Sunday, October 4, 2009

Miles Davis: Fusion- His Final Frontier

The Secret Museum

October 04, 2009

By Jim Webb

Miles Davis
Fusion: His Final Frontier

Editor’s Note: Jim Webb and Michael Mooney knew each in the old neighborhood back in Philadelphia. Many, many, maybe too many? ... no, it’s all about the journey, right? Okay. Years later, events fell from the stars in such a way that Jim found himself living in Santa Fe and Michael living in Taos. Both, truly die hard music fans, write in an almost esoteric, conscious streaming that is reminiscent of fine jazz (Michael) and blues (Jim). Stay tuned and enjoy.

Michael Mooney wrote:
Lydia Garcia is the new publisher of Horse Fly. She has agreed to keep us on (in spite of her copy editor's delicate nervous system); in fact, we'll be appearing in this month's print edition. Jim and I applaud Ms. Garcia's excellent taste in writing, and sound editorial skills.

On May 25, 1961 President John Kennedy declared that we would land an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. That same week trumpeter Miles Davis played Carnegie Hall in New York City with his acoustic jazz group. Since the mid forties Miles had been a pioneer and innovator of such jazz styles as be-bop, cool jazz and now with Gil Evans they were even combining a symphony orchestra with his trumpet playing. Two totally separate events, but in July of 1969 man would land on the moon and be the farthest away he’s ever been from Earth. By the summer of ’69 Miles would have taken jazz far away from its traditional origins, leading an electric crusade into unchartered musical waters.

The manned U.S. space program had several projects to complete before they were ready to tackle landing on the moon. The Mercury and Gemini missions were needed to test out complex maneuvers that were essential for going to the moon and back. In 1964 Miles had formed one of his classic quintets and began a new phase to his music. In order to break down some of the established barriers in jazz, Miles needed a new crew to work with. One of his greatest strengths as a leader was being able to find the right musicians that would help him realize the new sounds he wanted to create. The band took off when Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and Ron Carter’s bass was joined by twenty - three year old Herbie Hancock on piano, and the even younger Tony Williams (17) playing drums.

Classic albums like Nefertiti, Sorcerer, and Miles in The Sky soon followed and established the quintets’ reputation for pushing the boundaries of jazz into new territories. Chord structures were being left behind as they played in a “free” form style and in 1968 electric keyboards and guitar were added to Miles’ sound palette for the first time. More changes in personnel occurred on two key releases in 1969. In A Silent Way not only brought guitarist John McLaughlin into the music, but keyboardist Joe Zawinul as well. In a Silent Way was an electric album, with the tapes heavily edited later by producer Teo Macero, and it helped point the way for the full blown jazz- rock fusion of Bitches Brew.

July 20, 1969 found Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon and the whole world celebrated this historic culmination of technical and human achievement. The three Apollo 11 crew members returned to Earth as heroes and were given a ticker tape parade in New York City. August 19, 1969 saw the album release of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. It was a cauldron of heavy electric riffs, long extended jams, and a volume level unheard of from a jazz musician. Miles started touring with keyboardists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, while drummer Tony Williams left to form a short lived group with John McLaughlin called Lifetime. This new style was a combination of rock music’s electric volume with Jazz’s virtuosity of musicianship, and was referred to as Jazz-Rock or Fusion. Miles had now not only left all the jazz “rules” behind, playing acoustically with organized chord changes, but he had left most of his original audience of the fifties and sixties behind as well. Hard funk’s influence from James Brown and Sly Stone was also being added to Miles’ new brew and he now played rock venues and sold more records than at any other time in his career. This new fusion of jazz, rock, and funk was beginning to become quite popular. Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul formed a group called Weather Report, and their success was rivaled by John McLaughlin’s new Mahavishnu Orchestra. Chick Corea founded another fusion band titled Return to Forever, and jazz guitarist Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House was also an early jazz-rock favorite. Herbie Hancock had left Miles by the early 70’s and in 1973 his new Headhunters group outsold them all with his funk fueled version of the fusion sound. Miles released Jack Johnson (1971) and then On The Corner, showing on the latter release that he was still in touch with “the street’s” need for funk. Big Fun and Get Up With It were next, both collecting various studio experiments from the 1969 to 1974 period. Tabla and sitar were now adding a world music feel to some of his new tracks, with the influence of modern classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen affecting others. This fusion of many different styles of music with its increasing popularity was being looked at as something to be reckoned with, more than just the latest record company induced fad. Listeners were amazed at the advanced technique that these musicians displayed. Miles forged ahead at an unrelenting pace, recording such dark, intense live albums as Pangaea and Agharta that mirrored his own increasing drug usage and personal problems.

Apollo 17 was the final moon mission in December of 1972, and the Apollo program itself finally ended in 1975. The space program that had until recently been looked at with such necessity and pride by its citizens, now only caused a yawn. Been there, done that. The technological advances that caused such a sensation only a few years before now were looked at as an unnecessary expense. People were out of work and going hungry, who cares about moon rocks? By 1975 fusion was also starting to run its course, and was getting slammed for its cold, unfeeling technical virtuosity. Showing off dazzling technique had been looked at as a welcome departure from basic three chord rock and roll earlier in the decade, now it was becoming a liability in the fickle world of youthful musical tastes. Miles was physically exhausted from the last six years of touring and recording, he decided it was time to pack up his gear and head home to New York. He stopped playing music in July of 1975 and he wouldn’t perform again until 1981. When he returned it was a different world. The record labels had found out how to make money from television, the MTV generation was more interested in watching videos than actually listening to the music. Davis wasn’t even trying to be a trailblazer with his new band; he simply improvised on the melodies that interested him, and worked to get his rusty lip back in shape. I saw Miles live half a dozen times in the ‘80’s, and near the end of his career my favorite tune of the evening was always his instrumental ballad treatment of Cyndi Lauper’s hit Time After Time. The powerful hurricane force winds his bands generated in the seventies had dissipated long ago. He had some decent releases in the eighties (Amandla, Aura), but in my opinion there was nothing that we couldn’t live without. It is painful to write that about such a great musician. Miles may not have known it at the time, but he would never again help blaze a new path in music.

Some critics who only enjoyed traditional sounding jazz have blasted the seventies as a waste of time for listening to Miles Davis. They claimed he was just out to make a quick buck off the rock crowd, but what they forgot was that Miles whole career since the forties was always about change, and taking chances. Modern man has long looked at outer space as the final frontier in exploration, for Miles Davis and his jazz rock followers – the fusion era will be regarded as his last great musical journey.

Where Did All the Fusion Boys Go?

Herbie Hancock: 69 years old with numerous Grammies under his belt. Still experimenting with various styles of music; last release was a collection of Joni Mitchell songs.
Wayne Shorter: 76 years old, Weather Report broke up in 1986. Shorter is still highly regarded as a saxophonist and has been playing in a more traditional jazz style for years.
Tony Williams: Died in 1997 at age 51- a tremendous percussionist who is sorely missed.
Joe Zawinul: Died in 2007 at 75 years of age. After Weather Report he continued to lead a jazz/world music fusion style group.
Keith Jarrett: 64 years old, master solo piano improviser who is part of a long running acoustic jazz trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.
Chick Corea: 68 years old, still plays jazz on acoustic and electric keyboards. 2008 saw a Return to Forever reunion tour that was highly regarded.
John McLaughlin: 67 years old, after the original Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded in 1976 he concentrated on his Indian/classical group Shakti. Now plays in a variety of jazz styles.
Miles Davis: Died September 28, 1991 at age 65. Legendary trumpeter who has played and been a major innovator in a variety of styles; Be – bop, Cool jazz, Hard bop, Third stream (with Gil Evans) and Fusion. His 1959 record Kind of Blue is arguably still the greatest jazz record of all time.

Recommended Listening
Weather Report – Mysterious Traveler
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Visions of the Emerald Beyond
Return to Forever – Where Have I Known You Before
Billy Cobham – Spectrum
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew, Big Fun, Get up With It, Pangaea

Jim Webb


Maude Lange said...

Attention must be paid to Pete Cosey - Miles' post-McLaughlin guitarist, who took out-there to a whole new level.

Any music that pisses off so many people (including the jazz cognoscenti) must have something going for it.

Anonymous said...

Maude -
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that Pete Cosey's guitar work was an important part of Miles' Band from '73 to '75. My omission of his name was more because this was a general Miles / Fusion overview than a detailed history. I would have liked to see Cosey's Miles/Tribute band, are they still occasionally playing ?


Site Meter