I mean, if I’m forced to stay home in pandemic isolation I might as well enjoy myself. There’s no point in fretting over not being able to hang out in crowds at restaurants, or zombie shuffle my way thru the mall. I’m really not a fan of either of those activities anyways. Crowds cause me great anxiety. I can fake my way thru any situation, like painting a smile and “Joe Cool” sunglasses on a coconut and assimilating into the burgeoning consumer crowd. But I’d rather be home drinking an IPA and listening to records. Like the one I’m about to talk about next. Welcome back to my live album series, and this time it’s a goddamn whopper. Miles Davis’ Live Evil. Is it completely live? No. But then again, are any of us?
So I fell hard for Miles Davis around ten years ago. Before that I thought he was quiet, cool jazz man who had a raspy voice and appealed to romantics and guys with soul patches. Yes, I was an idiot. I had gotten into jazz by then, but I was a Thelonious Monk cat. I fell hard for Monk’s Dream in the mid-90s. The jaunty nature of Monk’s playing won me over, and his cover of “Just A Gigolo” is still one of my absolute favorite performances. He took a big dumb pop song and turned it into this complicated, melancholy piece of modern musical art. Like a robot that developed emotions and gave us a broken, geometric version of a song about a braggart playboy. It was unbelievable.
Okay, back to Miles.
So I had a handful of jazz CDs by the time I’d bought a turntable in 2008. On a trip to Chicago I bought three records from Jazz Record Mart: Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note, McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy, and Miles Davis’ Nefertiti. I’d been listening to a lot of jazz on internet radio at work, so Wes an McCoy I’d heard a lot of. The Miles record was a random grab. I knew Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, but I wanted something I wasn’t familiar with so Nefertiti was what I grabbed. Man, that record completely re-wired my brain. It was still all acoustic, but there was a darkness to Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock’s compositions. It felt like a record that was moving towards something new, exciting, and maybe even a little dangerous. I had been instantly converted to the Church of Miles Davis.
Of course I knew where I was going next. The following year I received Bitches Brew and my life was forever changed. What a dark and dangerous album that was. Davis won over fans of Sabbath and Hendrix, but lost his most devoted fans that had followed him for 20+ years. He was crucified by hard line jazz critics and fans, much like Dylan was crucified by the hard line folk critics and fans(sort of becoming the fascists they claimed they wanted to kill.) Miles Davis didn’t care. He’d stepped into the broader, modern musical world and loved it. Psychedelia, rock and roll, and the buzzing of electric instruments was the new Church of Miles. You either got up and worshiped, or you walked out the door.
I was screaming “Amen!”, brothers and sisters.
Now “Electric Miles” was a totally different beast from the “Cool Jazz Miles”. Electric Miles was wild and woolly. He played his trumpet through delay pedals and a wah wah. He opened the door for a guitarist like John McLaughlin to bring a mathematical Hendrix-like quality to the sound. He brought in musicians like Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, Dave Holland, and Chick Corea into the fold, while still using his quintet favorite Wayne Shorter and longtime producer Teo Macero as well. He wanted to create this acid-burnt, electrified version of jazz that opened the doors to counter-culture kids and disillusioned hipsters that felt jazz needed to inject some serious LSD into its aging veins.
Some of my favorite Miles records come from the Bitches Brew period. Filles de Kilimanjaro, Miles in the Sky, In A Silent Way, Jack Johnson, and Big Fun represent a time in jazz when anything went. It was a re-writing of the rules of jazz, much like Monk did in the 50s and Davis did in ’59 with Kind of Blue. Hearing what these bands did live during this period was something to behold. It was one thing to listen Davis’ meticulously cut and pasted improvisational sessions by Davis and producer Macero, but to hear these musicians live and letting loose was incredible. Live at the Fillmore, Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus are all extensive live double LPs that represent the most far-out, dense live excursions you’ll likely hear. Ever. And they’re not for everyone. For me, those albums are my bread and butter. Others may not appreciate the long jams and extensive sound excursions. One album that may appeal to those souls without the wherewithal to soak in the dense Miles Davis musical brine, Live-Evil might just be your cup of tea.
So Live-Evil isn’t a completely live record. It’s split up between cuts recorded live at the Cellar Door in Washington D.C December 19th, 1970, and studio cuts recorded in New York at Columbia Studios B in June of 1970. The results are a collection of raw, visceral songs and beautifully-constructed studio cuts intermingling picking up where the other leave off. Davis’ band covers shorter passages written by composer Hermeto Pascoal, cutting them in as palate cleansers amongst the heady soundscapes and funky jams. It all comes together beautifully.
“Sivad” is one of the live tracks and it sizzles and conjures funky spells. Reminiscent of what would come with On The Corner, it displays the absolute power of Davis’ electric period to a tee. Street vibes, psych rock, and fusion meld together to give us 15-minutes of mind-expanding glee. “Little Church” is a quiet, dissonant piece written by Hermeto Pacoal that takes the edge off the sweaty funk that came before. His style really does fit right in with Davis’ bag of musical tricks. The 20+ minute “What I Say” sees us sees us back at the Cellar Door and in funk/soul mode. Keyboardist Keith Jarrett is the star here, displaying some lightning fast electric piano moves that are matched only by maestro drummer Jack DeJohnette. I can only imagine sitting in that crowd and letting this track roll over me. Simply outstanding. Of course, the ringmaster Miles Davis doesn’t go unnoticed. He’s in top form here.
The back and forth between quiet studio tracks and the live cuts really makes Live-Evil a very special entry into the Miles Davis canon. Not just as a live representation of his stage prowess, but as a well-constructed double LP journey. Like I said earlier, these live albums from Miles Davis in his electric period are dense, sweaty creatures. They’re not for the faint of heart or ear. But for those of us that want the challenge and savor the hothouse heat, prodigious playing, and trance-like nature of these extended jams these albums are like catnip. They seriously make my soul buzz with delight. Getting lost in these records is an absolute joy. Live-Evil is the perfect balance of psych freakout fusion jams and well-manicured intellectual sound excursion.
What better way to spend the great social distancing of 2020 than to get lost in some heady records? Hunker down with some double LPs and let them soak up the anxiety of the current times. Live-Evil is a great way to spend an afternoon. So is Big Fun, Aghara, Miles in the Sky, Bitches Brew, Live at the Fillmore, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and In A Silent Way.
See you on the flipside.