Miles Davis was never one to embrace the predictable. When many of his peers were turning to orchestrated pop-jazz and embellishing the era’s AM radio hits, he was embracing rock and roll – not just the sound, but moreover, the spirit – with the vivacity of a younger man. Davis was 44 when he stepped onstage at Manhattan’s Fillmore East for the series of concerts recently issued in full for the very first time as the third volume of his Bootleg Series. The title, Miles at the Fillmore – Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, might be a bit unwieldy, but within its four discs there’s a striking, angular beauty.
This isn’t easily digestible music. Much of it is ferocious and frenzied, with a rock pulse underpinning the uninhibited, unpredictable improvisations of Davis and his six cohorts. The sets performed by the great trumpeter on June 17-20, 1970 with Steve Grossman (tenor and soprano saxophones), Chick Corea (electric piano), Keith Jarrett (organ, tambourine), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums) and Airto Moreira (percussion, flute) were exceedingly light on melody and traditional harmony, and heavy on sonic exploration. When preparing the original 2-LP set Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East in 1970, Davis’ longtime producer Teo Macero boiled down each of the four nights’ performances into one sound collage. The four “suites” were then each placed on one side of vinyl. This deluxe 4-CD package presents the four evenings in full, plus bonus tracks culled from the April 11 performances at sister venue The Fillmore West. In total, there’s roughly 100 minutes of never-before-released music from Wednesday through Saturday, with additional 35 or so minutes from the San Francisco show.
The core of Davis’ sets remained the same each evening. Joe Zawinul’s funky “Directions” (first recorded by Davis in the studio in November 1968, and played every night from 1969-1971, but not issued on record until 1980) kicked off the proceedings, followed by “The Mask,” a new composition that Davis recorded two weeks before the Fillmore East shows near the end of the Jack Johnson sessions. “It’s About That Time” from 1969’s In a Silent Way followed, and then the title track of the just-released Bitches Brew. The only other piece performed every night was the brief, inevitable closer, “The Theme.” While those five were the only songs played at the opening Wednesday show, Davis and his remarkable band spiced up each of the following sets. Bitches’ “Spanish Key” appeared as a rare encore on Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, a surprising return to the standard repertoire with “I Fall in Love Too Easily” led into former Davis saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary.” (On Bitches Brew, “Sanctuary” begins with Davis and Corea improvising on the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne tune before stating Shorter’s theme.) Saturday’s packed set retained “Fall in Love” and “Sanctuary” but also added the oddly-named “Willie Nelson,” first played by Davis during the Jack Johnson sessions.
The artist who once said he took inspiration from Frank Sinatra in learning how to “sing” on his trumpet was, at the Fillmore, taking his cues from the amped-up spirit and fire of Jimi Hendrix – albeit with even less adherence to convention. The electricity onstage, both literally and figuratively, couldn’t have happened without a fully committed band behind the leader, however. The Fillmore East recordings are perhaps most significant because both Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea played in the group together for only a three month-period, and their rare work together is very nearly the engine that propels the music forward. Jarrett and Corea’s electric piano and organ, respectively, play with a sharp, searing intensity. Their sounds are as forceful and as prominent as an electric guitar on a “rock” recording might be. In fact, they take on the characteristics of the electric guitar as they duel and shred, with Jarrett using plenty of wah-wah, and Corea pushing the limits of the Fender Rhodes. The teamwork of Corea and Jarrett could be interpreted as one-upmanship, so in synch are the two players as they swirl around one another, intersecting and engaging and challenging each other.
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The loose, free-form nature of the septet’s music lent itself to the unorthodox slice-and-dice approach used on the original LP, but this is the full and unexpurgated “real deal.”As was his wont, Davis flowed freely from one “song” to the next each night, leaving out any kind of pause and creating one extended suite of exhilaratingly clattering, jaggedly unexpected music. Over the course of the four evenings, the sounds were of a decidedly exploratory nature, with the four core songs adopting very different colors each time out. Davis led the charge with his brassy and bold notes on the set-opening “Directions,” whether presiding over the almost primitive, tribal breakdown of distortion on Wednesday night or locking into the killer groove on Thursday. Friday’s “Directions” is the longest performance of the tune, but the band interplay might be the tightest and the overall performance the most exciting. The statements of the “Directions” theme (edited out of the original LP) recur in brief snatches, bringing a note of welcome familiarity to a set that’s exceedingly light on traditional notions of melody.
The hypnotic, hauntingly spacey “The Mask” gave Davis a chance each night to deliver his unmistakably bluesy notes, with DeJohnette’s drums particularly driving on Wednesday’s stellar rendition. That evening, Davis’ trumpet emerges near the end of the 11-minute performance, cutting through the disquieting bass and percussion in quiet stabs, segueing into the most dynamic performance all week of “It’s About That Time.” There’s the sense of Davis and his singular tone restoring order from time to time in these deliciously wild, funky explorations. The dramatic, thunderous “Bitches Brew” changed each night, too, with Airto adding color and atmosphere on Thursday’s abrasive yet powerfully tight rendering; Grossman’s virtuosic soprano saxophone stands out on Friday’s recording of this heady “Brew.”
Thursday’s rare encore of “Spanish Key” brings on a boisterous jam with Corea and Jarrett swirling on the keys, Grossman lending blues licks on his tenor sax, Holland nailing the pulse, DeJohnette and Moreira driving the rhythm and Davis fiercely and fearlessly leading the charge. The brief “I Fall in Love Too Easily”/”Sanctuary” of Friday and Saturday’s sets blend seamlessly. “Willie Nelson” was only played on Saturday, with Grossman offering another slinky and powerful soprano performance.
Three Fillmore West tracks (two on Disc 1 and one on Disc 3) are welcome bonuses, even if the sound quality isn’t nearly as pristine as of the New York shows. Wayne Shorter’s “Paraphernalia” and “Footprints” were culled from Miles in the Sky (Columbia, 1968) and Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966) respectively, while “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” would appear on Bitches Brew.In terms of sheer sound and attitude, the dark lurch of the torrid “Voodoo” might be the most truly rock-like track in this box set, with its ominous vamps and sinister solos.
Miles at the Fillmore has been afforded a thick, colorful and beautifully designed digipak presentation stuffed with a booklet of liner notes by co-producer Michael Cuscuna and a poster. One side of the poster presents a number of period articles and memorabilia including a letter from Clive Davis to Fillmore owner Bill Graham praising Miles for “really breaking out of his jazz bag.” Cuscuna’s exemplary notes place the recordings in the context of both Davis’ career and the world at large. Mark Wilder has remastered with rather stunning clarity. Of course, all told, Davis never really broke out of his “jazz bag.” Instead, he challenged the limits of jazz and molded the genre to suit his own musical directions. The otherworldly sounds captured on Miles at the Fillmore – whether jazz, rock, rock-jazz or something else entirely – just might blow your mind.