1970 Miles Davis, part 2

In part 1 of this article we chronicled Miles Davis’s musical activities during the first half of 1970. In this article we will document the rest of the year, when Miles focused on live performances, including a number of historical dates.

August of 1970 proved to be an important month for Miles Davis, with two live performances that gave his group exposure well beyond the standard publicity given to jazz musicians. On August 8 he was invited to play at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. This was the last of four “Fillmore at Tanglewood” shows produced by Bill Graham in the summers of 1969 and 1970, featuring rock, soul and jazz acts. The program was unique, for this was strictly a classical venue at the time and the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Carlos Santana, whose band shared the bill with Miles on that date, recalled in his autobiography listening to the trumpeters’ band set: “We didn’t understand harmonically or structurally what he and his band were doing. They had another kind of vocabulary, which came from a higher form of musical expression.”

Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone – Gary Bartz

Drums – Jack DeJohnette

Electric Bass – Dave Holland

Electric Piano – Chick Corea

Organ – Keith Jarrett

Percussion – Airto Moreira

Trumpet – Miles Davis

Later that month the same personnel travelled to the UK to perform at the Isle of Wight festival. This was a historical moment in the world of music in general, being the largest human gathering to attend a music event. A year after Woodstock, it featured some of that festival’s artists such as Jimi Hendrix and The Who, but added many other big name acts including The Doors, Ten Years After, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Donovan, Chicago, Leonard Cohen and Jethro Tull. It was one thing for a rock artist to perform at such an event, but for a jazz musician to play live in front of 600,000 people was unfathomable. Jack DeJohnette remembers: “We were flown in by helicopter because of traffic. Seeing all those people was a really awesome feeling, this is what Miles had wanted to get to and there it was. We were all pretty blown away. Jazz bands had never played for that big an audience before. It was also one of the best performances that we played as a band.”

Miles Davis group at the Isle of Wight, 1970

Miles Davis went on stage on the afternoon of Saturday, August 29th 1970, right after a short performance by Tiny Tim who warmed up the audience with ‘There’ll Always Be An England’. Just before this novelty song the crowd experienced the famous performance by Joni Mitchell, when she asked the audience to “give us some respect”. Miles Davis’ music was likely an oddity to most spectators of the event that day, but he certainly gained their respect.

Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight, 1970

Chick Corea, who played one of his very last concerts with Miles that day, remembers this event as one that gave him the idea of making music that can reach large numbers of people. It planted the seed for forming Return to Forever two years later: “When Miles began to experiment, I became aware of rock bands and the energy and the different type of communication they had with audiences during a show. I’d see young people at rock concerts standing to listen rather than sitting politely. It was a different vibe and more my generation. It got me interested in communicating that way. People were standing because they were emotionally caught up in what they were hearing. I related to that.”

One benefit of performing at such as high profile festival is that the full performance was filmed in good quality, and it is one of the rare opportunities we have today to experience this magnificent group of musicians in a live setting. Here is the whole performance. When Miles was asked what he calls that music, he said ‘Call it anything’:

Airto Moreira, who plays all sorts of small noise-making percussion instruments, talked about bringing his ethnic instruments to the band: “I had this cuíca, like a little small drum made of metal that comes from Africa and was developed in Brazil. It sounds like something or it sounds like nothing, I don’t know. When I started playing that thing, I would stop and look around. Nobody was complaining. Then Miles looked at me. I was sitting down in a chair and he was standing up, and Miles looked like a giant, even though he was not a giant as a person. I felt like stopping but I kept playing. I realized he liked that sound because it’s crazy. He wanted to shock people at that time.”

Watching the live footage from the show, you cannot miss the pure enjoyment of all musicians on stage as they are exploring the music and figuring out where it goes next in a continuous stream of sounds. Saxophonist Gary Bartz, in one of his very first performances with the band: “Most of the pieces were never introduced on the bandstand, and only later assigned cryptic names when it came time to release a record. I thought this was just me, but years later I found out Jack didn’t know, Keith didn’t know, we didn’t even know the names of these songs we were playing. People would come up to us and say, I really loved such and such, and we wouldn’t know what song they were talking about. We just played the music we played. That’s what this music is.”

Gary Bartz with Miles Davis

Pianist Keith Jarrett summarized the experience at the Isle of Wight well: “I believe that on this little 37 minute film is a micro history lesson in jazz, and it’s just coming out of Miles’ horn. There is even a Dixieland moment. Compressed into that set people are hearing almost where the whole thing came from, everything that happened up to that moment in time.”

Shortly after the Isle of Wight performance Chick Corea and Dave Holland left the band to form their free jazz outlet Circle. Miles decided not to add a second keyboard player, and replaced Holland with bassist Michael Henderson in the touring band. Henderson, who already played with Miles earlier in the year during the recording sessions for Jack Johnson, talked about how he first started with Miles: “I was playing with Stevie Wonder and into the Motown thing. He said to Stevie, ‘I’m taking your fucking bassist.’ The next thing I knew, I got a call from Miles and I asked my friend, ‘What do you know about this Miles guy?’ He said, ‘If Miles Davis is calling you, you better get your bass guitar and run.’”

Michael Henderson with Miles Davis

Bill Graham booked the new lineup to perform again at the Fillmore West for four nights in October 1970, this time opening for Leon Russell. Later that month the band appeared at the Tonight Show with Bill Cosby as host. This was the second time that year that Miles had exposure on TV. In July he performed on The Dick Cavett Show.

Unfortunately that lineup was never brought into a recording studio, but it toured extensively late in 1970 and all through 1971. DownBeat magazine singled out Keith Jarrett in its review of the band’s performance at Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, California: “Cornered in a right angle of piano and organ, Jarrett kept all kinds of interesting things going, sometimes playing both instruments simultaneously—plus facial muscles. These were in constant contortion, mirroring most of a wide range of nuances; often drifting into self-induced ecstasy.”

Miles Davis group

The band closed the year with a week-long engagement at the Cellar Door club in Washington DC. This was a significant series of shows, for it was recorded and some of the tracks were selected to appear on Miles’ next album. Live Evil, a double LP album, was released in November of 1971, most of it based on recordings made at the Cellar Door, with heavy editing. Producer Teo Macero took the long recorded jams and with the magic of splicing created fantastic collages of music. Also of note on these recordings is the guest appearance of guitarist John McLaughlin, in his only live recording with Miles Davis. Miles recalled in his autobiography: “I was getting away from using a lot of solos in my group sound, moving more toward an ensemble thing, like the funk and rock bands. I wanted to have John McLaughlin on guitar, but he liked what he was doing in Tony Williams’ Lifetime band. I did get him to play with us at the Cellar Door.”

Jack DeJohnette remembers these recordings fondly: “That’s one of my favorite recordings of the electric period of Miles, Live Evil, because the band is just going all out. It’s like… there’s a term, ‘grunge’ music. Because Keith, the way he played the Fender Rhodes and the Farfisa was just awesome. There was this funky sound, grungy sound, dirty kind of sound. Like Larry Young’s organ with Lifetime. It was a very good blend of improvisation based over grooves that changed all the time.”

Jack DeJohnette

One standout track on the album is the 23-minute Honky Tonk, showcasing Miles playing trumpet with a wah-wah effect. He wrote in his autobiography: “By now I was using the wah-wah on my trumpet all the time so I could get closer to that voice Jimi had when he used a wah-wah on his guitar. I had always played trumpet like a guitar and the wah-wah just made the sound closer.” Miles was enamored with the effect, talking about it to other musicians. Carlos Santana remembers: “A bunch of us from both groups were together at a 5th Avenue hotel—it was Keith Jarrett, Michael Shrieve, and I in the elevator, holding it and waiting on Miles. When Miles finally got on the elevator, and when we were going up Miles looked at me and out of nowhere said, ‘You gotta get you a fuckin’ wah-wah—I got one.’ He wasn’t taking any argument.”

Miles Davis: trumpet with wah-wah

Gary Bartz: soprano saxophone, flute

John McLaughlin: electric guitar

Keith Jarrett: electric piano, organ

Michael Henderson: electric bass

Jack DeJohnette: drums

Airto Moreira: percussion

The striking album cover was painted by artist Mati Klarwein, known for his famous paintings on the covers of Santana’s album Abraxas and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. He said of that cover: “I was painting the portrait of a pregnant woman for the cover and the day I finished it, Miles called me and told me: ‘I want a photograph of life on the one side and of evil on the other.’”

Miles said of the concept of the album and the word play: “In Live-Evil we turned my name around on one tune, which became Sivad instead of Davis. Another was Selim instead of Miles. Evil is the reverse of Live, and some of the recordings were live, at the Cellar Door in Washington D.C. But that reversal was the concept of the album: good and bad, light and dark, funky and abstract, birth and death. That’s what I was trying to say with those two paintings on the front and back. One gets into love and birth and the other into evil and feeling of death.”

35 years later, in 2005, a 6-CD box set was released titled ‘The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, capturing six of the sets the group played during that engagement. Jack DeJohnette said of that release: “I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I’m glad that they released the different nights.”

Michael Henderson

We close this article with the track ‘What I Say’ from that album. Pay attention to Michael Henderson’s great bass line. Many years later Henderson, who stayed with the band until 1976, talked about why Miles wanted him in the group: “Miles said to me that he wanted me to hold the band down. He wanted me to hold it together. He wanted me to be a rock. He enjoyed having a groove and solid bottom in his music.”

Jack DeJohnette also discussed the track in the liner notes from the CD box: “The first afternoon at  the sound check, Miles came over to me and sang a drum beat that he wanted me to play. It was very simple, but when the whole band came in, it made a lot of sense. That tune became the electrically charged ‘What I Say’ which is one of my favorite pieces that Miles was playing during that period. Miles had me listen to a lot of Buddy Miles’ drumming because he was looking for a heavy funky groove that he could play over, and after listening I said to Miles, ‘I get it, you want a Buddy feel with my technique,’ And he smiled and said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”

Keith Jarrett is again eloquent in describing the music on these lives dates: “If it doesn’t knock your socks off, you aren’t wearing any.”

Categories: A Year in Music

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  1. Hearing Live/Evil for the first time – Christmas 1971 – was a mind-blowing event! Jack DeJohnette mentions grunge, and the finale of the double album (after the rather silly narration) was incredibly raw and powerful. Sadly, there’s no trace of that excerpt (probably from It’s About That Time) on the Cellar Door box set – it would have been “interesting” to hear it in context. But Live/Evil was a revelation, Michael Henderson in particular. A remarkable year, even by Miles’s standards!

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