Judge Bill Gibron is definitely trippin' on this performance, man.
"Call It Anything"—the name Davis gave his performance piece for the 1970 Isle of Wight concert appearance.
It was seen as something close to sacrilege by many jazz purists. Here was a legend, a man responsible for some of the most amazing music in the last three decades, someone who had worked hand in hand with other mythological beings like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, and, most importantly, arranger Gil Evans to create timeless works of complex instrumental bliss. He had followed the form from be-bop right into his own cool jazz compartmentalizing, with fanatics and critics along for the resplendent ride. But in 1968, this musical messiah did something unspeakable, something so foul that many would never forgive him, regaling him with titles like soulless and sell-out. Like Bob Dylan before him, Miles Davis dared to do the unthinkable within his own musical circles. He fell under the spell of lady electricity, plugged in, and never looked back at the conventional acoustic concept of his adopted sonic form. And like a giant wand had been waved, decades of influence and following were magically forgotten. Suddenly, Davis was no longer a founding father of modern improvisational music. He was a traitor to tradition.
This monumental event in the history of jazz, and Davis's career, is spotlighted in the remarkable documentary Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, new to DVD from Eagle Eye Media. Gathering together every living member of Davis's eclectic groupings at the time (1968-1972) and adding in a few famous faces (Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana) to bring in some outsider prospective, this nearly two-hour excursion (including the mandatory bonus interview material included on the disc) into the world of Davis's dark, demented muse is one incredibly enlightening trip. Tracing his career in broad strokes from his earliest days (there is an amazing archival clip of quintessential "cool" from The Steve Allen Show) to the moment, in 1970, when the world witnessed his electrified fusion live at the Isle of Wight, we get deep inside this amazing man and his even more mesmerizing music.
For the uninitiated, or old school jazz hounds, this will not be smooth sailing. Davis moved away from many of the instrumental signatures he mastered in the '40s and '50s to explore the possibilities of modal improvisation (based on scales, not chords). Heavily influenced by the emergence of world music (especially the rhythms of mother Africa and Latin America) and determined to bring his sound into the rock age with its integrity intact, Davis pulled no punches, accepted no substitutes, and experimented with everything, from harmonics to beats, form to formula. The result is something far more jam than song oriented. Performances were built around ideas and basic chord constructions, yet Davis detested rehearsal and wouldn't let his players prepare before a show. When they took the stage, they had to rely on their talent, and their leader, to point them in the proper direction. Davis would indeed conduct his band, leading them with a look, or a series of notes, providing aural cues for where the music should go next. Though some may consider this freeform or unstructured self-indulgence, the opposite is actually the case. Davis was developing an actual happening, a chance for audience and artist to merge into a single entity of unified understanding, with masterful musicianship at the core of the conversation.
As seen in the Isle of Wight set (every second of its 34-minute amazement is presented on this DVD), we witness a kind of Grateful Dead of jazz dynamics, or as keyboardist Keith Jarrett suggests, a history of the genre in one extended performance piece. Indeed, mixing the elements of his usual cool style with some intensely funky backbeats and a healthy dose of deranged psychedelia, Davis infuses the set with a kind of smoldering ferocity, an untapped well of tonal terror coming fast and furious from the end of a strangely serpentine horn. Like a volcano, erupting in moments of primal rage, this amazing conglomeration of musicians takes us through a dynamic of dissonance and contradiction, juxtaposing different shapes and sonic sounds along the path to a purity of musical spirit. This is the music that made critic Stanley Crouch (a known reviler of Davis's Bitches Brew, the ultimate album from this period) state that Miles had turned traitor on his fans. This new phase was "the greatest example of self-violation in the history of art," according to the writer. In retrospect, it is easy to understand such a sentiment, but after witnessing the marvelous, maddening music being made that day on the Isle, it's hard to completely agree with.
Anyone looking to see a side of Davis other than as a musician—meaning a tabloid like look at his controversial life and loves—will not find A Different Kind of Blue to their liking. This is an intricate, detailed portrait of a man going through an amazing creative change in his life, a time when he challenged his audience, with some responding more with agitation than admiration. Listening to Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell praise his experimentation and unusual approach to his craft seems sensible, considering the lengths that each of these artists went to define their own place in the pantheon of popular music. But it's the individuals who played with Davis—band mates like Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Airto Moreira, and Dave Holland—who really get the point across. They use glowing, almost religious terms in describing their tenure with Davis, never forgetting that they are merely members of a band, with a greatly influential and fallible creator as its cornerstone. As platitude is placed next to personal insight, as anecdotes meld with attitude, we get the feeling that Davis's electric period was more than just about changing musical direction. It was about changing musicians, challenging them to walk up to the brink of braggadocio without falling off into foolishness.
Throughout A Different Kind of Blue, we see this remarkable personal transformation again and again. It's true that Davis left behind a legacy of unbelievably influential and important music. But he did more than that. He schooled an entire generation in the ways of personal expression, or breaking free from the shackles of tyrannical traditionalists who demanded music fall into a certain set system of categories, lest it be considered crazy, or worse yet, a strategic sellout. One of the best comments made during this entire documentary comes from Carlos Santana. Balking at the notion that Davis abandoned his roots to mass market his sound to the public, he defies anyone to listen to the Isle of Wight show and call that commercial. Davis was indeed moving into the final phase of his career, a variation on his innovative spirit matched with a "really couldn't give a shit" attitude. He was out to make music the way he heard it in his head. And A Different Kind of Blue gives us a chance to peek inside that maelstrom of inspiration, if only for a moment. It is a great bit of articulate musicology.
Beautifully shot and compiled by Murray Lerner, chronicler of the Isle of Wight shows in other films and DVDs (including The Who's set at the festival), Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue looks stunning in its clean, clear 1.33:1 full screen presentation. The 34-minute material from the actual concert looks well preserved and clean, with minimal defects, as does most of the archival footage featuring Davis himself (we do get to hear him speak—or better yet, "whisper"—for himself throughout the film). As for the newly prepared interview footage, nothing could be more atmospheric. Filming each subject in front of an all-white background, and using occasional close-ups to delve deep into their emotional responses while reminiscing about Miles, the gorgeous colors and deep detail are just exquisite. This is an amazing looking disc, with an even bigger bonus waiting for the true aficionado of sound.
The aural attributes of this DVD presentation are incredibly impressive. Remastering the material here to fit into one of three fine formats, you can experience the genius of Miles Davis in either PCM stereo, 5.1 Surround, or DTS surround. Both surround packages do provide a potent immersive experience, with individual instruments filling each channel in separate, but perfectly balanced harmony. The Q&A utilizes the front channels flawlessly, making every memory and reflection perfectly understandable and audible. As marvelous as this movie looks, the sonic elements make for a near perfect presentation of Davis's demanding canon.
The bonus material is also fascinating, a must-see aspect of this overall release. Why the nearly 30 minutes of additional interview footage was excised from the original presentation is a mystery, since it is all wonderfully informative and important to understanding Davis and those around him. Not repeating stories or situations from the film proper, we do get more depth of character, a clearer idea of how Davis controlled a recording session, and the overwhelming sense of exploration in each performance. Individuals able to access extras via DVD-ROM will also be treated to an extensive sessionography of these milestone "electric" gatherings. While a Davis bio seems like a mandatory inclusion (it is nowhere to be found on the disc), the added content here really complements the documentary, providing clarity and context.
While he hasn't dropped off the cultural radar, it is interesting to see the lack of respect paid to Miles some 14 years after his death. While Coltrane and Parker, Monk and Mingus seem eternally lauded and forgiven of their sins, Davis is still paying for turning to rock, funk, soul, and R&B for inspiration when he felt his artistic fuel being depleted. If he had stuck to his traditionalist guns, one would imagine the reverence being universal and untouchable. But with his decision to plug in and join the modern age, Miles made some enemies and it is their equally passionate voice that can be heard in the background during Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue. Their point may be petty, but it is still being played out some 35 years after the fact. Perhaps Davis will always be seen as a flawed god, a deity who wasn't afraid to challenge, and occasionally lose, his holiness. Miles Electric proves that, as an artist, there were none more pious or righteous. Here's hoping everyone grooves on all of his Gospels one day.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Eye Media
• Additional Interview Footage
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