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Big Weird Fun 

Funked up, bumming you out and completely down: Electric Miles still charged for days

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
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Some people fear the electric music Miles Davis made in the 1970s. Jazz fans think of it as their hero’s Vietnam, melody and tone sacrificed in the electric mud; young rockers fear it’s all wanking they won’t understand; and normal folks wonder why they’d listen to anyone do anything for 32 minutes. But there are better reasons to be afraid. In 1972, Miles Davis said this: “I had begun to realize that some of the things Ornette Coleman had said about things being played three or four ways, independently of each other, were true because Bach had also composed that way. And it could be real funky and down. [On the Corner] was a combination of some of the concepts of Paul Buckmaster, Sly Stone, James Brown and Stockhausen. The music was about spacing, about free association of musical ideas to a core kind of rhythm and vamps of the bass line. It was with On the Corner and Big Fun that I really made an effort to get my music over to young black people.”

A fairly daunting To Do list — close to impossible, you might think. But On the Corner and Get Up With It and Big Fun (all newly remastered and reissued, Get Up With It and Big Fun for the first time in the U.S. on CD, Big Fun with extra tracks) made clear that Miles took his assignment seriously. 1969’s In a Silent Way threw open song form and track lengths, 1969’s Bitches Brew let in rock and funk, but it is on these three albums that Miles grapples fully with electricity, funk and noise.

Big Fun, drawn from sessions spanning 1969 to 1972, gets you acquainted with the major tendencies of 1970s Davis: Acoustic instruments, highlighted solos and chord changes are mostly gone; fat Fender bass lines anchor the tracks; percussion and synthesizers color and crackle; and producer Teo Macero gets nice with the razor blade on tape loops and edits. Jazz, as most folks recognize it, is history.

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Big Fun’s opener, “Great Expectations/Orange Lady,” nails it (if a 27-minute track can be said to nail anything). Imagine the vapors of In a Silent Way rising from a deep, black pond instead of hanging over a sunny country lane. Fender bassist Harvey Brooks and guitarist John McLaughlin sit on a Peter Gunn riff while Billy Cobham leans on the high-hat, something Davis wanted his drummers to do very much between 1970 and 1975. Davis stretches out a liturgical, minor-key eight-note theme and ends it each time in full unison with the band: crescendo, stop. The track eventually dubs out to long, bleeding chords and drones, the pulse vestigial. A slower melody takes over, and the whole thing mastermixes itself into a tamboura loop punctuated by Fender Rhodes and tingly bells. 2000 to 1969, all aboard.

The bonus tracks make the new Big Fun more big but not exactly more fun: “Recollection,” “Trevere,” “The Little Blue Frog” and “Yaphet,” previously available only in the Bitches Brew box set, because of their recording dates (late November 1969). They’re all in the ambient ballad bag, and “Recollection” is the best, a lovely Joe Zawinul piece played over an implied rock downbeat, Zawinul and Chick Corea on twin electric pianos, rocking a stereo massage, gently. McLaughlin and Davis pull the melody through the water past synth flotsam, as if anxiety wasn’t ever a possibility.

Anxiety is the dominant emotion in On the Corner. Miles may have been overdosing on Sly Stone’s Fresh when he recorded the album in 1972, but it didn’t make his funk ready for folks. In his autobiography, Miles claims that because Columbia pushed On the Corner as a jazz record and not as an R&B album, it failed to reach the kids. “Watching the way [Herbie Hancock’s] Head Hunters sold just pissed me off even more.” These comments lead me to believe that Miles a) never spoke to an actual teenager and b) never listened to the Head Hunters. The sprightly, clean funk of Hancock’s “Chameleon” and the kicks-seeking exigencies of youth do not orbit the same sun as On the Corner, this big painted gourd full of sharp, rattling ideas.

The album, perversely, opens with the most nervous music, a suite of four pieces that begins with “On the Corner” and ends with “Vote for Miles.” Macero is hot on the switcher, and it all seems to be going through a wah pedal. Everything sways, as if nobody can decide whether to start. It’s an amazing sound, like four distinct bands set up on a city block, playing the same song, listening to each other over the phone while sound bleeds through open windows. Macero’s edits and tape loops draw attention to the material nature of the tape, breaking the illusion that you’re hearing what people “actually” played. This roughs up the edges of your passive listening pleasure, like a splash of rubbing alcohol.

With “Black Satin,” On the Corner kicks in. It’s the catchiest tune on any of these albums, whether you’re following Michael Henderson’s 4,000-lb. bass line or Miles’ perfect nugget. Overdubbing allowed Davis and Macero to add a great series of handclaps that move in and out of time with the track. The nasty bass-and-drum pattern holds for the remainder of the album, “One and One” and “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X.” The high-hats pile up like they’ve been left to multiply without supervision, unknown things squeal, and the sound reaches a near-free sprawl of noise as the groove sinks deeper in. Miles wanted Let’s Get It On, and he got White Light/White Heat.

Get Up With It (recorded between 1970 and 1974) brings everything into relief through extremes. If you like what Miles is after on these records, then it’s the best because it’s the most. The first track is an audacious 32-minute track, a dirgelike sprawl called “He Loved Him Madly,” recorded soon after Duke Ellington’s death. The stars here are a trio of guitars (Pete Cosey, Dominique Gaumont and Reggie Lucas) that work around Dave Liebman’s flute. Davis moves deliberately through the track, making his two or three notes matter. “Maiysha” bears some trace of Miles’ then-recent trip to Brazil, though it ends up mostly pop lite. But: 10 minutes in, there’s a funky breakdown so good it makes Pete Cosey feel like playing the theremin, which he does by playing his guitar. Pete Cosey should be paying taxes on another planet. One day, we will catch up to Pete Cosey.

Recorded in 1970, “Honky Tonk” is an implication of funk, its shadow entering the room. The vamp is solid gold: Herbie Hancock needles the clavinet and Keith Jarrett drops three big, distorted Fender Rhodes chords, slowly. It is what a vamp should be, and this music is half vamps. The cuica squeaks, John McLaughlin skronks (when he’s not doing a slow Chuck Berry) and stuff goes plink. When he enters, Miles is very open, not the cloaked presence he makes himself later. “Rated X” is the song that Bill Laswell’s spent a lifetime trying to re-create. The center is two bass notes, locked in a thrash-metal loop. Miles sits on an organ drone, tablas go haywire and FREEZE! Teo hits the mute button to usher in some fucked electric sitar. Ay, it’s freaky and charged, and, ay, why does it end after seven minutes?

“Calypso Frelimo” is the ur-bubbler. Al Foster bubbles on his toms, Mtume bubbles on hand drums, and Miles stabs and tears on trumpet when he’s not playing the dopey carnivalesque organ figure that stands as the only repeated melodic information in the track. “Mtume” and “Billy Preston” sound like yet another new style, a furious, inward Afro-funk that crackles. Pete Cosey is in there, but not loud enough.

These albums are sacred cows, big fat turds, diaries of extreme trips, multitrack tape landmarks, very deep, not for everyone, perfect for the whole family, European art-funk, black as coal. They’re also music, but they are equally impressive as evidence of somebody going after something way off the map. Miles listened to recordings hard enough to hear music beyond the live event, a full sound world that he needed a band to act out. Miles used opposites to frame that world, playing the heaviness of Michael Henderson’s street bass lines against the almost-there clouds of trumpet and percussion, the robot intrusions of editing against the stretches of very human improvisation.

Miles’ biggest triumph here may simply be the way he got these bands to sound; their sonic style is as instantly identifiable and catchy as “You Really Got Me.” Miles got virtuoso players to play nonvirtuoso music, which is why it doesn’t sound like “fusion,” what with its heroism and fireworks. It would be silly to conceal the fact that much of this music is desultory, wandering and off-the-cuff. But I never ever get tired of it.

 

All quotes are from Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe (Simon and Schuster, 1989).

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