Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, 1971.   Part Two

Once Keith Jarrett had left, so had, essentially, all of the true ‘stars’ of Miles Davis’s great configurations of the’ jazz/rock’ era, those who went on to carve out soon-come significance: John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter, Larry Young/Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack de Johnette. Even Bennie Maupin and Dave Liebeman. Even, at a stretch, Don Alias and Mtume.  So many in so short a period.

Perfectly good musician improvisers like Steve Grossman and Gary Bartz seemed ‘weak’ in such company, let alone later players like guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonist Bill Evans, all of whom failed to capture the popular imagination, even receiving some opprobrium in certain critical circles for not matching up to the likes of Trane and the keyboard Bill Evans. It does make one wonder though - whether the likes of Evans and Coltrane would have considered themselves worthy of joint billing with Miles Davis? It seemed, by the time of the Oslo concert, whether Keith Jarrett had actually reached that degree of perceived hubris? Certainly, the histrionic shape-throwing on view in the Oslo film could make one conclude that Jarrett had sought the limelight within his boss’s gig, especially towards its ending. After Gary Bartz’s solo (40-45 minutes in), Jarrett’s gutbucket grandstanding (with accompanying facial rictus and head-flat down - on- keys posturing) seems to prompt Miles to cut it all off in a somewhat savage, throat-cutting, caesura. (Miles was always prone to these sorts of ‘cuts’, however, so one should not read tooooo much into this instance of same.) There is even the danger of Jarrett upstaging Miles at this time, as the Cellar Door Sessions also indicate, so it comes as no surprise that he jumped ship in early 1972, on to an almost unparalleled career of solo achievement on the acoustic piano. Miles moved on, in turn, to his later percussion-heavy work, ‘jazz/funk’ rather than ‘jazz/rock’, in the company of, initially James Brown and Sly Stone and, later on, Kool & the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire, Funkadelic/Parliament, The Ohio Players, The Crusaders and even, Saturn save us, Sun Ra & his Arkestra (Disco 3000, Languidity). They were all at the funk rock face in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, for a relatively short period (1970/72?), Keith Jarrett was exploring, despite his considerable reservations, electronic keyboards. He leaves The Cellar Door Sessions as significant proof of what he could achieve within this format, as well as on these Oslo recordings. His vinyl double album Expectations (1972, Columbia Records) should be listened to in this respect, as well as his idiosyncratic duo with De Johnette, Ruta + Daitya, an early ECM Records curiosity. There is, however, nothing like the sheer intensity of his work with Miles at this same period, a reflection, I am sure, of the trumpeter’s particular genius, of getting something special out of his band members?

The Miles Davis Septet, featuring Keith Jarrett: Two Big Personalities in One Small(ish) Group.    Part One

When I was 17/18 years of age, my two favourite musicians were Miles Davis and (through him) Keith Jarrett. I was thus very chuffed to discover on YouTube, a wonderfully preserved and recorded (by Bob Williams) gig, from Oslo, Norway, by a Miles Davis Septet, from November 1971, Having played Live at Fillmore 1970 countless times throughout 1973, which featured both artists, I luxuriated, if that can possibly be the word, in the ‘Cubist Funk’ (my expression) of this particular septet iteration. There had been several critical substitutions between the Summer 1970 Fillmore band and the Oslo variation: out went bassist Dave Holland, replaced by the very young Michael Henderson, who had cut his teeth on Motown Records; Jack de Johnette’s place on the trap drums was taken by Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler; very importantly, Airto Moreira’s percussion duties were now taken up by Don Alias and Mtume (prefiguring the On the Corner direction); Steve Grossman’s spot on saxophones now belonged to Gary Bartz. Chick Corea’s departure meant that the electric piano/organ contributions were now Jarrett’s alone. (Miles largely dispensed with keyboards after he left.)

The set list featured numbers from Miles’s 69/70/71 run of classic albums, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Live/Evil, acting as nodes/pointers within the improvisational sound stew. Never officially recorded, at least by CBS Records, this band was another ‘lost’ configuration within the Davis canon, but it did form a significant mid-point between the more famous ‘lost group’ (i.e. the one with Corea, Holland, De Johnette and Wayne Shorter, which was eventually memorialised on another Live at the Fillmore album, this time from 1969) and the On the Corner funka(mara)thon.

Both Davis and Jarrett are ‘show/sha/men’, in completely different ways. Miles is like a knife blade, cutting through the crap with brief, telling gestures, both physical and musical; Keith is a ‘maximalist’, and, boy, does he let you see the artist’s pain!  He demands attention, as the Oslo show clearly demonstrates, and it left this particular viewer wondering whether the keyboard master left this particular band, or whether he was, euphemistically, ‘let go’? There was only ever going to be one member of this group who was the leader. and/or the center of attention. 

The whole 1968-1975 period of Miles’s music has been exhaustively chronicled across several books and films, so any further analysis from me is contra-indicated. Even his clothes have demanded much commentary, from the Betty Davis-inspired ‘post-Italian suit/counterculture vibe’ through to his 72/75 ‘space age pimp/insect malevolence’ look. By the time of Oslo, he’d started playing electro-funk, with echoplexed trumpet, much to the consternation of jazz critics. (A particularly divisive period in jazz criticism, to be compared to the ‘controversy’ of bebop, with its ‘mouldy fygges’.) He’d even started stabbing at an electric organ, rather bafflingly, as I witnessed in my only experience of live Miles, at the Finsbury Park Rainbow, in November 1973. (He was ok, but was obviously slowing down at this point.)

Whatever, the (mainly) trumpeter is in good shape here, playing strongly and assertively (which is good, given the music he is in charge of!), well before his later, much reduced playing on the 74/5 recordings of Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangea. It’s just a shame that this band has not given its proper place in Miles’s massive discography.

To be continued…

Don Cherry: “It’s Not My Music”

“It’s not my music” asserts Don Cherry, in a 1978 documentary about the man himself and his music, which was his way of contradicting the very idea of ‘owning’ music, a very Tibetan Buddhist-like idea from this most stylistically-liberated of musicians. (”How can you cling to something? Life itself is not permanent”.)  I came across the film on YouTube last night, originally downloaded in October 2019, my interest in the trumpeter having been piqued by a blog about him that I posted a few weeks back (Don Cherry: Down to The Wire). It was a documentary originally made for Swedish TV, and the narration moves back and forth from the Cherry family’s converted school house in that country to the environs of  New York’s Long Island.

Cherry has never especially been on of my absolute favourite musicians, but I found this film to be a fascinating introduction to his variegated career, and would recommend it to anyone new to his music or, who, like me, has sat on the fence somewhat. (Given the sheer stylistic incontinence offered here, it might be more appropriate to ask “which Don Cherry are you referring to?”) The opening salvo is a shot of Cherry playing duck calls in the woods on a carved wooden ‘duck flute’. We see shots of the Cherry family at the airport, with his son, Eagle Eye (born 1968) and  his gum-chewing teenage step-daughter Neneh (born 1964) - their future successes as recording artists in their own right serve as a tribute to Don’s parenting. There are shots of his wife, Moki, working on her textiles and tapestries (one of which graces the cover of Relativity Suite). All in all, Don is presented as all round ‘family guy’, gentle and playful (’puckish’ is a word that I have seen describing his playing and his personality), but he is an articulate, trenchant and informative commentator on jazz in fifties New York and beyond. Moving to Los Angeles from Oklahoma in 1940 (like so many of his race) at the age of four, he outlines the decision to make his eventual move to New York, with the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1959. And jazz history was made…

There is some great footage of the trumpeter playing at Ali’s Alley, in Greenwich Village, with (Rashied) Ali himself and James Blood Ulmer, which must be one of the earliest film stock of the guitarist before he found fame with Ornette (on Blood’s own Tales of Captain Black) and on Rough Trade Records (with Are You Glad to be in America?). The sound is blues-informed, and Cherry points out the importance of the blues, by playing same on his doussn’gouni, the African hand-made stringed instrument. His Afro-Indian influences are further expressed through his karnatic vocalising (south Indian in origin), and his featured  chants, as well as the percussion pieces, reminded me somewhat of what Sun Ra was trying to achieve at around the same time. Ulmer’s ‘space blues’ (for want of a better expression) or ‘SoHo Funk’ (as Don describes it in the documentary) took me back to circa 1980 - does anyone remember ‘punk jazz’, which both Ulmer and Ornette got somehow caught up in with Are You Glad… and the latter’s Of Human Feelings, which emerged in that year? Thankfully, this faux-genre was soon put to rest alongside the likes of James Chance/Black and Material and the other awful No Wavers, with final coffin-nails re-hammered in, just to make sure, with such doozies as The Blue Humans, Drive Like Jehu and The Nation of Ulysses in the 90s. John Zorn’s ‘hard core Ornette tribute’ Spy Vs Spy was particularly awful. in its attention-seeking ‘transgression’.

Several American improvisers liked to play in Sweden  and Denmark - Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, John Tchicai, Dexter Gordon, for example - and the contrast between the Scandinavian countryside and the streets of New York is made much of, and there is a particularly resonant (in both senses of the word) section where Don plays the pocket trumpet in the Swedish woods and fields. To me, it resembled his playing on the wonderful ‘Rawalpindi Blues’ and ‘A.I.R’ on Escalator Over the Hill, with the addition of an added avian background chorus. The school house is a NY loft transposed into, basically, a ‘hippie communal space’  (or a ‘free space’ as Don describes both his music and his home), and I was reminded of Faust’s similar communal arrangements in their Wumme ex-school dwelling. I’d recommend Bill Shoemaker’s ‘Jazz in the  70s’ and  Michael C. Heller’s ‘Loft Jazz’ as accompanying texts to this film, but the sight of Eagle Eye playing a harmonium under Don’s tutelage (”it’s all in there!”) is worth the price of admission alone.

“The Music of Erich Zann”: H.P.Lovecraft’s Tribute to Atonality?

It’s 100 years, since Howard Phillips (always referred to as ‘H.P.’) Lovecraft began publishing his weird tales in various American magazines. The Music of Erich Zann was among his earliest, featuring in the March 1922 edition of The National Amateur. It’s a cracker of a short story, and predates the tales of the Cthulhu mythos, for which he is best known. I got myself a copy of a commemorative edition of Lovecraft’s collected tales, entitled Necronomicon at the very start of lockdown, and am busy reworking my way through these creepy stories of the uncanny. “Zann” was always one of my favourites, and I’ve often wondered whether the writer, who actually sounds like an uber-conservative over most issues (as well as being an appalling racist) was having a go at composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, what with Zann’s “fantastic, delirious and hysterical” viola music, but which “kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius”.

Erich Zann lives in a street, the Rue D’Auseil, which is described as looking like a German expressionist nightmare film: “the houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward and sidewise”. The description that Lovecraft gives us certainly conjures up The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, films that were being made at exactly the same time as Lovecraft’s early tales, 1920 and 1922 respectively. It is highly unlikely that Lovecraft would have known of these films, but the synchronicity is worth noting. Zann’s phantasmagorical sounds are to harry, torment and ultimately destroy him, and the unnamed narrator has to flee them for the sake of his own sanity: “I plunged…from the ghoulish howling of that accursed viol whose fury increased even as I plunged”. I’m reminded of the ESP Records ‘warning’ on Sun Ra’s albums for the label, “you never heard such sounds in your life!”.

I do wonder whether Lovecraft had heard The Rite of Spring, which was famously premiered in 1915 Paris. and whether he had come across Arnold Schoenberg’s work, with his post-1908 development of the 12-tone technique, with its ‘free atonality’. Serialism was to have its effects on the ‘First Generation’ of UK free improvisers, and there were certainly several members of the public who would have ‘plunged’ down the stairs of venues like The Little Theater Club, when these improvisers first started their “such sounds” experiments from 1966 onwards. I also have to cross-reference this work of Lovecraftian horror with the far more highbrow Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (who knew Schoenberg and Stravinsky), published in 1947, whose leading character, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn, is doomed as a result of his own musical overreach and hubris. I love both Lovecraft and Mann, and they occupy different critical universes, but most readers will recognise the ability of challenging music to test one’s patience (at the very least) but to also offer a gateway out of ‘the normal’. The Cthulhu mythos, rendered down to its absolute essence, suggested that “there are more things in heaven and earth..than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. (A quote from Shakespeare’s tragedy, which is currently getting much attention due to the son of the Stratford magus’ early demise, and his putative influence on his father’s work.) Free improvisation has itself certainly given critics and sundry human beings something to philosophise about over the years.

“Things We Like”: Jack Bruce’s Seldom-Acknowledged Classic?

I originally bought this album around 1973, (and stupidly sold it some years later, for some long - forgotten reason), when I was exploring anything that featured John McLaughlin, then in his pomp with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Things We Like was an early McLaughlin-related classic, recorded about the same time as his very first solo album Extrapolation, and shortly before Miles Davis paid for him to cross the Atlantic (the ocean, not the record label) to record on In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Live/Evil. He also found time to make Devotion, Where Fortune Smiles and My Goals Beyond, as well as co-forming Lifetime (who were never recorded satisfactorily, either in the studio or in the live arena).. The 1968-72 period was thus characterised by this impressive release schedule and the development of his mature guitar style.

Things We Like was actually Jack Bruce’s first solo album, recorded in August 1968, although the song-based Songs for a Tailor was released first. All instrumental, it was clearly a jazz album, and a very good one at that, with Bruce returning to his pre-Cream roots, and it deserves to be included in any list of late-sixties UK modern jazz/rock must-have recordings, alongside the likes of Nucleus and The Keith Tippett Group, and, by extension, the likes of Soft Machine Three and early King Crimson (the first four). He was accompanied by some old muckers from the 60′s British jazz scene: drummer Jon Hiseman was a recent member of Howard Riley’s influential trio, who had recorded their debut, Discussions, in December 1967, which set a high bar for such configurations on these shores. (Hiseman went on in 1968 to form Colosseum, with Dick Heckstall-Smith, the final member of this quartet, both having played with Graham Bond in his Organisation, and as members of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers on the Bare Wires album.)

Things We Like fits in perfectly with its contemporaries, giving early notice of McLaughlin’s talents (especially on ‘Sam Enchanted Dick’and ‘HCKHH Blues’), before Mahavishnu rather muddied the creative waters;  confirmation of those of Heckstall-Smith and Hiseman; and a re-affirmation of Bruce’s jazz chops on the double bass, with six tricksy-yet-emotive originals, communicated through a dry, no-frills sound. Unfortunately it tanked commercially - the album only surfaced in 1970, and former Cream fans were perhaps somewhat baffled, and jazz fans possibly doubted the ‘authenticity’ of a recent rock star’s attempts to ‘go solo’ (although Songs For a Tailor proved both a commercial and critical success). Listened to over 50 years later, it slips loose of all these contemporary contexts, and stands out as yet another great British jazz album from what is now generally viewed as somewhat of a ‘golden age’ for the music. There are many, many more albums from the approximate period of 1968 -72 that could bear re-examination, re-discovery (or just mere discovery?) and subsequent re-release. John Surman and the late Kenny Wheeler, to name just two examples among so many others, may be in danger of being forgotten and/or marginalised. A thorough reappraisal of this period, both discographical and bibliographical, is long overdue, although John Wickes’ long out of print ‘Innovations in Jazz’ is well worth seeking out.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.