1970 Miles Davis, part 1

1970 was a hectic year for Miles Davis. He took his ensembles into the Columbia recording studio fourteen times during the first six months of that year, twice as many times as he did in 1969, the year he recorded the milestone album Bitches Brew. Throughout the year he toured and performed continuously, including stellar performances at the Fillmore rock clubs, Tanglewood, the Isle of Wight and the Cellar Door Club in Washington, DC. His ensemble kept evolving, starting with the cast of musicians who recorded Bitches Brew, adding new exciting young musicians as the year progressed.

We start the review in January of 1970 with dates that were a continuation of the Bitches Brew sessions from 1969. That month Miles Davis led a number of recordings that were later released on the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions package. On January 27th he recorded a cover of Guinnevere, David Crosby’s tune, released only several months earlier on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled debut album. Actually a ‘cover’ is a very loose term to describe this piece of music, as it is nearly impossible to detect any resemblance in it to the original tune. David Crosby thought the same thing, in a funny tale he related about meeting Miles early in 1970:

“I’m standing outside the Village Gate in New York and up comes this rather small guy, says, ‘You Crosby?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I am,’ and he said, ‘I’m Miles.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I know. I know that that’s who you are.’ And he said, ‘I cut one of your tunes.’ I said ‘You cut one of my–oh my God.’ I said, ‘W-w-w-w-w-w-which tune?.’ He says, ‘Guinevere…You wanna hear it?’ And I said, ‘Oh, God, yes.’ He’s a hero of mine. I’ve listened to every record he’s ever made, and many of them hundreds of times.

I followed him, he says, ‘Follow that car,’ I follow this Ferrari with this girl with legs up to her neck, and he drives up to Midtown. There’s this house, we get out, we go in, and he puts it on. And then he and the girl go in the bedroom, and I listen to this song…and there’s not one bit of Guinnevere on this song. Nothing! Nothing that relates to it at all–no chord changes, no times changes, no melody, no nothing from that. And I’m really pissed, because I came in thinking I was gonna hear my song recognizably done by this freaking genius of a guy. I said, ‘Well, you know, you could just change the name and then you’d get the publishing.’ He threw me out.”

Miles Davis – Trumpet

Khalil Balakrishna – Sitar

Billy Cobham – Drums, Triangle

Chick Corea – Electric piano

Jack DeJohnette – Drums

Dave Holland – Electric bass

Bennie Maupin – Bass clarinet

John McLaughlin – Electric guitar

Airto Moreira – Percussion

Wayne Shorter – Soprano saxophone

Joe Zawinul – Electric piano

This take was released on the album Circle in the Round in 1979:

A number of musicians left the Miles Davis orbit at various points in 1970 to focus on their own musical projects. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter recorded solo albums in 1970 and were about to form Weather Report. John McLaughlin was working with Tony Williams’ explosive jazz rock outfit Lifetime and also recorded his solo album Devotion. Billy Cobham released an album with jazz rock band Dreams and would soon join John McLaughlin in one of the major bands of the era, The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Nearly any major jazz rock and fusion group in the early 1970s span from the fantastic pool of musicians Miles Davis surrounded himself with.

A relatively stable rhythm section worked with Miles on most of his studio recordings in the first half of 1970. It consisted of Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Let’s hear what each of them had to say about working with Miles.

Chick Corea: “Most of what we did was an improvisation, a jam. Miles had certain themes that would establish a tempo, a groove, and he would just set a mood.” Corea initially struggled with the electric piano that Miles wanted him to play, but found a way to fit in: “I got turned on to these little modules that you could distort the sound with.” Corea modified his Fender Rhodes to get a more percussive sound from the instrument and used a ring modulator guitar pedal to process its sound.

Chick Corea

Dave Holland: “When he put the music together and ran the band, he ran it with a very light touch and really encouraged the musicians to come to their own conclusions and to develop their own perspective on the music and create their own thought to it.” Holland was increasingly playing an electric bass with Miles and by 1970 it became his major instrument with the group: “Some of the music really felt like it needed a bass guitar. I mentioned it to Miles and I asked him what he thought. He said, ‘Sure, if you want to play bass guitar, that’s fine.’ That was a great period too because I was playing Fender and acoustic bass for this mixture of songs we were playing. It was great! The last six months I was with the band, I was playing more and more bass guitar. In fact, the last couple of times I went on the road, I didn’t even take the acoustic.”

Dave Holland with Miles Davis

Jack DeJohnette talked about his early influence that led to his style of drumming and Miles’ reaction to it: “Wilbur Campbell was one of my mentors. I used to hang out and watch him play all the time coming up. Wilbur had this way of playing, filling up when he took solos; it felt like somebody was cleaning out a closet and everything was falling out all over the room. That’s one of the things that inspired my concept when playing the drums. I remember Miles said to me that my way of drumming reminded him of a drunk falling upstairs. Upstairs. Not down.”

Jack DeJohnette with Miles Davis

Another fixture in the circle of musicians that worked with Miles in 1970 was Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, who added that region’s sounds and rhythms to the undefinable music Miles was making at the time. He recalled the first time he met the trumpeter: “Miles was playing in Los Angeles with his band, so I went there. On the break, I went backstage to the dressing room and he was standing there. I looked at him and said, ‘Miles.’ He looked at me: ‘Huh?’ I said, ‘Me, Brazil. Musico, Musica, Brazil. Love, love.’ He said, ‘OK. Now get out of here.’”

Airto Moreira

Between late February and early June of 1970 Miles entered the studio multiple times with his ensemble, recording material that would find its way on multiple albums. The first was a soundtrack for a film about the life of boxer Jack Johnson. Miles’ love of boxing is well known, going back to his early career when he trained with drummer Stan Levey, a professional boxer. He practiced regularly and followed boxing greats such as Joe Lewis and Sugar Ray Robinson.

 When fighting manager Bill Clayton asked him to write and perform music for a documentary he was making about Jack Johnson, Miles jumped on the opportunity. The legendary boxer was famous in the early 20th century not only for his boxing skills, but also for his flamboyant life style. His tastes of fast cars, jazz, clothes and beautiful women, plus his uninhibited pride of his blackness, were a perfect inspiration for Miles Davis.

Clayton remembers Miles’ dedication to that project: “He would discuss boxing with an intensity you couldn’t imagine. He’d come to our office and ask for a bunch of films. He’d put the spool on the projector, then sit there and watch for hours.”

On April 7th 1970 Miles went into the studio to record tracks for this soundtrack. None of his regular rhythm section players at the time, Corea, Holland and DeJohnette, were available. Herbie Hancock, Michael Henderson and Billy Cobham were invited instead, and together with John McLaughlin they recorded the track Right Off, a long jam that occupied the first side of the album Jack Johnson. It is the best example of Miles Davis’ promise to form the “greatest rock band you ever heard.”

Hermeto Pascoal, famed Brazilian composer and instrumentalist, who played on some of the Jack Johnson sessions, remembers an episode that found him boxing with Miles Davis on the trumpeter’s invitation: “He gave me some boxing gloves. I took off my glasses. My sight was so bad my eyes pointed in all directions. We walked up to each other to start boxing and Miles looked at me. One of my eyes pointed this way, that other eye pointed the other way. Miles didn’t know which way I was looking at. He thought I was looking at the right side. I focused my eyes and punched him in the face. From then on, Miles called me Albino Loco.”

Miles Davis training

Clive Davis, Columbia Records president at the time, realized the commercial potential of this new electrified music. He suggested that promoter Bill Graham, owner of the two Fillmore venues and organizer of various popular music events, start booking Miles’ band. In March of 1970 his group together with Wayne Shorter branched out for the first time to perform in front of a younger, mostly white, rock audience. This was the first of four engagements at the Fillmore venues in 1970, two in the East and two in the West. It marked a shift not only to bigger venues for Miles Davis, but more importantly to a different demographic.

Two days after the recording of Right Off (and ten days after the release of Bitches Brew) Miles was in San Francisco for a performance at the Fillmore West, opening for one of the city’s iconic bands, Grateful Dead. Miles connected with the band’s guitar player: “Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time. He loved other jazz musicians too, like Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans.” Another Dead member, Phil Lesh, talked about his experience listening to Miles Davis prior to taking the stage as the main act: “As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking what’s the use. How can we possibly play after this?”

Miles recalls the experience of performing at Fillmore West: “That was an eye-opening concert for me, because there were about five thousand people there that night, mostly young, white hippies, and they hadn’t hardly heard of me at all. When we first started playing people were walking around and talking. But after a while they all got quiet and really got into the music.”

The performance was released in 1973 on the album Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West. Chick Corea talked about the ever changing music within that group on the album’s sleeve notes: “The band you hear on this performance was an actively working and touring unit for a few years. It seemed to me to be in constant transition, always looking for a landing point which we all actively knew would never come (it never did).”

Miles Davis – trumpet

Chick Corea – electric piano

Jack DeJohnette – drums

Steve Grossman – saxophone

Dave Holland – bass

Airto Moreira – percussion

Here is the group performing Wayne Shorter’s tune Masqualero, originally from Miles Davis’ 1967 album Sorcerer.

The live sets that band played in 1970 became long continuous pieces of music uninterrupted by any announcements or introductions. The band moved seamlessly from one tune to another as if there was unseen mental connection between them. Dave Holland explains: “Miles often used phrases to show us where we’d go next. When we were playing a tune, Miles would superimpose something on top of it, and as soon as he did that we’d know that we were moving to another song, or that this or that rhythmic thing was about to happen. That’s the great thing about a working band, you start to develop an intuitive sense for what’s going on.”

May of 1970 comes along and brings with it one of the most celebrated additions to the Miles Davis Group. Keith Jarrett, at the time dedicating his time to his trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, was already on Miles’ radar for a few years. Jarrett recalls: “Around 1967, Miles brought his whole band to a little basement club in Paris where I was playing with Aldo Romano and J.F. Jenny-Clark, and later, every now and then, he would show up to hear the trio with Charlie and Paul. I’d walk past the table, and he’d say, ‘When are you going to play with my band?’” Jarrett explained his reason to join the band in an interview he gave to DownBeat magazine in 1974: “Miles had been talking to me for a while, but I was always in the middle of a tour with my trio. Then I heard Jack DeJohnette had started playing with Miles and it occurred to me that since I wasn’t doing anything earthshaking, and since I knew what Jack could do, having played with him in Charles Lloyds’ band, that was the right time for me to join.” Although Keith Jarrett was reluctant to play electric keyboard instruments, this is what Miles wanted him to do, and Jarrett complied. He said of his work with the band: “What Miles really needed at the time I joined him was someone on keyboard who could be both challenging and funky, and I think that’s what I contributed.”

Keith Jarrett

In May and June of 1970 the band with Keith Jarrett entered the studio five times and recorded material that a small part of it found its way into an album released only 18 months later, the double album Live-Evil. Like Bitches Brew, the album features the editing work of producer Teo Macero. He cut various pieces from the long jams the band recorded in the studio and edited them masterfully into tunes that could fit within the length limit of an LP record. The recording on June 4th 1970 is significant as being the last time Miles visited a recording studio until March of 1972.

Later in June 1970 The Miles Davis band performed again at the Fillmore East in New York City, this time opening for Laura Nyro. Those were the times when you could count on an audience to have an open mind and come to a concert that starts with a band blasting long and loud jams of complex jazz rock music, followed by a singer-songwriter performing solo with a piano. A mutual respect existed between the two artists, with Miles dropping in on one of Nyro’s sessions during the recording of her album New York Tendaberry in 1969. Nyro talked about jazz music and Miles Davis in an interview she gave in DownBeat magazine in April 1970: “Jazz is so beautiful because it’s so free and it’s so expressive. Like, when I listen to Miles Davis, words are not necessary . . . there are no lyrics there, but the music communicates life to me, you know, the pain of life.”

Laura Nyro with Miles Davis

Miles Davis’ shows at the Fillmore East were recorded and released later in the year on the album Miles Davis at Fillmore. Here is a fine example of what the band sounded like, playing the track Directions, composed by Joe Zawinul and originally performed during the ‘In A Silent Way’ recording sessions in 1968:

DownBeat magazine covered the shows in his September 1970 issue. Miles Davis was quoted saying this about the musicians in his band: “Most of the guys in the band can play other instruments, and that expands their conception. Jack can really play the piano, and Chick plays the shit out of the drums. Keith plays clarinet. So when they ad lib, you know it’s going to be something you like to hear.”

In part 2 we will cover a number of historical recordings made in the second half of 1970, including a legendary live set at the Isle of Wight festival.

Categories: A Year in Music

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2 replies »

  1. Nothing like Miles and his musical universe. Timeless stuff that still just kills it. Too bad I was too young at the time to be able to witness the emergence of jazz rock electro funk. I was listening to Bitches Brew at 16 in the mid-70s, so by the end of the decade, there was no going back. Congrats on an outstanding blog!

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