Miles Davis: In Concert

My first encounter with In Concert came about in a rather circuitous manner. Upon its initial release in 1973, my listening regimen consisted of fare like King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black and The Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire. Captivated by the latter's cover art and the band's unusual inclusion of a violin player (Jerry Goodman), I purchased the album, completely unaware of the key role guitarist John McLaughlin had played on Miles' recordings like Bitches Brew; furthermore, the very name 'Miles Davis' was one unknown to me at the time. In hindsight it seems astonishing that I could have been completely oblivious of the fact that Miles had been revolutionizing music for decades. What a humbling shock of recognition it is to realize that the artist one has just ‘discovered' has in fact been a towering cultural figure throughout the years of one's life as well as many years before.

Serendipitously, Birds of Fire pointed me in Miles' direction through its composition “Miles Beyond (Miles Davis),” one I mistook to be composed by him (due to the brackets) when it was probably intended by McLaughlin as a gesture of tribute. Regardless, at a visit to my local record store soon thereafter, I eagerly sought out the Miles Davis section and discovered the recent release In Concert, recorded live at the Philharmonic Hall in New York on September 29, 1972. Intrigued by the cover art (by Corky McCoy, also responsible for On the Corner recorded in June, 1972) and entranced by its mystique, I surrendered my precious $10 and raced home, anxious to hear its two discs. My father, a lifelong jazz fan whose taste leaned more towards Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington, expressed an equally enthusiastic desire to be apprised of the music Miles Davis was now creating and joined me as I dropped the needle onto side one.

Puzzled, we guessed that we were hearing some exotic pre-concert music and waited expectantly for the intro to subside and be replaced by some familiar jazz-style ensemble playing. As the minutes rolled on, however, it began cryptically to dawn on us that this alien music we were listening to was none other than Miles and his band. I can still recall the distressed look on my father's face as, expressing disenchantment with the bizarre turn he concluded Miles had taken, he exited, leaving me to listen determinedly to all four sides. I wish I could say that I experienced some sort of epiphany by the middle of side three but that wasn't the case. Slipping the second album into its sleeve and mightily disheartened over the money I concluded I'd wasted, I valiantly rode back to the record store and futilely pleaded with the shop clerk to let me return it and get my money back. After this depressing episode, the record's fate strangely vanishes from memory. Perhaps it was traded at a record shop along with a stack of other used records during one of the occasional purges of my collection. Regardless, the recording didn't grace my stereo again until Columbia re-released it in 1997.

By then, my relationship with Miles had matured considerably. Over time, I gradually purchased Porgy and Bess, The Man With the Horn, Sketches of Spain, Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, Cookin' and Relaxin', Workin' and Steamin', Kind of Blue—virtually the entire catalogue, incrementally and achronologically. Progressively acclimatizing my aural understanding with each acquisition, Miles' music lost all traces of impenetrability and assumed ever-deepening clarity. Each recording broadened my understanding of Miles, intensified my appreciation of the remarkable stylistic range of the work and the fecund imagination and artistry of the man responsible. That Miles had managed to sustain such a level of incredible innovation over so many years struck me as superhuman, and I championed the fearlessness of his pioneering spirit and unerring artistic radar. After returning from his five-year 'retirement' in 1980, Miles managed to still push the music forward with Star People and Decoy, in contradistinction to the rising conservative Marsalis wave that threatened to sweep all innovation aside. And yet, in spite of my fulsome immersion into Miles' universe and my embrace of virtually all phases of his career from The Birth of the Cool through to landmark 1960s Quintet classics like Nefertiti and Miles Smiles and fierce 1970s recordings like Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus, my second encounter with In Concert would only transpire upon its reissue.

I offer this semi-autobiographical account not for sentimental reasons but to illustrate through personal anecdote how listening is always permeated hermeneutically in radical fashion. Of course, the horizon of one's listening is constantly being extended and reshaped by current listening, and this horizon both reconfigures our understanding of what we've heard before, just as our past listening influences profoundly what we hear today. Other listeners might have sought out Miles' music in its earliest incarnation and proceeded chronologically, in doing so developing a grasp of his transformations that might have seemed more coherent, natural, and organic. Approaching his oeuvre in this manner would ultimately have brought me to an In Concert that would have been heard as the next signpost of his amazing travelogue, one more distillation of Miles' muse to help add another colour to an astonishing portrait.

In Concert was recorded following studio sessions that materialized on Big Fun, Get Up With It, and On the Corner. In response to his radical new directions, many listeners and critics complained that the distinctive personalities that comprised Miles' previous groups had been supplanted by a relatively faceless collection of musicians. Admittedly, no one in the concert band offers as distinctive a stylistic personality as, say, Wayne Shorter but such an expectation is misguided. Miles was now focused upon creating a massive, textural sound, one which would absorb its contributors into a pummeling maelstrom. “Rated X” gets the concert off to a broiling start, Mtume's congas, Badal Roy's tablas, Khalil Balakrishna's exotic electric sitar, and Ray Foster's drums creating a percussive stew over which Reggie Lucas's guitars, Cedric Lawson's keyboards, Miles' wah-wah trumpet, and Carlos Garnett's sax repeat an ostinato until Michael Henderson's bass anchors the piece at the 5 minute mark. Here and elsewhere, Miles' trumpet bleats, howls, and cries over the churning of the band. The bluesy “Honky Tonk” then cools down the pace, giving Miles a chance to indulge in some characteristically restrained but funky soloing. As was his custom at the time, Miles ends the piece abruptly with an immediate segue into a relentless “Theme From Jack Johnson” where his playing burns, complemented by the incendiary incantations of Garnett's soprano sax. One can only imagine the incredibly flammable power and energy emanating off of that stage.

Predictably, the response to In Concert was generally tepid. Jack Chambers writes in his 1985 Milestones II that, with the exception of a small number of moments, the recording is “unexceptional.” In the 2001 book Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, Paul Tingen concludes that the rhythms are stiff and sterile and that In Concert is the “weakest officially released album of his whole pre-1976 electric period.” Many complained that Henderson's bass lines were unbearably static; apparently a Coda writer called the fifteen-minute repetition of his three-note motif on “Ife” “pure torpor.” However, Henderson is unjustly maligned by such criticism as his bass plays a crucially selfless role in anchoring the band and consequently liberating those around him. Henderson was also deeply attuned to what was developing around him. Near the fourteen-minute mark of “‘Ife,” his motif drops out suddenly (likely the result of an onstage cue by Miles) to allow the leader to voice a bridge to the next section. During the final part of the piece, Henderson's languorous four-note bass line and Foster's unobtrusive support prompt Miles to provide the concert's most memorable, affecting solo. Its bluesy beginning turns sublimely funky with Miles testifying, egged on by audible cries and yelps of encouragement.

It's strange that what now sounds so assimilative seemed so foreign in 1973, especially considering that my listening tastes at the time were relatively adventurous. In my defense, such bafflement was not exclusive to my young ears, as hordes of jazz fans in 1973 were bewildered by Miles' latest direction. Many of those who worshipped at the altars of the Coltrane and Shorter groups were aghast at the prospect of Miles' new electric funk, a cauldronesque caterwaul more indebted to Sly and the Family Stone than to Charlie Parker. In place of the elastic telepathy of Ron Carter and Tony Williams, one now encountered Henderson's repetitive bass and Foster's thrashing rock beats. Obviously other listeners were forced to confront their own hermeneutic issues in dealing with the challenges wrought by Miles' relentless evolutionary tendencies.

March 2003