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 been given its proper place in Miles’s massive discography.

To be continued…

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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.