New Miles Davis Live Box Set Captures the Dawn of Jazz Rock Fusion
Miles Davis grooves at the Fillmore East in the summer of 1970.
Amalie R. Rothschild/Columbia Legacy
By the late 1960's, Miles Davis already knew that he was a legend of jazz, a sonic innovator, and one of the genre's most popular and challenging performers hands down.
But damn, what he really, really wanted to be was a rock and roll star. He saw all those white teens and young adults lining up to spend their money on tickets and records by those long-haired ofays who clanged guitars at ear-splitting volumes. What did they know about artistry, melody, and mood-shifting?
Miles Davis wanted that kind of commercial success, for himself, and for his music. Influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown, he felt was time to plug in, flip the switch, and spearhead the fusion of jazz and rock.
That phase of his live career is chronicled in the somewhat unwieldy-titled Miles at the Fillmore - Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 (Columbia/Legacy), in which the vaults have spewed forth the complete live sets from Davis and his band's June 17-20 stint at the Fillmore East.
A few bonus tracks include tunes from his April 11 gig that year at the same venue including a frenetic "Paraphernalia" and "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down."
The importance of jazz-rock fusion is driven home in the box set's liner notes by Micheal Cuscuna and collection of then-contemporary letters and article clippings from Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and Newsweek about Davis' transformation and exploration of the new sound.
"He's sold out to the kids!" the Voice's Don Heckman says, quoting his (possibly imaginary and exaggerated) jazz critic friend. "Look at the way he dresses! Leather pants; clogs; silk shirts. The whole number. And he's hired a bunch of guys with long hair and headbands and all the rest of that funny shit...he just couldn't stand to see Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison getting the same kind of adulation that he was used to!"
The Fillmore East was a charmingly run-down former movie theater on the lower east side of New York that was opened in 1968 by promoter/music legend Bill Graham. The venue was an offshoot of his famously successful Fillmore (now Fillmore West) concert palace in San Francisco.
Graham - a famously outlandish character and tough nut - loved all types of music, but took extra glee in cross-pollinating genres for his audience, introducing jazz to the hippies.
So one night's bill might include Miles Davis with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Steve Miller Band; or free jazz giant Cecil Taylor with the Yardbirds; or the blind, three-sax-at-one-time blowing avant garde/Dixieland mesh of Rahsaan Roland Kirk with Led Zeppelin.
Miles Davis has already played the Fillmore East before, and released the studio jazz rock fusion classics In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew by the time these dates were recorded. And he clearly was invigorated by the new style he'd helped create.
Though the set lists didn't vary much over the four nights, Davis and his large band - Steve Grossman (sax), Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett (organ/keyboards - a first for Davis to have two practitioners in one lineup), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), and Airto Moreira (percussion/flute) never played things the same way.
Many of those players would go on to front bands of their own. But with the occasional wandering, they seem particularly facile at backing Miles on this foray into electricity.
As a result, Miles at the Fillmore showcases different takes on the forcefulness of "Directors," space-rock of "The Mask," moody moods of "It's About That Time" and - of course - the epochal cacophony of "Bitches Brew."
Unique-per-evening efforts like the funky, sax-driven "Spanish Key (encore)" and the out-there tune titled, interestingly enough, "Willie Nelson." Though there are a couple of snippets of the lower-key, romantic earlier version of Miles on "I Fall In Love Too Easily."
Some of this material has appeared (though heavily edited down into "suites") in the late-1970 double LP Miles Davis at Fillmore. And while a downside of the material here is that the songs are sometimes too frenetic and wandering for its own good - giving it a haze of being unfocused - Miles at the Fillmore captures the beginning of a genre that would create many, many children with names like Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra during the ensuing decade.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.