Monday, 7 October 2013

Review: Miles Davis - Agharta & Pangaea

‘Agharta’ and its sister recording ‘Pangaea’ recorded in 1975 are together the last official music Miles Davis would produce in the 1970s – before the six-year retirement until his return in 1981. Miles previous studio album proper ‘On The Corner’ had been released way back in 1972, and since then he had been touring with a band made up of more funk and rock musicians than from the jazz fraternity. His only released albums since ‘On The Corner’ had been the mix-and-match collections of previously recorded unreleased music ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Get Up With It’, the latter of which featured most of the musicians Miles would tour with between ’72 and ’75.

Recorded on February 1st at the Osaka Festival Hall, ‘Agharta’ gives us the afternoon performance of the band, while ‘Pangaea’ gives us the evening performance from the same day. In effect then, rather than two separate double-disc sets, it has more the feel of a complete four-disc set (surely a repackaging opportunity for another Columbia box).

At this time, Miles himself was in a very bad way. Recently recovered from two broken ankles, thanks to a horrific car crash, and suffering from ill health and fatigue, Miles was – having already successfully kicked a massive heroin addiction earlier in his life – now also at the peak of his cocaine usage. Not that you would even guess any of this from the music here though. The band themselves are deserving on all numbers of such superlatives as powerful and thrilling, and Miles especially is on stellar form, laying down strong and fast runs on the trumpet one moment, slow plaintive melodies the next.

‘Agharta’ itself kicks off with ‘Prelude’, beginning with a churning theme that at the time was simply dubbed ‘Funk’. Developed from the Jack Johnson side one piece ‘Right Off’, the mood is violent and driving, with Miles stunning solo silencing any who had claimed he’d lost some of his playing ability - despite chronic illness and pain, he here plays with great unbridled energy. Shortly before the seventeen minute mark, the music shifts itself into what has now become known as the ‘Agharta Prelude’. A strong and uplifting piece, it is a highlight and certainly a moment to win over any would-be converts. The gentle ‘Maiysha’ that follows, relaxed and calm, is a more focused and intense performance than the version from ‘Get Up With It’, with a simply beautiful flute solo by Sonny Fortune.

Getting off to a furious start, the second disc is not as strong as the first, but still maintains great energy, taking in a faster harder version of ‘Right Off’, an electric take on the motifs from the classic modal number ‘So What’ and plenty of Miles on organ - giving the trumpet for the most part a back seat until the last number where Miles plays with a sublime and lyrical, almost Spanish, feeling.

While ‘Agharta’ is the more cohesive throughout, ‘Pangaea’ on the other hand is a record of two extremes - the yin and yang of Miles 70’s fusion work. Disc ones forty minute ‘Zimbabwe’ is driving grinding edgy funk with a heavy fast rock beat and snarling twin guitars, and is arguably the most electrifying of Miles recordings from this time. ‘Gondwana’ alternatively begins with just flute and gentle percussion, and providing one of the most gentle-sounding pieces of music to be heard on any Miles record since ‘In A Silent Way’.

Like ‘Agharta’, hints of earlier songs are present, but effectively they are simply used as a springboard for the band to jump into new territory and show their improvisation chops. And everything is woven together with such skill, that it comes together as just one long piece over two discs, continuously flowing from one groove to the next, with the first disc ending on a fade and disc two beginning the way disc one had ended. The overall effect is that this music could go on forever.

With Miles for some four years, throughout Michael Henderson provides his always outstanding funky and unshakable bass grooves, effectively anchoring, and driving the band. ‘Prelude’ in particular benefits, and in return gives out some spectacular energetic climaxes. Al Foster too drums pure rhythm, and together he and Henderson are a formidable partnership, which percussionist extraordinaire Mtume enthusiastically takes every opportunity to enhance.

On the front line of the band Reggie Lucas lays down his trademark riffs and rhythm work, while Pete Cosey once again shows himself to be perhaps one of the most under-recognised guitarists of all any time. Fearless and wildly experimental, yet incredibly funky and groovy, his experimentation with the guitar is outstanding, and the soloing he produces is nothing short of phenomenal. Similarly, Sonny Fortune on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones outdoes almost all of Miles previous fusion sax players (no-one outdoes Wayne Shorter). But the bands strongest point is not any these. The true shining presence is the whole cohesiveness of the band, weaving all their contributions into each others and making music that literally no-one else could.

‘Dark Magus’, ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ then are all released from the same year long phase of Miles career, and as such may seem like excess, but in truth they all have such a different feel from each other, that each recording sounds totally fresh and different when placed against another. ‘Agharta’ probably makes the best first pick for the uninitiated, but ‘Pangaea’ is every bit as dynamic and challenging in its own right. Certainly if you can get hold of both of them, then do so, as they are incendiary works.

A minor note : where ‘Dark Magus’ was also previously a Japan only release and is now more easily available and superbly presented for a good price, ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ have had slightly less love afforded them. As such, the American masters have a more muddy sounding mix with less defined bass and some cloudy sounding instruments, while even the artwork is pretty poor. For the full beauty that these recordings can convey, go for the remastered Japanese versions. Properly remastered and remixed with superb clear sound and excellent artwork, these albums just glow.


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