By Paul Tingen
One evening thirty-five years ago, during a break in a concert, a furious Gary Bartz walked into the dressing room. “Miles,” exhorted the saxophonist, “I hate what Keith is doing behind me! I don’t like what this motherfucker is doing. I want freedom, I don’t want him to play when I play!” Miles replied, “OK, I’ll take care of it,” and sent someone to fetch Keith. Bartz had left by the time Jarrett walked in, and Miles told him, “Gary just came in here and said that he loves what you’re playing behind him. Gary said, ‘play a little more!’
By the end of the following set, Bartz was ready to go to blows with Jarrett.
Today Bartz explains that the anecdote is an illustration of how Miles liked messing with his band member’s minds, trying to get them to, as the trumpeter put it, ‘play above what you know.’ Miles would always play games like that,” Bartz recalls. “We were on stage another time, and he walked over to me and he said, ‘What’s wrong with Keith?’ I looked at Keith, and Keith was looking at me. So after the show, I asked Keith, ‘what was going on?’ And it turned out that Miles had also walked over to him and had said, ‘What’s wrong with Gary?’”
“There were conflicts in the band,” comments drummer Jack DeJohnette, “but the music always outweighed the personal. The great thing about playing with Miles was that you had to be on your toes. You always had to be alert. The most important thing was to be in the moment and drop any projections or expectations that you had. You always had to be prepared for the unexpected. He kept you thinking all the time, and that was fun. You never knew what was going to happen and that made it exciting and challenging.”
“Musicians tend to go back to where they have been,” adds bassist Michael Henderson, “and Miles didn’t want them in those pockets. Whenever they got in a pocket like that, he’d do anything, he’d stop the music, or looked at you differently, just to get you out of the comfort zone or out of playing free. Anything not to go back there, not to do what you did before. So you had to adjust and make a thing that you didn’t understand make sense. You opened up your mind and your soul to it and you make it believable. Go with the flow and make it happen. Keep it exciting.”
“Exciting” is an apt adjective for the band consisting of Miles Davis, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett, Michael Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira. Or, as Michael Henderson puts it, “we were vicious. This band was on the edge and off the rails.” This particular sextet was together for just under a year, from November 1970 to July 1971, when Moreira and DeJohnette left, and has until now been undocumented on official releases. It could hitherto only be heard on Miles’s classic 1971 album Live-Evil, but in altered form, as guitarist John McLaughlin was added, quite dramatically changing the sound of the band.
In past interviews, Keith Jarrett expressed some misgivings about the presence of McLaughlin on Live-Evil, scathingly speculating that it was “a marketing concept to add electric guitar.” Jarrett hinted that the band was better without McLaughlin, even as the keyboardist at the same time also often appeared to put the music and members of this band down, repeatedly stating that he hated playing electric keyboards, and only joined because he wanted to play with Miles.
Listening to those closely involved, it’s apparent that there were huge fault lines running in the band, mainly between Jarrett and several of the other members. While Bartz remarks, “Keith is such a great musician, but he didn’t listen to me,” Moreira feels that “Keith had the attitude that he was better than everyone else, and that attitude came out when we were playing together.” “Keith bumped his head with the other guys,” added Henderson, “because he’s a pretty spectacular guy and he had his own concept of what the shit should be. Meanwhile, Miles was telling everybody behind the scenes not to follow Keith.”
The latter was indeed Miles’ main instruction to Henderson, who recalls, “He said, ‘stay there and don’t follow those motherfuckers.’ So I had to figure out 19 trillion ways to play each riff.” The trumpeter had enlisted the bassist to be, as both Bartz and DeJohnette put it, “the anchor for the band.” Henderson had played with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, and was the only band member with a non-jazz background. For him laying down a groove and sticking with it came natural, but other band members, who had their roots in jazz, were unimpressed with the cast-iron funk-lines that Henderson would lay down, sometimes barely changing over the course of twenty minutes.
“There were comments made by band members,” remembers Moreira, “that maybe Michael should change. Everyone was trying to take flight and come back, to move in and out of playing more free, but Michael didn’t have that concept at all, because he was a funk player.” Whatever the others said or tried, Henderson stuck to his funk bass guns. At times when he was, perhaps, tempted to play more jazzy, he probably had Miles’ penultimate instruction ringing in his ears, “If you learn any of that old shit, you’re fired.”
Gary Bartz opines that the Davis, Bartz, Jarrett, Henderson, DeJohnette, Moreira line-up was Miles Davis’ “last great band.” While this writer begs to differ, favouring the psychedelic funk band of the mid-1970s headed by guitarist Pete Cosey, it’s undoubtedly true that the 1970 Bartz line-up was the last in this stage in Miles’ career to consist mainly of bandleaders. In becoming internationally celebrated players after their tenure with Miles’s band, Bartz, Jarrett, DeJohnette, and Moreira followed in the footsteps of Coltrane, Shorter, Corea, Holland, Hancock, et al.
Music affectionados the world over can now finally judge for themselves what all the fuss, and the internal conflicts, were about, as the band’s thunderous magic is unveiled on a new 6-CD boxed set called The Cellar Door Sessions 1970. The box details six of the eight sets that the band played at the Washington DC Cellar Door nightclub over the course of four nights, Friday 16 to Saturday 19, December, 1970. McLaughlin sat in with the band on the Saturday night, and two of the six CDs contain the material from which Live-Evil was culled, but without the dramatic edits that producer Teo Macero imposed on said album.
The new boxed set is produced (or as the liner note sticker has it, "compiled") by Bob Belden, who has been closely involved in many of the previous Miles Davis re-issues, and former Miles keyboardist Adam Holzman. In addition, the beautifully recorded 8-track tapes, courtesy of engineer Stan Tonkel, were re-mixed by Jim Anderson. All musicians contribute to the liner notes, and are unanimous in their praise, even, perhaps surprisingly, Keith Jarrett. The keyboardist enthuses, “you don’t usually see this kind of comet go by more than once or twice in a lifetime, and I really don’t care what people think they should call the music on these recordings.” He also comments on Miles’s playing, “if it doesn’t knock your socks off, you aren’t wearing any.”
Thirty-five years ago, the smallest of audiences witnessed history being made, and probably had its socks knocked off. Mastering engineer Donald Grossinger, who worked at the Cellar Door before it closed in the 1980s, recalls, “it was built on a hillside in the Georgetown part of Washington DC. The crowd would line up along the wall and down the hill. When you entered, you were directed either to the balconies left and right, with wrought iron railings, or down a flight of stairs to the ‘orchestra’ seating on stage level. The place had a terrific, intimate vibe: no matter where you sat you were really close to the stage, which was slightly raised. You definitely felt like you were sitting in a cellar.”
The Cellar Door had opened in the early 1960s, and by the time the Miles Davis band played there, the tiny club, that could barely hold more than 150, had become known for the eclectic mix of artists that played there, from Joni Mitchell to Thelonius Monk. Miles’s concerts at the Cellar Door in December 1970 were the culmination of a US tour that had begun in October. No-one can recall why Moreira wasn’t there on the Wednesday night (the percussionist actually believes he was there, but not picked up by the microphone), but most band members say that they were aware from the outset that McLaughlin would be coming down for the Saturday.
Bartz points out, “We did know that the weekend was going to be for as possible recording, and that Mahavishnu would come for the weekend. Miles had in the back of his mind that this would be for a possible album.” This disproves the oft-made suggestion that McLaughlin was added by Miles at the last minute, because the bandleader wasn’t wholly pleased with the results from the earlier nights. The new recording was most likely aimed to be the follow up of either Bitches Brew or A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The latter had featured Henderson and McLaughlin, and though not yet released at the end of 1970, had been recorded in the studio over February-April 1970.
Stan Tonkel engineered most of Miles Davis’s studio and live recordings during this time. He recalls, “The Cellar Door concerts were recorded under very difficult conditions. It was a very small place, with tables and chairs, like a nightclub. Probably 100 people would fill it up. The stage was also very small, I don’t know how they all fitted on there. We set up the recording in the basement, and I remember the first or second night it was raining very hard, and I was worried about the cables from the microphones that we ran out of the club’s window to the basement.”
The stage was in fact so small that DeJohnette recalls McLaughlin having to stand on the floor on the Saturday, next to Jarrett, near the left side of the stage (from the audience perspective). In addition, while located in the basement, Tonkel and his colleagues couldn’t see the band, and this probably explains the fade-in at the beginning of the first set on Wednesday. Because he didn’t have any visual clues, Tonkel most likely heard the band beginning to play at a moment when he didn’t have his tape recorder in record yet.
The Cellar Door recordings sound astonishingly good, and are worlds away from the often fuzzy and grainy sound of the Fillmore live albums recorded earlier in 1970. According to Tonkel, this was due to the cavernous acoustics of these large halls, whereas the intimacy of the Cellar Door allowed for very clean recording. In addition, the Fillmore recordings had been complicated by the fact that, “the moment a set ended, we had to rush upstairs to protect our microphones, because people were literally trying to steal them.”
Adam Holzman explains that he and mixer Jim Anderson approached the Cellar Door mixes as “a completely fresh concept. We had a video from the same era of the band playing live, and ended up laying out the mix to match the positioning of the band that we saw in the visuals.” The duo didn’t refer to Russ Payne’s original 1971 Live-Evil mixes, and as a result there will be calls that this is a matter of taking liberties with history, or worse, of defacing the legacy of Miles Davis.
In response, it’s probably best to approach the Cellar Door boxed set and the Live-Evil album as two entirely different artistic entities. Live-Evil was a concept album created in collaboration by Miles and Teo Macero, and it included both Cellar Door live material and studio recordings. The Cellar Door Sessions are simply a document of what one band was up to over the course of four nights, thirty-five years ago.
Listening to the Cellar Door evidence after all this time, it’s hard not to marvel at this band’s achievements. It permeates the liner notes by the musicians involved, and Moreira notes, with justification, that the music is “timeless. It could come out 10-20 years from now, and it would still sound fresh.” In finally being able to compare the band with and without McLaughlin, the increased sense of excitement that emerges from the guitarist’s contribution and the band adapting to him, particularly in the way he and Henderson are interacting and sparking off riffs by the end of Saturday evening, is striking.
“John coming in led to creative tension and newness,” says Bartz, “and we knew we had something special.” DeJohnette added, “Each night the music developed further. You can hear how the process of how Miles developed an electric jazz, or electric funk, approach to music. Saturday night was the culmination.” One also wonders whether six hours of music is perhaps too much of a good thing, but Holzman remarks, “these pieces were canvases for creativity. If we had made a best-of selection, everyone would have complained and asked where the rest was.”
All in all, the Cellar Door boxed set is a momentous release for all lovers of Miles Davis and electric funk, or electric jazz, or whatever one wants to call it. It follows the release late last year of Miles Electric, the stunning DVD of Miles Davis’ performance at the Isle of Wight in August 1970, with a band consisting of Miles, Bartz, Corea, Jarrett, Holland, DeJohnette, and Moreira. Taken together, both releases may, with some luck, finally dissolve any of the remaining controversy that still appears to surround Miles Davis’ forage into jazz-rock.
Gary Bartz recalls the controversy well from his time in the band, when, for instance during a concert in 1971 in Belgrade, audience members were yelling and booing and walking out. It’s amazing that the controversy is still alive today, because, says Bartz, even at the time, “For Miles and everyone in the band, there was no difference in listening to James Brown or to John Coltrane. But just like racism segregated people, different types of music were segregated as well.”
Like or dislike this music, perhaps 2005 will be the year in which some sections of the jazz community will finally grow up and throw off their segregated mindset. Jarrett writes about Miles’s electric period, “He wanted what he always wanted up until that time: to forge new ways of ‘coming at’ things.” Bartz notes, “The greatest lesson I learned from my time with Miles was the seriousness of what we were doing. Nothing was frivolous.” Serious enough, apparently, to nearly come to blows in the pursuit of, according to DeJohnette, “the magic that always happened when you were working with Miles.”
THE CELLAR DOOR BOXED SET—THE MISSING LINK
The sense of Miles Davis and his band taking risks and courting danger is manifest on the odd, angular, relentless, intense mixture of funk ‘n rock ‘n jazz that’s captured on the Cellar Door CDs. For Miles, it must have been the perfect culmination of 1970, which was the year in which he lived at his most dangerously. Having reached a point of no return with the recording of Bitches Brew in August 1969, he went well beyond it during the following year.
Miles had begun his process of electric exploration during studio dates with his Second Great Quintet in December 1967, when he asked Herbie Hancock to play electric keyboards and added Joe Beck on electric guitar. During the next two years, addition and integration were the essence of his creative process, with different guitarists, keyboardists, percussionists, a bass clarinettist, a sitar player, and an electric bassist, coming in for an avalanche of studio dates.
The first the public at large heard of all these changes was In A Silent Way, which was recorded and released in 1969. The understated playing of the enlarged ensemble heralded Miles’s revolution with a whisper. In addition, during the summer of that year, Miles’ then quintet, consisting of the trumpeter, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, launched into ferocious versions of some of the experimental, rock-influenced studio tracks, with Corea on electric keyboards and Holland switching from acoustic to electric bass
Airto Moreira’s arrival by the end of 1969 preceded the next big public step. Miles had until then played only jazz clubs and festivals, with Dave Holland noting when he arrived from England in 1968, that he was “shocked at how few people were coming to Miles’ concerts.” But in the beginning of 1970, in conjunction with the release of Bitches Brew in April, Miles Davis suddenly performed at rock venues, on the same bill as established rock acts like Laura Nyro, Steve Miller, The Grateful Dead, and Neil Young, and often playing for audiences of thousands. The results have been captured on three Miles Davis live albums, At Fillmore, Black Beauty, and It’s About That Time.
It’s fair to speculate that both performing for thousands of people, rather than a few dozen, and the commercial massive success of Bitches Brew, galvanised Miles in forging ahead with the musical course that he had set. In fact, Miles didn’t just forge ahead in 1970, he jumped ahead and, rather than working with addition and integration, he began a process of subtraction and distillation.
The first results can be heard on the last few sessions that are documented on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, with Miles gradually pairing down the size of his ensembles. Then, perhaps to prove a point he had made to a Rolling Stone journalist in late 1969, that he could “put together the best rock ‘n roll band you have ever heard,” Miles began working with small guitar-led ensembles. The result, recorded during February-April 1970, was the spectacular A Tribute To Jack Johnson.
After this there was no looking back. Unable to permanently enlist the only two guitarists he truly wanted in his band, Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin, Miles focussed the rest of 1970 on developing an electric keyboard-led live band. Steve Grossman replaced Wayne Shorter in April, Keith Jarrett joined in May, Bartz in turn replaced Grossman in August, Corea left in September, and Michael Henderson came in during the same month. After all these personnel changes, Miles finally had a sextet that would remain relatively stable and that allowed him to develop the music that can be heard on the Cellar Door. Gary Bartz reckoned, “Miles felt that ours was a real organic kind of band, that took longer to unfold.”
After DeJohnette and Moreira left in July 1971, and Ndugu Chancler, Mtume and Don Alias filled their places, the same repertoire continued to be played during the band’s extensive European tour of the fall of 1971. Another permutation of the same band briefly occurred in early 1972, with Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood, of Parliament/Funkadelic, on drums, further expressing Miles’s funk ambitions, but this appeared to have come to nothing, and Miles disbanded the Bartz-led ensemble.
Miles’s next step was the recording of On The Corner in June and July 1972, and the launching of a wholly different band with an entirely different repertoire in September. Only Henderson and Mtume remained, and Al Foster came in on drums and Reggie Lucas on guitar. These four were also at the heart of the 1973-75 band, featuring scorched-earth guitarist Pete Cosey.
The Bartz-led band is the essential missing link between Miles’ studio experiments and live bands that were an extension of his Second Great Quintet on the late 1960s, and the funk experiments that he undertook in the mid-1970s, beginning with On The Corner and culminating in the live trilogy of Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea.
Since the Bartz-led band has never been heard before in its original
form, The Cellar Door boxed set is an essential, and very belated, addition to the Miles Davis canon. It further illustrates that Miles’ electric music developed along an unbroken line between December 1967 and his five-year musical intermission starting in the end of 1975.
© 2005 Paul Tingen. Originally published in JazzTimes (US), Jazzthetic (Germany), Jazzman (France), Musica Jazz (Italy) and Jazz (Netherlands) magazines. Some minor sections of this article were taken from Miles Beyond, with kind permission of Billboard Books.