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26 December 2011

Miles Davis - 'Live-Evil' (Columbia)

It's to the other side of Miles Davis now, with this record proclaiming it's inner evil, or at least un-goodness.  But Live-Evil is just a palindrome, a title to reflect the dark-tinged yet inevitably circular musings found on these four sides.  There's slightly different personel on different cuts but the liner notes are written in a long, horizontal format that makes it too much effort for me to sort it out.  But all the titans are here - McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Airto Moreira, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Here's what's really different from Sketches of Spain - this is rock music, with an aggressive rhythm section (drums are either William Cobham or Jack deJohnette; Michael Henderson, Ron Carter or Dave Holland on bass).  And you know what, Henderson's rockmonotony on 'What I Say' actually takes the cake over the more nuanced bass playing of the bigger names.  This lets Davis and later McLaughlin lay more flabbergasting solos without too much discordance.  It's the dictionary-definition of fusion, but it creeps close to the Dark Side without ever fully leaping in.  The fidelity is hot and I've always preferred this to Bitches Brew though both have that strong, surging riff to start off ('Sivad' here, which lays it on thick and lets the piece swell into a juggernaut, when you can actually feel restraint leaking out of the grooves).  We get solos galore here - deJohnette's lengthy, plodding one on side two is so brightly recorded that it really soaks into the air, and when Jarrett brings in the funky keys to reprise the theme, all is right in the world.  Jarrett also kills it on 'Funky Tonk', with a long, shimmering section of just he and Moreira, which burns like a warm winter radiator.  These are the most clichéd passages - the ones that rely on groove, momentum, and rhythm like we expect a jazz-fusion record to - but since it's records like this that define the genre, it all gets a pass.  But at it's most inventive, Live-Evil croaks, creaks and flounders under it's own rhythmic stress, like a lumbering behemoth of madness.  When Miles tries to cool it off - 'Little Church' and 'Nem un Talvez', for example - the elegiac tones just set up more distrust when the band comes back in.  But it's these moments of respite that make Live-Evil so complete, and such an oddball mishmash of live sessions.  It flows, and it's cohesive, despite being mashed together from different sessions and with different personnel.  Two LPs is a lot, and by the end of side 4, which is dominated by the lengthy 'Inamorata', I'm beached.  It's a record as pregnant with ideas as the fertile African goddess on the cover, and all of the swampy electric licks really create a beast that rages out of control.

Miles Davis - 'Sketches of Spain' (Columbia)

I've had this record for years but I never, ever listen to it. When I'm in the mood I pull out the other Miles Davis record I have, but today it's "hitting the spot".  You would think these Iberian-inspired melodies would conjure sun-parched images of Mediterranean cliffs and luscious scenery, but I'm staring out the window of a cold, grey day in Northern Europe and finding it equally beautiful as I stare at bare trees, pointing into a featureless wash of sky.  Davis's trumpet is of course the featured instrument, though he wrote none of the compositions.  It's mixed high over the session orchestra, and has a nice warm rolling momentum over the string washes.  The majority of the first side is a long piece by Joaquín Rodrigo, and it's Anadlusian grandeur is emphasised by the dramatic swells.  There's nothing jazz here until the second track, 'Will o' the Wisp', which has a swing to it.  Throughout Sketches of Spain, there's this little hand percussion that cuts through the whole mix - like an egg shaker or something.  It really grounds what could become an otherwise overblown sense of grandeur, and I award Gil Evans for his compositional taste.  Sketches of Spain is a certainly as far away from the exploratory, risk-taking Miles Davis as possible, but it's a textbook example of how trumpet can be a lead instrument.  That it was released in the late 1940's, just after the Spanish Civil War, makes me wonder about context and what sorts of statements Evans and Davis were trying to make.  We can turn to Charlie Haden and Carla Bley's Liberation Music Orchestra for a more overt form of that, but I want to believe this is more than postcard musical tourism.