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the beginning of the end for Davis
on 4 January 2011
Before starting this review I have to say that I know that what I write will offend many of Davis' fans, but I feel it has to be said.
I have listened to jazz for over forty years, starting with Charlie Parker and Django Renhardt but as the world of fusion burgeoned, I embraced it. I can still hear myself saying that fusion was the future of music, but as I grow older I see that it was merely a cul de sac.
Even back then I avoided this album. I seem to remember hearing it at a friend's and dismissing it as chaotic. I already had In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew and over the years added much of Davis' work to my collection. His work with Parker, the Birth of Cool sessions, his several classic lineups of the fifties and sixties- even several from the era of this record. I still like many of them since many of those bands are wonderful, but gradually I came to an awareness of something rather unpleasant about Davis himself that fed into my appreciation of much of his music and this album in particular. I was 23 when I first noticed it in Bitches Brew but it is there in earlier work too. There is a rage and a cynicism that to me is most unappealing.
I know that the many changes in Davis' style throughout his life are seen as evidence of a restlessly creative individual. Sadly, I think Davis was a sick man many years before his death in 1991 at the relatively young age of 65 and I believe that those changes mirror the breakdown that was occuring in his life. Many have pointed to Davis' experiences as an artist in a racially prejudiced world and his being beaten by police outside a club in New York while at the peak of his recognition amongst jazz fans. As a white myself I cannot comprehend how such experiences might impact on a sensitive black musician, but I do know what it feels like to be beaten and harassed by the police. As a middle class individual brought up in relative affluence Davis didn't face the utter deprivation of say, Louis Armstrong who remembered throughout his life the kindnesses of the Jewish family in New Orleans that fed him as a youngster and gave him employment. Clearly, Armostrong's words and his exhultant music demonstrate that it is possible to rise above life's adversities, however much difficulty Davis had in doing so.
There are parallels in the lives of Davis and Duke Ellington. Both were brought up in relative affluence. Both were aware of racial prejudice, both celebrated black culture and both were glorified by audiences both black and white even if in Elligton's early days he played largely to affluent whites. But Ellington remained to his end an elder statesman while Davis' final years were one of disintegration and almost a fading away even if new fans came to him in those desperately tragic final years.
Which brings me to this album. For many years I have admired the Brazilian genius, Hermeto Pascoal. Having discovered rather late of Pascoal's contribution to this album, I decided to buy it and see whether my dismissal of it all those years back was unjustified or not. Sadly, as far as this record is concerned, whilst my expertise as a musician has grown considerably, my feelings about this record haven't.
Yes, there is much virtuosity in this record. Much wonderful playing from many musicians who are still important figures today in the world of jazz forty years on, but for me the album represents something very disturbing. Not just the music, which for all its virtuosity is chaotic and uncohesive, but the imagery of the artwork also disturbs. A beautiful pregnant black woman seemingly has the spirit of life breathed into her unborn child, whilst on the obverse, a reptilian figure described by the artist as based upon J Edgar Hoover sits, a menacing figure of evil and decay. But this figure has blonde hair piled on its head in the style of a woman- a white woman. This cannot be accidental and what does it say? For despite what seems a coverup by the person who painted it that it represents a hate figure to both blacks and whites of the seventies in the States, the artwork of this record seemed at the time to betray something of Davis' racial attitudes and still does to this day.
Another observation I cannot avoid: Although it is generally accepted that Pascoal contributed many of his compositions to this album, Davis is listed as composer of all tracks. The beautiful melody of Nem um Talvez must be one of Pascoal's. Of course, those with substantial collections of Davis' work know all too well that he did this to Parker too and to Bill Evans who made such a profound contribution to Davis great album Kind of Blue and who, contrary to the credits wrote the masterful 'Blue in Green'. Davis, sensitive as he was to exploitation of a racial nature, wasn't averse to using financial exploitation himself and seemingly on this matter, he was racially colourblind.
For all my criticisms of Davis the man and the artist, many will still find enough in this album to justify its relatively low asking price. Many will wonder at the musicianship and perhaps even the beauty of songs such as Nem um Talvez, but for me it represents the beginning of the end for Davis and a sad reflection of the greatness of some of his earlier albums.