Julian Cope – “Miles Davis on the One” (2001)

August 31, 2008 at 7:57 pm (Julian Cope, Miles Davis, Reviews & Articles)

Written for the Head Heritage website – June 2001 – Julian Cope examines Miles’ infamous 1970s fusion period…

Note: In May of this year, a long two-part documentary of Miles Davis’ career was broadcast on British TV. As my wife and I sat down to watch, she looked at me and said sarcastically: “Hey, I’ll bet they spend AGES on the period you like!” She was ragging on me because the only Miles Davis I listen to is his (to the high-minded jazz fan) sell-out period from 1974-75. But when the documentary came to my favourite period, it was summarily dismissed not as a less-achieving tail-end of his most fertile era but as the actual beginning of his artistic winter. Whoa! I felt so intensely un-served by the documentary that I was moved to write this long essay on what I see as a truly extraordinary and extra-perceptionary period of this great artist’s life. In doing so, I would like to make clear the fact that I do not approach this from the angle of a jazz fan, indeed quite the opposite. I here judge Miles Davis’ most dismissed musical era from the point-of-view of a Rock’n’roll and Krautrock and Cosmic music devotee with a longstanding quest for the Shamanic other. Rite On!
In choosing both
Dark Magus and Pangaea for this “Album of the Month,” I felt that it was imperative to give these records a greater context, and, in doing so, it really needed an entire article to be written around them. I am not a jazz fan in any shape or form, but, as jazz fans around the world have long been at such pains to point out, Miles Davis in the mid-70s was not jazz. It was a shamanic funk that reached for the same stars which had earlier shone for Ash Ra Tempel, Can and early Amon Duul 2. The Downbeat magazine writer Greg Tate probably hit the nail on the head when he called this era of Miles “the world’s first fully-improvisational acid-funk band.”       

Right Off – Towards a Meditational Funk

In 1974 and 1975, Miles Davis recorded and released a series of albums deemed by his legions of fans (both in and outside the music business) to be so far out that they were only worthy of release in Japan or otherwise disappeared into total obscurity until rescued in the mid-90s. Miles was burned out, said the critics. He was looking for a young hip black audience, they said. After those LPs, he stopped recording for five years – proof positive that he was nowhere, or so they say.
Methinks I do totally disagree. Throughout my prolonged shamanic search for a sustained sonic obliteration, I have on occasion been led open-minded and open-mouthed down several blind alleys. But far more often I have found myself travelling down wide open avenues leading to music which virtually amounts to being a blueprint for 3rd Eye Travel. The sidelong freakouts of Krautrock sure, Japanese improvisation and free rock, natch, indeed even proto-metal has caught me out with its wildly long workouts on great rock’n’roll songs. Yet my discovery of Miles Davis’ astonishingly visionary and inspired but nowadays critically detested 1974-75 “Sell Out to Funk” period has made me understand more than ever that the necessary requirements for the soundtrack to shamanic flight may be found in the most unlikely quarters of all
Miles Davis, sheesh! I never thought I’d be writing about him in a million years. I hate jazz as much for the instruments they use as for the rhythms themselves. Saxophone, trumpet and flute? Get lost! I always loved the musicians themselves and their stories and their lives and their aims, too. But the result was always a total no-go area to me, or so I thunk. How wrong I was!
The music of Miles Davis during 1974 and 1975 was the epitome of sonic shamanism. In four double- LPs, he distilled all that he had learned in the previous decades into a sustained and punishing maelstrom of sound – truly a blueprint for the 3rd Eye Travel which I had been searching for.
For this new music, Miles Davis dumped whole accepted areas of jazz and, instead, adopted the wildly loud and distorted freakout guitar of Jimi Hendrix and Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel, and the on-the-one rhythms of turn-of-the-70s James Brown. Then he extended James’ ten minute grooves into half hour jams taking up whole LP sides, and took the role of a witchdoctor/musical director – often standing motionless in his bizarre Sly Stone shades, his trumpet reduced to no more than a baton with which to command the troops. When Miles did contribute notes to this fury, it was frequently without the trumpet he had become so legendary for. Instead, he commandeered Sly Stone’s organ sound and played it Irmin Schmidt-style: with an oven glove on! Chord structures were entirely abandoned in favour of rhythm, until it was often just the unpinning Fender bass of Michael Henderson, which was left to give any hints of acceptable musical content.
Sax player Dave Liebman has even written of the albeit brief relief he and the other musicians would feel at hearing an A minor organ chord emanating from the Davis organ, before this oasis of sound would evaporate, returning them all to the desert of percussion and howling which Miles so obviously craved. No bones for the dogs! There’s even a famous story about how Miles came around to Sly’s house and started playing his jazz ‘clusters’ on Sly’s keyboard – fistfulls of notes at a time with no semblance of chord structure. The Gospel choir-educated Sly Stone called Miles a motherfucker and kicked him out for playing such unrighteous “voodoo” in his house.

Who says a jazz band can’t play funk music?

Evidence shows that the story of Miles Davis and his funk trip has been obscured from history by a jazz crowd embarrassed by what they perceived as a series of slipshod Miles records, when they really just couldn’t get to grips with the place he was so clearly going and trying to take us along. Listening to the hugely acclaimed “Miles classics” such as On The Corner, In a Silent Way and Live Evil, it became clear to me from those discs’ sonic-fury-yet-musical-overplaying that Miles’ next step into the period which I’m now praising was mainly to do with his completely letting go of the remaining “classical” aspirations of the jazz musician, and embracing the “barbarian”.
Wonderfully schooled jazz musicians such as John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham were, in this “Meditational Funk” period, replaced by guys from R&B and soul backgrounds. Reggie Lucas came in on exclusively wa-wa’d rhythm guitar, whilst the Afro’d ex-Muddy Waters guitarist Pete Cosey took up the frenzied lead guitar position on a Fender Telecaster put through multiple FX pedals and a small monophonic synthesizer.
For this new super-loud ensemble, the ungroovy double bass was replaced by a Fender Jazz wielded by Stevie Wonder’s old bassist Michael Henderson, someone who brought a whole new sense of punctuation to the house party. On drums was the amazing Al Foster, whom Miles had discovered playing in a New York club. Foster it was who took the on-the-one route to its ultimate conclusion. As Miles Davis would later write in his autobiography, “Al could set shit up for everyone to play off and then he could keep the groove going forever.” Completing the rhythm section was Miles’ young friend James Mtume, who facilitated Davis’ increasingly Afro-centric fixation with his use of log drums, African hand percussion, water drums and a rudimentary drum-machine played with an intriguing and strangely a-rhythmic attitude.
But it would seem that the only way into this Miles Davis period is to be alerted by some head in the know. Miles fans hate it all and rag on people for liking it – even my friend, the American rock’n’roll writer Michael Krugman, says it’s trash. He once took Dorian aside and commented: “He only likes the weird Miles shit!” And he’s generally a forward-thinking Motherfucker.
But the more I heard of this 1974-75 period of Miles Davis, the more clear it became that he never sold out at all, at least not in this period which the critics have deemed. Instead, what the critics have called “Burn Out” in the mid-70s happened not because of what has been perceived as Miles’ desire merely to attract a young and hip black audience, but, instead, through his sheer determination to create, what I would now call, a Meditational Funk.
For what the jazz-loving Miles Davis fan would consider to have been an affronting (and even uncool) sell-out turns out, to this forward-thinking Krautrock and Funkadelic maniac, to have been nothing less than the great Cunt of the Mother opening in a manner which she had rarely opened before.
For Miles to have created this music of 74-75 by accidental burn-out would have been impossible. Had he burned out, he would have given up the reins of arrangements to his producer Teo Macero, who would surely have employed far more stock hip Afro-American devices into the music. Had Miles really burned out and sold out, there would surely not now be such an enormous body of earlier evidence of his apprenticeship-servings, in the form of such LPs as A Tribute to Jack Johnson, On the Corner and Live Evil. For myself, it makes sense that this early 70s music has long been called visionary genius in jazz and rock music circles, for it is the most emulated, most acrobatic (AKA noodling), and it was chock full of future jazz rock stars like John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham and all those guys who crossed over to rock audiences.
But at this point it was still jazz and was still rising up out of the 60s maelstrom. And it is my assertion that it was only then, in 1974, when Miles had purged himself and his band of all those jazzers that he was able to create that Music Beyond Ego, in which everyone, himself included, became to subsumed into the raging sonic torrent he was looking for. Only then could Miles Davis begin his release of these four perfect meditational funk LPs, all of them doubles and all of them dedicated to pick up a groove and maintain it at all costs.

Get Up With It

Released in January 1975, Get Up With It had far more soul brother style in its LP jacket and James Brown-style title than in any of its actual musical content. Miles loomed huge yet mysterious across both outer faces of the gatefold sleeve, his hexagonal shades alluding to Sly Stone and the sepia printing echoing James Brown’s classic 1973 refusenik double-LP The Payback. Yet the eight tracks within its, at first, seemingly impenetrable grooves are undermined by Miles’ decision to open this monsterwork with the half hour Kosmische Music known as “He Loved Him Madly”.
If this was a guy seeking a young audience, he surely weren’t looking very hard. For the incredible beauty of this opening piece is the manner in which it hangs in mid air, almost motionless yet light as the breeze. Imagine suspending a huge child’s mobile from the ceiling of Wookey Hole caves with a drawing pin nightlight, and then measuring its movement. This is the motion of “He Loved Him Madly” – it’s a tethered and chloroformed flight of butterflies and dragonflies and fireflies, spacily and dazedly encircling the nightlight, never completely leaving their tight orbit.
Miles’ wa-trumpet and Dave Liebman’s lyrical flute guide the way, as three extremely restrained bluesy wa-guitars fuss and fidget in the near distance. Hollow congas barely punctuate the hugely reverb’d sound for the first half of the track, until Al Foster finally picks the beat up into an insistent but bassless on-the-one, reminiscent of James Brown’s epic “Mind Power” but even more ambiently groovy. It is difficult to say precisely what each instrument is doing here, but then, during this curious period, Miles Davis had openly expressed his wish “to confound critics, so they couldn’t tell what instrument was responsible for what sounds.”
It’s the same group of musicians who open side two, but the twelve minutes of “Maiysha” is a hugely loose soul bossanova propelled along by Miles’ overdriven wa-organ and the Superfly-style guitar chords, which seem to have no idea of just when Miles’ will make his change. This is a peculiar combination: using a fairly defined musical base on which to add experimental chordal elements which are totally out-of-place and at odds with the fundamental style of the piece. Out of nowhere, a distorted and FX’d lead guitar howls out of the right hand speaker, whilst Stand-period Freddie Stone-type choppy guitar slashes a rhythmic path through the broad swathes of verdant chords which sing out of Miles’ fertile keyboard.
For “Honky Tonk”, with its funky multi-keyboard and drumless beginning, Miles reached back to earlier days, from when the band was populated by more famous and more seasoned jazz musicians such as John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Indeed, this sounds like the 1971 period when Miles Davis recorded his excellent A Tribute to Jack Johnson. “Honky Tonk”‘s loose wa-beginning is reminiscent of the Family Stone’s long side two-workout “Sex Machine”, also from Stand. And when the drums finally come in, the groove affects a huge sense of relief in the listener.
“Rated X” closes side two: a fierce and hugely ominous organ-dominated and African and Indian percussion-led piece, in which the wa-guitar of Reggie Lucas and the sitar of guest player Khalil Balakrishna conspire to harry the rest of the musicians, like snarling jackals worrying a much larger prairie animal. The piece slowly builds and builds to a deafening climax of organ chords, only then, as the sound collapses and subsides, revealing the bell-like piano chords of guest Cedric Lawson.
The whole of side three is given over to the half an hour-plus of the brilliant “Calypso Frelimo”, in which Miles subsumes his personality further than ever into the music, contenting himself with themes on organ and piano, whilst guest player John Stobblefield takes his saxophone into areas previously only inhabited by the trumpet playing of Miles himself.
The whole thing sounds like a massive jam on Can’s Ege Bamyasi-period mini-epic “Pinch”. Michael Henderson’s bass playing is a punctuated pop & groove wholly reminiscent of Holger Czukay, whilst the furious wa-guitars of Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey chatter and gas panned far right and left in the speakers.
About a third of the way through this clatterstomp, the rhythm drops way way down into its boots, and Michael Henderson puts out a pulsing Larry Graham riff as the wa-guitars howl their heavy metal into the night. Miles continues his theme intermittently, a theme to which he would return again and again throughout this period (sometimes in the most seemingly inappropriate places), and John Stobblefield’s sax continues to ape his master’s horn in the deep darkness of reverb. Then the track picks up again and continues its on in its deeply Can-ish manner.
“Red China Blues” is a real anomaly on Get Up With It, a big brassy 6/8 blues with wailing harmonica and Cornel Dupree’s big bodied rhythm guitar chords slashing out a relentless melody. Oh, it’s fine I guess, but if it wasn’t here, then I surely wouldn’t miss it.
Wait instead for the curiously named and curious sounding “Mtume”, named after Miles’ percussionist of this period James Mtume. This extravagant rhythmic piledriver of a sound is driven by the choppy wa-guitars of Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas and the log drum of Mtume himself, while Miles’ atonal and squally wa-organ chords do their best to undermine the entire sound. Again, though here it is far more thunderous and disorderly, we’re close to approaching a sound similar to Can’s Ege Bamyasi of two or three years previously. If Miles Davis was serious about his awareness of Stockhausen, is it possible that he was unaware of Can at this time? It seems almost impossible to me.
At one point deep in the tune, he blasts the entire band with a cluster of shattering organ non-chords akin to zapping them with a ray gun, but soon they’re back on that jittery freakbeat and they ain’t about to give any of it up. Miles has now taken James Brown’s jungle groove and left it breathless and scorched on the outskirts of the desert.
Get Up With It finishes with the even-more-curiously-titled “Billy Preston”, a steaming and insistent James Brown-like African soul dance. Again, it’s also extremely Krautrock-y in a Can kind of way, and Michael Henderson’s punctuated and popping Holger Czukay-style bass is here syncopated to create a sort of bass marimba effect. The regular gang is here joined by guests Cedric Lawson on organ and Khalil Balakrishna on sitar, whilst the lead is taken by the sax of Carlos Garnett, who, like John Stobblefield before him, again manages to ape the horn sound which is so Miles.
Even though Miles Davis of this period employed the same general pool of musicians, but it must be commented that he also used the same stable of instruments through the same configuration of FX pedals. So for whomsoever played with him each night, the limits of their musical palette was always very clearly laid out. Get Up With It is an extraordinary double-LP with extreme dedication to locating a very specific groove. But however brain-frying this massive statement was, it was still only the first of these particular albums. And we will see that Miles Davis was determined to further distil his sound until the sound was honed down and down and ever more down.

Dark Magus

Recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall, on March 30th 1974, Dark Magus is, therefore, both earlier and later than the Get Up With It sessions. But, whilst Get Up With It works hardest to define the new shamanic Miles sound, Dark Magus is probably the most musically concise because it was captured on tape in one single evening of fury. Indeed, of all four double-LPs, Dark Magus is the most tightly drawn and the most mysterious and difficult to fathom.
Unyielding and as narrowly defined in its musical parameters as reggae or ska, the music of Dark Magus revealed that Miles was by now so dedicated to the on-the-one rhythm which James Brown had instigated and George Clinton had championed, that even his biggest admirers were having problems following him. Indeed, Dark Magus initially only saw its release in Japan.
The wa-guitarists Cosey and Lucas were here joined by a third guitarist, Dominic Gaumont, and all three joined forces with the rhythm trio of Al Foster, Michael Henderson and James Mtume, to unleash a savagery which would not let up for the entire concert. Indeed, sax player Dave Liebman’s sleevenotes admit that none of them knew where one piece ended and another began, and Liebman himself believes that Miles only much later gave the music individual titles in order to bring some hint of order to the primordial soupy-ness of the proceedings.
I use the phrase “some hint of order” because a hint is really all we get. When I explain that disc one’s tracks are “Moja (Part 1)”, “Moja (Part 2)”, “Wili (Part 1)”, and “Wili (Part 2)”, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was all a big wind-up intended to confuse us even further. But, when I explain that disc two’s tracks are “Tatu (Part 1)”, “Tatu (Part 2) (Calypso Frelimo”), “Nne (Part 1) (Ife)” and “Nne (Part 2)”, then it becomes clear that Miles was surely intending to cloak the entire trip in some impenetrable mystery.
And so it is best to listen to Dark Magus as a whole, preferably on repeat for hours on end. Its fury rarely subsides, and soon the whole of the listening space becomes a shamanic environment where time is meaningless and the world outside is forgotten.


And so we come to the monster which was Agartha, an album which even turns up in lists of people’s favourite heavy metal records. All right! Recorded in the afternoon of February 1st, 1975: at Osaka Festival Hall, Japan, Agartha opens with the soberly-titled “Prelude”, a twenty two-minute wa-wa-wa from the bowels of the Mother Earth. Miles opens the ritual with a super groovy now-where-have-I-heard-that-before organ every-riff which sounds as though he’s playing the tune of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” in a Funkadelic’s “Music for my Mother” stylee. Then, we’re coupled to a long freight train with a cargo bound for the heart of the every-desert.
You wanna know the sound of this Mongol horde nation on the move? It’s wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa!!!!!!! Stampeding elephants running parallel to our train trumpet and bray but they just can’t keep up. Compassionate Miles stops the train for a moment to let them catch up, then we’re off again through the brush and cactus, as Sonny Fortune stands astride the observation car and blows a small straight soprano saxophone as though the lives of this entire migrant nation depended on it.
You love the sound of all seven CDs from the Stooges’ Funhouse boxed set played simultaneously throughout the house on small inferior ghetto blasters? Then you’ll adore this fucking sound. You ever wondered how Can’s “Mushroom” would sound if they were clones of each other and could all play exactly one beat ahead of the other. Well U-goddit! One-eyed soul, Mushroom head!
Jazz critics out to blame someone other than Miles for this period were always quick to say that bassist Michael Henderson was out-of-his-depth. Out of his depth. Out of his depth? Out of his fucking depth!!! Well Mr. Henderson he ain’t, babies. He’s the Very Reverend Michael Henderson – Lord of the One and Crown Prince of Simplicity when all around him is a Monsarratian volcano of chaos. And proof of this dedication is most clearly evidenced in the magnificence of this Agarthian storm known as “Prelude.”
So anyway, you fade out of “Prelude” and stick side two on the turntable and what do we got? More of the fucking same! Another ten minutes already! “Prelude Part 2! By now, Sonny Fortune’s soprano sax has joined forces with Miles’ horn to create some of the most contrary a-sectional brass playing this side of the Laughing Clowns’ Mr Uddich Schmuddich Goes to Town.
Meanwhile, the guitars are buzzing around like locusts in a royal shitstorm. Reggie Lucas’ rhythmic wokka-wokka-wokka-wokka-wokka-wokka-wokka as ever relentless and dedicated to the groove, whilst Pete Cosey’s car alarm guitar solos shudder and judder in the far left corner.
And without hesitation, we’re suddenly propelled into the light-as-a-breeze super cool of “Maiysha”, here rogered by Cosey’s Ernie Isley FX’d lead guitar. The beat drops completely, leaving Cosey exposed and raging. He sounds like his guitar is going through that synthesizer he’s often credited with playing, then back we drop into the light flute of Sonny Fortune, as Lucas provides a cool cool bluesy-toned soul rhythm guitar.
Side three is entirely taken up by the 26-minutes of “Interlude”, another soberly-titled freakout which kicks off at a typically furious Dark Magus‘ pace; an Al Foster-driven chariot race through ancient city streets. Sonny Fortune’s alto saxophone wails like Miles’ own trumpet and the track thunders through phase after phase of new groove. A strident sax blitz occupies the centre section, its walking bass placing the music deep-inner-heart-of-the-city. But the atonality soon returns in the shape of a strange and elliptical groove, in which Pete Cosey sets his monophonic synthesizer (sounds like a Moog Rogue or something equally rudimentary), and lets it fizz and buzz around the hall like some motor-bike engined V1 terror weapon.
By this time, we’re getting into pure space rock territory and the clusters of organ chords combine with Lucas’ primal electric guitar to confound any eavesdropper, and prevent them from ever guessing the provenance of this magical and timeless sound.
And so on to side four’s re-interpretation of 1971’s “Theme from Jack Johnson”. Like Alan Vega’s version of Hot Chocolate’s “Everyone’s a Winner”, this Miles Davis ‘version’ of his own song is a completely new piece. Gone is the choppy sloppiness of the catchy McLaughlin/Cobham driven original, replaced by this ensemble’s by-now notorious Let’s-strangle-Ernie-Isley lead guitar and heavy booming percussive proto-funk. Towards the end of the piece, we’re being steered into a looming and humming, howling and zinging ancient amphitheatre of percussionless electronic sound FX and tone generators and feedback and noises of the universe. In truth, Agartha‘s long side four fade out sounds more like Dr. Fiorella Terenzi’s marvellous Music from the Galaxies LP than anything even slightly alluding to jazz.
I suppose we’re getting back to Miles’ desire to create one fourteen armed musical beast out of seven individuals. Non musicians could argue: “But why does the music get credited entirely to Miles Davis rather than to the ensemble?” To which Miles would most likely have replied: “Replace any one of them and you’ll still get almost this sound. But replace me and they would be lost and directionless. For I am the shaman and their facilitator. No chords because I dictate that. On the one because I dictate it. Untold freedom to play what they wish BUT within the exceedingly narrow boundaries which I have set. Like an Andy Warhol painting on which Andy himself chooses the subject matter, the canvas size, paint type and the four desired colours but never actually touches, this music has extreme pre-sets. It can only sound one way. Like Stockhausen’s Music Concrete, it is the purest form of music imaginable. Like Japan’s Taj Mahal Travellers, who never even gave their tracks titles, it has returned us to a time so long before classical civilisation that even our hands and feet and lips and throats and asses become musical instruments. Sure, the jazz of the city will surface once in a while (and Miles himself is bound to try and sneak in an organ theme from “Calypso Frelimo”). But, again and again, those same stock primal percussions and electro-motifs will conspire to keep anything too learned from struggling to the surface for very long before being cut down, smitten, and subsumed back into the whole.
Agartha is an album of truly mystical significance: greater than both Get Up With It and Dark Magus, though I do listen to the latter most of all. But Agartha‘s greatness is that it is the album which, more than any, sets up the most new archetypes for the musicians to play off. A new rock’n’roll band could form just with “Prelude” as its influence and still have a three-album career. Another band could form primarily to investigate Pete Cosey’s lead guitar Agartha relationship with Reggie Lucas’ rhythm guitar. “Interlude” could keep any ardent Krautrock fan happy for years with its sonic shiver’n’shake appeal. Even the reinterpretation of “Jack Johnson” is eye opening in its looseness and wide awake hunter-gatherer attitude to music.


Now Pangaea is a very different kettle of killer whales. Recorded in the same February ’75 evening after Agartha‘s afternoon concert, at Osaka’s same Festival Hall, Pangaea is a far more distilled take on this music, and it enters the ring with the same Al Foster drum-driven fury as Dark Magus. Indeed, the opening beats of the forty-one minute epic “Zimbabwe” almost replicate the opening of Dark Magus‘ “Moja” from nearly one year before. This torrent of sound Miles chose to name “Zimbabwe” – a real Afro-centric forward-thinking Motherfucker of a name, as Zimbabwe was then still Rhodesia waiting to be re-named.
The sameness of the rhythm secured the listener in the knowledge that here was an African equivalent to the strictly defined rhythmic parameters of reggae. I forget now which of Miles’ sidemen it was who argued against the biographer Roy Carr’s use of the term “anchor” to describe the bass and drums. It may have been Al Foster who claimed that the metaphor is weak as the anchor stops the ship from going anywhere at all.
Actually, I would counter claim that anchors in their ancient role were often used in multiples known as drogue stones, which allowed the buffeted ship above to slow its journey to a navigable crawl without being sent around in dizzying circles by the mighty swell of the ocean. As such, the bass and drums of Michael Henderson and Al Foster are indeed anchors, providing a stable platform on which Miles, Cosey, Lucas, Mtume and guests can perform their sonic oceanic rites.
Following the heavy weather of “Zimbabwe” is the three-quarters of an hour mystical ride known as “Gondwana”, named after the original Ur-continent which, three hundred million years ago, split up into Africa, Australasia, Antarctica, South America and Southern Asia. The music opens with an intense but far more subdued groove, led by Sonny Fortune’s beautiful dove-like flute, undermined by outrageously weird and dissonant wa-guitar chords. As someone who only enjoys the flute when it is set over a backdrop of extremeness, I am here reminded most of all of the soaring lotus flute which rises out of the sonic turbulence of T. Dream’s amazing “Fly and the Collision of Comas Sola” from Alpha Centauri.
But “Gondwana” retains its ocean voyage-like mystery almost to the end, often dropping down into a becalmed ambience inhabited only by the popping of Mtume’s hand percussion and water drums. And the lack of real jazz chord content ensures that the music always appears to take place far from the cool of cityscapes, allowing it a feeling of true ancientness and bucolic timelessness. Until the 33rd minute, that is, when Miles’ ornery horn inspires Michael Henderson to pick up the groove with a walking bass which catches the band’s imagination, and has them mouthing off: “Yeah, that’s right” and several other time-honoured jazzisms.
At this point, their boat of a million years sails right up the flooded avenues of No New York and on into post-Atlantean Harlem far uptown, where James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone and the ghost of Jimi Hendrix are all waiting to board from the upper windows of the legendary Apollo Theatre. As Miles wrote of this period in his autobiography: “I never end songs; they just keep going on and on.”

Bollocks to the lot of them

It’s been said by his detractors that Miles was burnt out and spiritually nowhere after this period. They say that his five-year absence from recording is the evidence. But I personally believe that these four double-LPs connote the end of the Shamanic/Druidic/Masonic/Call-it-what-you-will apprenticeship of Miles Davis. They are the summum bonnum, or distilled Ur-essence, of Miles Davis as Shaman Warrior King. And if he was nowhere in this period, then nowhere is where we shamen all should be.
As the opening poem of The Modern Antiquarian so flatly stated, I have been so brought to my knees by the Great Mother who is my Muse and Mentor, that I can only be contemptuous of the Cheap New Age Fix. But, in Miles’ attitude, experience and practise of this period, there is evidence of a dedication to a Gurdjeffian-type physical and emotional exhaustion – the kind that can hardly have been hit upon by accident or through loss of the Muse. Indeed, as I wrote earlier, had Miles lost the Muse, he would surely have done everything possible to have maintained the illusion of one still in control. Instead, he chose to scream “Fuck it!!!” as loudly and as often as possible.
Over all other arts, music is eternal and allows us touch the divine. And I believe that because of its physical element, rhythmic music which inspires the Dance brings us even closer and more quickly. And it is because the end result of such intense and shamanic musical endeavours is the elevating of some of Humanity (no matter how few), that the true musician will always say: “Then so be it.”
Dogs live dogs’ lives, but one discarded scrap of cake lets them glimpse Humanity. Humans live human lives, but one brush with the eternal lets them glimpse Divinity. And, once touched, they will NEVER forget it. In 1974-75, Miles Davis did so much more than merely glimpse eternity – he actually embraced it.


Check out Miles’ 1971 documentary soundtrack A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Its two side long tracks are worth hearing just for the depths of slackness which Miles’ goads such luminaries as John Mclaughlin and Billy Cobham into de-achieving. The opening of “Right Off” is truly such a eulogy to sloppiness that the first few listens cause actual laughter in the listener. Miles’ interest in the black champion boxer Jack Johnson, and the problems of envy which his success caused the white population sent Miles into the boxing gym four times a week during this period. He claimed that he understood how Johnson felt when he was fined $100 for driving an unlicensed Ferrari, something which, he said, would never have happened had he been white.


Julian Cope




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