Sunday, 9 March 2014

Review: Miles Davis - The Cellar Door Sessions

‘The Cellar Door Sessions’ is another in Columbias lavish Miles Davis box-set releases and, being a series of live dates from one venue as opposed to a related set of sessions or collaborations, one wonders why such a treatment. The truth is that these gigs here represent a true ‘missing link’ in Miles vast career – and how he moved from mainstream jazzer to godfather of fusion. Previously, an inadvertnt illusion was created by his ‘official’ releases that gave the strong impression that he had moved almost overnight from jazz standards to wild funk jams.

Although the slow gradual move into using electric instruments became more prominent through ‘In A Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’, it was with ‘Jack Johnson’ that everything suddenly leapt forward into the electric arena. This short-lived 1970 band shown here though was what truly marked the real shift from acoustic to electric in Miles groups. Choosing not to play any earlier Miles material, and made up of 19-year old Motown bass player Michael Henderson, drummer Jack DeJohnette, sax player Gary Bartz, jazz piano prodigy Keith Jarrett and Brazillian multi-percussionist Airto, in truth the band would not have wanted to play the earlier material.

Choosing to forsake the larger venues Miles was now playing, he instead took his newly formed band of young players to Washington D.C.’s crammed 100-people capacity club The Cellar Door. Here they would play a new, and controversial, hybrid of jazz and funk over four nights, with guitarist John McLaughlin dropping in to join the band for the final night. Portions of these performances would later be used to make up the album ‘Live-Evil’, where the cut-and-paste focus would almost be to showcase the then rising star John McLaughlin.

For years though, the band here went largely unheard, with most fans wondering what the band sounded like before the cut-ups and the heavy refocus on McLaughlin. Keith Jarrett also frequently went on record as saying that this band was truly hot, and that the final night addition of the guitarist in fact upset the rhythm, feel and tight interplay of the band. This box-set then sets the record straight, and with six complete sets and six hours of music, gives us something almost entirely previously unheard.

Each disc features a complete set consisting of between three and six tracks, with numbers frequently stretching to the fifteen minute mark (and some even to twenty). Featuring repeated versions of ‘Directions’. ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Inamorata’, ‘Honky Tonk’, ‘It’s About That Time’ and ‘What I Say’, as well as a single take on ‘Yesternow’, none of the titles here sound anything like the ones you’re familiar with.

Almost every piece here is built on a strong and repetitive bass figure that is for the most part the musics solid signpost over which everyone else lays down their groove or solo. Newboy Michael Henderson holds and drives the whole band forward, with a warm and rounded pulse, and his timing is impeccable. In fact it’s his work with Jack DeJohnette, and Airtos palette of percussion and vocals, that really transforms the sound of this band.

Gary Bartz on saxophone, who’d already worked with Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, was the first alto player Miles had regularly worked with since Cannonball Adderly more than ten years earlier. In truth, perhaps tenor sax here would have fared better, as Miles own trumpet playing is higher in register, and the lower sound of the tenor would have provided a much stronger contrast, but Bartz and his high-octane bluesy-sounding solos, especially his soprano work, are superb. Full of gutsy powerful playing, it’s a true shame, based on his on-display skills here, that Bartz work with Miles was so brief and little recorded.

One of the key presences, and distinctions, of this set though is the playing of Keith Jarret on the Fender Rhodes piano. Previously, Jarrett had only been heard either playing the second set of keys with Chick Corea, or largely (on ‘Live-Evil’) behind the guitar of John McLaughlin. Here though he is a solo and distinctive voice showing us compelling melodic solos and splashes of colour. It’s clear as well that Miles knew the strengths of Jarrett, as with most of the sets here he gives the piano player long improvised solo features as a bridge between the different tunes. In many ways these are like tiny previews of the acoustic concerts he would play just a few short years later. This set contains four such solos, each distinctive, with a fresh sound, and all set highlights. Tellingly, Miles never stopped praising Keith Jarret throughout the next twenty years.

And what of Miles Davis himself? On his recent albums, Miles’ critics had been quick to bemoan his use of effects on his trumpet, citing his declining chops as the reason. In fact, these criticisms were completely unfounded, as here his playing is superbly energetic and full-blooded. In this small Washington club, his playing sounds both aggressive and intimate. In fact his playing is so good, it is not overstating the point to say that this is a career high for him, in terms of range and daring. Sure, if you’re looking for the quiet and beautiful hushed playing of his 50’s days, you will be disappointed. But in every other way, this is Miles at his very best on the trumpet.

The first four discs without McLaughlin are superb. The group feels like a jazz group, but with the rhythm section (and Michael Henderson in particular) moving everything towards some gritty funk. Airto and DeJohnette are as clear as Mediterranean waters here with each of their contributions being easily seperable, and Jarrett is simply blinding. The Saturday night performances that capture McLaughlins addition to the band on discs five and six, though strong, just aren’t as good however.

As Keith Jarrett has always made clear, the band had in a very small space of time become a tight and adept unit and had acquired that valuable link between musicians that always exists in improvisational units. With McLaughlins addition, although strong, the insertion of another player into the band upsets the balance. Some superb solos are welcome, but his playing is much harder in sound than the rest of the band, and that wonderful clarity between the others tends to become overcrowded. As with the first four sets, the last two sets here are good, but how they compare to the previous four will depend on your personal preference, and ultimately your fondness for McLlaughlin.

Interestingly, Teo Macero is at the controls once again – recording the bands performances in the club. But on these occasions there is no post-session work cutting and splicing creating a collage of music, as he had done to create ‘Live-Evil’. This is 100% live music - and with excellent sound quality and clarity.

So, here it is – six complete performances recorded over four nights of powerful Miles jazz-funk, most of which you’ve never heard before. ‘Cellar’ is also easily the most sumptuously packaged of the Miles boxsets. A cherry-red case holding the CDs and extensive photos, detailed liner notes and thoughtful essays slides smoothly into a slipcase of mysterious yet highly strokeable material that feels something like a holy union between leather and suede. Sure, some will be furrowing their brow as to why they, or indeed the world, need another six-disc presentation set of Miles. Here though you have the chance to hear from front-row seats the experience of a 1970 Miles Davis club performance and that is something that no fan of Miles, heavy jazz or funk would ever want to pass up.


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