MILES DAVIS Kind Of Blue (Columbia)

MILES DAVIS Sketches Of Spain (Columbia)

MILES DAVIS Nefertiti (Columbia)

MILES DAVIS On The Corner (Columbia)

"Kind Of Blue" has become the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" of jazz, in the sense that they're both likely to triumph when discussion turns to acknowledging the ultimate in their respective genres. And whilst debate may rage ever onward about whether they really deserve their 'best ever' tags, there can be no doubt that, love them or loathe them, both represent significant milestones in the development of twentieth century popular music.

"Kind Of Blue" was recorded in 1959, the first (I think) Miles album to feature John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. According to the sleevenotes penned by pianist Bill Evans, "Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a "take"". So that's what "Kind Of Blue" is: about as close to a document of spontaneous musical creation as recorded music can hope to get, and perhaps their lies the root of its genius (in marked contrast, come to think of it, to "Sgt. Pepper...", an album whose fame revolves mainly around the fact that it was as far away from spontaneous musical creation as it was possible to journey in 1967).

The most famous track here is undoubtedly "So What", by extension probably the most famous track in the entirety of Miles' extensive catalogue. But each of the five tunes here aspire to their own kinds of individual perfection, "Flamenco Sketches" in particular still offering up previously undiscovered subtleties with every play, all aided by a fine American Columbia analogue pressing, albeit at the same 'wrong' speed that "Kind Of Blue" has been heard at for most of the last forty years - more recent vinyl and CD reissues correct this, and add an alternate take on "Flamenco Sketches". If the music of Miles Davis, or even jazz in general, means nothing to you, "Kind Of Blue" remains one of the most beguiling ways to become addicted.

And once you've done so you'll be blessed with huge, Zappa-like vistas of back catalogue to explore. My personal fave Miles album, from the too few that I've so far heard, admittedly, has to be "Sketches Of Spain", a 1960 orchestral opus scored by the late Gil Evans. The album's centrepiece is a stately reading of the second movement of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez": recorded at a time when some jazz musicians were forging an entire career around settings of orchestral pieces (anyone else remember Jacques Loussier's admittedly entertaining series of "Play Bach" albums?), the work of Evans and Davis nevertheless strays little from the original template, with due regard for the nightmarish complexity of Gil Evans' bewitching, mesmerising orchestrations. The filigree detailing he employs remains astonishing today, whether it be the distant rattling of castanets or the gently rolling timpani that bowl along almost inaudibly under the orchestra, or even the strange swishing sounds that seem to mark time during the arrangement's opening moments (a little reminiscent of the broom solos on Neil Young's "Unplugged" album!). And of course, atop this layer upon layer of immaculate orchestration, is Miles' trumpet playing, possibly even more scorched and desolate than even the most arid moments of "Kind Of Blue", the sort of playing that exists in a space and time way beyond mere words.

The remaining four tracks on "Sketches Of Spain" are no mere side-show attractions either, especially "Saeta", an arrangement of Andalusian religious music, and "Solea", a flamenco song of longing and loneliness. What makes this album so great is that these forms of music aren't presented with dry and dusty museum-like reverence, but enervated with Evans' living, breathing orchestrations. It's an incredibly vivid, colourful album, with Miles' trumpet playing ripping and rippling like the fluttering of a bullfighter's red rag.

The personnel listing on the back cover of "Nefertiti" reads like a who’s who of late 20th century jazz: the band on this album includes Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams, who first worked with Miles as a teenager. The music on this 1968 album is probably about as electric as acoustic jazz could get, all angular melodies and slurred, dragging rhythms. Listen to the title track and you may be drawn to the surprising conclusion that it could have blended seamlessly into Frank Zappa’s "Hot Rats" album alongside works such as "Little Umbrellas" and "It Must Be A Camel", and takes a few layers of innovatory shine off what the strangely bearded guitarist would be doing in a couple of years time.

By 1972 Miles Davis' new-found obsession with electricity had already journeyed through the ambient pastorals of "In A Silent Way" and the diseased psychedelic landscapes of "Bitches Brew" towards something else entirely. Housed in a sleeve dripping with Blaxploitation chic, "On The Corner" was Miles' answer to and extension of the funk being served up by the likes of James Brown and, especially, Sly And The Family Stone. Nominally consisting of nine tracks, the music is actually segued into four longggg jam sessions, with Davis' wah-wah trumpet lines floating atop tightly constructed, repetitive grooves from the uncredited backing musicians. It might sound frighteningly alien at first (although compared to "Bitches Brew" and "Dark Magus" it's merely a cheery afternoon stroll in the park) but the music on here is possibly the missing link between the more traditional jazz moulds Davis had been breaking for twenty years and modern day techno and hip hop. Sections of "On The Corner" were remade and remodelled on Bill Laswell's excellent "Panthalassa" remix project, but for the full strength experience these original takes can't be beaten. And the painting on the back cover just about says it all: a picture of Miles wearing a huge 'Soul' badge, and a trumpet somehow equipped with a mains lead.

MILES DAVIS Panthalassa (Columbia)

Not strictly a reissue, "Panthalassa" is, according to the blurb, a ‘modern mix translation and reconstruction in sound’ of material from the man in the green shirt’s ‘passionate and controversial "electric" period of the early 1970s’. Assembled by Material supremo Bill Laswell, such an album, featuring ‘newly restored performances and never-before-heard extended themes’ was made possible by the recording methods Davis used during this period. Taking full advantage of the possibilities offered by new developments in the recording process, his albums were frequently pieced together from extended studio jam sessions - a technique used more recently by other explorers of the ‘geography of sound’ such as Talk Talk - or, at the other extreme, created by looping and repeating sections of music to form a coherent whole. (That, legend tells, was how producer Teo Macero fashioned the "In A Silent Way" album from the two 14-minute jams Davis gave him). And if ever a reissue was destined to blow the dust off the great man’s reputation - and there’s been a lot of repackaged Miles made available recently, from CD reissues of his many early 70s live albums to the massive (and mortgage-inducingly expensive, on vinyl) box of his Gil Evans collaborations - this is the one. From the packaging - stark green and white on blue typography, reminiscent of Peter Saville’s early New Order and Joy Division sleeve designs - to the pressing (seriously chunky 180 gram discs on the limited edition (mine’s numbered 0826, though it fails to say out of how many) vinyl), "Panthalassa" is an impressive beastie to behold.

All of which would count for bo if the music it contained wasn’t any good...but of course it’s marvellous. Cherry picking from the albums "In A Silent Way", "On The Corner" and "Get Up With It" (perhaps surprisingly there’s nothing from "Bitches Brew", although when you consider that the only way that frighteningly complex "Krypton Factor" jigsaw puzzle of an album could be put together is in the form that it’s already in, maybe Laswell’s decision to avoid it doesn’t look so strange) the Material man runs the familiar up against the unheard (check out the long one-note keyboard introduction to the seamless segue of "In A Silent Way/Shhh/Peaceful/It’s About That Time" as an example), all presented with such sparklingly refurbished sonics that it shows the foggy murk of at least a decade’s worth of CD reissues in a very poor light indeed. (But then again, it would, wouldn’t it?!)

The most famous music on here must be that from the mighty "In A Silent Way", the album that invented jazz rock, for better or worse, but you also get the Shaftastic "Black Satin/What If/Agharta Prelude Dub" montage from "On The Corner", which shows Davis incorporating elements of Eastern mysticism (dig those sleighbells!) and blaxploitation soundtracks (lots of wah-wah trumpet), plus "Rated X/Billy Preston" and "He Loved Him Madly", both reconstructed from the over-long ragbag that was the "Get Up With It" album. Pretty much all of "Panthalassa"’s hour-long duration remains an astounding listen if you’re open-minded enough to float with what, potentially, can be a fairly alien music. Even Davis’ staunchest enthusiasts find his electric period a little, uh, wearing: "Panthalassa" received a well-deserved five-star review in the Daily Express, of all places, and pannings from the broadsheets, whose reviewers clearly thought amplified instrumentation was the spawn of Satan. (All together now, "Judas!"). But if you profess a liking for Hendrix at his most stratospheric, Sly And The Family Stone at their most devotional, or The Grateful Dead at their most, er, improvisational you might derive much pleasure from Miles’ electric albums, and "Panthalassa" is just about the most perfect introduction you could hope for.

MILES DAVIS/VARIOUS DJ'S Panthalassa (Columbia)

Last year's "Panthalassa" volume came about when famed producer Bill Laswell took the original session tapes that produced Miles Davis' still-awesome body of early electric albums and re-enervated them, splicing in sections of previously unheard music and looping the whole to shed welcome new light through these rarely seen windows. (One notable absentee from the project, "Bitches Brew", has just grown a huge box-set's worth of previously unreleasedness all to itself). This year's "Panthalassa" model looks like a somewhat less enticing product, the main offender being that "Various DJ's" co-credit, the various DJs in question being the vaguely (in)famous likes of King Britt & Philip Charles, Doc Scott, DJ Cam, Jamie Meyerson and DJ Krush.

So what's the angle here? Are these tracks remixed versions of the Bill Laswell remixes that appeared on the original "Panthalassa"? The absence of any source material that didn’t appear therein suggests so, but with a complete absence of sleevenote suspicions remain unconfirmed. And this time round the finished product is pressed on common-or-garden 120 gram vinyl, rather than the heavyweight 180 gram stuff of the previous instalment, which suggests a lack of pride on the part of Sony.

To the music then, which is, I'll grudgingly admit, not bad: if Sony's marketing department think that letting a few hip names loose on the Miles Davis back catalogue will turn a nation of wide-trousered twelve-year-olds into jazz aficionados I fear they're somewhat misguided, and as a way of opening out this difficult but often startling music in the same way as Bill Laswell managed most of the contributors fall at the first fence, usually by attempting to mangle it into something else - Doc Scott's "Rated X", for example, clearly would love to be Alex Reece's "Pulp Fiction" - and I'm sure that one track here (can't remember which) dumps all traces of Davis' trumpet work entirely, which seems a bit brave.

What pulls this album back from the brink, especially for anyone entranced by the original "Panthalassa" project, is Bill Laswell's Subterranean Channel Mix of "On The Corner", which fills the entirety of the fourth side: presumably incorporating great swathes of previously unreleased music, since the original "On The Corner" clocks in at less than a fifth of the duration of this shiny, refurbished example, it's the sort of perfectly paced, careful 'reconstruction and mix translation' that successfully highlights what is so great about this music - Davis' wah-wah trumpet lines belching over a repetitive funk groove that's equal parts Sly And The Family Stone and Neu! (and loads of extra points for the astonishing bass work - by whom I don't know - on this track). Fabulous -it's unfortunate that all the other contributions lag so obviously far behind.

MILES DAVIS QUINTET Miles Smiles (Columbia)

Highly praised by all my reference books, I can't warm to the uncharacteristically sunnily titled "Miles Smiles". Recorded with the same line-up as the later "Nefertiti" (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), this 1967 release seems to find Davis wringing the last drops of inspiration from the acoustic quintet format. It sounds like he's itching for electricity to hit jazz so he can transform all this abstract, angular noodling into something connected. The music here is immaculately performed, of course, but it verges on the mathematical at times, the sound of a band tinkering with theory rather than playing from the heart and soul. There are moments, of course, such as the cascading droplets of Hancock's piano soloing during "Circle", and the way the band dextrously slide through time signatures on "Footprints". And "Freedom Jazz Dance" uncannily predicts fusion: give it a Fender Rhodes and some electric guitars and it could slip seamlessly into the neighbourhood of "Bitches Brew". But otherwise, for all the plaudits aimed at "Miles Smiles" elsewhere, I just can't get a grip on this album.

MILES DAVIS Miles Ahead (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces)

Originally released in 1957, "Miles Ahead" built massively on the work of the nonet that recorded the "Birth Of The Cool" sides eight years earlier, creating an album bursting with innovation. Playing flugelhorn throughout, Miles heads up a 20-piece jazz orchestra featuring such luminaries as Bill Barber (tuba), Art Taylor (drums), Paul Chambers (bass), Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Wynton Kelly (piano), all swept upwards and onwards by Gil Evans' magnificent orchestration. Using ten compositions from sources as diverse as Delibes, Dave Brubeck and Kurt Weill, and, in a move unheard of at the time, stitching them together into two side-long suites with specially written orchestral passages, "Miles Ahead" luxuriates in a huge, warm, burnished sound, with Davis' work seemingly light years removed from the desolate, hunted, scorched earth approach he would adopt for much of his career.

This is big band jazz as popular music, an album that ranks alongside the best of Frank Sinatra's Capitol work (the lazy choice would be "Songs For Swinging Lovers", of course, but I'd vote for "Swing Easy" or, especially, "Songs For Young Lovers" ahead of it) for sheer timelessness and genre-trampling universality. For most of the album's duration you're simply content to ride the thrilling rollercoaster of Evans' alternately punchy and mournful charts (the melody line of "Miles Ahead" rustles like a flowing dress in a summer breeze, yet minutes later the astonishing opening roaring brass salvo of "New Rhumba" is ripping up your lounge), but when proceedings alight on material with which you may be familiar spines really begin to tingle. For me it occurs on the version of Brubeck's "The Duke", which never fails to crack a grin.

The dynamics of this 180 gram pressing are thrilling, wresting near-demonstration quality sound from these 45 year old recordings, despite them having been subjected to the iniquities of digital remastering. So good are the sonics that you can hear rattles and squeaks during the introduction to "The Ship", and conversation breaking out during "Blues For Pablo". As the cover sticker (which itself is unnervingly similar to those found on Sundazed's fine Columbia reissues) states, it's "The nicest thing you can do for your stylus and your ears". Historical note: producer George Avakian has said that "Miles Ahead" was recorded on a two-track machine that had arrived at Columbia just days beforehand, meaning that, fortuitously, it was actually recorded in stereo despite the fact that no commercial stereo playback system existed at the time.

MILES DAVIS Filles De Kilimanjaro (Columbia)

The more I dig into Miles Davis' late 1960s catalogue, the more albums I seem to uncover that I can say this about, but yet again "Filles De Kilimanjaro" is electric music played predominately on acoustic instruments. Although Herbie Hancock admits to using, some of the time at least, an electric piano in the personnel listing, Ron Carter's bass playing on the title track appears to have some undisclosed voltage behind it as well. The remaining positions in Miles' classic quintet are filled by Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and percussionist Tony Williams, although Chick Corea and Dave Holland replace Hancock and Carter on two tunes.

Originally released in 1969, this music seems to have an organic impetus of its own, stretching out amorphously like a 50s sci-fi movie monster. It's a sprawling, broiling, turbulent cauldron of sound and ideas, an intricate patchwork of notes and sounds. It's hard to isolate moments of special merit, but on "Petits Machins (Little Stuff)" Williams coaxes an orchestra of colour from his kit, and the folky theme of "Filles De Kilimanjaro (Girls Of Kilimanjaro)" was surely a significant later influence on Weather Report. The album lacks the memorable, repetitive ambient grooves of "In A Silent Way", and it’s a world away from the satanic psychedelia that grounds "Bitches Brew" in the rock idiom, but that still leaves a planet of space to fill with dazzling, inventing music making. Miles' quintet tumble into that void with aplomb.

MILES DAVIS In Person Friday Night At The Blackhawk, Complete (Columbia/Legacy)

inpersonfridaynightattheblackhawk.jpg (17589 bytes)"Are you qualified to do that?", my girlfriend mused when I mentioned I was in the process of reviewing a Miles Davis album, and sometimes I wonder. I mean, it's all music and the reaction it provokes in a total jazz neophyte is as valid as whatever it does to Humphrey Lyttleton, say, but as far as Miles in live, acoustic mode is concerned I've frequently failed to see the attraction. For all the genuinely thrilling studio work he concocted during the late 50s and early 60s - a role call that for me would include "Miles Ahead", "Sketches Of Spain", "Someday My Prince Will Come" and, alright then, grudgingly, "Kind Of Blue" - his concert recordings of the period, with the noble exception of a 1961 Carnegie Hall appearance that has surfaced in at least three different forms, to my knowledge, usually leave me, at best, bemused, and at worst bored.

For dyed-in-the-green-shirt Miles aficionados "In Person Friday Night At The Blackhawk, Complete" is a gift. The music Miles' quintet, which numbered Hank Mobley on tenor sax, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist "Mr P.C." Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, produced on the evening of April 21, 1961 at the titular San Francisco establishment has been issued in ramshackle, piecemeal fashion before now, but this double CD collects the whole lot, bar an incomplete "Autumn Leaves" and an additional third set-closing "Love, I've Found You". Three of these tunes are released here for the first time, more have been edited on previous outings.

But for the more casual browser, one with the aforementioned ambivalence to live Miles from this period? Well, the first thing to be said is that this recording has atmosphere by the bag - the distant tinkling of glasses, appreciative applause following many of the solo spots, even the kerching of the bar's cash register during opener "Oleo" - and is also darn fine sonically: if you can stretch your speakers the requisite 15 feet apart then you can practically recreate the stage of the Blackhawk in your lounge. (And hopefully no more of it than that: as then owner Guido Caccienti boasts in Ralph J Gleason's colourful booklet notes, "I've worked and slaved for years to keep this place a sewer"!) It's certainly an album that benefits from being sat in front of and concentrated on: background or headphone listening just doesn't do it justice. You might find, as I did, the timbre of Davis' instrument a little shrill and harsh, but that's as much criticism as can be levelled at the sonics of this package.

Musically, though: well, "Oleo" and "No Blues" are winningly propulsive and stomp with authority respectively, "Neo" (a.k.a. "Teo") and "I Thought About You" stick sufficiently close to the studio takes to satisfy my unsophisticated tastes and "Walkin'"'s tumbling opening cacophony is as exhilarating as ever. But for me the album treads unsteadily the tightrope between genius and tedium: will, for example, I ever detect the melody buried deep within "Bye Bye Blackbird"? And, for all the times I've played this album, will I ever be able to whistle "If I Were A Bell", "Fran Dance" or "On Green Dolphin Street"? For a certain kind of Miles fan, this is essential music making. I am not that person, at least not yet.

MILES DAVIS In Person Saturday Night At The Blackhawk, Complete (Columbia/Legacy)

Following on from "In Person Friday Night At The Blackhawk, Complete", this double CD documents shenanigans during Miles' second consecutive night at the San Francisco venue, taped on 21 April 1961. Again, it contains a great deal of chunky repertoire material that fails to excite this listener: no matter how revelatory these renditions of "If I Were A Bell", "On Green Dolphin Street", "'Round Midnight", "Autumn Leaves" and so on and so on might be to the well-seasoned jazz buff, for me they rarely rise above the level of immaculately played (check, for example, Wynton Kelly's precipitative droplets of solo piano on the latter) amiable supper club background music.

Elsewhere, though, this particularly Saturday night really cooks: a supercharged "So What", taken at the frantic lick Miles often employed for concert renditions of the tune, uses the familiar "Kind Of Blue"print as a launchpad for all manner of thin wild mercury space exploration, Davis charting with his trumpet the kind of territory Dylan's lyrics would plant a flag on later in the decade. (And notice how "Mr P.C.", John Coltrane's tribute to the quintet's bassman Paul Chambers, seeps into Hank Mobley's tenor solo.) The opening trumpet waterfall of "Walkin'" is as exciting as ever, a clarion call summoning the faithful to a twelve minute joyride of rhythmic abandon, the band cornering - but only just, mind - like they’re on rails.

As with the earlier volume, these discs are a sonic treat, especially now that the raspiness that coloured the tone of Miles' instrument during the previous evening appears to have been eradicated. The clinking of glasses offstage and audible gasps of admiration from the audience only add to the atmosphere.

Over on the second disc "Neo" (a.k.a. "Teo") flabbergasts, as always, Jimmy Cobb's locomotive percussion (again strongly reminiscent of Elvin Jones' work on Coltrane's awesome "My Favorite Things") freightlining it, and "Two Bass Hit" practically squeals out of the traps. The fourth set of the evening, though, is positively volcanic. It begins with a couple of numbers from Davis' underappreciated "Someday My Prince Will Come" long player: "I Thought About You" proves, as if it were necessary, that you don't need lyrics to be lyrical, whilst the title track weaves a fairytale magic from its one-note bass introduction onwards. But the most astonishing music of the whole weekend for me is a rendition of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" arranged for piano, percussion and bass. It evokes Jacques Loussier's contemporaneous "Play Bach" experiments whilst swinging like a demon. Considering the continual steady flow of Miles product, quite how it remained unreleased for four decades baffles me.

MILES DAVIS Seven Steps To Heaven (Columbia)

Recorded in two sessions on April and May 1963, in Hollywood and New York respectively, “Seven Steps To Heaven” captures Davis in the process of breaking in, and arguably breaking up, a new group. Consequently, it has something of a split personality that might diminish its appeal to all but the most ardent Miles enthusiast.

The three Hollywood tunes are covers – “Basin Street Blues”, “I Fall In Love Too Easily” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” – and feature Brit Victor Feldman - arguably better known to credit-devouring rock enthusiasts for his work with Steely Dan and Tom Waits - on piano, and drummer Frank Butler. Relaxed and smooth these tracks might be, but to a non-aficionado they sound like little more than premium quality supper jazz.

The New York sessions, fortunately, have a little more grit and spark to them. Feldman has been replaced by Herbie Hancock, and Butler by teenage percussion sensation Tony Williams, about whom Davis profanes enthusiastically in the booklet notes. Bringing two Feldman co-compositions with him, Miles blows up a squall on the title track, and you can practically hear the band shrugging off their restraints behind him and finally letting fly. The spiralling sax and trumpet interplay between George Coleman and his employer that introduces “So Near, So Far” erroneously suggests the song could have been written for this quintet, and “Joshua” acts as a superbly bouncy springboard for some fine improvisation.

Very much an album of two distinct, unbridgeable halves, there’s something here for every fan of Miles’ acoustic work, even if we won’t all necessarily be in agreement as to which moments show the ensemble(s) at their best.

MILES DAVIS Miles In Tokyo (Columbia/Legacy)

This recording of one Miles Davis’ first Japanese concerts was originally issued in 1969, and only in that country, making it an essential souvenir for any visiting jazz musician. What makes it even more of an obscure object of desire is that it’s the only commercially available recording of a transitional quintet that briefly included avant garde saxophonist Sam Rivers, whose tenure alongside the established Herbie Hancock/Ron Carter/Tony Williams lineup was only intended to be temporary from the outset. Recorded initially for a radio broadcast, the recent flurry of expanded live Miles Legacy releases makes this particular offering seem a little thin and flimsy in comparison, being bereft of extra tracks (save for the addition of a one minute outro) and retaining the album’s disquieting fades between performances.

Nevertheless, from the opening chimes of “If I Were A Bell” this program of standards and newer classics is interesting, experimental fun. Wunderkind Tony Williams’ percussive assault brutally propels the band into the stratosphere, and the burr and honk of Rivers’ instrument is a sound you’re unlikely to find on any other Miles album. Having traded the expected round robin of solos, proceedings shift startlingly into a bluesier gear when the baton returns to the bandleader himself. The opening piano notes of “My Funny Valentine” anticipate a parched, desolate reading, and Miles doesn’t disappoint, the band riding the swells and crests of his performance as if by ESP. “So What” is resplendent in the expected rocket-powered racing stripes it wears in live performance – you can even hear the trumpeter hoarsely whisper “Yeah!” as he taxis down the introduction. Again, Williams pushes both tune and band forward with a vivacious ferocity not heard on versions with other drummers. He sounds like he’s simultaneously keeping time and soloing – examine the crashing crescendo behind the close of his employer’s solo for evidence. Rivers’ squawks and cronks sound unusual in this context, Hancock and Williams flailing, writhing and wrestling behind, or possibly with, him. The group tear into “Walkin’”, but Herbie’s solo derails the locomotion, sending it skidding and jumping towards ballad territory until he drags it back on track again – you can hear the pianist singing distantly along as he contemplates the melodic carnage he’s creating.

Perhaps tellingly, “Miles In Tokyo” isn’t listed in the “Top-10 Must Have CDs Of Miles Davis” leaflet that accompanied my copy of the album. Even so, in documenting a brief, and arguably unrepeated, period of crazed experimentation it has merit enough to stand on its own. When your enthusiasm and hunger for Miles’ music deepens sufficiently, it’ll be waiting.

MILES DAVIS A Tribute To Jack Johnson (Columbia/Legacy)

All but ignored on its 1971 release, Miles Davis’ soundtrack to the documentary film “Jack Johnson” has quietly grown in stature over the intervening decades, to the extent that 2003 saw the release of “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions”, a 5 CD box archiving every scrap of material recorded for the album. Davis’ kinship with the boxer Johnson was obvious – it infects his gloriously hip sleeve note – both being black men whose success caused “white envy to erupt”. As with other electric Miles albums such as “In A Silent Way”, “A Tribute To Jack Johnson” was as much a product of the razor blade work of producer Teo Macero as of the musicians who played on it.

Rich and heavy with the hum and buzz of fusion it may be, but listen to the opening moments of “Right Off” and could you really hazard a guess at whose music you were experiencing? It could be one of any number of contemporary stadium-levelling boogie-metal merchants, which is meant as a compliment – where else in Miles’ discography would you find two minutes of music with such commercial potential? But then up strides the man with the horn, bold, shining and brassy, his uptown trumpet splitting the atom wide open. “Bitches Brew” this isn’t, adventurous but certainly not difficult, more Sly Stone than Stockhausen, although the album’s two tracks both tip the scales on the progressive side of 25 minutes.

Yesternow” begins with some lazy stuttering and flexing, a spiderwebbed interplay of bass, guitar, percussion and trumpet. Around the ten minute mark, Herbie Hancock’s keyboards scamper impishly in from the right hand side of the soundstage. The whole is then overturned by a lengthy, ghostly stretch of “Shh/Peaceful” echoing back from the “In A Silent Way” album, a crude but shockingly effective early form of sampling. The closing minutes showcase an abrupt, coiled riff over which Miles sprinkles peppery shards of solo. Finally, over some mournful, near-ambient drones the voice of actor Brock Peters intones Johnson’s mission statement.

Nearly 35 years after it was recorded, “A Tribute To Jack Johnson” remains a staggeringly powerful declaration. If the jazz-rock/fusion genre has been besmirched by the excesses that followed in its wake, this album depicts a form pregnant with possibilities.

MILES DAVIS The Complete Original Recordings For Louis Malle’s Movie “Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud” (Fontana)

Cumbersomely titled, this is nevertheless a slimmer volume than some of Miles’ other “…Complete…” archive releases. This single disc anthologises the music he recorded in Paris over the nights of 4 and 5 December 1957 for the soundtrack of Louis Malle’s noirish debut film “Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud” (“Lift To The Scaffold”). The local musicians accompanying Davis on this recording include tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot and drummer Kenny Clarke, all of whom have released albums of their own.

The music was predominately improvised in the studio as scenes from the film were projected (and, according Boris Vian’s quaint contemporary sleevenotes, the film’s star Jeanne Moreau served drinks). The selections are presented sequentially, with all takes of one title following all takes of another. Whilst this approach can sometimes frustrate all but the most determined historian – the kind of listener who can sit through Robert Johnson’s similarly programmed “The Complete Recordings” without once reaching for the skip button – it actually draws greater attention to the spontaneous nature of the music making documented here. Take, for example, “Assassinat” – all that links takes 1 and 2 is the title and the lumbering double bass sound. Such was the amorphous nature of the results that often different takes of ostensibly the same piece of music were used to soundtrack different scenes in the finished film. The recordings themselves are unadorned, bereft of the post-production echo added to the music used in the film. The abrupt endings of the original sessions are retained – most takes collapse on a whistled command, presumably Davis’.

Although the music works brilliantly in the context of the film, adding a sophisticated layer of cool to Malle’s early Nouvelle Vague experimentation, divorced from its intended surroundings it doesn’t really make the grade as a standalone listening experience. It’s fine, but for a late 1950s Miles Davis album it’s curiously unengaging, verging on the forgettable. Nevertheless, this fine reissue presents the music in its most complete form – although the CD issue adds the soundtrack in its originally released version as well - and the high quality, heavyweight vinyl pressing is close to flawless.

MILES DAVIS Miles In Berlin (Columbia/Legacy)

Captured in glorious mono, this 1964 gig marked the first occasion what became known as his “second great quintet” – consisting of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams – were recorded for posterity.

Beginning with the hearteningly familiar cymbal-pattering headrush of “Milestones”, the band flutter around the melody with hard-won nonchalance. Avalanches of percussion, piano, trumpet and saxophone tumble down the side of the tune, and, thanks to phenomenal teenage drummer Williams – at 18 seemingly barely old enough for the moustache he sports in the booklet – tempos whirl and crash, sometimes holding steady for mere seconds at a time. On “Autumn Leaves” Miles oscillates between strident and soft within the space between adjacent notes; mono it may be but this recording is blessed with shocking dynamics. Unfortunately, like many of Davis’ interpretations of jazz standards, the tune remains as impenetrable to me as ever, but it’s still delightful to hear Hancock singing distantly along to his own piano solo.

“So What” adopts the expected breakneck pace it models in performance, Williams’ jet-propelled clatter familiar from his work on “Miles In Tokyo”, recorded two months previously. What that earlier version doesn’t have, though, is Wayne Shorter laying down some very proto-Weather Report saxophone solos. “Stella By Starlight”, a bonus track on this latest issue of “Miles In Berlin”, just sounds like a 13-minute jumble of notes in search of a melody to me, but “Walkin’” is a staggering bright outburst of channelled energy. As in the Tokyo set, Herbie slows the pace, diverting all that locomotion into a languid blues.

Whether you need another, or in fact any, Miles Davis live album is open to debate – this Berlin date, for example, resulted in his fifth concert recording in the space of a year. “Miles In Berlin” is still a bundle of tricks and thrills, though, albeit ones that are verging on familiarity.

MILES DAVIS The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Columbia/Legacy)

This album’s insane; everything about it is madness. It captures every completed (presumably, since the take numbers aren’t contiguous) scrap of music recorded for Miles Davis’ “A Tribute To Jack Johnson” album. The completed work itself was controversial enough: two 25 minute tracks of sprawling black mass, an electric jazz-funk odyssey effectively assembled in the editing room by producer and sonic chemist Teo Macero. “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” presents the raw materials, the base elements from which Macero cut and pasted his patchwork masterpiece, as well as discarded moments that were swept onto other albums such as “Live Evil”, “Big Fun”, “Get Up With It” and “Directions”. Perhaps predictably, this set makes even fewer concessions to listener comfort than the finished product did, as take upon take of the same song pile up against each other. Disc one (of five!), for example, opens with 50 minutes’ worth of different interpretations of “Willie Nelson”, although in fairness it’s often the case that whilst the title may remain the same, the song itself rarely does. It’s a gruelling assault course of a straight-through listen, working far better when its component parts are randomly spliced into a broader playlist.

Takes 2 and 3 of the aforementioned are powered by a machine-precise rhythm section and staccato, machine gun bursts of guitar, Miles jabbing out brief Morse code messages on top. “Willie Nelson (Insert 1)” stops-starts for outbursts of stuttering electronics, whilst Insert 2 takes the original manifesto and double-times its elastic riff. John McLaughlin carves out huge, overdriven chunks of guitar frenzy during Remake Take 1, spitting Eastern-influenced figures with Miles. On Remake Take 2 everybody holds off and it becomes a sublime tangle of fuzz guitar, exploratory funk bass and relentless percussive pummelling.

In Take 4 form “Johnny Bratton” is slab-sided and sludgy heavy rock, mutating into a thick electric broth on Insert 1 and Insert 2. “Archie Moore” plays sultry, sleazy psychedelic blues, with Dave Holland’s bass heavily anchored at the centre. It’s about as close as this set comes to being Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience, a measure of how Miles took his acknowledged influences and twisted them. Part Two A of “Go Ahead John” opens with a taut yet supple electric guitar to the left, bass centre and some clattering percussion to the right, before McLaughlin takes off in stinging, distorted flight, like a mightily disgruntled bumble bee. The three musicians seem to be teasing out the dimensions of the possibilities available to them: it’s five minutes before they’re joined by the nasal whine of a soprano sax. “Duran”’s circular bass riff is one of the set’s more obvious debts to Sly & The Family Stone – “That’s some raunchy shit”, mutters Miles in his barely audible asthmatic wheeze. “Sugar Ray” is a Beefheartian crabwalk of a gingerly-stepping tune: although everybody seems to fill up their allotted space and time admirably, DeJohnette is especially notable, conjuring a whole spectrum of sound from his kit.

Disc three contains the backbone of the finished album. Take 10 of “Right Off” donates the fierce, spike-booted shuffle that opens the real thing so rudely (as well as sparking off Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam”, it seems to me). On Take 10A and Take 11 some jabbing Farfisa work suggests that Herbie Hancock, envious of McLaughlin’s monstrous, distorted tone, was trying to get some overdriven action of his own. Take 12 might wear the same name, but from the first it’s a completely different tune, DeJohnette providing a steady pulse whilst the rest of the band explore all kind of jazz-rock arcanery above him until the 80 second mark, where that monster clarion call guitar riff crunches in. McLaughlin’s solo work here is positively acrid, sheets of distortion and contortion, whilst Motown bassist Mike Henderson’s impassive riffing keeps the whole assemblage together. Take 16 of “Yesternow” creeps with stealth and deliberation, New Take 4 underpinning it with a faint ambient hiss and sizzle, Miles peeling off squealing runs of hard, shiny sound. “Honky Tonk” unleashes some fierce but playful bass, keys and guitar on top of a jittery stop-start rhythm.

Take 3 of “Ali” is a heavy funk, bordering on reggae, with Gene Perla’s bassline strongly reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Who Knows”. Davis is as unpredictable as ever – you never know where his jabbing, circling playing will land next – but, using an octave doubler on his trumpet, he sounds like he’s shadowboxing himself. Take 4, by contrast, is tentative: you can hear fingers clicking the rhythm as Perla feels his way into the monstrous riff that forms the piece’s backbone. “Konda” is instantly unlike everything else presented here, its intimate, delicate, playful even, keyboard intro a palate-cleanser following all the dark metallic funk that’s gone before. Miles’ treated trumpet sounds almost dainty here. The remainder of disc four is devoted to compositions by, and featuring, Brazilian jazz musician Hermeto Pascoal. Various versions of his “Nem Um Talvez” weave together ambient waves of keyboards, brass and guitar into a mournful, keening whole. These truffles are quite unlike the unstraightforward funk propagated elsewhere, generally clocking in at a slender two to five minutes apiece. “Little High People” is back to business as usual, albeit of a subtler and more regimented kind, buzzing and squealing with Airto Moreira’s mystery percussion and blasts of primitive oscillation from a mistreated keyboard. “Little Church” is thematically similar to “Nem Um Talvez”, albeit even more gently desolate.

The final CD opens with eight minutes of chaos and confusion titled “The Mask (Part One)”, with Keith Jarrett holding court as the ring(modulated)master of misrule, McLaughlin scraping the occasional wailing cry from his guitar. Part Two is a totally different beast: starting with the deliberate, stalking sonority of an acoustic bass, there’s a twisted percussive samba going on with eerie sideways glances from guitar and keys. Miles dishes out some strident, wailing runs over the top. There’s some evil spirits going down here!

And then, to finish, there’s the seething, malevolent sprawl of “A Tribute To Jack Johnson” in its entirety. Like much of Miles’ contemporaneous album releases, it’s as much a product of the sleight of Teo Macero’s razor-blade wielding fingers as of the musicians’ bristling brilliance, vaulting through time and time signatures to assemble this colossus, this obelisk of sound.

In common with the set’s unexpurgated intentions, these tracks don’t sound produced in the conventional sense: grooves begin and end abruptly, cut off as soon as Miles deems their seed spent, their value exhausted. The sonics throughout are fabulous, incidentally: the physical thump of Jack DeJohnette’s drums has to be felt to be believed. This is at once familiar yet utterly alien music; a heaving accumulation that rejects melody for explorations of the outer regions of rhythm and noise, it’s sometimes aimless but frequently thrilling. It defies analysis – although Bill Milkowski offers some harsh-but-fair assessments of each performance in the booklet - even compared to something like “Trout Mask Replica”, which is at least held together by its own internal eccentric clockwork logic. By contrast, “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” are forever splurging outward, devouring.

MILES DAVIS The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia/Legacy)

Mad as “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” undoubtedly was, this issue’s Miles Davis box set is even more insane. “The Cellar Door Sessions 1970” contains 6 CDs – almost six hours! – of music recorded at the titular Washington club during a four night stint during December of that year. Aside from the Saturday sets, plundered for the live/studio artifice that was “Live Evil”, this music is being heard for the first time anywhere in 35 years. The core repertoire of “What I Say”, “Directions”, “Inamorata” and “Honky Tonk” hadn’t yet been released in studio form, and even those tunes that were – “Sanctuary” and “It’s About That Time” – are so mangled or truncated as to be virtually unrecognisable. Utterly in thrall to James Brown, Sly Stone and Hendrix, this set documents Miles’ attempt to “put together the greatest f*&%$*g rock band you ever heard”, as the sleevenotes self-censoriously describe it, and with jazz-rock luminaries such as Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, Airto and Motown bassist Michael Henderson in attendance, he means business.

Disc one – Wednesday night, first set – fades in on an already well-lubricated performance of “Directions”, Miles in full flow against a manic, mantric cross-cutting funk provided by the smallest ensemble of the series (percussionist Airto joined from Thursday; guitarist John McLaughlin only made the Saturday shift). Like many of these tracks, you could’ve crash-landed practically anywhere in Miles’ early-70s catalogue, until the tune’s clarion call arrives at the 2˝-minute mark, after which Gary Bartz contributes a nasal, Eastern-influenced sax solo. On “What I Say” the methodology seems to be the construction of an impregnable bedrock of rhythm, above which everybody else can soar, swoop and dive. Jarrett’s keyboard dexterity is admirably demonstrated by his firebombing solo work here. DeJohnette slows things down with a crashing, thumping drum solo before the brutal, abrupt melody returns. By this point the band have been cooking without interruption for nearly 40 minutes when the mood is broken by a rare fade, the curtain opening again on a Jarrett improvisation that, as ever in this box, precedes the swampy, slow-motion, brick-heavy funk of “Inamorata”, which is led on a descent into chaos by Bartz’s squalling saxophone.

The second disc – Thursday night, second set – adds Airto and his mysterious array of exotic percussion instruments, heard rattling and clanking from the first bars of “What I Say”. The audience reaction is more prominent too, the odd appreciative “Yeah!” discernable amidst the spacey, light but heavy framework the band construct for Miles to work around, their leader making a squealing entrance five minutes in. “Honky Tonk” is a slow, stalking thing, and without losing its anchoring bass riff it morphs into a straggly tangle, with everyone soloing at once. Audience applause can be clearly heard following Miles’ solo during “It’s About That Time”, perhaps because regular recordist Teo Macero was absent for the opening night; it’s tempting to suggest that he miked things differently.

Disc three – Friday night, second set – is, well, perhaps concise is the wrong word given that its three tunes average over a quarter of an hour each, but certainly an apt distillation of this collection’s delights. Somebody – it’s coming from Airto’s general direction – even seems to be singing during “What I Say”. From Friday’s third set (disc four), Michael Henderson’s bubbling, bodypopping bass work is especially notable during “What I Say”, and the few minutes of “Sanctuary” functions as a welcome palate cleanser between the slogging rhythms of the main features. “Improvisation #3” lays bare the riff from the upcoming “Inamorata”, Jarrett modelling the chiming, slightly distorted timbres of a possessed musical box, and then rising percussion rolls pull that monster figure out of the murk and suddenly this isn’t jazz, it’s some swarthy, bucking electric beast, Miles taking it to an astonishing, fluttering squall.

The second and third Saturday night sets, with McLaughlin in the band, are enshrined on the final discs. During the second set’s “Directions”, the collective seem to be operating on telepathy, the band halving the tempo as Miles launches into the signature phrase, repeated once only, around which the entire performance pivots. McLaughlin makes his presence felt early on, jabbing and edging in under the cloak of trumpet. On “Honky Tonk” he adds a nimble, dextrous solo to the familiar creeping sprawl. “What I Say” is suddenly taut like stretched elastic; McLaughlin adopts a slightly dull tone but his guitar work is blistering, mirroring Jarrett’s keyboards. DeJohnette even scores a rare drum solo. The final set opens “Directions” with another of those rare drum solos, recognisably of the Ginger Baker school of percussive improvisation, but it works itself looser than “Toad” ever did. Miles’ trumpet sounds sleazier than ever, practically fondling the notes. As ever, it’s a long, exhilarating run up to the fulcrum, and a slow, meandering slink away from it. Suddenly, though, McLaughlin crushes it under wheels of guitar confusion, and everybody’s playing different tunes at once, if indeed they’re playing tunes at all. The band gather together again for a restatement of the riff and one of those now-familiar foreshadowings of “Inamorata” ahead of Jarrett’s final improvisation. “Inamorata” itself is as monolithic as we’ve come to expect, given that it’s now making its fourth appearance on the album. Again, it soon renders itself a stranger to melody and rhythm; Miles issues a summons and we’re suddenly in the relative, rolling calm of “It’s About That Time”.

Ultimately, individual analysis of the contents of “The Cellar Door Sessions 1970” breaks down under the box set’s bulk; even the extensive, informed booklet notes – incorporating essays from all of the surviving musicians (Keith Jarrett’s degenerates into a lengthy repudiation of Marcus Miller’s views on the band’s abilities) – fight shy of an exhaustive track-by-track analysis. As with the slightly slimmer “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions”, this box set comes into its own spliced into a broader playlist, where its great length and necessarily repetitive nature are diluted just enough to ensure the cataclysmic shock of the new remains undiminished.

MILES DAVIS The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (Columbia/Legacy)

Another sprawling Miles box set takes the microscope to one of his celebrated concertos for electricity and editing. The subject here is the 1969 ambient/jazz/funk/disco masterpiece “In A Silent Way”, now expanded and exploded into three discs packed to their circumferences with music, culminating, as is traditional, with the assembled album itself. The set’s title is arguably a little misleading, as the opening two tracks, “Mademoiselle Mabry” and “Frelon Brun”, were first issued on “In A Silent Way”’s direct chronological predecessor, “Filles De Kilimanjaro”, so it seems somewhat disingenuous to claim them for this box. The plural is also something of a misnomer, since all the material that was eventually used to sculpt the finished album was recorded in one session, so perhaps it’s best to consider this box as the complete roadmap, there and back. Several of these tracks have previously appeared on the tranche of albums issued during Miles’ period of musical exile during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Of the 17 selections, a mere four are previously unissued, whilst another four are making their first appearance in the full-length forms collated here.

“Mademoiselle Mabry” is all long, loose, free-floating melody lines, not inextricably linked to the “In A Silent Way” sound but nevertheless definitely a precursor to it. As the learned booklet notes (themselves full of everything you ever wanted to know about pedal points and polychordal accompaniments, except, perhaps, a definition of what they actually are) explain, there’s an echo of the riff from Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” in there somewhere, testament to the new influences Miles’ then girlfriend, the titular Betty Mabry, was exposing him to. Despite its centipede beats and uncommon time signatures, “Frelon Brun”’s rippling cymbals and repetitive, almost comically simple, bassline offer more hints of things to come. It’s an unsettling listen; never allowing the audience to get comfortable, it’s music that pitches and yaws, ready to tip the listener over. “Two Faced” is all spacey, floating moments, Miles’ trumpet drifting along a backwash of electric keyboards, bass and percussion. What these compositions (if compositions is the right word, and I’m not convinced that it is) have in common is that they’re painted on huge, sprawling canvases, modelling melodies that writhe and patter under their own forward-surging internal logic. Throughout, there’s a free-form approach to rhythm that makes “Kind Of Blue” sound like it was played to a click track. I suppose it’s gently ironic, then, that the finished album stuck relatively rigidly to a common metre. “Splash”, for example, is a rumbling, rolling tumult, and on “Splashdown” hyperactive drummer Tony Williams describes huge, craggy landscapes with his kit.

The second disc opens with “Ascent”; spacey and relaxed, its meandering melodic lines might only be completely comprehensible when heard from a distance. Here, as elsewhere, the booklet notes unpick the multiple performances from which the finished piece was assembled. “Directions I” was the clarion call of Miles’ early electric years, and one repeated seemingly ad nauseum throughout the “Cellar Door” box set. The appeal for me lies in the way the brief moment of clarity that is the melody is followed by the clattering downhill tumble that constitutes the rest of the track. (The sleevenotes point to “Directions” as Miles’ first attempt to fuse jazz and rock; the propulsive electric chaos that results underlines that assertion.) If anything, its successor, “Directions II”, pushes the pulsebeat further out; it’s even darker, especially during the closing keyboard solo.

And so, having finally broken jazz rock ground, we hear the first music in this box that would eventually make it to the finished album in some form. At this early stage “Shhh/Peaceful” is fussier than its released form –the album’s streamlined surfaces are all the more remarkable considered in the light of the boggling melodic and rhythmic complexity encountered in these sessions so far. You can hear the basic pulses and fragments, but Williams unloads percussive fusillades all over it, softened into radio static by the distance. Similarly, the familiar trumpet motif that opens the album is clouded by loungey bossanova on a rehearsal version of “In A Silent Way”. Still, it’s a delight to savour once again the moment on “It’s About That Time” when, having quietly kept time throughout the piece, Williams is finally, and all too briefly, permitted to attack his kit.

Entering the home straight, “The Ghetto Walk” is Miles’ music at its most spidery and sprawling, 27 slow-twisting minutes, gently bucking and tumultuous. And then, as your final destination and ultimate reward, there’s the timeless elegance and eloquence of the “In A Silent Way” album itself and entire, part-felt, part-manufactured man-machine. The fact that it arrives as something of a carrot suggests that, as with other extensive Miles box sets, the contents of “The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions” are more effective when dotted and dispersed amongst a playlist than gorged upon in a single sitting. So, there’s “Shhh/Peaceful”’s two-note bass, locomotive cymbal work, shimmering keyboard heathaze and Miles’ crisp, cooling trumpet over it all. “In A Silent Way”’s bookending John McLaughlin guitar solo sounds like a flower slowly opening: despite this Joe Zawinul composition being based on his reminiscences of being an Austrian shepherd boy, “The Lonely Goatherd” it is not.

With comprehensive liner notes, lavish hardback packaging and expressive sonics, if you really feel in need of more than the standard album provides “The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions” is essentially self-recommending.

MILES DAVIS Live-Evil (Columbia)

Not entirely as live as its title may suggest, this double album, originally released in 1971, was hodgepodged together from a variety of sources – chiefly recordings from a December 1970 residency at Washington, DC’s Cellar Door club and the sessions that produced “A Tribute To Jack Johnson” – sometimes flitting between live and studio material and back in the space of a single track. If “In A Silent Way” found Teo Macero’s tape editing technique at its most sympathetic and refined, there are moments during “Live-Evil” that suggest whoever was in charge of its assembly was wearing boxing gloves and wielding a blunt scissors. Fortunately, or perhaps otherwise for the album under consideration, the unexpurgated versions have been released on mammoth box sets such as “The Cellar Door Sessions 1970” and “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions”, which point to a certain lack of potency in the tucked and trimmed takes contained herein.

Amidst the sprawling, malevolent funk of the Cellar Door tracks – often stretching way over twenty minutes apiece – are a sprinkling of near-ambient palate cleansers such as “Nem Um Talvez”, “Selim” (itself an alternate take of “Nem Um Talvez”) and “Little Church”. They certainly assist with the absorption of the bitter medicine that constitutes much of “Live-Evil”. “Medley: Gemini / Double Image” swaggers in slow motion like an inebriated blaxploitation soundtrack played at the wrong speed. “What I Say” is perhaps the set’s highlight; perhaps not coincidentally, this Cellar Door recording is presented unmolested and complete, its molten funk flowing uninterrupted. Pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette in particular seem to be operating on ESP, with Motown bassman Michael Henderson laying down the low frequency patterns with “Bolero”-like dependency in the eye of the maelstrom. “Funky Tonk” seems to represent a cross-section cut through the final Cellar Door set, being at various times a great chunk of “Directions” (itself barely recognisable as such cut loose from that tune’s signature clarion call), a portion of Jarrett’s regular keyboard improvisation and the opening pages of “Inamorata”. The latter is continued on the somewhat cumbersomely titled “Inamorata And Narration By Conrad Roberts”, which proceeds as expected for most of its 26 minutes before cutting into what sounds like a bootleggy recording of the band jamming, over which actor Roberts unspools some free-associative verse.

“Live-Evil” is a squally, intoxicating, if uneasy, brew, certainly, but one whose delights have become diluted over time by the peerless archival work by the good folks at Legacy. Nevertheless, it’s a far more concise, if less accurate, document of those Cellar Door performances than the six disc box set, and it’s also the only way to obtain any of that music on vinyl - I was pretty pleased to find a sealed, pre-barcode era US pressing of this album.

MILES DAVIS Live At The Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time (Columbia/Legacy)

There’s method in the madness of that somewhat cumbersome title. This double CD really is about that time when Miles took his still-molten synthesis of jazz and rock to the Fillmore East and played opening act (on the same night, mark you!) for The Steve Miller Blues Band and Neil Young And Crazy Horse. It also records Wayne Shorter’s final appearance with this underdocumented, so-called “lost quintet” (even though, technically, they’re a sextet; either some folk aren’t counting Miles or percussionist Airto Moreira is being airbrushed from the lineup).

Is there any real point in describing individual tracks? Copping out, I’d say not. The repertoire would be unfamiliar to even the hardcore Miles watchers in the audience; aside from a suggestion of “In A Silent Way” the music he played during these two sets was unreleased, much of it from the then-imminent “Bitches Brew”, and much of it would’ve been escorted from the canon by the time of his residency at Washington DC’s Cellar Door club nine months later. By then Miles had outgrown the poisoned psychedelia represented here, and was barrelling towards the more regimented funk jams found on the “A Tribute To Jack Johnson” and “On The Corner” albums. The sound this band (which also included Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette) generated on stage is a kind of volcanic, malevolent electric sludge that silences – or perhaps deafens – its critics through sheer, unstoppable force, pushing and pulling jazz into shapes without names.

How best to approach it? Well, effort spent attempting to understand it might be wasted; better, perhaps, to surrender utterly to its blistering complexity and treat each disc as one sustained 45-minute assault. As for the 1970 Fillmore audience, it’s all a long way from “Dark Star”, but to their eternal credit at the end of the second set a couple of spectators can be heard heroically calling for an encore.

MILES DAVIS The Complete On The Corner Sessions (Columbia/Legacy)

“The Complete On The Corner Sessions” is the latest and presumably lastest in Columbia’s deluxe repackaging of the late trumpeter’s legacy. Presented as a chunky gold-coloured metal brick, the set contains six CDs packed to their circumferences and 120 pages of photos, essays and pointless wasted space. True to the series’ form, the box doesn’t limit itself to the genesis of the titular album. It might be more accurately titled “The Complete Studio Sessions 1972-1975”, since that’s what it contains, including material that eventually ended up on the “Big Fun” and “Get Up With It” sets amongst every completed studio recording Davis presided over between the inception of the “On The Corner” sessions and his mid-70s retirement.

“On The Corner” alienated the straightahead jazz fans in Miles’ public, even those who had remained steadfast through his electric experiments up to that point. They weren’t in tune with its long, looping repetitious grooves; they withstood “Bitches Brew” but couldn’t get with a programme that was unequal parts Sly Stone and Stockhausen. Miles’ insolent refusal to list the personnel on the sleeve was the final indignity: “I got everyone in the band but the devil on tambourine”, he said. Today, predictably, it’s revered as a touchstone for countless genres: any music that attempts to splice together the DNA of different styles owes it a debt of gratitude.

The box presents its treasures in approximately chronological order over five discs, with the final disc rounding up the “On The Corner” material in its released form. Proceedings open with an unedited master of the title track, one of those endless grooves typical of the sessions’ modus operandi. It’s 20 minutes of pattering percussion, electronic experimentation and brass squelch, morphing, twisting and shape-shifting all the while. It almost sounds like the birth pangs of techno. It could, and perhaps should, be criticised for its sense of stasis, but no music I can think of right now puts so much energy and invention into running on the spot. “Chieftain” is 15 minutes of bongo, trumpet and electric sitar fury, all insistent scampering, “Rated X” a vicious, rough tumble, and siblings “Turnaround” and “U-Turnaround” carve out great chunks of slow motion funk, loop-driven yet still eccentric. “The Hen” has a kind of turbulent eloquence to it, and the multiple takes of “Big Fun / Holly-Wuud” stop abruptly then apparently resume from the same point as if nothing had happened. “Mr. Foster” is long and melodically distended: there’s nothing you could hum here aside from the single note Morse code guitar figures. Samples from “Calypso Frelimo” were once liberally sprinkled over The Orb’s “Slug Dub”; its perky, cartoonish keyboard riff is no less annoying in its original context. The 32-minute “He Loved Him Madly”, written for the recently deceased Duke Ellington, is a mournful elegy or a slothful dirge depending on your point of view; the fact that Eno cites it as highly influential explains a lot about the near-static ambient vistas he was developing around the same time. “Maiysha” is a hard-edged electric samba, kinda “The Girl From Ipanema” carrying a concealed weapon. “Hip-Skip” perhaps deserves its previously unreleased status: modelling the same jaded frivolity as “Calypso Frelimo”, an undernourished melodic fragment is toyed with and stretched way beyond breaking point. Nobody seems to know where to take it, so it ends up not going anywhere. It’s baffling why the frenetic abandon of “What They Do” has remained vault-bound for over three decades, though: funks meets free jazz, and let’s just say there’s a measure of antagonism between them. The nagging familiarity of “Minnie”’s riff is explained on discovering that it’s named after Ms Ripperton.

As is traditional, the final disc collects together the released artefacts from the bonafide titular album’s sessions, and rounds up several 7” sides recorded during the box’s timeline. It’s immediately apparent why “Red China Blues” was a single: it’s concise and punchy in exactly the same way the rest of the box isn’t. “On The Corner / New York Girl / Thinkin’ Of One Thing And Doin’ Another / Vote For Miles” abandons the arbitrary index points found on the original album, being presented as a single continuous 20-minute track. It’s here that the weakness of the supporting documentation becomes apparent. Normally Miles box set sleevenotes leave no fact uncovered, but, although the essays included here do an excellent job of exploring Miles’ style and studio technique, there are some gaps in the narrative he could’ve parked his Lamborghini in. It would’ve been interesting to read how the released version differs from the unedited master that opens the set – in fact, more detail about producer Teo Macero’s tape trickery would’ve been welcome generally – but in its absence I’ll note that it does sound a more finished, produced product, a greater sense of spatial disorientation sending percussion skittering to the far corners of the soundstage. “Black Satin” makes its only appearance of the set here, presumably presented exactly as it was taped. A coruscating confection of handclapping, whistling, sleighbells and stereo panning, around which Miles’ incantatory trumpet wheels and flutters, it’s funk, but a kind of pointillist, sun-dappled, fractal funk that’s more cerebral than carnal. “One And One” and “Helen Butte / Mr. Freedom X” revisit the same groove in somewhat sturdier, more urgent fashion. Not that all the extra material that precedes it isn’t interesting, but it’s the variety and concision of this final disc that makes it the most entertaining of the box. As a set it’s unlikely that you’d listen to the whole 6˝ hours in one sitting, but the exploratory material is certainly interesting in smaller doses. So why would you buy this over the standalone single disc “On The Corner”? Well, the excellent (for a CD) sound, the luxurious packaging and background documentation are three reasons enough, even if it isn’t quite what it says on the tin.

MILES DAVIS QUINTET Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)


This aptly titled release, compiled from two 1956 recording sessions, features a Miles I’ve never heard before. The performances are punctuated by jocular banter, from Davis taunting “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later” ahead of “If I Were A Bell” to John Coltrane’s quest for a beer opener at the close of “Woody’N You”. Heck, there’s even a false start on “You’re My Everything”. I can’t think of another Miles album that shows him and his musicians in such a candid light.


 The atmosphere might be surprisingly informal, but there’s nothing slapdash about the music. Normally I’m a bit intimidated by albums stuffed with standards. Not knowing how the songs involved sound in their traditional settings, I’m totally out of my depth when confronted with them in jazz interpretations. Slowly, however, albums such as “Somethin’ Else” (which finally got me enjoying “Autumn Leaves”) and this one are helping me overcome my irrational fears. “If I Were A Bell” and “Oleo”, both of which would become staples of Miles’ live repertoire, are immaculate here, the latter rendered particularly nimble by the restraint shown by percussionist Philly Joe Jones, who demonstrates that what you don’t play is just as important as what you do. During a lovely “It Could Happen To You”, after Miles’ piercing, quicksilver performance Coltrane’s full-throttle honk slaps the listener about the ears: he sounds like he’s playing, albeit very loudly, from another room.


As a relatively painless introduction to some standard jazz repertoire, “Relaxin’” can’t be faulted. My heavy vinyl reissue carries Prestige labels but I suspect its provenance has more to do with American vinyl vending concern Acoustic Sounds. In glorious mono, it sounds almost frighteningly vivid at times, but also frequently lapses into distracting distortion, and is peppered with dropouts.


MILES DAVIS Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)


Chronologically of a piece with “Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet” and “’Round About Midnight” (it was recorded at the same and overlapping sessions respectively), “Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet” offers a similar respectful yet progressive treatment of standards of both show and jazz.


On “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Diane” Miles sets proceedings up, his trumpet tone clear yet slightly shrill and piercing, only to have Hurricane Coltrane blow in from the back of the studio, grabbing the listener’s ears in a bear hug. Miles at least pays lip service to the melody; Coltrane smashes it to sharp-edged smithereens. “Salt Peanuts” I find hard work, for some reason; it has the fractured freneticism that, in my ignorance, I associate with bebop – too many notes for my liking. Philly Joe Jones’ lengthy, context-free drum solo sounds like Ginger Baker hammering away on a bunch of upturned trash cans.


What’s remarkable about “Steamin’”, though, are its ballads, helped immeasurably by the fact that Coltrane lays out for them. For some reason, when Miles plays a ballad, it’s captivating, yet when I hear Coltrane do so (on, for example, “Ballads”, naturally enough) he sounds soporific. The closing amble through “When I Fall In Love” is the highpoint here for me.


This Acoustic Sounds-derived vinyl reissue of unspecified but adequate heaviosity sounds great, with the nasty distortion that plagued “Relaxin’” from the same source almost totally absent.


MILES DAVIS ‘Round About Midnight (Speakers Corner)


Something of a double whammy, this. Not only has revisiting “’Round About Midnight” led to me enjoying an album that left little impression on first hearing a dozen years ago, it’s also helped smooth my somewhat tortuous attempts at appreciating jazz standards, which much of the album consists of. Having been, frankly, scared off by lengthy, exploratory renditions of some of these tunes on later live Miles albums, hearing them in these relatively concise, snappy forms is a revelation. For that reason, perhaps this album should form part of a Miles starter kit, alongside “Kind Of Blue” (inevitably) and “In A Silent Way” (perhaps). I can’t think of any release that would better prepare for what they might encounter later when the habit really takes hold.


On “’Round Midnight” Miles trumpet runs the gamut from in-your-ear breathiness to fierce, brassy blare. The chaotic rhythmic and melodic clatter Miles and Coltrane work up during “Ah-Leu-Cha” is a foot-tapping revelation, and “All Of You” might be relatively dignified and traditional, but is sparkling with it. Even the Swedish folk tune “Dear Old Stockholm” is manipulated into something that sounds of a piece with the rest of the album.


Speakers Corner’s 180 gram vinyl reissue is unpretentious but excellent. It doesn’t quite aspire to the “’360’ hemispherical sound” boasted of in the original sleevenotes – well, it is mono, after all – but, save for a few splattery moments when Miles’ playing overwhelms the mid-1950s recording technology –it sounds pretty darn wonderful.


MILES DAVIS QUINTET Workin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)


This is one of four albums compiled from two 1956 recording sessions, the others being "Relaxin'", "Steamin'" and "Cookin'". The standard is established by opener "It Never Entered My Mind": relaxed, tending towards wistful, Davis' trumpet is piercingly clear against the swish and sashay of the rhythm section. The mood is broken somewhat by Philly Joe Jones' machine-gunning introduction to "Four", a hedonistic hymn to good times if ever there was one. Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" is measured and stately, before "The Theme", the short, sharp piece Miles used to signal the end of concert sets, slams a full stop on the first side, managing to work bass and drum solos into its allotted two minutes.


 Maybe proceedings become a little too relaxed during the second half of the programme. Even the titles of "Trane's Blues" and "Ahmad's Blues" suggest a degree of artistic bankruptcy, whilst the music is more suggestive of workmanlike effort - evoking the album's title, perhaps - than blinding inspiration. A scorching version of "Half Nelson", a Davis composition closely associated with Charlie Parker, shakes things up a bit, with Jones conjuring up a glorious, ferocious clatter of a drums solo. Finally another, even briefer, take of "The Theme" announces the album's close.


There's nothing wrong with the sound on this Original Jazz Classics series vinyl edition; it's full-blooded and impactful in glorious mono, with John Coltrane's saxophone in particular ripping vividly from the speakers.

MILES DAVIS Milestones (52nd Street)

Description: milestonesListening to this 1958 album with the benefit of considerable hindsight, it sounds almost as if Miles is bidding a fond farewell to multiple musical pasts. Frenetic covers of Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle” and the John Lewis/Dizzy Gillespie composition “Two Bass Hit” suggest bebop taken to its absolute limit, a stylistic cul-de-sac from which there could be no possible logical onward development. Similarly, the seemingly endless unwinding blues of “Sid’s Ahead” plays like Davis’ final statement on a style never to be revisited.

Of course, all the above is grounded in the knowledge that Miles’ next small group studio album would be “Kind Of Blue”, the record that would turn 1959 into Year Zero for modal jazz, but even so “Milestones” sounds like a summary statement. It has its moments, though: the self-penned title track is a pugnaciously exuberant delight, yet also overegged and heavy-handed compared with Bill Evans’ gossamer-tactile trio reading on “Waltz For Debby”. Stripped back to a rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, “Billy Boy” is all the more pleasant for its avoidance of the horns’ boisterous grandstanding. Nevertheless, “Milestones” still feels like the end times of something.

A product of the deliberately anonymous and geographically evasive 52nd Street Records, the current vinyl issue of “Milestones” owes its existence to the album’s copyright-expired status within the EU. As a consequence, this legalised bootleg is unlikely to be minted from anything as quaintly old-fashioned as a master tape. Its harsh, unyielding sonic signature sounds as if it was cut from a CD played on a particularly inexpensive Discman.