The Miles Davis beat goes on.
In its seemingly nonstop program of Davis releases, Columbia has just completed issuing all the CDs included in last year's Davis/Gil Evans boxed set as individual recordings. Two weeks ago, the company issued 28 classic Davis albums in Japanese import editions. And sometime later this year, a boxed set of the complete Davis quintet recordings from the '60s will be released.
But now, we have this collection of 10 CDs chronicling the period from 1970 through 1974, issued as individual, two-CD releases. Two of the albums--"Black Beauty" and "Dark Magus"--were initially produced for Japan and previously have been available in the United States only as imports. All have been remastered with 20-bit technology, and repackaged as limited-edition digipaks. New liner notes written by saxophonists David Liebman and Gary Bartz, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Chick Corea offer some firsthand descriptions of the albums upon which they played.
The interval covered by the performances stretches from April 1970, the month in which Davis' powerful "Bitches Brew" recording was released, to March 1974, shortly before Davis took a seven-year hiatus from playing. It was a period in which Davis was clearly in transition, his fertile musical mind moving past the song-and-variations aspects of his earlier work into a far less structured, more freely improvisatory kind of music.
It also was a period in which Davis was reacting to what was happening in popular music. Well aware of the work of performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stewart (of Sly & the Family Stone), cognizant of the growing effect that rock musicians were having upon American society, Davis was eager to find a way to find his own impact point.
He made that effort via what was--even in retrospect--a startling transformation into electronic music (and one that still bothers fans who believe that the true Davis was the Davis of the '40s, '50s and '60s). That transformation is clearly spelled out in these albums.
"Black Beauty" and "Live at the Fillmore," recorded two months apart in mid-1970, were performed by bands that included pianists Corea and Keith Jarrett (who engage in a memorable keyboard battle on the "Fillmore East" program), bassist Dave Holland and drummer DeJohnette. The textures have an almost pointillistic quality, with bits and pieces of sounds darting in and out of the overall texture, and Davis' trumpet skimming through the mix. "Live-Evil," an uneven combination of live and studio tracks assembled by producer Teo Macero, also features keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, saxophonists Bartz and Wayne Shorter, woodwind player Bennie Maupin and drummer Billy Cobham. Guitarist John McLaughlin is present as a guest soloist.
Although a gradual tendency toward repetitious, funk-driven rhythms begins to emerge over the course of these three ("Live-Evil" was assembled from music recorded in 1969 and 1970), the presence of so many first-rate jazz musicians tends to keep the music within range of the jazz orbit.
But with the "Philharmonic" and "Dark Magus" albums, Davis moved more deeply into pounding funk rhythms and fairly static sound textures. Playing trumpet through a wah-wah effects controller on the former album, and not playing much at all on the "Dark Magus" (which was recorded at Carnegie Hall), Davis was not in particularly exceptional form on either. And, with tablas, electric sitar and multiple guitars in the lineup, the music verges--sometimes lurches--toward the arena of Hendrix, Stewart and James Brown.
Columbia has released these albums, according to Seth Rothstein, Columbia's director of jazz marketing, in an effort to expand the audience for Davis' music.
"It seems appropriate now," says Rothstein, "with the revival interest in the '70s that's taking place. So we're doing some intensive marketing of the albums in college and university areas. We feel that hearing these albums, which they can connect with Hendrix . . . , might open a path for younger listeners to eventually discover all of Miles' music."
Marketing considerations aside, the first three albums include a great deal of music--despite the inevitable live performance moments in which not very much is happening--which underscores Davis' continually probing creative curiosity. The final two albums, however, have slim musical interest and little of Davis' own playing. Their principal value, as Rothstein suggests, may be their potential for attracting a younger generation of listeners to the other, more timeless music in the Davis lexicon.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).