On the surface, the reissue of five Miles Davis double albums from the early '70s -- Black Beauty: Live at the Fillmore West (recorded in 1970), Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East (1970), Live-Evil (1970), Miles Davis in Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall (1972), and Dark Magus: Live at Carnegie Hall (1974) -- looks like a curious move. This period of Davis' work is still -- yes, more than two decades later -- a wedge issue in jazz. Close to half of jazz's core constituency thoroughly despises this phase of his work. Author and veteran jazz critic Stanley Crouch called it "trendy and dismal." Crouch has frequently voiced the disappointment of these jazz fans, who still feel that Davis betrayed jazz's best interests in 1969 when the trumpeter's ensemble changed over from upright to electric bass, piano to electric keyboards, and started making music with far more of a rock 'n' roll or funk edge than Davis' trademark, cool classic jazz had ever had. In addition, these recent releases from Columbia/Legacy are forced to compete in a jazz marketplace overflowing with reissues of much more universally loved work. Yet upon closer examination the reissues are well-timed, and show that for the first time since the current jazz revival began about 15 years ago, the people running the show in the jazz business might have a clue.
Jazz in the '90s has been slouching toward a creative crisis; put bluntly, the Wyntonclones haven't produced. Wynton and Branford Marsalis both signed to Columbia in the early '80s and became household names soon thereafter. This started a feeding frenzy among major labels, which began shoving a steady stream of soft-spoken, sharply dressed, studious young jazz performers down the collective throat of the jazz community. It was hard not to escape the anti-hip-hop implication of the young jazzmen's public image: "Look, these are nice blacks; they even play music that is artful and highbrow." The music, however, was -- for the most part -- boring. It generally takes more life experience than most 24-year-olds have amassed to competently embellish the classic American songbook. And it should be noted that most jazz greats who are known to us by a single name -- Monk, Ornette, Satchmo, Duke, Trane -- made their mark in their late 20s or even their 30s.
The public wasn't buying it either -- in the long run, in any sense of the word. For one thing, many of the established masters of jazz were still around making records, and for another, the great recordings that make up the various entries of the jazz canon were getting reissued on CD. Why buy a new Joshua Redman CD when you can get a classic Sonny Rollins recording for $3 less? But the jazz labels abused this market. Many of the classics were shoddily produced for reissue; the current edition of Davis' Kind of Blue -- perhaps the one jazz record that defines this music -- is currently in its third CD incarnation.
So with few new artists boasting real box office draw (the short-list of those who do: James Carter, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, Diana Krall, Cyrus Chestnut, and Redman), and the reissue market sullied by a glut of dubious productions, jazz aficionados had reason to worry. Even though jazz was gaining substantial ground within the institutions of official culture (like Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian), and it had become an established highbrow soundtrack (functioning as the Muzak at Barnes and Noble and Starbucks), things looked a little shaky. That's when labels started to clean up their act. Reissues became priority projects -- only appropriate, since they drive the jazz record sales. Suddenly, almost every major jazz imprint had a series boasting audiophile sound, upscale packaging, and booklets with new essays and rare photos. This sated the hard-core jazz crowd, which still yearns for long overdue respect to the jazz of the '40s, '50s, and '60s (Stan Getz never won a "genius grant"). And here's the surprising development: The majors turned their attention to the jazz that was selling. Not the awful dreck that calls itself smooth jazz, but artists like Cassandra Wilson, Medeski Martin and Wood (MMW), the Charlie Hunter Quartet, and the various artists who crouch under the horribly named umbrella of acid jazz. In each case, the edgy, unabashedly pop-influenced jazz built big audiences, beyond the somewhat narrow confines of the jazz world. Blue Note started its Rare Groove series and Verve launched its Talking Verve imprint with this audience in mind. For Columbia, which is in the process of reissuing almost 30 years' worth of Miles Davis sessions, these five double CDs are its way of representin' to this crowd.
These packages are not an authoritative overview of this reviled era in Davis' career, but they are a selection of essential live dates that contrast vividly with the more sedate, better-known studio dates like Bitches Brew and Tribute to Jack Johnson. Also, they trace Davis' development from producing a music that merely expanded on the open-ended jazz-rock sound performed by many groups -- notably, Traffic and the Allman Brothers Band -- to a raging, densely layered funk sound that prefigured what groups like Spring Heel Jack and Roni Size are doing today.
In fact, it's not hard imagining fans of MMW or even Morcheeba grooving to either of the Fillmore dates. Both feature long, stretched-out jams -- too long, at times. (The parallel would be the Chicago Bulls standing around waiting for Michael Jordan to do something spectacular with the basketball.) The upside is the fiery trumpet playing. Davis sounds as if he's angrily responding to his critics; these discs feature some of his most vehement playing. On the downside, there's the incessant shrilling from the Fender Rhodes keyboards, and the fact that neither disc compares with Paraphernalia, a widely circulated bootleg from late '69 that Legacy will release sometime in the early days of the next millennium.
Live-Evil shows the Sly Stone influence creeping into Davis' work. It's also an instructive disc on the contrast between Davis' studio side (which some tracks document) and his live excursions. The funk direction codified on In Concert is largely due to personnel changes, including Michael Henderson, an R&B player who took over on bass, and Reggie Lucas (yeah, the guy who would later produce the first Madonna record), who nabbed guitar and drenched the music with wah-wah effects. On these tracks, Davis completely leaves the confines of the solo-head-solo structure and begins layering his music. Some of those layers -- Talvin Singh fans may want to note -- initiate with Badal Roy's tabla flourishes. Dark Magus nearly completes the process with its explosion of improvisational funk. Three guitar players -- Lucas, Pete Cosey, and Dominique Gaumont -- do their best Hendrix impressions, and Davis solos over them with intense, sputtering aggression. This band stayed together and recorded two more superb live discs, Agharta and Pangaea in January 1975. Then Davis took a six-year hiatus.
Critics like Crouch do have a point about Davis' commercial concessions. When he returned in 1981, he really did sell out. The final phase of his career was marked by rote covers of Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson tunes. However, in the early '70s era, Davis showed what jazz might be like freed of the cultural impetus of upward mobility. The music was free-flowing, polyglot, and sprawling. It could be anything. By contrast, much of what passes for mainstream jazz today sounds feeble. These recordings will likely serve as missionaries for jazz, but they'll lead people back to the '40s and not into the '90s. This fact adds luster to Davis' legend, but makes today's jazz community seem more in crisis than ever.