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The Miles Davis Reader: Interviews and Features from Downbeat Magazine, edited by Frank Alkyer, Hal Leonard
Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis, by Philip Freeman, Backbeat Books
Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis, by Gregory Davis and Les Sussman, Backbeat Books
Miles Davis: The Complete On The Corner, Columbia/Legacy
Miles Davis: Evolution of the Groove, Columbia/Legacy

Over the course of his career, Miles Davis changed the face of jazz repeatedly. From post-war bebop right up to his death in 1991, he was at the forefront of a number of movements. In many cases, it’s not so much that the music he produced was ahead of it’s time, as it was simply timeless. Bop, ballad, or the funk-drenched groove, Miles was the master of them all.

That he lived large – and hard - is indisputable. Without a doubt he played up his almost mythical status, yet in the end, we’re left with the music, and as testament to his talent, it continues to shine bright.

Davis-related books and CDs continue to fill shelves, with some recent, stellar examples.

By any measure the Sony/Legacy metal box series – which documents his years with Columbia Records - is a phenomenal undertaking. Every set in this comprehensive series includes essential music, essays, sessionographies and more. The Complete On The Corner is the last of nine box sets. It’s certainly one of his more controversial releases; when it was first released in 1972, On The Corner was greeted with confusion, and many cases, outright hostility; especially from the jazz community. Sitar and Tablas groove alongside funky electric bass, wah wah guitar and trumpet, predating trance, world music, and drum ‘n bass by decades.

Sessions began with many of the musicians mystified; unsure of what was going on and where Miles was headed with this dense new sound. A few players from previous bands were back - including Chick Corea and John McLaughlin - yet more than ever before, Miles had discarded his past. Instead, the primary influences were German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone.

Tracks were assembled in piecemeal fashion, with severe edits, loops and more – in many cases, techniques that would show up years later in hip-hop - long after the musicians went home. Long-time producer Teo Macero was vital to the finished product. Splicing and manipulating tape as far back as In A Silent Way, by now his innovative methods were as identifiable as Miles’ own playing.

The box contains six discs, and spans 16 recording sessions, which produced On The Corner, plus Big Fun and Get Up With It two years later, along with more than two hours of previously unreleased music. Easily one of the highlights of the year. Evolution of a Groove is a five-track EP of remixes, sampling from a variety of performances spanning 1959–1972. The disc is aimed at making Davis’ music more appealing to contemporary tastes; but it’s hard to make this more revolutionary that it already is – sure, one track adds a rapper, yet Miles already did that himself, on his final album, 1991’s Doo Bop. The source material is incredibly resilient, and manages to come across as strong as ever even in this context. It works well enough as a pleasant diversion, but is hardly essential listening.

The Miles Davis Reader collects sixty years of coverage from Downbeat Magazine on Miles, including features going all the way back to 1950, when he was a sideman with Charlie Parker. Surprisingly, Miles defends Dixieland music in his first-ever interview with the magazine - and again five years later in one of the magazine’s famous blindfold tests. 1955 also brought news of Miles being in the midst of a comeback – the first of many.

The inclusion of then-current reviews and feature articles shows exactly how each album was received, without revisionist history. Tellingly, On the Corner was given only two stars; the reviewer criticizing the lack of soloing and questioning whether the elongated grooves were nothing more than ‘repetitious boredom.’ Three months earlier, the magazine had awarded a collection of Miles’ work from ‘49-‘50 five stars.

Set up chronologically, Richard Cook’s It’s About Time offers insight and historical perspective as he examines every release – including bootlegs - in Miles’ vast catalogue. Forgotten gems are uncovered, and he isn’t afraid to point out the discs that didn’t work, and why. One fascinating example; the terms of Miles’ mid-eighties contract with Warner Brothers goes a long way to explaining the lackluster albums that resulted.

It’s About Time was Cook’s final work before his untimely passing last year – he was the co-author of the massive Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, as well as his own Jazz Encyclopedia, and his knowledge and enthusiasm will be missed. Running the Voodoo Down sticks with the electric phase, from Bitches Brew on. Author Freeman admits his musical diet consisted of metal and rap when he first discovered Davis’ music in the late 80’s. Not surprisingly, it was On The Corner that got him hooked. Owing to a distinct lack or historical context – Freeman references acts like Skinny Puppy, Bad Brains and Tom Waits as often as jazz players – there’s an entirely new perspective throughout much of the book. For fans of Miles’ electric phase, it’s an enjoyable – and, at times illuminating - read.

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While the other books here are primarily concerned with the music, Dark Magus barely touches on it. Gregory Davis – Miles’ son - promises in the introduction to bring no sour grapes and a minimum of emotional baggage. That’s debatable – much time spent on why Gregory was cut out of his father’s will - but some family history is interesting; Miles’ father distrust of white folk bordered on psychotic. It interesting to learn more about his relationships with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, but there’s little in the way of fresh insight. And, for all his gripes, as far as negative portraits, Miles’ notoriously unreliable autobiography is still by far the harshest.

John McLaughlin, The Essential John McLaughlin, Columbia/Legacy
John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius, Tony Williams - Trio of Doom, Columbia/Legacy
Mahavishnu Orchestra; Live In Monteaux, 1974/1984, Eagle Eye Media J
aco Pastorius, The Essential Jaco Pastorius, Columbia/Legacy

Easily the most renowned guitarist from the fusion era, John McLaughlin first caught notice in America in 1969, when former Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams brought him over from his native England to play in the nascent Tony Williams Lifetime. Davis spotted McLaughlin at Lifetime’s debut performance, and quickly drafted him on a number of sessions, including In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Two years later, McLaughlin formed Mahavishnu Orchestra. The group’s sound - intense, high energy riff-rock coupled with virtuoso jazz chops and Indian rhythms – was like nothing heard before. Their debut, Inner Mounting Flame was an instant hit. After a second studio album, the original band imploded in 1973.

McLaughlin formed a new, expanded version of the group, including Jean Luc Ponty on violin, fellow Sri Chinmoy disciple Narada Michael Walden on drums, and Gail Moran on piano and vocals. While the group may have been more in tune spiritually, the volatility was missed.

After three albums with the new Mahavishnu Orchestra, he formed Shakti in 1975, an all-acoustic group featuring his guitar alongside tablas, ghatam and violin.

He’s continued with a wide range of projects – both electric and acoustic - ever since.

The Essential John McLaughlin offers a generous two-disc sample of material from every era of his career, going back as far as 1963, with Graham Bond – with a pre-Cream rhythm section of Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce - and covers work with Miles, Tony Williams Lifetime, Carlos Santana – dueting on Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ - as well as solo albums and both versions of Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Film of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup is thrilling, but elusive - nothing has been released officially at this point. A DVD of the second version of the band in performance is frustrating; only three of the tracks include video, although they clock in at well over an hour, with the rest only available in audio. Too often the group meanders on at length, never really getting anywhere. Fellow adherents of Sri Chinmoy – easily identified by their all-white outfits and blissed-out smiles – give the performance an at times unintended humor – something akin to a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning the wacky cults of the seventies.

A second disc featuring a 1984 incarnation – billed as Mahvishnu – is quite different. Saxophone replaces violin, and McLaughlin spends most of his time on the ill-advised guitar-synthesizer. On it’s own merits, it’s quite enjoyable, but outside the name, there’s very little in common with what had come before.

In 1979 McLaughlin performed a one-off gig with Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams billed as the Trio of Doom for Havana Jam, a festival held in Cuba. It was memorable due to all the wrong reasons; Pastorius’ unpredictable behavior kicked in that day, and his playing at times was far removed from what the other two were doing. The live recording was shelved, and instead the trio went into the studio the following week to record tracks for the festival’s two subsequent ‘live’ albums, with dubbed audience noises added.

Of the five tracks recorded in the studio, only three ended up being used. Now, for the first time, all five tracks - plus the complete live performance - are compiled.

There’s a massive amount of power, and a few impressive moments – chiefly, Williams drumming - but for the most part, the performances are simply unfocused. A sad reminder of what could have been.

Over the course of his remarkable, comet-like career, Pastorius – who audaciously dubbed himself ‘The World’s Greatest Bass Player’ – changed the way bass guitar was perceived.

From the moment his self-titled debut album was released in 1976, through his years with Weather Report, he simply had no peer. Playing fretless electric bass, his was an entirely new voice, likened to a Jimi Hendrix of the instrument.

Sadly, he battled mental illness and substance abuse. Within a decade of his debut he was homeless and rapidly deteriorating. By the time he died – after a beating by a nightclub bouncer in 1987 – he no longer owned an instrument. He was 35 years old. The Essential Jaco Pastorius brings together 27 tracks, including solo work – all but one track off from his debut - notable guest appearances with Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and others, along with ten tracks from Weather Report. Together they make a solid argument for his boasts. More than twenty years after Jaco’s passing, no one has come close to taking his mantle.

March 2008