as a group. Although this is Miles Davis' vision and the band is under his guidance, this music is much more about a group effort and less about the individual. These musicians are able to work as one single unit, where no one player is ever in the spotlight. There are solos, but they are performed in a way where they are simply adding to an ongoing sound rather than playing on top of it. The musicians themselves referred to this music as pure energy, or electricity, and that's actually an apt description. Maybe it's because they're accomplished jazz improvisers taking on the task of a free-form rock jam, but this sextet is able to communicate on a superhuman level. Even compared to other electric Miles Davis bands, this stands out as having a higher level of complexity and player communication. Guitarist John McLaughlin sits in with the sextet on the last evening of performances (making up the last two discs of this set) and, despite having a history with Miles Davis, sounds intrusive to a band that is honed in and reading each other's minds.
If anything can be attributed here as a guiding force in the music (other than Miles Davis), it is the rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette and Michael Henderson. Coming off of playing with Aretha Franklin and other R&B groups as opposed to having a jazz background makes Henderson the most unique element of Miles' band. It explains why Henderson is able to lay down such badass bass lines, with a style that no trained jazz player could achieve. He would have a tremendous influence on Davis, and would continue to play in his band for seven years. At times, he and DeJohnette fall into a meditative groove, while the other players have a free form freakout on top of the beat. There are also plenty of moments where the rhythm duo is working together to make the most fucked-up broken rhythms that Squarepusher could only dream of. Overall, their sound is much more aggressive and goes deeper into rhythmic experimentation than DeJohnette's playing with previous bassist Dave Holland. They are able to tear rhythm from its roots, and dissect it in ways that would make laptop musicians feel worthless while shaking their ass at the same time. DeJohnette's drums rock, without a trace of a jazzy swing or Sunny Murray's "rolling-blankets-of-sound" style of drumming.
Each one of these players is able to be ferocious and will blow your head off when the time is right, but they also know about patience, subtlety, and the fine art of being funky. They are often playing their instruments as hard as they can and maintain the intensity as though their set were an endurance test. Although each band member stops periodically, there are rarely ever breaks in the sets. Rather than playing song after song, this band sets out on long journeys that unfold over the course of an entire set. As "out there" as this music ever gets, it's far from a total freakout noise explosion, and it may make you want to dance.
What I'm describing might sound like some of the worst music ever, but it's not. It sounds more like Bitches Brew on amphetamines. Unfortunately, this music was one of the elements that paved the way for jazz fusion and jam bands, but these reference points were not in existence when this music was made (nor does it sound like it). This music maintains a feeling of freshness and excitement that comes from a band fully aware of the fact that they were covering new musical territory. Much like the live music of Can or the Soft Machine, it's very easy to get lost in this music, and there's never any telling when a piece is going to end. Releasing these shows in their entirety wasn't Davis' intention, but after listening to these lengthy performances, I realize this is how this music needs to be approached. Live-Evil's inevitable flaw was trying to break this music up and focus on the individual songs. Although many songs are repeated from performance to performance, the nature of what they're doing makes each show incredibly diverse and keeps this box set from feeling monotonous (but the casual Miles Davis listener may find this incredibly monotonous, and even I wouldn't recommend listening to multiple shows in a row). This is one of the best bands Miles Davis played with, and this documentation of them is crucial. They have the ridiculous skill in their playing that should immediately make them fall into the progressive rock genre, which as cool as prog rock is, it also happens to be notoriously dorky. But they're as funky as James Brown and never pretentious with their musical ability (Embrace it now, all of them would go on to do very dorky things by the mid-'70s). Conceptually, it's more in line with Jackie-O Motherfucker and Sunburned Hand of the Man than Frank Zappa or Mahavishnu Orchestra. Although Davis' free form rock freakouts probably have an influence on all four of these acts, it sounds like none of them. His band is soulful, never clinical or overly avant-garde, yet is just as heavily invested in free improvisation and sonic experimentation as the most avant-garde players of the time. This era of Miles Davis represents a rare occurrence when the most musically challenging is embraced among the masses, the most complex crosses paths with the most ass-shakin.' Call it what you will, but 98% of musicians would dream of making something the likes of which the world has never heard. In most cases, if they're truly making something new, it's going to be far too weird and alienating to be embraced amongst a large audience. These four nights show Miles Davis as a man able to break down that barrier and find a common ground between artsy free improvisation and music that rocks.
DISC 1: WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 16 (1ST SET):
3. What I Say
4. Improvisation #1
DISC 2: THURSDAY, DECEMBER 17 (2ND SET):
1. What I Say
2. Honky Tonk
3. It's About Time
4. Improvisation #2
DISC 3: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 18 (2ND SET):
2. Honky Tonk
3. What I Say
DISC 4: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 18 (3RD SET):
2. Honky Tonk
3. What I Say
5. Improvisation #3
DISC 5: SATURDAY, DECEMBER 19 (2ND SET):
2. Honky Tonk
3. What I Say
DISC 6: SATURDAY, DECEMBER 19 (3RD SET):
2. Improvisation #4
5. It's About Time