In the mid 1960’s, you couldn’t say a bad word about Miles Davis’ music. After having played with the legendary Charlie Parker, he had formed a short-lived octet that produced the album Birth of The Cool in 1957, which spearheaded a new movement known as cool jazz. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Miles’ trumpet playing was languorous and melodic, very surprising compared to the flurries of notes that other jazz musicians were playing at the time. After a few experiments, he formed a new sextet, which produced the landmark album Kind Of Blue; which was accessible, innovative and which kick started another jazz movement known as modal jazz. Kind of Blue is still revered as possibly the best jazz album ever. Following a few more years of creative restlessness, he settled with a steady quintet that produced album after album of challenging, interesting music. But by the end of the decade Miles was once again growing restless. Taking his inspiration from non-jazz artists like James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, Miles brought electric instruments into the band and began playing some new compositions with a rock-like edge to them. For the jazz critics, this was quite enough.
His 1969 album Bitches Brew was a double album with vast, (5 of the 6 songs are over 10 minutes long; 2 are over 20) furious and edgy compositions that sounded nothing like anything, let alone jazz. Many critics lambasted the album and said Miles was “selling out.” Despite the criticism and notoriety (or perhaps because of it) the album went gold, and Miles and his band were invited to the legendary 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. In front of a crowd of 600,000, one of the largest ever concert audiences, Miles and his band came out and played a continuous, 35 minute set. I highly doubt too many of the audience were prepared for what they’d hear.
Miles was working with a large ensemble at this point, with numerous drummers, bassists, saxophone players, guitar players and keyboardists passing through his collective. For this concert he’d settled on two keyboard players, a bassist, a drummer, a sax player and a percussionist. The ensemble wastes no time in making themselves heard. The concert begins with some up-tempo drumming and the bassist sets into a funky groove. The two keyboard players make themselves heard before Miles comes in with a blistering solo. For a normally reserved player, Miles was at this point in his career going all out. His trumpet blasts and screams like a wounded animal, frantic and insatiable. Meanwhile, all around him is chaos. Just because the band had adopted a more rock ethos certainly didn’t mean they had rejected the jazz notion of improvisation. The drums are constantly swirling and evolving, the keyboardists don’t work their way through a series of chords, but are left to freely improvise within the atmosphere of the piece; feeling their way through the music and playing off the other musicians’ reactions. One of the keyboard players – Chick Corea – has a ring modulator attached to his electric keyboard, allowing him to add some electronic pitch-shifts and squeaks. In tandem with this, the percussionist Airto Moreira flits between shakers, bells and other assorted pieces of sound craft. In essence, the only thing keeping the groove is the bassline, which is by no means rigid. The result is absolute musical mayhem.
The funk-like groove continues for about eight minutes, at which point the driving beat breaks down and each player appears to be doing their own thing. Miles’ trumpet screams and wails, the bass pounds and the keys evolve slowly. Throwing in quotations from some pieces from Bitches Brew, the band continues to feel and explore their way through the sonic space, each player searching for their own niche within this absurd collective. The important, and perhaps unbelievable thing to note here is that despite the individual improvisations and attitudes, the music gels. It works together – I wouldn’t say seamlessly – but it works. Despite a lack of unity, an almost complete lack of melody and a sound based on a subjective mood rather than any real musical device, the concert flows. This is a high testament to the skill of the musicians, listening to each other, contrasting each other and feeding off the vibe that each player puts out. At key moments a certain player will solo, sometimes the music will slow down or change dynamics, sometimes is will change mood from groovy to downright sinister and so on. But the reason that this works is because of the nature of the music. There are, so far as I can remember from the video footage of the concert, seven musicians playing, five at any given time as the two horn players take turns soloing and dropping out occasionally. With seven players, each playing their own thing, you can’t focus on just one player, like in a pop song where perhaps you’d focus on the singer, or in a classic rock song where you focus on the guitarist. It’s impossible. At times, yes, but not throughout. Thus you are forced to listen to the music as a whole piece, and at this point you can really start to appreciate what a magical musical moment this is. The whole piece swirls and evolves, becomes more frantic and intense, dies down, builds up again and so on. It’s like a stormy sea; a wounded beast: writhing, and shifting furiously. The combined sound is what you focus on. And it doesn’t fail to impress. There are times when the musical interplay is almost telepathic.
Much has been said of the sound as a whole, but I’m going to shift the spotlight for a minute onto the main man himself; Mr. Miles Davis. Davis at this point was a veteran; he was 44 and had been in the jazz business for over 20 years. With the rise of rock and other popular genres in the sixties, jazz had fallen out of favour with the public somewhat. It wasn’t as popular, and many jazz musicians found it hard to continue making music or even to pay their bills. Some of contemporaries had retired. The Isle of Wight Festival is best remembered for being a rock festival with huge artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors playing to a crowd that was, at the time, the largest crowd at a music festival EVER. But despite these difficulties and expectations, Miles delivered an absolutely smoking performance. Despite only soloing from time to time, his solos are punctuated by his off-beat pauses and notes, his clean delivery, his ethereal sound, but most of all, his commanding presence. Miles is truly the leader of this group; no doubt about that. When he solos, the band quiets down. When he gets more intense, the band gets more intense. His solos are the icing on the collective cake. What’s more, his playing was probably around his peak at this time. His albums in 1970 and 1971 showed a new zeal, a new approach to his playing. His playing was more aggressive and up front but lost none of its carefulness or precision. To use a somewhat oblique allegory, his trumpet was like the voice of a father scolding his children after they have misbehaved; stern, commanding and sometimes fierce, but worthy of great respect. The other musicians, skilled as they were on their own, were working on Miles’ direction. This was HIS sound, his child. He could have done it without those particular musicians, but they couldn’t have done it without him.
After about 33 minutes of dark, enigmatic music, Miles signs off with a motif from one of his early jazz pieces: The Theme. The rest of the musicians bring the piece to a spiraling conclusion of eerie electronics, bass and frantic drumming while Miles bows off. In the video recording, you can see him candidly wave his trumpet at the audience before walking backstage while the rest of his band are still playing. He doesn’t say a word to them. To further fuel the enigma attached to this unforgettable performance, when asked what the name of this piece was, Miles said “Call It Anything.” And indeed, what would be the use of giving a name to a piece of music such as this? It exists in itself. A name suggests or implies a likeness, a connection with something. This piece of music needs no name. There is nothing else like it.Words - Adam