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Miles of Smiles

"Live at the Cellar Door" box set a jazz landmark

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In his lifetime, Miles Dewey Davis III was different things to different people. To some, Davis was the spiritual forefather of the modern-day rock & roll star. To others, he was jazz's second-generation visionary, causing new revolutions in jazz to spring up every other time he made a record. To others still, he was the godson of Jack Johnson and Josephine Baker, an unabashedly confident, sexualized Black Male who didn't jive to being treated like a secondary citizen -- not even if that meant getting roughed up by those who didn't share his accelerated views on being an outcast in America. Nobody denies Miles Davis was a tormented genius, as recently released The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia, Rating: ****) proves. Nobody denies he did some stupid shit, either.

After a period of youthful apprenticeship to hone his chops, no one could say shit to Miles. Full of bravado and a young man's verve and vigor, he cut a dashing figure: all thin-cut suits, oiled skin and dark sunglasses hiding an assassin's eyes. Did what the hell he pleased, both on and offstage. The only times Miles Davis ever got muted, it was done to the end of his trumpet by benefit of his own hand.

However, sometimes doing that stupid shit -- whether in his personal life or in the bowels of a dank Manhattan nightclub at 2am -- led to great artistic gains, not only for Davis but for society as a whole. He picked his bands based on gut instinct, and his confidence in them (John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, to name but a very few noted sidemen) inspired an adventurous spirit to take hold. Davis was the most adventurous musician (with possible exception of Coltrane) in jazz history, and he led or had a hand in most major jazz innovations until his death. Even his 1980s experiments with hip-hop, embarrassing to some at the time, can now be seen as rather groundbreaking.

Live-Evil, the album experiment/live session that the Sessions box set is based on, was, in the jazz world, the aural equivalent of Bob Dylan plugging in. Davis had long said he could build the greatest rock & roll band in the world, and set about proving it. The now-classic lineup he constructed consisted of Michael Henderson, a bassist with a penchant for complicated yet ultra-funky rhythms; polymath drummer Jack DeJohnette; fret-burning, Eastern-inspired guitarist John McLaughlin; Coltrane-inspired saxophonist Gary Barth; phenom pianist Keith Jarrett on Hammond organ (!); and a percussionist known simply as Airto.

Part of the reason the 6-CD Sessions sounds so dynamic is that the band was virtually overflowing with chemistry, albeit of the bad, lab-explosion variety. Jarrett hated the Hammond and felt that McLaughlin served no apparent purpose. Davis, in tip-top health and once again bringing his A-game, demanded stringent attention to detail. McLaughlin tried to fit in where he could, hoping for a chance to run off a few notes every hour or so. Barth took solos where he could find them. And yet, the set's an absolutely essential document of one of the most groundbreaking new directions ever taken in jazz. Its relative success paved the way for Weather Report, latter-day Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and loads of others. The Sessions are also a template for most jam-improv bands -- jazz, rock or otherwise -- to this day.

There's plenty of alternate versions here, as well as extended periods of improv labeled simply "Improv 1," "Improv 2," etc. The sheer exuberance of these sides precludes them from simply being filler, as does this set's near-apocryphal backstory. (To boot, improvisation, alternate takes and the like are far more accepted in the jazz world than in those of country or rock. One notable exception being -- and this is fuel for another story -- jazz's logical post-1970 extension, hip-hop.)

Tracks like "Directions" and "Honky Tonk" (often "Funky Tonk," depending on who's doing the cataloging) fairly shoot out sparks, while saving the biggest fireworks for the song's close, a tease-tease-release formula that has become standard issue for latter-day jazz and rock bands alike. Miles' own playing on these discs is spare and minimalist, but inevitably bell-clear and perfectly pitched.

Like a great athlete, Davis saved most of his heroics for the fourth quarter. "It's About That Time" starts with a few odd-bird squawks from Davis, patches of feedback from McLaughlin and some rolling improv from Jarrett, before DeJohnette propels the whole thing toward the door, out into the night and into the realm of the Classic. It sounds like night music of the first order: dark, funky, exploratory, and with enough sex appeal and hinted danger to keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what's going to happen next.

Miles Davis, one assumes, would have it no other way.

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