Taken from Must Hear, Oct. 31, 2003, written by John Ballon…
“If Betty were singing today she be something like Madonna, something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis.” ~ Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography
The former wife of Miles, Betty Mabry Davis is perhaps the only woman in the world who could rightfully have the following legend tattooed across her rear: THIS ASS INVENTED FUSION. While their marriage only lasted a year (1968-1969), Betty’s impact on the immortal jazz trumpeter was tremendous. Her cutting-edge musical tastes and incomparable sense of style were too much for Miles to resist. A self-righteous 23-year old model, Betty conquered the man twice her age with a potent mixture of youth, beauty, and sex. Within a year, she had completely remade Miles in her own youthful image. As she poured herself into him, his playing grew younger, his outlook fresh. She ripped through his closets, tossing out the elegant suits he had worn for years. This was the late ’60s, revolution was in the air, and suits were the uniforms of the Establishment. The time had come to get hip, and Betty pointed the way, introducing Miles to the musical and material gods of revolutionary style: Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Anyone with half a grip on the past knows that Miles expereiced far more than a wardrobe makeover during his tumultuous Betty year. Deeply influenced by the cosmic rock guitar of Hendrix and the experimental funk of Sly Stone, Miles turned Read the rest of this entry »
May 28, 1970 review by Langdon Winner from Rolling Stone of this seminal jazz fusion classic…
Miles’ music continues to grow in its beauty, subtlety and sheer magnificence. Bitches Brew is a further extension of the basic idea he investigated in his two previous albums, Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way. In a larger sense, however, the record is yet another step in the unceasing process of evolution Miles has undergone since the Forties. The man never stops to rest on his accomplishments. Driven forward by a creative elan unequaled in the history of American music, he incorporates each successive triumph into the next leap forward.
The wonderful thing about Miles’ progress is that he encourages others to grow with him. Within the context of his sound there is more than enough room for both his musicians and his listeners to pursue their own special visions. Looking back on the history of Miles’ ensemble, we find the likes of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter. He always seems to select the best young jazzmen in the country and then gives them the freedom to develop their own unique modes Read the rest of this entry »
Forty years old now, this album still sounds ahead of its time. This is a recent article taken from the PopMatters website (Sept. 3, 2010), written by Sean Murphy…
The Shock Heard ‘Round the World: Bitches Brew Turns 40
Shortly before his death in 1991, Miles Davis remarked “You don’t change music, music changes you.” While that statement is unassailable regarding the vast majority of artists, no matter how influential, Miles Davis was definitely an exception. Indeed, the Man with the Horn was being uncharacteristically modest, and he knew it. He did, after all, actually change music several times, and he was normally the first person to remind doubters and neophytes of this fact. His ultimate achievement—beyond the staggering scope of his recorded works—may have been providing a forum where the best players could congregate. In this creative cauldron that he tended to over the better part of four decades, Miles served as inventor, instigator and mentor. The list of legends that cut their teeth in his employ remains astounding: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin, just to name a handful.
Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.
At no point did Miles risk more—while most profoundly influencing the shape of jazz to come—than in the second half of 1969, when he oversaw the sessions that would eventually drop Bitches Brew on a wide-eyed world. Perhaps the grandest irony of all the misguided hot air surrounding the origins, intent and influence of Bitches Brew is the chuckleheaded charge that Miles had somehow “sold out.” Sure, 20-minute psychedelic funk mash-ups through the amp darkly were squarely aimed at the pop consumer circles. It was a ludicrous charge, then and it remains more than a little offensive, today.
Certainly, the fact that jazz and rock took a few pages from this script only augments the lightning Miles snared in his recording studio. The subsequent misfortune that an increasingly watered-down devolution of this sound mutated into the saccharine miasma called “smooth jazz” should be laid at Davis’s doorstep about as reasonably as we can blame Einstein for man’s detonation of nuclear weapons. This album found its audience the second it hit the streets and it continues to attract new converts every day. It does not receive the universal approbation accorded to Birth of the Cool or Kind of Blue, and it was not necessarily intended to. Miles was happy with it, the fans remain infatuated with it, and like any worthwhile work of art, it can—and does—speak for itself.
A few words are nevertheless warranted for the folks who, opportunistically or ignorantly, dismiss the album and consider it a blight that signaled the beginning of the end of a so-called golden era of jazz. The problem here lies mainly with the self-appointed culture cops, our ever-shrinking jazz intelligentsia and the hipper-than-thou historians who won’t accept that they simply don’t get it. Let’s name names: cantankerous blowhards like Stanley Crouch and clueless if influential neophytes like Ken Burns have either damned Bitches Brew (and post-‘60s Miles work in general) with faint praise or dismissed it altogether. For a lot of the critics with whom this work never registered, Bitches Brew signified the first time a butterfly turned back into a caterpillar.
And here we are, forty years later, celebrating what is commonly considered one of the seminal long-players in all music. All of which simply illustrates that Miles was miles ahead of the crowd, as usual. As always, he was less interested in following trends as he was in establishing them. Finally, as it relates to jazz music, this is where B.C. becomes A.D.
Here’s the thing: it wasn’t as though Davis dropped Bitches Brew on an unsuspecting public. Unprepared, possibly; but anyone who had listened to the previous three albums knew Miles was up to something. Certainly, someone who had not followed his work after Seven Steps to Heaven was in for a nice surprise; even anyone unfamiliar with the albums that came after 1968’s Nefertiti could not have been adequately up to speed. In actuality, the albums that led up to Bitches Brew are like a trail of breadcrumbs tracing the path to an inevitable house party. The twenty-six minute “Circle in the Round” made it clear that Miles would—and could—stretch out to ecstatic effect. The electric piano (and electric guitar) on Miles in the Sky were harbingers of the (semi) plugged-in and sustained compositions on Filles de Kilimanjaro. The languid pace, “modern” instrumentation and incorporation of rock and R&B (James Brown, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix were all implicit and explicit—and important—sources of inspiration) elements set in place the template for the new formula. This approach reached a preliminary apex during the In A Silent Way sessions, which saw the pace turn cool bordering on glacial. Despite the augmented band and instrumentation, the sound is crystalline (the triple-keyboard assault of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul remains revelatory): listening to any section of this album is still a bit like walking barefoot in the dark on a frozen lake—only warmer. All of which is to say Bitches Brew may not have been a predictable next step, but it was the inexorable one.
And this all went down forty years ago, which means The Age of Aquarius is officially middle-aged (never mind how old the young and middle-aged hippies who rang it in have become). Perhaps the world’s ears have matured—and heard—enough over these decades to understand—and appreciate—Bitches Brew. Either way, if any album obliges the by-now requisite milestone/anniversary reissue, it’s this one. The great news is that this 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition has all the original (remastered) tracks, some bonus cuts and two extra discs. The first is a live set recorded at Tanglewood in August, 1970. The second is a DVD featuring a never-before-seen concert from November, 1969. Needless to say, for jazz fans, Miles freaks and music aficionados, this must be considered an imperative acquisition.
And for the uninitiated? There is no better time to jump in; this brew tastes as good as it ever did. And regarding the stylistic and cultural changes that have ensued since late ’69, what might have once sounded scary should seem almost accessible. To listeners who have absorbed progressive rock, world music, trip-hop and the ambient dreamscapes that drugs and technology have helped create, this experience might impart the shock of recognition: this is the primordial stew that all of these advancements oozed out of. (For the full and unfettered experience, you need to acquire the box set that includes the complete Bitches Brew sessions, which was released several years back.)
Start with the artwork. Innovative and incendiary then, this double-gatefold LP—which would have (and still could) convey an insider’s sort of solidarity if taped to a dorm-room wall—could now be respectably framed in an office or living room. Miles, utilizing the considerable skills of artist Abdul Mati Klarwein, took James Brown one step further and the immediate visual message here shouts out Say it once, say it loud, I am African and I’m proud. Of course the mission statement above the title declaring that this effort signifies “Directions In Music By Miles Davis” is both a boast and a simple declaration of fact. If we no longer sit around and stare at album covers while we absorb the sounds (we may still stare at album covers but do we absorb the sounds?), we always have YouTube.
Regarding these “new directions”, music was already changing (it always is); Miles was clever enough to understand the new possibilities being made possible by the aforementioned Mr. Brown, as well as Sly Stone and especially Jimi Hendrix. Miles, always trusting his ever-keen instincts, incorporated some of this freedom into his approach; he just happened to have the biggest and boldest freak flag, and as such he was able—and obliged—to fly it higher than anyone else. In the process he dragged jazz music, kicking and screeching, into the ‘70s—and beyond.
Let’s look at a few of the elements that were so innovative (if unsettling, or both) circa 1970. The wah-wah effects Miles used to create a surreal but visceral—even intense—sound with his horn. The 27-minute title track is “Exhibit A” of this experiment, and it is one that remains boundary-busting and slightly intimidating. The funk elements inch their way to the forefront (they would arguably reach a fruition during the subsequent Jack Johnson sessions), incorporating the R&B-meets-Rock & Roll approach epitomized by Miles’s extended reworking of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” on Filles de Kilimanjaro’s “Mademoiselle Mabry”. These elements are all channeled through a sprawling, pan-cultural perspective on tracks like “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Spanish Key.”
Producer Teo Macero (ever reliable, patient and encouraging—as the hysterical studio chatter before the “Part Something” take of “Corrado”, from the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set illustrates: (Teo) “Okay, is this gonna’ be part two, or…?” (Miles, hissing) “It’s gonna’ be PART NINE WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE MUTHAFUCKA?”) continues the heavy lifting he did during the post-recording edits for In A Silent Way. Like George Martin with The Beatles, enough can never be said about how crucial Macero’s contributions were to the final products. The extended, but never aimless improvisatory jams were meticulously multi-tracked, then spliced, and resorted, providing both boundary and momentum (if not necessarily any sort of musical “logic” that contemporary ears were accustomed to).
The augmented personnel impart an obvious heft to the proceedings, but it never feels crowded. Indeed, it never even feels busy, primarily because Miles was always after feeling above all else, and no musician other than the young Coltrane ever attempted to “overplay” in his presence. For instance, Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet adds a beefy bottom, underneath the bass, giving this postmodern music an almost prehistoric vibe. Young drummer Lenny White was brought in to (as Miles dictated) serve as the “salt and spices” to accompany Jack DeJohnette’s muscular groove. Dave Holland provides an anchor for this rollicking ship with his acoustic bass, while Harvey Brooks bobs and weaves around the rhythm with his Fender Bass. Chick Corea provides ongoing color commentary via electric piano, and is joined by Joe Zawinul and Larry Young (each also using electric pianos) on several tracks. John McLaughlin is the secret weapon throughout, consistently providing subtle but unmistakable embellishment. Most of these moving parts mingle to sublime effect on the beyond-cool “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down”, where the band stalks the groove like a snake, moving calmly and assuredly by instinct through the darkening woods.
The star, besides Miles, remains the stalwart Wayne Shorter who, at this point in his career, continued (however improbably) to astonish each time out. His ethereal soprano saxophone on In a Silent Way would seem unimprovable, but here he lends a grace and class that elevates what would otherwise only be a near-perfect recording. Like Miles, Shorter (a master composer himself) was obsessed with texture and atmosphere. His presence makes a track like “Spanish Key” almost impossible to dislike: his graceful runs soar above the din and certainly point the way toward the truly gorgeous work he would do on Moto Grosso Feio and The Odyssey of Iska the following year. The mood over the course of the first five songs is alternately foreboding and restless, like a massive storm slowly building. It finally breaks on the magisterial album-closer, “Sanctuary”, which finally provides a manner of relief—however tentative. The song sounds like a plugged-in outtake from Sketches of Spain, and features some of Davis and Shorter’s greatest work. If most of the proceedings remain music that one can’t (shouldn’t?) listen to on a regular rotation, “Sanctuary” sits near the summit and can subsist in peace alongside anything else Miles ever did (you got that, Stanley Crouch?).
Still on the fence? The one-two punch of live material bookend this material brilliantly, and are both worthy additions to your collection. The DVD, filmed during a concert in Copenhagen on November 4, 1969 (about five months before Bitches Brew was officially unleashed), previews what is just around the corner. It’s not unlike a jazz Altamont; it signals the end of an amazing decade but the only casualty captured on tape is convention. The performance, lasting just over an hour, is one continuous flow of music with songs spilling over and into one another. The curtain opens and the band is already playing: it is almost unreal how unvarnished live acts (especially jazz) were back then—no dry ice, no pyrotechnics, no fake heroics or dubbed in embellishment; it’s just a live jam. The crowd is quiet, respectful, and almost entirely white. On most of the selections Wayne Shorter functions as a sort of chaser to Miles’s 180 Proof solos, restoring a semblance of collected calm after The Sorcerer’s short blasts of piss and vinegar. Jack DeJohnette maintains a pulsating beat, sounding like a slightly more muscular Tony Williams. If it’s possible for a man with a beard to have a baby face, it is the young Dave Holland, who suffuses restraint behind his upright bass. On the front line, Chick Corea fills out the contours in between Miles’s focused and powerful runs. Every time Shorter drops in his soprano cascades with placid, almost cerebral intensity, his eyes shut tight in composed concentration. It is a delight to have access to this footage.
The concert recorded at Tanglewood, on August 18, 1970, takes stock of what has gone down and offers Field Notes from the future. Gary Bartz replaces Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett adds organ to bolster Corea’s electric piano. Holland and DeJohnette are still holding down the fort, augmented by the percussion of Airto Moreira. A filthy funk abounds and the band keeps the pedal to the metal throughout this abbreviated (43 minute) set. One can appreciate how the origins of “jam band” took firm root in this era: like the DVD, this is one extended groove. The band locks in and runs through the numbers in a deliberate but not choreographed fashion. There is no doubt that Miles feels enervated by the youthful excitement around him, and the team is obviously eager to earn the maestro’s favor. It works.
And so, once the fairy dust settles and all is played and done, you may find yourself—here in the yesternow of 2010—asking what all the fuss was about. The question, of course, is the answer: this is what all the fuss was about. Same as it ever was.
A Sept. 1, 2003 Stylus review by Nick Southall…
“Miles the dresser, Miles the boxer, Miles the bon vivant, Miles the pioneer.” — Frank Glenn (from the original LP liner notes)
By ’69, of course, Miles had already wound his way down many paths, his meandering dance turning jazz on its head time and again. The albums Miles produced during the mid to late ‘60s hinted at the direction he would take as the decade folded, but not one of them fully prepared people for the changes in store during ’69. In a Silent Way marked the point at which Miles left conventional forms of jazz behind altogether, and moved into completely new ground. Previously he had reinvented old forms, made them his own by painting his lyrical, melancholy trumpet lines indelibly over whichever canvas he chose as his basis of expression. But come ’69 Miles started creating new canvases altogether, the world of jazz was simply not large or vivid enough to contain his perpetual and undying will to create, his need to seek new avenues of expression.
Moving away from the creative, modernist hard bop that Miles pioneered in the mid ‘60s, Miles in the Sky had looked at the future with trepidation, wanting to break free of itself and leap into the unknown, but seemed scared to do so. Filles de Kilimanjaro headed more successfully towards the territory of the fusion to come, but was still undeniably the work of a classic jazz quintet, however superlative that quintet may have been. In a Silent Way saw the famed quintet of the ‘60s dissipate, and the structures and rules of jazz as played by Miles dissolve along with them.
In a Silent Way presented a new kind of music, a music that rose from the ether, drifting and meandering like smoke caught in candlelight. Miles assembled a fluid octet for In a Silent Way that included three electric pianos (played by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul) and the electric guitar of the young John McLaughlin alongside soprano sax, bass, drums, and Miles’ trumpet. Together the band were perhaps the most cohesive and telepathic outfit Miles had put together, a feat considering the gift Miles had for assembling young talent. But however superlative the band may have been for In a Silent Way it remains an album largely built on the studio skills of Teo Macero and Miles himself. Behind the scenes, Miles and Teo took the tapes of the In a Silent Way sessions and transformed some beautiful, folk-tinged, melody-driven sets into two exquisite, beguiling and otherworldly pieces of music. Using techniques that pre-dated the proliferation of tape loops, cut-ups, edits and sequencing in rock, pop, hip hop and dance music, Miles and Teo took apart the original recording and reassembled them outside of any traditional or accepted jazz structure or melodic framework. This idea of taking jazz away from its birth, genesis and flowering as a live art and into the studio would soon become standard practice, but in 1969 it was groundbreaking.
In terms of mood, In a Silent Way treads similar ground to Miles’ classic Kind of Blue, weaving its strange, formless ways around a hazy, after-hours ambience of subdued tones and delicious melancholy. The music itself though, is far away from the structured beauty of that album. It is free, unfettered and uncontainable, a liquid pool of keys and atmospheres from which originates a series of open-ended vamps and solos, and a rhythm that is sometimes barely present, at other times sinuously, subtly funk-inflected. There are no rules to this music, no boundaries. The players pick up on each other, establish riffs, whispers of melodies, and either leave them to dissolve or else gently breathe life into them. Shorter fills space, floating in and out of audibility, until it is his turn to articulate a moment. Miles sits back, in control, his presence notable by a waft of trumpet here and there, his image reclined against the studio door throughout, nodding his head as the music of his band matches the music in his mind. But really it is the three keyboardists and McLaughlin who make In a Silent Way the work of wonder that it is, the constant, slowly undulating core of sound over which McLaughlin weaves his way through a never-ending daze.
In A Silent Way is timeless. The fresh modes of constructing music that it presented revolutionised the jazz community, and the shifting, ethereal beauty of the actual music contained within has remained beautiful and wonderful, its echoes heard through the last 30 years, touching dance music, electronica, rock, pop, all music. People may cite the vast classicism of Sketches of Spain, the wonderful, beautiful sorrow of Kind of Blue, or the seismic impact of Bitches Brew, but In a Silent Way is perhaps the understated peak of Miles’ career. The strange, elusive beauty of this album captures the essence of Miles and his music, distils his ongoing quest to find new ways of expression, and opens up new worlds to all who listen.
The video taken from Miles’ 1984 album of the same name. Unfortunately the video doesn’t fade away but cuts out right as it’s ending.
A “medley” of unreleased songs from Miles Davis, circa 1985. Some of this is taken from his unreleased Warner Bros. Rubberband album. Sadly, these are not full versions of these songs. They have yet to be released officially. Definitely some funky stuff. This needs to be released!
The “video” looks like it’s of a MD interview and shows Miles sketching as he talks.
Songs include: “Maze,” “Rubberband,” “See I See,” “Digg That” and “Street Smart Cues,” (from the film Street Smart).
Taken from the November 2003 issue of JazzWise magazine comes this article on the making of Miles Davis’ 1971 soundtrack fusion album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, as well as the box set The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.
Please check out Paul Tingen’s great site on Miles, http://www.miles-beyond.com …
In December 1969, Miles Davis boasted, “I could put together the greatest rock ‘n roll band you ever heard.” He attempted to prove his point during a series of turbulent sessions in the first half of 1970. In October 2003 Columbia/Legacy released six hours of music from these sessions—including 4½ hours previously unheard material—on a 5-CD boxed set called The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. The box bears the rather presumptuous inscription, “The Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Record Ever Made!” Below, in interviews with many of the musicians involved, the legendary trumpeter’s steps are retraced. In the process a few myths are exploded and it becomes clear why Columbia’s claim may not be as grandiose as it seems.
“I could put together the greatest rock ‘n roll band you ever heard.” The Rolling Stone journalist who took this statement down would have been forgiven for feeling sceptical. By late 1969, jazz musicians were still working out how to rock, let alone roll. Miles’s most recent release at the time, the ambient masterpiece In a Silent Way, was a far cry from rock ‘n roll. And that landmark exploration of rock ‘n jazz, Bitches Brew, would not be released until April 1970. Many years later, in his autobiography, Miles acknowledged the challenges he encountered in working with rock ‘n roll, saying, “When I started playing against that new rhythm first I had to get used to it. (…) Playing the new shit was a gradual process.”
Jimi Hendrix, whom Miles occasionally hung out and jammed with during 1968-70, proved a crucial catalyst in the trumpeter’s journey towards playing the “new shit.” Influences from Hendrix had been creeping into Miles’s music since 1967, but he possibly received his strongest cue on New Year’s Day 1970, when he attended the second of the two legendary Band of Gypsies concerts by Hendrix at Fillmore East in New York. After seeing what just one guitarist, bassist, and drummer could achieve, Miles spent much of the first half of 1970 recording with increasingly small, guitar-led bands.
The result was A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the soundtrack for the eponymously-titled movie about the legendary black world heavyweight boxing champion at the beginning of the 20th century. After the album’s release in February 1971, it was barely promoted by Columbia and sank into semi-obscurity. Yet over time its reputation has grown to such a degree that the release of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions has been awaited with widespread and eager anticipation.
The box is out, and its brazen inscription “The greatest rock ‘n roll album ever made!” will raise some eyebrows. “Pull the other one!” would be an understandable reaction. And yet… today the reputation of Jack Johnson is such that those in the know are unlikely to find the inscription pretentious or ridiculous. Rather, they may savour it and contemplate its merits: ‘Could A Tribute to Jack Johnson possible be, if not the best, then at least one of the best rock ‘n roll albums ever?’
Miles Davis expressed his ambition to do one up on rock ‘n roll at the end of one of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century. The seismic shifts of the 1960s are well documented and still permeate our culture today. Increased political awareness had given rise to a genuine counter culture and a maelstrom that considered no sacred cow too holy, no ivory tower off-limits, was turning Western culture inside out.
Music, particularly rock ‘n roll and folk, was the main vehicle of expression of the counterculture movement, and so music mattered more than it ever had done. The names of those musicians that led the way in numerous rapid musical changes and shifts in consciousness are now legendary: James Brown, Little Richard, Sly & the Family Stone, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and so on.
In 1967, after two years of frantic experimentation with his legendary second great quintet, featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, the ever-restless Miles Davis was once again scanning around him to see what new developments he could incorporate and bend to his own music. Going into free-jazz, the latest development in jazz of the era, was not an option for him, because it involved a break with the past.
In Miles Beyond I argue that one of the secrets of Miles’s extended artistic and commercial success was that he was a revolutionary and traditionalist at the same time. Even as he continuously forged ahead, he never lost touch with his roots. During his entire career he always built carefully on what he had done before, and he wasn’t suddenly going to abandon a process that had worked for him for decades.
And so, in part spurred on by his then romantic partner Betty Mabry, Miles began looking at the music of the 1960s counterculture. Although he was often critical, he found things that he liked and he gradually added these to his music. Miles also concluded that the emphasis on rhythm and on cyclical, repetitive patterns in the music of the counterculture offered him an avenue to re-connect with his African-American roots. It also made a political point. He noted in his autobiography, “White people at this time were trying to suppress rhythm because of where it came from—Africa—and its racial overtones.”
From December 1967 to June 1970, in a period of wild and intense experimentation that culminated, in February-April 1970, in the recording of A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Miles Davis used the recording studio as an experimental laboratory. There was an endless succession of recording dates, in an echo of Hendrix’s working methods the tape recorders rolled almost perpetually, and ever-changing combinations of mostly very young musicians were thrown into his cauldron. The musicians Miles invited on an ad-hoc basis into the recording studio included now famous names like saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett, guitarist John McLaughlin, bassists Dave Holland and Ron Carter, drummers Jack DeJohnette, Lennie White, and Billy Cobham, and percussionist Airto Moreira.
The first of these experimental sessions was on December 4, 1967, when Miles asked electric guitarist Joe Beck to sit in with his quintet for the recording of “Circle in the Round” (issued in 1979 on the double album of the same name). During the following one-and-a-half years Miles gradually added electric keyboards, electric bass, straight-ahead rock rhythms, rhythm & blues feel, soul-influenced chord schemes, and Jimi Hendrix-inspired musical figures. In addition, Miles abandoned traditional musical structures of a beginning, middle and end in favour of working with much more cyclical structures and a greater emphasis on rhythm and bass. The musical material on which these sessions were based was gradually scaled down to an absolute minimum, and sometimes non-existing.
“Everything was experimentation,” recalled drummer Billy Cobham. “There was not one moment that whatever was put on a piece of paper would not be changed.” “A lot of times the way we did things was very fragmented,” added Dave Holland. “Often I didn’t know whether we were recording or rehearsing. We would have these fragments, these sketches of ideas, and we’d play them for 10 minutes. And then we might do one more take like that, and move on to the next thing. One of the things that created the sound of the studio recordings is that were all trying to figure out what was going on. This created a certain space—it wasn’t tentative, but it was searching. And Miles had a policy of taping everything. When it was then finally put together, there was a lot of editing that went on.”
Indeed, Miles’s long-standing producer Teo Macero would spend weeks in the studio making sense of the sometimes chaotic and shapeless results, selecting the best bits and using edits to create structure and studio effects to add colour and emotional depth. Macero looped some of the material on In a Silent Way, which turned out a brilliant exercise in ambient mood sculpting, and Bitches Brew, recorded August 19-21, 1969, contains one of the most famous and successful results. Macero’s edits and the slap-echo on Miles’s trumpet in the album’s title track embellished the musicians’ playing to such a degree that the result is one of the most dramatic and powerful pieces of music ever heard.
By November 1969, Miles’s wandering spirit was already on to the next experiment. Following his discoveries of Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, sitar-player Khalil Balakrishna, and tamboura and tabla-player Bihari Sharma, he would make forays into what’s now called world music. The majority of the results were meandering and sluggish, and whether he recognized this, or was inspired by seeing Hendrix in Fillmore East on New Year’s Day, in January 1970 Miles began looking for a new direction. Downsizing his studio ensembles led to immediate improvements. Zawinul’s “Double Image,” recorded on February 6 and first released in 1971 on Live-Evil, was the best thing Miles had recorded since the original Bitches Brew sessions. Its funky stop-start rock rhythms and John McLaughlin’s screaming and distorted electric guitar pointed the way towards the Jack Johnson sessions.
“Double Image” is the last track included on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. Following this there were several important new developments that set the tone for The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. From a musical perspective most important was the departure of Wayne Shorter from Miles’s regular band during February. (His last concert with Miles, at Fillmore East, March 7, 1970, was finally released in 2001 as It’s About That Time). This marked a radical shift in direction, as Miles and Shorter had worked and performed together intensely since September 1964. During their five-and-a-half years collaboration the saxophonist had supplied most of the compositions Miles had been working with.
During 1968-69, Miles had increasingly brought in his own rudimentary sketches, and also used much material written by Joe Zawinul. The latter’s “Double Image” was the last example of this: the February 6 session was to be the last time the keyboardist played with Miles in the studio and the last time Miles would record his material in the studio. With Zawinul no longer involved and Shorter only dropping by for the occasional studio date, Miles took sole responsibility for bringing in whatever material a session would be based on. In doing so he focussed increasingly on rhythms and bass lines, less on melodies, and even less on chords. He remarked in December 1969, “African music is directed to sound. That’s the way we play. We don’t play chords, we play sound.”
Another factor that focussed Miles’s mind in the beginning of 1970 were his live performances during which he supported famous rock acts. Miles had realised that with the release of Bitches Brew coming up in April, going on the road with rock bands was the only way for him to reach a new and larger audience. And so by March, Miles’s sextet was supporting acts like The Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Neil Young, and Laura Nyro. (Some of the results can be heard on three live albums, the above-mentioned It’s About That Time, plus Black Beauty, recorded April 10, and Miles Davis at Fillmore, recorded June 17-20.) There can be no doubt that Miles brought these live experiences in the rock arena back to the recording studio, even if it was only to confirm his opinion that “most rock musicians didn’t know anything about music,” and to strengthen his resolve to do better with “the new shit.”
Enhanced by excellent-sounding new mixes from Mark Wilder, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions offers a unique look into Miles and Macero’s early 1970 creative cauldron, with several different takes of known tracks, complete versions of known tracks with never-heard-before passages, and hitherto completely unknown tracks. We can now assess for ourselves which bits are what Macero today called “child’s play” and which “dynamite,” and whether we agree with his judgements,
The first session, on February 18, is represented by four takes of “Willie Nelson,” featuring a dramatically simplified the rhythm section. All the tracks on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions have at least a drummer and a percussionist, but often two or more of each, and at least two keyboard players. “Willie Nelson” features only one drummer (Jack DeJohnette), no percussionists, one keyboard player (Chick Corea), and for the first time ever in Miles’s music there are two guitarists: Sonny Sharrock joined forces with McLaughlin. The search for the ultimate rock ‘n roll band was on.
The six takes of “Willie Nelson” are improvisations around two themes played by Miles and bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, and two bass riffs. Sharrock’s and Maupin’s contributions are much more clearly audible in the new mix, and together with Corea’s ring-modulator mayhem, Miles’s dramatic and intense use of space, and McLaughlin’s playing, beefed up with wah-wah effects, they raise the session above the level of a run-of-the-mill rock jam. McLaughlin’s muscular playing, with influences of Hendrix clearly audible in some of his phrasing, takes a star role. Like on Bitches Brew, he finds an innovative way of soloing and comping at the same time, this time incorporating a rhythm & blues feel and a harsh, heavily distorted tone. His playing drives the entire Jack Johnson sessions.
The other main ingredient that made A Tribute to Jack Johnson, such an outstanding album, is Miles’s extraordinary trumpet playing. Chick Corea recalled that during 1968-1970 Miles was, “totally clean, working out in the gym, physically looking great, and living the life of a health freak. He had this thing about fish and told me how good fish was for you.” In short, Miles was in great physical and mental shape, and at the peak of his trumpet powers. He was able and inspired to play the stunning power trumpet that dominates almost every track on the 5 CD Jack Johnson boxed set.
Miles Davis, never a man to do two takes where one will do, appears to have judged that the February 18th session hadn’t quite realised the potential of the musical material, because nine days later, on the 27th, he took the unusual step of recording “Willie Nelson” again. The ensemble was further scaled-down. For the first time ever in Miles’s music he’s now working with the archetypal rock line-up of bass, guitar, and drums, plus another young prodigy, 19-year old saxophonist Steve Grossman.
The two takes of “Willie Nelson” recorded on February 27 are more organised, but the lack of structure, thematic material, and textural interest fails to raise them above the level of a studio jam. Their inclusion leaves producer Bob Belden’s decision to put six takes of the same material on the boxed set, delivering us 50 minutes of “Willie Nelson,” open for debate. Similarly, the three takes of “Johnny Bratton” recorded on the same day, illustrate what Teo Macero means when he said, “The musicians didn’t know what the hell they were doing. They were just rambling on and on and on. It’s child’s play.”
Miles must nevertheless have felt that he hadn’t exhausted the ensemble’s potential, because four days later he took the same musicians, Grossman, McLaughlin, Holland, and DeJohnette, into the studio again. The boxed set documents a warm-up blues track called “Archie Moore” – Bob Belden and Miles’s nephew Vince Wilburn titled the hitherto untitled jams after well-known boxers to remain in keeping with the boxing theme of the whole set. Macero might have judged this harshly too.
The five takes of “Go Ahead John” that follow are a different matter. The heavy edits and wild effects used on the edited version that appeared in 1974 on Big Fun (like the electronic switcher that continuously moved DeJohnette drums from one channel to another) made it sound like a psychedelic period piece and obscured the power of some the material that lay underneath. It’s gratifying to hear Miles so deeply and enthrallingly playing the blues in “Go Ahead [Part One].” Coming from the Mississippi town of St. Louis, Miles’s roots were in the blues, and he often returned to it for inspiration and renewal. Yet “Go Ahead John” parts 2A and 2B have their longueurs, and one can imagine why Macero felt compelled to reach for electronic trickery to spice things up.
Miles now had direct experience of what working with a small ensemble based around Hendrix’s guitar-bass-drums line-up was like. While this had yielded some interesting results (and a lot of dross), something clearly still wasn’t quite right. The bandleader therefore continued to tinker with the rhythm section. On March 17 he replaced Jack DeJohnette with Billy Cobham, and Grossman with Maupin and Shorter. The sextet (again with Holland and Mclaughlin), recorded “Duran,” named after the Panamanian boxing champion Roberto Duran.
The inclusion of Billy Cobham, a drummer with a more straight-ahead, rock-influenced style, says something about the direction that Miles had in mind. Another clue is Holland’s circular, rock-like electric bass riff, repeated throughout with only the occasional variation. Miles appears to have decided that his sessions might be more successful if he used elements more idiomatic to “the new shit”: the role of the rhythm section is now much more clearly defined in a manner common in rock. “Duran” is probably the closest to commercial fusion Miles ever came, but it’s not outstanding.
Miles may have felt similar, because three days later, on March 20, another switch was made in the rhythm section. He remained with the same small band line-up he’d been exploring, but now with Lenny White on drums. White, Holland, McLaughlin, Grossman and Miles recorded bizarre track now titled “Sugar Ray.” White had been a prominent player on the original Bitches Brew album, but now didn’t add that secret ingredient Miles was still looking for. Miles’s playing, as everywhere on the boxed set, is excellent, but the stop-start guitar, bass, and drums warrant some caustic comment by Macero.
A Different World
The “best rock ‘n roll band you ever heard” remained frustratingly out of reach. The logical conclusion of all this half-successful and failed experimentation was to try a completely different rhythm section consisting of musicians for whom playing rock ‘n roll was home territory. It’s unknown at what point exactly Miles was asked by director William Cayton to supply the music for his motion picture about Jack Johnson, but according to Macero, the trumpeter did have this in his mind for the next session, on April 7.
Miles apparently put quite a lot of thought into the preparations for this session. A keen and talented boxer himself, he stated in his autobiography that he imagined “that shuffling movement boxers used, ” and that this reminded him of “the sound of a train.” He also asked himself, “is this music black enough, does it have black rhythm, can you make the rhythm of the train a black thing, would Jack Johnson dance to that?”
Miles’s answer was to invite a rhythm section consisting of drummer Buddy Miles, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer at the Band of Gypsies concerts, and bassist Michael Henderson, who played Stevie Wonder at the time. But Buddy Miles didn’t show, and was replaced by Billy Cobham. Miles opted again for the small rock band format, with Cobham, Henderson, and McLaughlin, and Grossman and himself as soloists.
The inclusion of Michael Henderson signaled a crucial shift in Miles’s music. Henderson played with Miles until 1975, and during his tenure he became the pivot around which Miles’s bands revolved. Miles hired Henderson because he had a remarkable talent for creating and holding down circular, repetitive grooves. The bassist recalled, “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.” Billy Cobham elaborated, “Miles wanted Michael Henderson because he had a different feel, definitely. Going from Dave Holland do Michael Henderson was like jumping over the Swiss Alps—a whole different world!”
There was a rehearsal at Miles’s house the night before the April 7 session. Sitting behind the piano, the trumpeter showed Henderson and McLaughlin the two riffs he wanted to use for the session. The first was a bass riff taken from James Brown’s song “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud,” the second a guitar and bass riff adapted from Sly Stone’s “Sing A Simple Song,” the B-side to their 1969 number one US hit “Everyday People.” “Miles’s version of Sly’s riff is slightly different,” explained Henderson, “but that difference is important. After Miles showed us his variation of the riff, John and I worked it out together.”
Blowing the Shit of Out Bb Flat
The legendary story of the April 7 session is that during setting up an impatient and petulant McLaughlin started playing the famous shuffle groove that opens “Right Off,” the first track on A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Henderson and Cobham joined in, and a couple of minutes later an excited Miles came out of the control room to blow arguably the best solo of his career.
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions contains two details that throw some doubt on this story. First of all, the music that opens “Right Off” comes from Take 10, so there must have been 9 takes before this. Second, Miles can be heard instructing John McLaughlin, “Alright John, play, play it up and then drop down. Bang bang bang bang.” This suggests that previous attempts at getting the shuffle groove right had taken place, and that Miles was at the beginning of Take 10 in the recording area, directing the groove, creating musical structure, and setting the scene for his own solo entry.
Macero’s recollections were vague. He only stated that, “The earlier stuff they did [on April 7] was very poor. But when we did it, we did it right.” Most likely, McLaughlin began his spontaneous shuffle groove much earlier in the session, Miles liked it, and over nine takes it was developed to what we hear on Take 10. From the sonic evidence it seems likely that Miles’s instruction to McLaughlin to “drop down” meant dropping down in volume and/or modulating from E to B flat. This led to one of the most exhilarating moments in the history of music, because Henderson misses the modulation, and keeps playing in E.
In the middle of this clash of tonalities Miles decides to make his entrance. “He blew the shit out of it,” remembered Henderson. “It was all done off the cuff. And then Miles blasted my ass, he kept repeating a B flat, and only an idiot would not have gone to B flat. Miles directed me over to B flat using his trumpet. Imagine someone blowing you over to B flat!”
Indeed. Miles directing Henderson to B flat can heard in Take 10 at 2:30-33 and 2:39. Unperturbed, Miles carries on giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career, with fast runs reaching into the higher register, and a loud, full, powerful tone. Equally remarkable was the fact that Macero and Miles decided to make a feature of the trumpeter’s entry. Most would have regarded the point where Henderson and McLaughlin were clashing with two incompatible keys and Miles is audibly nudging the bassist to fall into line as an embarrassing mistake, and would have instructed the producer to remove the section during editing. Very few would have considered, or had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to turn it into a resounding success.
Another moment of serendipity occurred when Herbie Hancock walked by, on his way to an adjacent studio. “He looked through the window,” recounted Cobham,” and Miles said, ‘Come in!’ Herbie came in with a bag of groceries, and Miles pointed him towards a Farfisa organ that was inoperative at the time. While we played, Stan Tonkel, the engineer, went over and plugged the organ in. Herbie dropped his grocery bag, and tried to play a solo on the organ. He couldn’t get a sound, so he put his forearm across the keys, and suddenly the thing goes… wwraammm! And I’m watching all this from my drum set, as I play!”
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions contains the four glorious takes from which Macero culled the final version of “Right Off,” including Take 12 which contains the adapted Sly Stone riff. There are also two takes of “Yesternow,” featuring the James Brown bass line. Both have a still, meditative, almost ambient quality, and are worthwhile additions. The great strength of the music is its eminent use of space. For a long stretch of time, the music is static, without harmonic development, the drums only playing accents. Miles and McLaughlin masterfully exploit this space, creating and increasing tension.
Teo Macero spliced the album version of “Yesternow” together from the second take of “Yesternow,” plus three takes of “Willie Nelson recorded on February 18, a fragment from In a Silent Way, an unaccompanied trumpet solo Miles played in November 1969, arco bass, and an unknown orchestral piece. Taken as a whole this combination works beautifully, adding variety, color, and structure to sometimes amorphous studio material.
However, despite some awkward edits, the knock-out punch on A Tribute to Jack Johnson was supplied by “Right Off.” Together, McLaughlin, Henderson, and Cobham managed to achieve the hypnotic, train-like repetitiveness that Miles had in mind for the session. What’s more, the power, drive and inventiveness of this trio was such that they managed to give many rock ‘n roll bands a run for their money. Add Miles’s commanding performance, strong solos by Grossman and Hancock, and McLaughlin’s heavy-metal like guitar (a first in black music) and Miles could finally lay a creditable claim to having put together “The best rock ‘n roll band you ever heard.”
To all ends and purposes the story of Jack Johnson ends here. But since Columbia/Legacy’s strategy is to collect disparate material from a specific time segment in chronological order and then, presumably for commercial reasons, call it after the most well-known album recorded therein, there remains another one-and-a-half hours of material to discuss.
Miles returned again to the recording studio six weeks after that fertile April 7 date, on May 19. It marks a return to the large ensembles he used throughout 1969. Perhaps he wanted to integrate his experience with rock ‘n roll in a more familiar context. Cobham, Henderson, Hancock, McLaughlin, and Grossman were held over from the April 7 session, and complemented by Keith Jarrett and Airto Moreira. The latter two were part of Miles’s live band at this point.
The track they recorded was the excellent “Honky Tonk,” an edited version of which found its way to Get Up With It (1974). Two takes of “Honky Tonk” are included on the boxed set, and the additional take doesn’t add much to what was already known. The only detail worth noting here is that “Honky Tonk” was based on a bass line written by Miles.
Following this, Henderson was for some reason replaced by bassist Gene Perla, and two takes of “Ali” are documented, which are perhaps another attempt by Miles at creating something commercial, as it’s based on the catchy bass line of Jimi Hendrix’s “Who Knows.” It bubbles along nicely enough, but… oh, well, let’s not bring in Teo Macero here. The main thing that’s immediately observable is how the bass, like on all the tracks on the Jack Johnson boxed set that don’t feature Michael Henderson, doesn’t drive the music.
Next was the track “Konda,” which was originally released in an edited version on Directions. Recorded on May 21 with Jarrett, McLaughlin, DeJohnette, and Moreira, the piece is a dreary attempt at ambient atmosphere. It was most likely purely a vehicle by Miles for exploring his octave divider, which added a tone an octave below his normal trumpet sound. At least this would explain the absence of a bass guitarist. The best thing about the newly issued version is Keith Jarrett’s 2-minute electric piano introduction.
Things didn’t get much better. Six days later Miles returned to the studio, and again he reverted to a previous working method, by using basic material written by someone else, in this case the renowned Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal, who was introduced to him by Airto Moreira. Moreira related that Pascoal improvised his melodies at Miles’s house. An enthusiastic Miles went into the studio on May 27 to record “Nem Um Talvez.” “Miles would play the melody,” Moreira said, “and the other musicians tried to play with him, kind of following. He would nod each note.”
Miles must have been dissatisfied, because a week later, on June 3, he tried recording the same tune again. “There was a melody written out and we phrased it and I just tried to follow Miles, a few milliseconds behind, like he had done with Wayne Shorter,” remembered Steve Grossman. The clearer new mix adds clarity and depth, and the newly released takes without Pascoal’s out-of-tune singing are enjoyable enough.
On the same day there was a recording of something that’s sounds like a similar attempt at catchiness as “Duran” and “Ali.” Called “Little High People,” it is likened by Bill Milkowksi’s in his boxed set liner notes to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “Little High People” is nothing more than a pleasant jam best left where it was done, in 1970. The only point of note is that it marks Miles’s first performance with a wah-wah pedal. “He got from Jimi,” remarked Moreira. “We used to hang out at Jimi’s Electric Lady studio and I saw Miles asking Jimi questions about the wah-wah pedal.”
The next day, June 4, was the last day Miles would be in the recording studio for nearly two years. Present were his live septet at the time, Grossman, Corea, Jarrett, Holland, DeJohnette, and Moreira, plus Hancock and McLaughlin. Miles’s live band is most likely responsible for the two takes of “The Mask” that are featured on the new Jack Johnson boxed set.
The track also features on Miles Davis at Fillmore, and is as close too free-jazz as Miles was comfortable being. On the live stage, particularly Holland and Corea were keen to drift into free mode. Corea explained, “Miles used to listen intently from the side of the stage when we were going ‘out,’ but his role was always to bring back the focal point of melody in a group. Perhaps there was just not enough ‘form’ for him and it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. So he went on to create something more in the direction that he wanted.” This see-saw is strikingly illustrated on the Jack Johnson boxed set, with the first, Miles-less version of “The Mask” being an archetypal, directionless free-jazz jam. The trumpeter brings focus and structure to Part 2, which ends up being one of the highlights of the previously unreleased material on the set.
Finally, the June 4 session also saw only Miles, Hancock, Holland, and Pascoal recording two takes of the latter’s tune “Little Church.” Some of the Pascoal recordings were released in 1971 on Live-Evil, and credited to Miles, leading to a protracted legal argument between him and Moreira, which the latter won. But afterwards things were never quite the same between them.
The creative whirlwind that emanated from Miles trying to incorporate “the new shit” into his music had begun in December 1967. It reached peaks during 1969 with the recordings of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and finally climaxed noisily on April 7, 1970. Almost immediately afterwards it ran out of steam. Miles probably had a sense of mission accomplished, and appeared unsure where to take the sessions of May and June 1970. After this he didn’t organise another recording date until June 1, 1972, when parts of On the Corner were laid down. Apparently his priority became to translate his studio experiences from that fateful session of April 7, 1970, to the live stage. During 1970-1975 he was busy creating the best rock ‘n funk ‘n jazz ‘n roll band in the world, something in which he succeeded with the Agharta band, 1973-75. But that’s another story.
May 1, 2007 article from Seattle Weekly about 70s funk-rock (shoulda-been) superstar Betty Davis (the ex-Mrs. Miles Davis)…
Reviving the records of the long-lost soul diva may be the label’s most artful move.
She’s onstage wearing a negligee. Silver, dangly jewelry sparkles on her wrists and rests over the slope of her clavicle. Her long, mocha legs are wrapped tight in seductive hosiery. These legs are truly a sight: strong and lean and sultry. They burn. Their length is accentuated by a pair of ridiculously high-heeled, space-age go-go boots. To top it all off, her hair is poofed out in an afro the size of a small planet.
Men can’t take their eyes off of her; she reminds them of their insignificance. Women can’t either; she floods them with confidence. She’s strutting about the stage, pirouetting and spreading those legs so far apart, you think she’ll split in two. Splash her with water, and steam would no doubt rise up.
Then she sings: “I said if I’m in luck/I just might get picked up!” She’s not pleading for a date. No, this lyric is a challenge: Who’ll be man enough to take her home? The all-male band behind her is funky—pure psychedelic soul funk—and Betty, always the entertainer, has made them appear shirtless and oiled onstage. Smoking as they are, however, they just fade into the background. That wild woman dancing around is stealing the show.
“I said I’m crazy/I’m wild!”
That was Betty Davis in 1974, onstage at New York City’s Bottom Line. She was the embodiment of funk music and a true sex symbol, the forerunner to Madonna, Joi, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Macy Gray.. The list goes on to include the less obvious, such as electro shockstar Peaches and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux. She has also been sampled by the likes of Ice Cube and Talib Kweli.
“Betty Davis is the funk,” says poet and rapper Saul Williams. “It’s not just that she’s sexy and the music is sexy, but she’s just so in the pocket! The notes she chose, the placement, to be able to dance around the music. Man, she killed that shit.”
“She’s a badass,” says Herrema. “She was so multi-talented, it seemed that she could do anything she wanted. Everything she did seemed so pure….Back then you had Funkadelic, you had Sly and the Family Stone and Cher all dressing in an over-the-top way. With Betty’s look, it was more the way she carried herself and presented herself.”
“She was the first Madonna,” says guitarist Carlos Santana. “But Madonna is more like Marie Osmond when compared to Betty Davis.”
She was sexually and musically ahead of her time, and at some point in the early ’80s, Davis disappeared. No, she didn’t disappear, she just got quiet. She is still very much alive at 62, but speaking to her via phone, it’s hard to believe she’s the same woman.
Q: You live in Pittsburgh now?
Q: Do you do any work down there?
Q: Is your family still in Pittsburgh?
Q: Do you play music with anyone? Friends or relatives?
As you can see, Davis is a tough one to pry open. She speaks in abrupt, one- or two-word sentences most of the time. She is distant, removed from the present moment, and ultimately very mysterious. It could be that she is just not used to talking with the media, considering I’m maybe the fourth or fifth person to interview her in 25 years. When I tell her it’s a true honor to speak with her, she responds with a spicy: “Mmm-hmm.”
It could be that she just doesn’t have much to say. But I find that hard to believe. She should be the ultimate source on the ’60s and ’70s. She was a friend and inspiration to Jimi Hendrix, hooking him up with the African American hipsters he wanted to identify with. She wrote songs for the Chambers Brothers (“Uptown [to Harlem]“). She recorded with Sly Stone’s backing group, hung out with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was intimate with jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and, most notably, was married to the great Miles Davis, hence the surname. But not only was she married to Miles, she inspired him in much the same way she inspired Hendrix. As has been noted in biographies over the years, if it weren’t for young Betty Mabry making Miles wear hip clothes and attend psychedelic rock shows, there would be no In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew.
“She was like Oprah with her panels,” says Williams. “She was one of those black women who fused worlds. She saw two disparate minds and said, ‘You two need to work together.'”
Whatever stories she has from the days she was fusing worlds are locked up tight inside her vault. It’s not as if she’s forgotten, however. She just doesn’t see the big deal. You can tell by how nonchalantly she rattles off the names of these aforementioned cats. Yet her records, like those of her late ex-husband, should be part of some major label’s legacy series and never out of print. But alas, there is no justice in the music business, and Davis lives alone, in an apartment outside of Pittsburgh, not doing much of anything.
By now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with Seattle. Well, if it weren’t for a couple of Eastsiders with shrewd business sense and great sets of ears, we probably wouldn’t be thinking of Betty Davis at all. Light in the Attic Records, based out of an office packed with records, discs, and posters facing Aurora Avenue, near Blue Video and the Thunderbird Motel, has been consistently smart in its choices, recalling the great early days of Sub Pop. The label is about to further its reputation in a couple of weeks when it reissues Davis’ first two albums, Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I’m Different (1974), which were originally released by Just Sunshine Records and have been out of print since the ’70s.
Matt Sullivan and Josh Wright launched Light in the Attic in 2003 with This Is Madness, the 1971 album by the Last Poets, widely regarded as the first hip-hop group. But they didn’t just slap a vinyl transfer onto CD and throw it into a jewel case—the kind of approach you see from labels like Collector’s Choice (which releases the “20th Century Masters” series of artists like the Moody Blues and Donna Fargo). No, Light in the Attic wanted the world to realize how significant the Last Poets were. So, they hired Public Enemy’s Professor Griff to do the liner notes, and dug up original Rolling Stone ads for the record, which stated: “If you’re white, the record will scare the shit out of you. If you’re black, this record will scare the nigger out of you.”
“It was like a history project,” says Sullivan, 31, who’s got a toothy grin and a curly mop of hair recalling Bob Dylan circa New Morning. “Here was this band who had this incredible backstory. Nobody knew about them. We just thought why not make this something that people will keep and read and understand.”
“A lot of reissue labels will just throw out as many titles a year as possible,” says Wright, also 31, a tall, loping guy with a wily smile. “We really put a lot of tender care into each one.”
Sullivan and Wright won’t bother unless the music has soul, integrity, and cultural significance. That’s what led them to reissue albums by the likes of lite-psychedelia geniuses the Free Design, Bernard Purdie’s soundtrack to Lialeh (aka the first black porno flick, which features the classic “All Pink on the Inside”), and the soundtrack to Deep Throat, for which they scored liner notes by Ron Jeremy himself. They’ve even unearthed entire genres most people had no idea existed: Canadian soul, funk, and reggae (the Jamaica to Toronto compilation), and Seattle funk and soul (the invaluable Wheedle’s Groove compilation).
Being a label of Light in the Attic’s size has its obstacles, of course. For one, it’s often that the music they want to reissue is still owned by a major label. This is what happened with one of the first projects they sought out, Neil Young’s stoned recording On the Beach, which was owned by Reprise and later officially reissued in 2003.
“Financially, it’s not worth it for a major label to dig out the original master tapes for a run of 3,000–4,000 copies,” says Wright. Such was the case with Island, the major label that owns Davis’ last two albums, 1975’s Nasty Gal and the unreleased Crashin’ from the Passion. “Would’ve been great to reissue those,” says Wright. “But you get into all sorts of complicated licensing issues.”
Sullivan and Wright don’t stick to reissues exclusively, though. In the past two years, they’ve signed Austin psychedelic group the Black Angels and Tacoma hip-hop hedonists the Saturday Knights, acts that have incredible depth for being so green. The Black Angels write anti-war songs from the wholly American perspective of privileged middle-class white kids who’ve never been to war, and the Saturday Knights take hip-hop back to the days when Grandmaster Flash and the Clash were easy company, while maintaining a working-class party vibe.
Light in the Attic’s sales figures are just as impressive. According to Wright, the Black Angels’ Passover has sold more than 30,000 copies, and their reissue of Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time has sold about 40,000. Wheedle’s Groove is currently at more than 10,000 (not bad for a region-specific release), and Deep Throat at more than 15,000. Labels the size of Barsuk and Sub Pop consider it a success to sell 30,000 copies for a new artist.
Light in the Attic treats the packaging like art, with old photos, articles, testimonials from contemporary artists, and liner notes that are either exhaustively researched (such as Lenny Kaye’s reportage for the reissue of In My Own Time) or hilarious (such as Ron Jeremy’s for Deep Throat).
“They impressed me because they seemed very tenacious, very dedicated,” says legendary Woodstock promoter Michael Lang. His label, Just Sunshine Records, which he ran in the early ’70s, was home to both Davis and Dalton, not to mention Billy Joel, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Copperhead, and Blue Cheer, among about 40 other artists. He was the gatekeeper Light in the Attic had to pass through for licensing rights to Dalton’s and Davis’ master tapes.
“A lot of people had approached me over the years about reissuing Betty’s records, and Karen’s,” Lang says. “But Light in the Attic won me over because of the work they put into the other records they did, the artwork; they were very thorough with their research and very knowledgeable of the past.”
He was also impressed with their relentlessness. Lang, while very affable, is still a wickedly busy man; he runs the Michael Lang Organization, which deals in event production and artist management. Sullivan, however, is not one to be deterred by another’s schedule.
“I think Michael Lang finally gave in because I just kept calling him and e-mailing him,” Sullivan laughs. “I just figure that these people are approached about stuff all the time. If one person calls one time, that’s not enough to get through. They’ll have to pick up the phone eventually.”
Sullivan first heard of Davis 10 years ago while reading U.K. music mags like Mojo and Uncut (“the usual suspects,” he calls them).
“I kept coming across her name all the time,” he says. “People would always mention Miles’ ex-wife and how she inspired Miles to do Bitches Brew and that she made her own records. I was just surprised no one really knew much about her. Karen [Dalton] I can understand, because she was kind of obscure. But Betty was this woman who crossed paths with so many influential people.”
By all accounts something happened to Davis that caused her to leave the business and the scene altogether. For a woman whom everyone describes as driven and determined, it seems odd that she would spend the past three decades sitting quietly in her hometown of Homestead, just outside of Pittsburgh.
“When I asked her what she’s been doing,” says Sullivan, “she just says ‘Not much.’ I asked if she had been watching television because the television was blaring in the background when I called. She just said, ‘Yeah, watching television.'”
I gently pressed her myself, with similar results.
Q: Have you been working anywhere?
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Not much.
“I just can’t imagine someone as determined and self-possessed as Betty just sitting in Pittsburgh watching life pass her by,” says Lang. “Something must’ve happened to her. It’s a mystery to me, but something intervened to make her the way she is today.”
Speculation abounds, of course. There were reports that she died of a drug overdose. “Not Betty,” says Lang assuredly. “It was rice cakes and mineral water for that girl.”
“I was around drugs a lot,” Davis told me. “They just never interested me. You’ve got to respect people’s values. People never forced me to take drugs, and I never told people to get off them.”
The most rational explanation for her silence is offered in music and culture writer Oliver Wang’s liner notes for the reissues: Shortly after her father died in 1980, she suffered a nervous breakdown that dimmed her creativity. Still, the nervous breakdown has never been confirmed.
Sullivan tracked down Davis’ brother—”one of those people who, when you call him, he lets the phone ring and ring, and then he picks up on, like, the 27th ring”—but even he couldn’t illuminate much about her current state. When I asked her, she was just as vague.
Q: What made you leave the business?
A: I made a record they wouldn’t put out.
Q: But you seemed so sure of yourself. I’m surprised you didn’t just take the record somewhere else, maybe hook up with some different session players.
A: Nobody wanted it.
Lang finds this hard to swallow. The Betty he knew, he says, would have found a way out of her contract with Island and taken the record to a willing label.
“That shit hurts, though,” says Williams, who had a similar experience when Sony refused to release one of his albums. “As an artist and performer, I can tell you that the year I spent in the fetal position on the couch is real. It was a million punches to my stomach. Luckily, I was able to keep going. I just had to realize that I couldn’t be so attached to my work. Nowadays, there’s a support system with MySpace, where fans can come tell you how much they like your shit regardless of the record company. But in her time, there wasn’t that support. Plus, for a woman, it’s even harder. You have these men telling you you’re supposed to be a certain way. I can just see her saying, ‘Fuck this. I prefer my sanity.'”
When she got quiet, Davis cut off all contact with her previous life. No one had seen her or been able to track her down. Light in the Attic knew it could license the records through Just Sunshine, but getting Davis involved and letting her know she’d be getting royalties would prove a bit more difficult. Not even Lang knew how to get in touch with her. However, a few years ago, a Davis fan named John Ballon, who operates the music Web site www.musthear.com, discovered that she was owed publishing royalties of up to $40,000.
“[Ballon's] not a label guy,” says Sullivan. “He’s a music fan, but he’s not into it for the money. He was the only person able to track her down, and he had to dig through a bunch of tax records and stuff to find her.”
Ballon got in touch with Davis and told her who he was, convinced her he wasn’t a swindler, and arranged to have her publishing company, ASCAP, pay up the 40 grand she was owed. According to Ballon, ASCAP was not paying her the royalties because they couldn’t find her. Light in the Attic hooked up with Ballon through Lang, and through Ballon was able to convince Davis that these reissues would be done the right way.
“He called her for us and told her we were legit,” says Sullivan. “He explained how we wanted her to make royalties off of these records, and said we’d done a good job with all the other reissues we did. Of course, the financial thing was great for her.”
Davis had received proper royalties when her records were initially released by Just Sunshine, says Sullivan. But she didn’t receive anything when her records were widely bootlegged in the ’90s.
Still, Davis wanted little to do with these reissues. She agreed to be interviewed by Wang for the liner notes and by a handful of other journalists, but other than that, she had no hand in the process. She offered up no photos, no old press clippings, and no contacts.
“I just thought it’d be better if they handled it,” she says.
By the look of the finished products, Davis was right. The reissues of Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different are two of the most solid reissues the label has handled. The digipak cases are stuffed with 30-page booklets with photos of her and Miles, old ads from her modeling days, and Wang’s essay detailing almost every known fact of her life. The covers feature embossed logos, and given the fact that these are the first reissues of hers culled from the original master tapes, the sound is pristine.
In the liner notes and testimonials, much is made of her sexuality, her persona, and her forthrightness. She is bold and beautiful, for sure, but what these reissues really prove is that she was a musical force to be reckoned with.
Her self-titled debut is a perfectly paced funk album. With backing by drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham (both Sly Stone alums), the album locks into a tight groove that never lets up. Davis emerges from the middle of the groove, her husky voice cooing, purring the words. She doesn’t so much sing as she prowls about the rhythm. She teases you with a mix of wanting and needing. Sometimes she growls; other times she whispers in your ear. All the while, the crunchy Bay Area funk of her backing group keeps the sexual tension teetering right on the verge.
With her follow-up, They Say I’m Different, the template is still the same, but there is a space-blues element at work. The sexual tension she toyed with on her debut is pushed to the brink with “He Was a Big Freak.” She screeches those words, followed by the admission “I used to beat him with a turquoise chain.” Indeed, it is the first S&M funk song.
Both albums are closed by slower, sensual soul numbers, “In the Meantime” and “Special People,” on which she displays a vulnerability and tenderness. They are stunning vocal performances which reveal that she was about more than shock and eroticism. “I thought Betty Davis’ vocals were like an instrument,” says Herrema. “She wasn’t trying to show off any virtuosity. They just came from the gut and take up so much cool space around the song.”
With the benefit of hindsight, we can hear her influence over generations of female performers. There is the rasp of Macy Gray, the sultry Southern storytelling of Joi, the stoic pride of Lauryn Hill, and, of course, the forthright sexuality of Madonna.
With these reissues, Light in the Attic will introduce Betty Davis to a whole generation that has been raised on those women but never knew there was a pioneer for them. It’s also an audience that is used to a culture choked with unoriginal followers, not trendsetters. Today’s divas are cardboard cutouts when stood up next to Davis.
It’s hard to tell whether Davis is excited by a possible revival of her career. She is well aware that young artists have sampled her songs (“I get the ASCAP statements”), and that music fans like myself are excited that her records are being reissued (“Yeah, I’m aware”). It may come as a surprise to some that she has continued writing songs all these years. Some have speculated that the reason she has remained so quiet and hidden is that she renounced her career as sinful. But Davis told me in an assured voice: “I’ve never stopped doing my music, ever since I was a little girl. I’ll always be doing my music.”
She tells me how she sings them into a tape recorder, adding bass, drums, and guitar sounds with her mouth. She hasn’t played them for anyone, not even her family.
Q: Do your songs today sound like your old ones, or has your approach changed?
A: I don’t know really.
Q: Are they…
A: They’re sex-oriented.
Q: They’re about sex?
A: Yeah. All my songs are about sex.
It seems that Davis’ prolonged hibernation may not have changed her much. The fact that she has a backlog of unreleased material just sitting in her apartment will no doubt drive fans and historians wild. I asked if she would be willing to let Light in the Attic release those songs at some point, let the world hear what she’s been working on. “I’ve thought about it. I’m not sure if I wanna get back into the business, though.”
As John Ballon stated in his recent Wax Poetics article on Davis, you can’t keep a good woman down for long. Saul Williams goes on to note that plenty of women from her generation, such as Bettye LaVette, have found a platform in today’s musical climate.
“God, I wish she would release that shit—that would be amazing,” Williams says when I tell him of her unheard material. “There has never been a better time for a Betty Davis resurgence.”
Brian J. Barr
An unreleased promo from this Miles Davis-associated collective (he bankrolled the project), cut in 1974. I never even heard of this album until I saw it on the blogsite, Never Get Out of the Boat! (link below). This album easily sounds like it could have been recorded at least 10 to 20 years later than it was. Or even right this minute for that matter. Very much ahead of its time. It’s an absolute tragedy this album was never officially released. Someone needs to put it out NOW!
This album is a fucking monster!! One of the great lost fusion albums. Definitely wild stuff – check it out…
This review comes from the Head Heritage / Unsung website, Nov. 9, 2007, written by Joe Kenney…
If, like me, your favorite era of Miles Davis is his electric era, specifically the 1973-1975 years in which Pete Cosey was his guitarist, then you’ve probably wondered why that super-fantastic lineup of his never cut an album together, after Miles decided to retire in late 1975. I mean, they were the greatest group in history, with Pete Cosey’s phenomenal, psychedelic guitar (the man was BEYOND HENDRIX, that’s all there is to it), Reggie Lucas’ wah-wah’d grounding rhythm guitar, Michael Henderson’s dublike basslines…hell, I can’t go through ALL of them, but if you know them, you love them…but if you’ve ever wondered WHAT an album by this super group sans Miles would sound like, well my friends, I give you Gout, by Art Jackson’s Atrocity.
Only thing is, you’ll have to hunt the blogs for it. Recorded in 1974, the album was cut as a promo by Columbia, who then went on to drop both the group AND the album, which is unreleased to this day. “The horror…the horror…” No one’s sure why (info is slim to none on this group and album), but most rumors have to do with Art Jackson’s drug abuse… In any case, the album has perfect sound quality – the only source is the promo LP, of course, and it sounds phenomenal.
The Miles connection surfaces again: Art Jackson was a twenty year-old guitarist whom Miles Davis himself recommended to Columbia records. Apparently Davis even funded the recording of the album. The Atrocity was put together around Jackson, an 11-member collective of hard-rockin’, psychedelia-lovin’, jazz-playin’ motherfuckers (two saxophonists, four drummers, two keyboardists, a guy on reeds, a guy on bass, a guy on “effects”), none of whom I’ve ever heard of (much like Art Jackson himself).
The five long tracks on Gout center around Jackson’s guitar, and the kid is Pete Cosey reborn; the stuff on here sounds almost identical to what Cosey was performing on the Agharta and Pangaea albums. That same sort of fucked-up, psychedelic distortion which goes from raging and chaotic one moment to spaced-out drones the next, the strange tunings, the works. Only thing is, unlike Cosey, Jackson’s not above playing a power chord or three, so the album packs a definite metal-rock punch. I mean, it’s fantastic, the whole thing.
The superbly-named “Shaft In Afghanistan” opens the album. Jackson’s guitar is on super-fucked mode, sounding like a cyclic tone. The rhythm section lays down a menacing, throbbing track, which Jackson and the sax & reeds proceed to riff over. Jackson soon leaves the actual “song” to the others, instead riffing and roaring with all manner of guitar sounds across the track. He’s everywhere, from wah-wah to thick distortion to cosmic fuzz. Things cool down three minutes in, but it’s only a fake-out; the track comes right back in. Jackson funks it up on wah-wah, with studio-tricked handclaps providing additional percussion. There’s all sorts of electronic gimmickry on the album; this isn’t just some quickly recorded demo. This eventually calms down again into a sort of funky ambience – but it’s just another fake-out! The track rips right back up, the drums so superbly recorded (and no doubt closely-miked) that they seem to pound within the caverns of your skull.
“Arabian Fabian” (another great title!) comes in with total menace, until a faux-lite jazz tune pops up. Funky, proto-drum’n’bass drumkit and sax. But this SOON becomes something altogether un-lite. Echoed murk creeps across the track, eerie wails, treated reeds, and dubbed-out sax bleats. Those close-up drums kick in and we’re in an altogether heavier, funkier groove. The first half of the track belongs to the Atrocity, with Jackson throwing in brief fills and licks on his mutated guitar. Things collapse into psychedelic ambience at the five-minute mark; free jazz with plinking guitar and tapped cymbal. But ominous guitar fuzz hovers in the distance, a starving wolf preparing to attack. John Carpenter keyboards arise and give the track even more of a horror-movie feel. But it’s a ruse; the piano takes over, playing a melancholy melody as the other instruments recede into the murk. This doesn’t last. Those ultra-loud drums kick the shit out of you again, jumping out of nowhere, and suddenly we’re into the strangest of strange: ambient free jazz murk with heavy metal drums. The track eventually wears itself out, descending back into the murk from whence it came.
“Available Bush” sounds like some early ‘90s industrial mash, with in-your-face drums and ripping and roaring Ministry-esque guitar. The track throbs on an off-kilter funk grove, Jackson heading the proceedings with the twists and turns of his guitar. The sax plays a faux-Middle Eastern counter-melody to his blasts and blares. The bassist throws in a few snakelike fills of his own, but his instrument sounds anemic compared to Jackson’s acidic distortion. This one humps along for seven minutes which quickly pass by, never establishing anything beyond that off-kilter groove, but never suffering for it.
“Tomato Reign” is the epic of the album, 16+ minutes of cosmic echo and free jazz. It crawls out of the murk in the opening moments, ethereal and disjointed fills from the assembled players. Things continue in this dubbed-out vein for a few minutes; nothing on the level of the Taj Mahal Travelers, but close…along the lines of the last half of Miles’ 1975 shows, when Cosey, et al would let it all hang out in improvisatory bouts of experimental noise and abstraction. Pounding, tribal drums which pop out of the murk and then disappear. Bleated sax fills which float across the sound spectrum. Even animalistic grunts, growls, and screams from the group. This culminates in ultra-fucked guitar from Jackson, sounding again like some cyclic tone from hell, and then someone (a group member? a sample from some obscure film?) states in the calmest tones, “Fuck her. Let her rot.” A few more minutes of banging, echoed drums and bleating, mournful fills from the sax, and that’s it: the freest noise-skronk ever comes to a close.
“Let’s go!” someone yells, and we’re straight into the pounding, pissed-off proto-metal of the title track, “Gout.” This is the rock version of the preceding track, another rhythmless excursion into all things free, only packing a wallop in the guitar distortion and overall menace. It pounds and snarls for six minutes, never finding a groove, preferring to live in its own sonic hellhole of chaotic din. Finally it builds to a climax of sorts, with a few final bashes on the drumkit, and the record’s over.
To be fair, you can see why Columbia refused to release this. Gout is the type of album you’d only find on some free jazz label, or, if it was recorded today, some ultra-hip indie label. But Columbia in the mid-1970s? Releasing this groundless swell of jazz-metal ambience? Hard to believe. But those master tapes are out there, somewhere, as is the full story of what exactly happened to Art Jackson and his Atrocity. In the meantime, we can only listen to their one recorded album, and wonder.