Sunday, March 19, 2006

Grated Expectations

(Originally published on MySpace 3/17/06)

I feel like the last one into the discussion, but in case you missed it, or were distracted by the news of Blondie's conniption fit onstage, Miles Davis was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Monday evening.  The full cast included Miles, the aforementioned Blondie, Motley Crue, Lynard Skynard and the Sex Pistols (apparently, with Johnny Rotten telling them long distance to f- off.  Aah, punk.)  A motley crew, indeed.  Herbie Hancock presented him, and a Herbie-led band featuring Mike Stern and Wallace Roney played- I'm sure it was cool, maybe VH-1 will even show some of it.  (Side note- Roney freaks me out, always has, always will.  I know it's hard to be a jazz musician, much less a trumpeter, without an obvious bow to Miles, but to be his doppleganger?  At age 40-something?  Sheesh.) 

I don't have much of an opinion on this- it seems an obvious and perhaps overdue add for the HOF, and maybe it'll get some 12-year old tourist from Topeka turned on to Bitches Brew, but otherwise I don't think it matters all that much.  Miles' career and reputation certainly don't need it, and over the past few years a lot of people have been reexamining Miles "rock" era all by themselves.  I visited the actual museum in Cleveland back in '98, and came out rather underwhelmed- the building itself is remarkable and tremendously cool, but the actual museum was underwhelming.  All I remember from it is David Byrne's big suit, and letters home from Janet Joplin and Jim Morrison, which were heartbreaking.  Otherwise, it was a little confused and underrealized- maybe it's improved since then, but the Hendrix museum in Seattle, with less, did more for me. 

Needless to say, this has created some web chatter, well capsulated at be.jazz.  (It seems all you have to do is say "Miles Davis" and you can get people worked up, which is perhaps the greatest complement we can pay him)  Most interesting is what has become a dialogue between The Bad Plus and good friend Darcy, over (what else) evaluating Miles.

Full disclosure- I know The Bad Plus have been the cats meow for a couple of years now (rising just as I was sort of mentally checking out of the scene), and a lot of musicians who I love and respect really dig them, but I just don't get it.  I've heard chunks of both records, and to me it sounds like a pretty good piano trio banging at rock tunes (or originals that sound like rock tunes) then adding intentionally weird-sounding post-production.  Not really moving the music forward on any level, in my opinion.  I want to like it, but haven't found a reason yet.  I'm told they're better live, and hopefully I'll get to see them soon and report back with better news.  (I've been waiting to get that one off my chest for about a year now, but never had the opportunity- can ya tell?)

Now back to the matter at hand.  TBP and Darcy have put together great arguments both ways about the '70s music, so I won't repeat.  Perhaps, however, this isn't the most cogent argument to have about Miles '70s music at all. One of the reasons that people have a hard time with that era of records, particularly from "Live Evil" on, is that we don't have an obvious template to work from in evaluating it.  With all the music that proceeds it in Miles oevre, the whole can only be talked about by its parts- you can't talk about "Sorcerer" or "Milestones" without talking about this piano solo or that drum hit.  I think to some degree you can do that with the '80s music as well.  But the 70's music doesn't operate like that.  I hear it as much more kaliedoscopic- it's fundamentally groove music, with solos indeed, but not ever really about solos, even Miles solos.  TBP mention the famous "James Brown meets Stockhausen" idea, but maybe a better analogy (still imperfect, I know) might be Steve Reich, where you are not so much taken in by any one event as the transformation blooming through all the repitition.  Or, a more modern comparison, Tortoise or Telefon Tel Aviv.  To me, this carries over into the live material caught in that time, "Pangea" and "Agartha"- blowing, such a primary consideration in the '60s, is just one part of the package here.  Or another analogy- it's like reading a Kundera novel.  You follow the plot, and the plot is interesting, but it's not the force driving the novel- the plot exists almost exclusively to unfold and examine the ideas he's playing with.  

That doesn't make necessarily make the bands worse, (thought TBP have a point about Miles suddenly dropping sideman listings) but the musical intent, and the musicians roles, quite different.  (Liebman talks about it himself on the Isle of Wight documentary.)  And I don't think it invalidates the quality of the music at all- that's like saying Stravinsky suddenly sucked when he went twelve-tone.

Note: Mwanji on be.jazz mentions the three Miles electric books out there.  I have read Miles Beyond, and recommend it.  There is some psuedo-Zen psycobabble I could do without, but the interviews with sidemen are great, particularly Pete Cosey and Marcus Miller, and Paul Tingen puts some real work into understanding and explaining how those 70's records were made, which certainly increased my understanding and appreciation.  Also, highly recommended is the aforementioned  Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, a documentary about Miles' gig at the Isle of Wight festival in 1971, including the whole performance.  I could live without Santana's babbling, but a lot of insightful commentary from the musicians, and of course the gig itself.  Check it.

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