Miles Davis in the '70s: Transcending Jazz
This is the third in a four-part series diving through the vast and innovative catalogue of trumpeter Miles Davis. To read about his other eras, or for the complete article, click the links below.
The ‘70s: Transcending Jazz
Bitches Brew (1970)
Words can barely describe the brilliance of Bitches Brew. The record is an uncompromisingly bold expression of jazz-fusion, blending the avant-garde style of the Second Great Quintet and the electronic mania of In a Silent Way with the funk-rock vibrance dominating the mainstream. “Pharaoh’s Dance” is a musical muddle, but an extraordinary mess – each musician plays like they are intentionally interrupting one another, forming a sonic tsunami of jazz, funk, and rock which is as long as it is inaccessible. “Bitches Brew” is musical insanity led by a pounding bassline, over which are layers of ear-shattering drums, screeching trumpet, and meandering electric piano. The entire LP is a never-ending adventure of untamed improvisation, with all conventions of jazz forgotten in favour of delivering an unapologetically manic experience. Running for over 90 minutes, Bitches Brew justifies every minute with the boundless creativity from Miles and limitless passion from every name involved.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
There were elements of rock all over Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, but Jack Johnson is the only time Miles prioritised the rock over the jazz. From the very first moment, you are introduced to a revving guitar and groovy electric bassline, stretching for minutes before Miles even appears. Up there with “In a Silent Way” and “So What”, “Right Off” is one of his best songs ever. It’s a 27 minute colossus of jazz-rock perfection, filled with gritty guitar play from McLaughlin and a showstopping solo from Hancock on the organ. Most impressive is Miles himself, playing the trumpet like a machine-gun, shooting out rapid-fire notes as he dominates the waves of bass. If “Right Off” were the entire album, Jack Johnson would easily be a contender for his best work, but unfortunately, “Yesternow” brings down the experience. It’s an aimless compilation of ambient vignettes taken from the In a Silent Way sessions, with a strange outtake of “Shhh / Peaceful” in the middle of the track. After the meticulous build of rock and jazz through the first song, “Yesternow” disrupts all momentum the LP had. It’s far from a bad tune, but it pales in comparison to that masterful opening track.
The ‘70s was an era full of incredible live albums from Miles, and Live-Evil stands as his finest. With lightning-fast arrangements and rapid improvisation, the record sounds like a sped-up sequel to Bitches Brew, filled with energetic guitar solos and screaming horns. Live-Evil has the energy of Jack Johnson but the density of Bitches Brew, with 25 minute tracks such as “Funky Tonk” and “What I Say” boasting an unfathomable level of detail. Running for a lengthy 104 minutes, the time flies by thanks to the unbridled energy from each player and the constant switch-ups in tempo, tone, and instrument.
On the Corner (1972)
On the Corner has its moments, but as a complete body of work, it’s his weakest since Filles de Kilimanjaro. The thick, funky bass gives the record a distinct, danceable sound akin to James Brown, but unlike the funk acts Miles was borrowing from, On the Corner feels uneventful. The 18 minute opener overstays its welcome, though the intricate layers of guitar, bass, trumpet, tabla, sitar, and clarinet are too mesmerising to deny. “Black Satin” is the definite standout, where the slow build of horns, bass, keyboard, and percussion lead to a satisfying finish. The bassline from “Black Satin” persists through the rest of the record, making much of On the Corner feel samey and underdeveloped. The album is undeniably catchy, but that is its sole appeal. Ambitious compositions and stunning solos are nowhere to be found here. It suffices as funky background noise, but lacks the nuance and versatility of his best efforts.
Big Fun (1974)
Big Fun kicks off with its worst track. “Great Expectations” is an ambitious composition from Miles, clocking in at almost 30 minutes. The song is a dense, spacious realm of hypnotic sitar and whirling tambura, with flickers of trumpet and piano flowing in and out of the veil of Indian instruments. For a five minute ambient piece, it would be brilliant, but the half hour runtime makes it almost unpalatable. Without any consistent rhythm section, the composition lacks focus, which is an issue not even an album as chaotic as Bitches Brew suffered from. Thankfully, things pick up after the monotonous opener. “Ife” is a tremendous jazz-fusion highlight with a funky bassline that runs for the whole song, permeating through chaotic passages of squealing clarinet and keyboard. Of all eight tracks, “Ife” is the only one whose length feels justified. The rest of the album follows a similar formula: longwinded jazz-fusion compositions that sound excellent for a time, but rarely warrant their enormous lengths.
Get Up With It (1974)
After the uneventful one-two punch of On the Corner and Big Fun, Get Up With It is a refreshing return to form for Miles. Every track is its own realm of jazz-fusion greatness, with highlights like “Honky Tonk” leaning into funk while abrasive deep cuts such as “Mtume” take a harsher, more avant-garde approach. Though every song is a standout, the two 30 minute tracks are what make the LP so special. It opens up with “He Loved Him Madly”, an enthralling masterwork in atmosphere, where a chorus of electric guitars echo in and out of earshot while a droning organ passage guides the listener through the runtime. “Calypso Frelimo” is equally genius – it kicks off with an explosive passage of guitar and electric trumpet, with spurts of bass and flute erupting in the soundscape. Then, 10 minutes in, everything is stripped away aside from the ominous bassline. Elements are slowly eased back into the track, relapsing into the chaos of its opening, twice as explosive as before. Get Up With It is chaotic, but unlike Big Fun, it feels focussed. With some of the most richly textured and dynamic compositions in Miles’s career, it stands out as one of his strongest projects.
Back in February 1975, Miles performed twice in the Festival Hall of Osaka, Japan. The afternoon performance was released as Agharta, whereas the evening session was later released as Pangaea. These live albums marked some of his final performances before going into a sudden retirement, since constant health issues and an increasing drug problem made any performance a challenge for Miles. Despite his poor health, Agharta turned out another masterwork. From the very start, the LP is a masterclass in jazz-rock. The performance ebbs and flows from intense guitar solos to relaxed funk passages, combining the atmospheric density of Get Up With It with the tight grooves of Jack Johnson. Full of stunning guitar solos and a number of manic moments from Miles, Agharta is engaging for the full 96 minutes.
Just hours after Miles and the band performed Agharta, they reunited that evening for Pangaea. As a whole, this live record is fantastic. Divided into two halves – the erratic jazz-rock thunder of “Zimbabwe” and the laidback fusion of “Gondwana” – the latter track engaged me far more. Although “Zimbabwe” was excellently performed, full of sporadic guitar solos and colourful horn passages, I found the unstructured improvisation overwhelmingly messy at points. On “Gondwana”, however, things are far more focussed. A calming guitar rhythm opens up the track with a warm, summery tone, with the soft patter of a water drum adding to the languid atmosphere. As the song progresses, the hi-hats hiss, the organ screams, and Miles’s trumpet dominates, but the gentle tone from the beginning remains. Despite the constant switch-ups and instrumental changes, the peaceful atmosphere of “Gondwana” keeps the performance feeling cohesive, making for one of his finest live recordings ever.
Water Babies (1976)
Far from his best album, Water Babies is nowhere near his worst either. It’s comprised of tracks from the late ‘60s, back when the Second Great Quintet were inseparable. It’s brilliant to hear Miles back with his band, but the music itself pales in comparison to classics like Nefertiti and Miles Smiles. The chemistry is there, and the compositions are sound, but rarely is there a showstopping solo or an iconic melody. Williams flexes his effortless talents as a drummer on “Splash”, and the whimsical rhythms of “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” make it a carefree highlight, but otherwise, there isn’t much to note about Water Babies.
Dark Magus (1977)
A thundering performance at Carnegie Hall, Dark Magus is another brilliant live album from Miles. Unlike Pangaea and Agharta, where it was obvious which compositions he was pulling from, everything sounds fresh on Dark Magus. With brutal drum-work throughout and a relentless choir of revving guitars, the soundscape is too harsh and abrasive to recognise any arrangements from previous Miles efforts. More than anything else, what makes Dark Magus stand out is the sheer density of the instrumentation. Skip to any moment and the guitars, horns, and rhythm section will be screaming in unison, delivering a performance intricate and chaotic enough to rival the most intense forms of noise rock.
In the 1970s, Miles proved he was more than just a jazz artist; he was a musical revolutionary. Despite critics calling his new style a mess, and jazz purists labelling him a traitor to the genre, Miles never flinched, delivering forward-thinking classic after classic. From his lengthy studio sessions to his phenomenal live performances, everything Davis touched in the ‘70s is worth a dozen listens. The creative peak of his career, he would never reach such heights again.