In 1974, Duke Ellington died. Miles Davis, as far removed as jazz can get from the swing of Ellington, went into the studio (a place he'd largely avoided recently) to record a tribute to the musician he loved. That track ("He Loved Him Madly") and a session a few months later augmented by some studio leftovers from the previous four years became what would be the last studio recording Miles would release before his retirement-- the double album "Get Up With It".
The material from the two 1974 sessions is for me the highlight of the album. Miles' working band featured no less than three guitarists (the underheralded genius Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, and Domique Gaumont), reedman Sonny Fortune, and longtime rhythm section Michael Henderson (electric bass), Al Foster (drums) and Mtume (percussion). For "He Loved Him Madly", Miles used Dave Liebman, who had recently departed from the band, in place of Fortune. That tune, an extended work, is among the most dense and difficult material Miles has recorded. It is, not coincidentally among the most rewarding as well. Davis sits at the organ for the majority of the piece, whih opens in a funereal mood, with Davis droning at the keys, the guitars gently churning a fractured pattern and a dirge-like snare pattern. After a rather noticable edit around eleven minutes in, Liebman begins soloing, a delicate, gentle performance (on alto flute) where he takes time to develop the piece. The rhythm section is nothing short of astounding, with Foster and Mtume gently prodding while Henderson is nothing short of jawdropping. This is followed by a brief guitar solo and then an extended solo by Miles where he really pours his soul into his horn and is among the best performances by him on record. After Miles completes his solo, several more brief ones follow, with the rhythm section picking up the tempo and becoming more insistent before a (albeit slightly sped up) reprise of the droning introduction closes the piece. By the time its over, its nothing short of astounding.
The other 1974 pieces, "Maiysha" and "Mtume", are similarly brilliant-- the former is a funky jam, with Miles alternating between trumpet and organ and a fantastic exposition of the theme-- organ hints at it, Fortune (on flute) states about half of it, then Miles reads it and briefly solos on trumpet. Again, the rhythm section steals the show with Henderson, Foster and Mtume locked into a tight groove. Just before the ten minute mark, it switches from into a totally different groove (if it's an edit, it's extraordinarily well executed), with scrambled up guitar playing and a funky guitar lead that defies description. "Mtume" is much more vamp-oriented, with both guitarists (Gaumont was not yet in Miles' band), Henderson, Foster, and Mtume all holding the vamp with occasional breaks, usually triggered arhythmically by Miles on organ. About five minutes in, the vamp is broken by Miles on horn stating the theme before the vamp resumes. Things shake up for Miles's solo, not one of his more inspired on the record-- it's decent enough but he played much better. But around ten minutes, Miles returns to the theme and Cosey plays a solo that gets deep inside the groove and never looks back.
The leftover material from other sessions is actually all quite good as well-- Miles hadn't released much studio material at this point, so there wasn't a lot out there and these weren't really "leftovers" in the usual sense. The oldest piece, "Honky Tonk" dates from 1970, whereas "Calypso Frelimo" is as recent as 1973. As one would expect, "Calypso Frelimo" is the most similar in mood and sound to the later '74 material-- an extended work, it begins with a funky bass vamp and a blistering trumpet solo. Eventually guest John Stubblefield plays a ferocious soprano sax solo which Miles plays a fine counterpoint to before the piece abruptly cools off into a laid back groove over which Liebman (on flute) and Miles both take lovely, slowly developing solos. The piece picks up as Cosey starts experimenting on his guitar and Mtume and Foster become more busy over Henderson's constant vamping. Eventually, Cosey and Lucas lay down funky muted wah lines and Miles resumes his intensity from the beginning of the piece. Most amazing is that after over half an hour, you wish the piece would keep going.
The 1970 piece, "Honky Tonk", fits in quite a bit better than you'd expect. Driven by fractured lines from John McLaughlin (guitar), Herbie Hancock (clavinet) and Keith Jarrett (Rhodes), the three eventually state a theme together when Miles rips off a brilliant, funky, bluesy solo with McLaughlin providing a stunning counterpoint. The piece fades out after just under six minutes-- entirely too early. Contrasting nicely is 1972's "Rated X"-- featuring no horn playing, its a propolsive, percussion-driven piece with Badal Roy's tabla and Airto Moreira's percussion settling nicely in opposition Foster's aggressive beat. The most interesting vehicle involves the band cutting off while Miles sustains organ lines and the band tumbling back in. Album closer "Billy Preston", from the end of 1972, fits in quite a bit less-- its got a brighter production to its sound and its a lot looser and more open. Miles plays well enough, but the piece's lack of density makes it hard to consider it in context of the album.
Still as odd as "Billy Preston" is, it's not the engima of the album-- that title goes to early 1972's "Red China Blues"-- a pretty much straightforward blues number featuring studio aces Cornell Dupree (guitar) and Bernard Purdie (drums), Miles solos on a wah-wah trumpet on this piece. But with everything else being vamp driven and extended jams, to hear a straight blues form sounds totally out of place on the record. It's actually really good, but it definitely doesn't belong.
The 2000 reissue, at the time of release heralded as "the recent reissue you were most likely to pay a small fortune for a Japanese release for five years ago" (I did) has the crisp, clean sound that one expects from the Columbia reissues of Miles catalog and features detailed liner notes from saxaphonist/flautist Dave Liebman, who is featured on the two extended cuts. Liebman takes the time to discuss not only his own feelings and recollections on the music, but also all the pieces from a technical and critical aspect and his essay is well worth the time to read.
When I listen to "Get Up With It", I feel the album would have been a masterpiece had they not included the extra material-- it's not that any of this work is bad, on the contrary, it's all quite good, but it spoils the consistency of the album and makes it sound like a compilation. Nonetheless, this is such enormously high quality material that I have a hard time giving it less than five stars. This is not easy listening, and newcomers to Miles' '70s music are encouraged to start with "Bitches' Brew" and "A Tribute to Jack Johnson", then look towards "On the Corner". But if "On the Corner" sits well with you, this is the next place to check.