Miles Davis is arguably the biggest names in jazz history, and certainly one of the best. A favourite of mine since the age of 12 when I first heard the epochal 'Kind Of Blue', his work from all periods however is known to divide all kinds of fans, and none is more divisive than the mid-seventies heavy funk work that often filled live double disc sets. And yet there is something truly hypnotic in these that can also attract people who perhaps don't get his more popular recordings.
Miles Davis, Miles, The Prince Of Darkness - the latter title could have been coined almost solely to describe his Carnegie Hall live recording. ‘Dark Magus’ was recorded in 1974, around the time of the release of double epics ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Get Up With It’, and between Miles’ last studio album ‘On The Corner’ and his unexpected half-decade retirement in 1976. It is easily the densest and darkest music that Miles ever recorded, and it was not until 1977 that it was finally released and even then only in Japan.
As with ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’, both recorded in 1975, the whole world would not be granted access to these unique recordings until much later in 2000. ‘Dark Magus’, recorded a year before, includes most but not quite all of the band that would later go on to record those classic albums. Third guitarist Dominique Gaumont would leave after this date, and saxophonists Dave Liebman and Azar Lawrence would soon go on to be replaced by the much under-rated Sonny Fortune.
By this point in time, the various Miles Davis performing bands were no longer rehearsing, and they were no longer obeying even a tentative structure. Rhythms, keys and colours would change almost on a whim, and melody could almost be totally absent, apart from a few riffs to hook into here and there. What we do have though is buckets of deep dark funk, rhythm and groove. Featuring just four titles, each split into two parts, and all of them titled the Swahili numbers one through four, ‘Dark Magus’ is all about jams – heavy and intense jams.
Opening with the furious sounding ‘Moja’, the band rock harder than any rock band of the day, with Al Foster drums on full-throttle for a truly pounding rhythm, and Miles electrified trumpet up against the wall of sound that is three amped-up guitars. A raw energy infuses throughout and somehow the band manages to maintain the incendiary pace. The true funk though doesn’t start until the second number ‘Wili’, with an almost menacing interaction between bass and drums, and Miles stabbing out wild notes on both keyboard and trumpet, while Cosey, Lucas and Gaumont slash away on guitar with almost total abandon.
Disc two though is where things get really intense, with the sound of Michael Henderson’s exceedingly huge and fat basslines almost dominating everything. The dark atmosphere takes hold from the off and ‘Tatu’ displays a truly funk-laden rhythm. A brief quiet passage offers a gentle respite, but it’s not long before the funk takes hold again. ‘Nne’ on the other hand begins slow but builds into an out-of-this-world everything-loose superb closer. Overall the second half of the double package is the far superior offering, with a mesmerising and heady brew well to the fore, and the first two numbers ultimately sound like a warm up to the bigger better stuff, as well as being weighed down with just a bit too much average sounding sax work.
Hendrix-influenced Pete Cosey is a star performer here, with an excellent partnership being built with the highly rhythmic and inventive Reggie Lucas. Of the three guirtarists, Dominique Gaumont is the only one to disappoint - a strong and very able guitar player, his work here is at best just good, but too often is full of highly self-indulgent effects-laden solos. He doesn’t fit with the other two, or gel with the band, and so tries to amaze both the band and audience with his almost boastful playing. It doesn’t work at all, and if listened to carefully you’ll hear Miles cut his solos off abruptly mid-way, whereas the rest of the band is allowed to properly segue and flow with theirs. Gaumonts absence on the later ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ is notably not missed, with Cosey and Lucas fully able to let their guitars, and their partnership, shine.
The deep and heavy funk that would fuse on the two later live recordings hasn’t properly formulated by this time, and Dave Liebman has gone on record many times (including in the liner notes herein) that this wasn’t this incarnation of the band at its best. Certainly Liebman’s own playing is below par here, especially when compared to what the rest of the band is doing. But it makes the listener ask why, given that it was Dave Liebman who contributed such superb work to Miles’ earlier work, including ‘On The Corner’ and ‘Get Up With It’. His flute playing on ‘He Loved Him Madly’ alone deserves to afford this man some very big recognition within the Miles canon. And talking of Miles, his own playing here is particularly strong, if bizarrely, with heavy wah-wah, it sounds like another over-amplfied electric guitar.
If not jazz then, not funk (at least not in the conventional sense), and not rock, what is ‘Dark Magus’? Simply put, it’s nine players performing 100 minutes of completely unrehearsed full-on everything-in music without the standard conventions of melody or harmony to encroach on the awesome sonic rhythm they create. Raw and powerful, the Miles Davis band would in its final incarnation, as captured on ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ recorded just over a year later, become more refined - without losing any of its intensity. While both are stronger albums (and both double albums), ‘Dark Magus’ is a compelling and aggressive listen; its outstanding rhythm section captivating and hypnotic. The front end of the band display on occasion weak links, but the brooding and thick atmosphere captured here is staggering; it is without doubt the heaviest and most menacing music Miles ever recorded.
So, of the three excellent live double albums to choose from, which is the one to go for? Recorded on the same day ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ (the first an afternoon set, the second an evening set) with very different feels to each of them work well as a complete set. Overall the performances are better, thanks to exchanging two perhaps ill suited saxophone players for one superb one and losing one too-showy guitarist. Due to having more working experience as a unit, given the choice, they are the set to go for. ‘Dark Magus’ though, apart from being the more easily available, is heavier, raw and the more extreme music. If you like pounding deep rhythms and a musical atmosphere that needs a knife to cut through, then this is the album to truly immerse yourself in. Also if you want an idea of where Miles was heading after ‘On The Corner’, before he unexpectedly decided to retire for the remainder of the decade, ‘Dark Magus’ is highly recommended.