Black Beauty: Live at Fillmore West

Published September 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

IF the jazz world had an equivalent of Newsweek's "Conventional
Wisdom" column, the funk-laden and electrified 1970s work of the great trumpeter and innovator Miles Davis would have long ago received a giant
southward-pointing arrow. The chorus of criticism, which has included luminaries like Wynton Marsalis and noted jazz critic Stanley Crouch (who dismissed the trumpeter's post-1969 work as being "progressively trendy and dismal"), has loudly proclaimed Davis' use of electric instruments and funk and rock rhythms during this period a betrayal and a commercial sellout.

Don't believe it. With Sony/Legacy's long-overdue reissuing of five live double CDs from this period (several more remain in the vaults) --
"Black Beauty: Live at Fillmore West," "Davis at Fillmore" (both 1970), "Live/Evil" (1971), "In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall" (1972) and "Dark Magus" (1974) -- several myths about this period of Davis' development finally stand ready to be dispelled.

For starters, anyone who thinks that Davis was getting commercial on these albums probably hasn't heard the music. Each album (with the notable exception of "Live/Evil," which mixes live and studio tracks) contains two discs of roughly 45 minutes of unbroken music -- hardly the stuff radio
programmers dream of. And the music is funky, to be sure, but it's a far cry from James Brown's tight three-minute workouts or Sly Stone's layered
sing-alongs. It's as dense and texturally complex as it is dark and unsettling.

Critics also complained that Davis' trumpet playing wasn't what it used to be, that he was taking a back seat to his sidemen while hiding behind walls of electrified noise and wah-wah pedals. But the flurries of notes unleashed on "It's About That Time," from "Davis At Fillmore," are as technically impressive as anything he had recorded; his tone on the slower passages of "Live/Evil" is as rich as the one that matched a full orchestra on the classic "Sketches of Spain"; and while his playing on "Dark Magus" and "In Concert" is more restrained, he still somehow guides the entire band with a few notes from his horn.

Despite critics' claims that the music was too loose and improvisational, the music had -- in its own way -- as much structure and form as most of Davis' previous work. The vastly different readings of "Directions" on "At Fillmore" and "Black Beauty" both bear the same strong opening theme before veering in different directions; the version of "Honky Tonk" on "In Concert" contrasts with the tighter, more bluesy reading on 1974's (inexplicably) still-unreleased "Get Up With It" in the same way that the original version of "So What" from 1959's "Kind of Blue" compared to the hyper-fast version on 1964's "Four and More" concert album.

In keeping also with Davis' evolution, the progression from each recording to the next is astonishing. "At Fillmore" and "Black Beauty," recorded just a few months apart in 1970, bear the most similarity, with "At Fillmore" being perhaps a bit tighter and less meandering. Both albums show Davis beginning to flirt with funk rhythms and tossing out more structured song forms in favor of theme-based improvisation.

"Live/Evil," the bulk of which was recorded just six months after "At Fillmore," signals a sea change right from the bombastic opening funk vamp. A mix of live and studio tracks, the band here sustains loud, hypnotic grooves for unprecedented periods of time, mainly due to the addition of funk bassist Michael Henderson (a veteran of Stevie Wonder's band who was plucked from Aretha Franklin's group at the time) and guitarist John McLaughlin, who justifies his guitar-god rep with several distorted, searing solos. "In Concert" ups the ante, with the addition of several percussionists giving the music a dense, polyrhythmic feel that lends a shifting and
complicated texture to repeating riffs on "Theme From Jack Johnson" and "Rated X."

But it's "Dark Magus" that threatens to explode. With the help of three electric guitarists, including the underrated Pete Cosey (who answers the question of what Jimi Hendrix would have sounded like had his rumored collaboration with Davis ever taken place), the music achieves a kind of controlled catharsis, with Davis' trumpet somehow leading the steamrolling group from one mood and texture to the next. Of all the reissues, "Dark Magus" is the darkest, funkiest and most futuristic album -- perhaps the reason why it was never released in the U.S. in the first place.

One of the most striking things about the reissues is how up-to-date they sound, despite the fact they were recorded almost 25 years ago. About 10 minutes into "Moja," from "Dark Magus," there's a groove that any jungle or drum 'n' bass DJ would love to claim. And throughout all of "Live/Evil," the band burns with a power and ferocity that would shame most of today's rock bands.

When critics complained that the '70s incarnation of Miles Davis wasn't the "same old Davis" they knew and loved, they were only half right. This was indeed a brand new Davis, and on the surface at least, the music on any of these albums was light years from previous Davis classics like "Kind of Blue" or "E.S.P." But the irony was that the "same old Davis" was always an innovator who had made his name taking his music in new directions. "Kind of Blue" was a bold leap toward a more modal and less chord-based harmonic structure, and the classic mid-'60s quintet was at first startling in its rhythmic abstraction and in the way it pushed and pulled at the traditional jazz song form. If the music heard on "At Fillmore" is more radically different from what preceded it than "Kind of Blue" was from, say, 1950s "Birth of the Cool" (it was), that was only because the surrounding music world had changed more radically as well. Blame the electric guitar, the Beatles, psychedelia or louder amplifiers, but the fact remains that in this sense, Davis was only doing what he had always done: reaching outside his immediate musical environment for new inspiration. The '70s wasn't the first time of Davis' long career that he had been derided by critics for meandering aimlessly, even while he swore he was onto something. And when the dust settles from these and the rest of the hopefully forthcoming reissues from that period, it won't be the first time that those same critics will be honor-bound to report that Davis was right.

By Ezra Gale

Ezra Gale is a freelance writer and musician in San Francisco.


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