Running the Voodoo Down – In search of real music in early 2013

Better late than never.  An official live set from Miles Davis’ ‘lost band’

“I took the band out on the road; Wayne, Dave, Chick, and Jack DeJohnette were now my working band. Man, I wish this band had been recorded live because it was really a bad motherfucker. I think Chick Corea and a few other people recorded some of our performances live, but Columbia missed out on the whole fucking thing.”- Miles Davis to Quincy Troupe in Miles, the autobiography

Miles Davis Quintet – Live in Europe 1969

The Bootleg Series Vol.2

No, I wasn’t one of those people who maxed out their credit cards in an end-time fling after tearfully contacting old friends and making preparations for the afterlife as the Mayan clock ran down to its final syllables, but I still think something weird is afoot and that the world has changed a lot while we’ve been otherwise occupied.

Don’t worry. I won’t bore you by talking about global warming, or the banking system, or the ways that laws have been rewritten to favor corporations and governments over individuals.  I’ll keep it strictly to music.  So, let’s take a look at how the music that’s been chosen for us to listen to has changed over the past few decades –

And, I’m not talking about roots music, true indie music, or the kind of songs you’ll hear on co-operative or college radio stations.  I’m thinking about music that’s released on mainstream labels.  That’s what’s really changed.  I’m trying to remember the last time I bought a CD by a new artist on a major label, and I’m struggling to come up with anything at all.  Of course, like a lot of people of my generation, I continue to buy new music from artists like Neil Young or Bob Dylan who have been on big labels since I was a little kid.  But, what is missing is great new CDS by younger artists on major labels that are the equal of what we had access to in the past.  Sure, there are a few artists who slip through the cracks and get a big break and are deserving of the attention they get, but I just can’t think of anyone right now.

What got me started on this was the new Miles Davis Quintet – Live in Europe in 1969 3 CD/DVD box set that  Sony Legacy just sent to me.  As a record of the ‘Bitches Brew’ tour, it is unparalleled. And before you groan and think ‘shit, is this guy ever living in the past’, the thing that interests me is that when Miles Davis recorded ‘Bitches Brew’ – an album that is still one of the fiercest and most innovative records in the history of jazz or any music for that matter – it was released on a major label.  It wasn’t a vanity project that record company executives expected to be heard by no more than a few thousand discerning music fans; it was a big release by a popular and critically acclaimed artist that sold well and was widely distributed. I can still remember being intrigued by the album cover when I first saw it up on the wall at the suburban record store near the house where I grew up.

If there still were neighborhood record stores, it probably wouldn’t even be stocked today.

So, what’s happened?  It’s old news to say that we live in a time of incredible access in which we have the ability to source whatever idiosyncratic pleasures we’re in search of by simply clicking a few keys on the computer.  But, I wonder if we’re better off. Sometimes it seems as if we’ve lost a lot more than we’ve gained by substituting a diverse mainstream for targeted, individual, patterns of consumption that guide us to things we ‘like.’  Here’s my problem: when I was a kid, I could go to a record store that stocked only major label titles and listen to Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, The Residents and the Clash without having to do any serious detective work or even get on a bus.  For all the diss-ing of the mainstream that we may all have done over the years, when I think back on it, a lot of the music that big labels like Warner or Sony took risks on and sent all over the world in huge quantities was groundbreaking and ferocious.  When was the last time you could say that about any new music marketed and distributed by any of the few majors still in operation?

Since Miles Davis’ death in 1991, a huge cottage industry of box sets, extended editions and live CDs has continued to gain momentum. It’s interesting to think about why they’re so popular.  Are Davis’ fans simply obsessive or does issuing this previously unreleased music from such an iconic artist serve primarily to fill a void that hasn’t yet been filled by a contemporary artist?  Like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead – the only artists who come to mind that come anywhere close to having the same amount of archival material released each year – Miles Davis was an extremely prolific artist at various points of his career, and these live sets from 1969 are far from bottom of the barrel stuff – which in some ways complicates the issue. ‘Bitches Brew’ remains one of the most popular and challenging releases in Davis’ catalogue and it’s no wonder that live sets and extended editions from this period of his career are in such high demand.  The 40th anniversary extended edition of ‘Bitches Brew’ went a long way towards illuminating what was on Davis’ mind during the recording of this game changing album, and an earlier two CD set ‘Live at the Fillmore East March 7, 1970’ featured much of the same material as can be found on this new release.

There may not be a lot in this new set that hardcore fans haven’t collected over the years, but for the rest of us the chance to hear high quality recordings from Davis’ ‘lost band’ - featuring Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor saxes, Chick Corea on keyboards, Dave Holland on upright bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums - is reason enough to run out and buy this bargain priced set.   It’s a thrill that never gets old to hear Miles’ musicians – many who were young and at the outset of their careers – tackle this very challenging and open-ended material when it was first new in the summer and fall of 1969.  While some of these musicians played on ‘Bitches Brew’ as well as ‘In A Silent Way’ and ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’, they never reconvened as a quintet in the studio to record without the presence of other musicians.

Many box sets like this one feature DVDs as a kind of afterthought.  It has often been the case that video of such important performances were done on the fly or for local television and are more valuable as historic documents than films in their own right.  Happily this isn’t true here and the multi-camera colour DVD that’s included here does a great job of capturing the interplay between the band members at the Berlin concert on November 7, 1969.

I don’t know how many versions of ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ or ‘Directions’ I’ve heard over the years, but listening through these live sets and hearing the melodies bend and solos evolve in real time as if Davis and his band are encountering these compositions for the first time again is the kind of experience that has become far too rare in modern music.  Still, even the casual Miles Davis fan will find a lot to be enthralled with on ‘Live in Europe 1969.’  From beginning to end, the music is absolutely fearless.  There are moments where what they’re playing sounds rudderless, directionless and completely unhinged – could Jack DeJohnette pound any harder than he does on ‘Directions’ and still have anything left of his kit? At other times, there is a subtlety in the complexity and interplay that suggests a rigorous discipline that few players could ever lay claim to.  The commitment is frightening to hear as every note the band offers shimmers with explosive intensity. Creation and destruction run neck in neck, beauty and ugliness breathe down each other’s backs.  On tracks like ‘’Round Midnight’ from the Antibes concert, melodic structures sound as if they’ve been disassembled on the spot, leaving the musicians without an anchor, and often – as in the thrilling ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ from the second Antibes concert, the listener can be forgiven for wondering how the musicians will ever pick up the pieces and find their way home.

While I’ve never been the kind of completist that one finds on the fringes of Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan fandom – where one has to have every version of every song from every show of a tour – I could begin to understand where such obsessions come from as I continued to listen through the different concerts collected on this box set.  As has often been said of the Dead’s performances, you never heard the same show twice and this is certainly true of Davis’ approach in 1969.  Each composition offered a stepping off point with certain touchstones and guide posts, but the way the band navigated its way through them every night is where the story at the heart of this music lies.

This music has unsettled me, but like a true addict, I keep going back for just one more listen.  The absolute intensity and commitment, the full on attacks that separate the weak from the strong, the wheat from the chaff, and the enthusiastic reception from Davis’ audiences haunt me. It’s beautiful in its anger and ugliness, and I’m glad that Legacy put the set out, yet it still kind of depresses me.  Because no matter how good or well curated such archival sets are, they often serve to illuminate just how mediocre most of today’s music is. When I consider the kind of music that people were willing to grapple with back then compared to what passes for the cutting edge today, I realize what pussies we’ve all become.  There simply aren’t any prominent artists taking these kinds of risks today.  Of course, there are new sounds, technologies, approaches to and genres of music, and there must be artists out there who are bound to burst our bubbles and makes us rethink everything again.  But, it isn’t going to be easy for them in today’s climate, and until they come along, music doesn’t get any better than it was when Miles turned it all upside down in 1969.

By Douglas Heselgrave

This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.ca 

Views: 262

Tags: bobdylan, dougheselgrave, gratefuldead, milesdavis

Comment by Rudyjeep on January 30, 2013 at 5:27am

Interesting piece Doug - thanks for posting.  One thing though.....even though this album features quite a few cuts from "Bitches Brew", the recording predates the release of the album.  It was recorded after the release of "In a Silent Way" but only includes one cut from that album.    

Comment by Matthew Wester on February 1, 2013 at 8:16am

I am like-minded with you about the difference between music today and 40 years ago, Doug, so its not a new idea to me.  But even so, I've lately been even more fascinated and astounded than I ever have been by how much ferocious, ground-breaking and intense music was being made in the worlds of rock and jazz in a very short time period, 1969-1970.  Name-dropping bands that everyone knows about will impress nobody, but I encourage you to revisit recordings of 1969 and 1970 live performances of bands like The Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac and The Allman Brothers.  I know many would not hold those blues based rock bands at the same level of esteem as Miles, but if you forget about that intellectual stuff and listen to the music with an open mind, you might be impressed.

I know Bitches Brew well, but I've never been a huge Miles collector.  I think I need to get this record as yet another piece of evidence to the incredible artistic maelstrom of brilliance that was happening in that short time period. Having a high quality DVD of a performance will be a true treasure.  There just ain't gonna be music this good for a long long time, if ever.  I definitely know what you mean about it illuminating how mediocre and worse most current music is by comparison.  Thank God we have this live stuff recorded.

Grateful Dead - Fillmore West 1969

Fleetwood Mac - Live in Boston 1970

Allman Brothers -   The Fillmore Concerts

Comment by Bucky O'Hare on February 15, 2013 at 11:30am

I like the way you frame this issue of creative production in the modern major label landscape.  As an avid jazz freak and a blues musican I am always thinking about the tension between pop music and more underground types of music.  I had never really thought in the clear terms you presented about how dareing some of the major labelly funded music was in the late 60's and early 70's.  Zappa, the Greatful Dead, the Allmun Bros and fusion bands like Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were big label acts.  There was certainly syrupy pop music which I'm sorry I also think has it's place, but there was real innovation and boundery pushing going on.  Even the Beatles, arguably the most successful rock band of all time, were constantly trying to break down barriers.

There is nothing like this now.  I was pretty depressed while watching the Grammy's the other night.  I know I'm opening myself up to criticism but I like Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars and fun.  I think they are great pop music just like Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and Prince were or like many others throughout popular music.  But come on is the most cutting edge thinge we are going to have in popular music be Frank Ocean singing a terrible song about Forret Gump?

Thanks again for the post and the perspective. 

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.