VINE VOICEon 16 January 2003
It is hard, 37 years on to imagine the impact this album had on its release in early 1970. It out sold all Miles' previous albums in its first year, inspired a new movement in jazz, and crossed musical boundaries, yet it led conservative jazz critic Stanley Crouch, amongst others, to dismiss it as an act of 'self violation'
Miles had already taken steps down the path of fusion, the use of electric instruments and rock sounds in jazz, with Filles do Kilamanjaro and especially In A Silent Way. However this was a much louder, bolder, brasher statement. This was the point of no return.
This controversial classic was both a logical continuation of where Miles' music was going, and a groundbreaking, unique album, which still sounds fresh exciting and compelling today. It incorporates a range of influences Miles was bringing to his music: jazz improvisation, blues, Jimi Hendrix inspired rock, African grooves and rhythms, Sly Stone and James Brown inspired funk.
The same principles of a deep groove laid down by layers of rhythm, electric keyboards and guitar, and of post performance studio editing and reconstruction, follow on directly from In A Silent Way. The sound though, is much denser and heavier, with bass clarinet, thudding electric bass and powerful rock backbeats and African rhythm adding to the 'brew' to create a swampy, menacing and bottom heavy texture.
Over the top, Miles is the main solo voice, his trumpet deliberately louder in the mix than the solos of guitarist John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, both of whom emerge more subtly through the dense backdrop. In this sense, Miles was to some extent retreading a fusion version of the call and response work on Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain where he was the lone solo voice over the orchestral ensemble, only here the ensemble was far noisier, abstract and experimental. His playing is magnificent on this album, some of his most powerful and declamatory soloing on record, with just the odd touches of mournful vulnerability, made more poignant by their scarcity.
While an atmosphere and sound pervades the whole album, the 2 discs neatly contrast with the first 2 tracks being lengthy studio reconstructions, heavily edited from experimental jams with a minimal theme, and the shorter tracks on disc 2 being untouched complete studio takes, released as they were recorded.
Both Pharoahs Dance and the title track are fascinating examples of post production, and while mostly compelling, are less immediate and obviously structured, and both would have benefitted from a little more trimming. Pharoahs Dance slowly creates an atmosphere, the 'theme' of which is only played towards the end by Miles, otherwise only hinted at before, but it somehow makes sense of the previous 16 minutes. B Brew itself is a little too long, but the opening and repeated 'call and response' fanfare is beautifully done, one of the most memorable parts of the album, with Miles' trumpet calls treated with reverb and echo to give a more majestic sound.
The standout track for me, and one of the finest things he ever recorded, is Spanish Key. It follows in a long line of Spanish/Flamenco flavoured tracks Miles recorded: Blues For Pablo, Flamenco Sketches, the Sketches of Spain album, Teo. In fact, as is pointed out in the liner notes, it is related to Flamenco Sketches also in its structure, the use of scales and key centres, cued at the improvisers will. The tighter structure of Spanish Key, obvious solo spots and continuations from his previous work make a nonsense to some of the critics claims at the time that Miles was abandoning jazz in his search for new sounds and forms.
The dancing rhythm and thudding bass line propel the track along with extra rhythmic sounds from Don Alias. Miles plays with passion ecomomy and precision, slowly building tension to fever pitch in the first few minutes, while in his second solo, he briefly slows things down with some beautiful haunting and lonely phrases, as the rhythm dies down to a whisper before picking up again for the final coda. In between, McLaughlin and Shorter solo from deeper in the mix but to great effect. A brilliant track from start to finish.
The bluesy Miles Runs The Voodoo Down is similarly more approachable than disc 1, but is slower, prowling along like a big cat stalking its prey. Miles gradually and powerfully builds up a head of steam, no hint of vulnerability here, then sits back until the ensemble reaches a messy peak of intensity before he returns at the end.
Sanctuary is curiously made up of 2 separate takes simply glued together, when just one would possibly have been more effective. It is by far the most becalmed thing on the album, but still has an underlying unsettled, restless feel and is an effective closer.
All these tracks were recorded on just 3 days, in August 1969, but were not unleashed on the world until April 1970, when Miles had already recorded several other studio sessions, breaking further new experimantal ground, which is fully documented on 'The Complete BB Sessions'
This album stands as it is though, and is one of the most fascinating albums amongst Miles' vastly varied output. The dense new music is not always successful, as there are passages which are a little cluttered or lacking in direction, but for the most part this is remarkable, trailblazing and thrilling music.