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Live, long, and uncut
Columbia opens Miles Davisís Cellar Door

The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 is the eighth posthumously released Miles Davis boxed set delivered from the Columbia vaults since the "Miles Davis Series" program began in 1996, and thatís not counting re-releases and special editions of single discs. The best of the boxes have been repackagings (with extras) of classic multi-album dates: the Gil Evans albums, the Coltrane sessions, the "second classic quintet" recordings (with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams). The results have been less satisfying with the expanded, multi-CD boxes of what were originally single-album projects: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. If these sets suffer by comparison, itís because the albums that were drawn from them, the compositions that made them famous, were created in the editing room. They donít exist in nature.

This may sound odd in the post-hip-hop rock-and-roll era, where itís taken for granted that "production" equals composition. But Miles and his bands, at least in this period and through the beginning of his six-year hiatus from performing and recording that began in 1974, recorded essentially as jazz bands always had: live, in real time. There were no overdubs. Miles brought his crew into the studio with little or no preparation, just a few sketched ideas, and directed them while producer Teo Macero oversaw the reel-to-reels. (One of the many headphone pleasures of Bitches Brew is hearing Milesís hoarse whisper: "Letís keep it like that, nice and tight.") From these day-long jams came hours of tape that Miles and Macero chopped and screwed into shape.

So itís not as if there were any "early take" of In a Silent Way. What you get are the bits and pieces that went into what we now know as In a Silent Way. Aside from keyboardist Joe Zawinulís original sketch for the piece, everything was done with a razor blade and mixing ó dropping out certain tracks, bringing in others.

"From the time the studio musicians start playing," Macero told Downbeat in 1974, "we take down every note of music, and all that music is intact in the vault at CBS. Itís not cut. Itís not edited. So thereís an archive of Miles Davis that wonít quit and itís all in perfect, mint condition."

That archive still hasnít quit. Novelist Frederick Barthelme has described his own practice of talking his fiction into a tape recorder as a good way to "generate text" ó text that can then be transcribed and molded. Macero talks about editing as "shifting the compositions around so that the front becomes the back, the back becomes the middle, the middle something else. . . . I may have 15 reels of Miles and I cut those reels down; or I may have five and I cut it down to two. I donít know. I keep listening to it over and over with the engineer, and finally Miles comes in and listens to it and he sort of smiles and he walks out."

The story Macero liked to tell about In a Silent Way (released in 1969) was that he was having trouble editing the sessions down to album length and appealed to Miles, who came down to the studio and cut it to two sides of 8:50 and 9:50, including spoken obscenities. As John Szwed relates in his Miles bio, So What, the trumpeter announced, "Thatís an album," and walked out. Working from that, Macero eventually developed the 38-minute classic.

Which is why The Cellar Door Sessions is such a departure. Hereís Miles with a working, touring band performing not in the laboratory of the studio but in front of a live audience: six out of the 10 shows that were played over the course of four nights at the DC club on six CDs. The music is not only played in real time but heard that way as well, unmediated by the mixing board or the razor.

Portions of the last two discs (with guitarist John McLaughlin) would be cut up and served on Live-Evil (1971) and Get Up with It (1974). The rest is heard here for the first time. In a way, The Cellar Door is like some of those raw sessions: thereís a lot of noodling ó some inspired, some not ó over static grooves, one-chord vamps. The sessions were recorded in March ó Bitches Brew, Milesís Grammy-winning, bestselling "jazz-rock" breakthrough, wouldnít even be in stores till the following month. The Cellar Door is neither as wild and woolly as the varied textured collective improvs on that double album nor as cool and minimalist as In a Silent Way.

Whereas previous sessions had included multiple keyboardists, even multiple bassists, The Cellar Door was relatively stripped down: Miles on trumpet, keyboardist Keith Jarrett, alto- and soprano-saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira. Even with the whine of Airtoís cuíca drum (and his occasional vocal cries), this is nothing like the sputtering electronic cross-talk of Milesís bands before or after, especially the dense squawk and wail of Live-Evil and On the Corner (1972) or any of his final pre-hiatus bands with the phenomenal Chicago guitarist Pete Cosey. The improvisations are, as Ben Ratliff said in his Times review, "linear," one solo unfolding after another as opposed to the collective jams. Most sets feature the funk-oriented "Honky Tonk" and "What I Say" (the latter signified by what Szwed calls DeJohnetteís "boom-boom-BAT" riff). In each set thereís usually a ruminative keyboard solo from Jarrett. The spacy "Yesternow" would show up on Jack Johnson, anchored by Hendersonís stuttering descending bass figure.

As for the players, Bartz ó in other contexts a soloist of post-Bird, post-Coltrane fluency ó searches for his inner Maceo in riff-based solos that push the sonics of his horns with wails and shrieks. Henderson, only 19 at the time and fresh out of Stevie Wonderís band and a host of Motown dates, is key not only to helping DeJohnette establish a funk feel but also in abstracting it, with sometimes comical displacements of the beat. ("Yesternow" never tires, even as it pushes the 20-minute mark.) And DeJohnette takes to heart Milesís implication that he should play like Buddy Miles from the Hendrix band ó but with more technique.

Miles has by this point left his famous ballad playing behind, even the long-lined runs of Bitches Brewís "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down." For the most part, he distorts his tone with a mute and a wah-wah pedal, taking Bubber Mileyís "talking" style into the 21st century. He contrasts these nattering, percussive soliloquies with open-horn blasts.

Other than Miles, the dominant voice is Jarrettís; he plays Fender Rhodes piano and organ, sometimes simultaneously, fashioning long solos, building from murky running single-note lines to jabbing chords and clusters suspended from grand gospel-style cadences. When Miles solos, Jarrettís nervous dialogue with him is almost constant. Although Jarrettís liner-note statements are gracious here, his ambivalence about these sessions ó and his feeling about the lack of jazz experience in someone like Henderson ó has long been on the record. In his touching liner-note contribution, Henderson still sounds stung by the criticism he got in the band.

But whatever the personal tensions, they prove to be a beneficial irritant. Playing live, the band respond to the audience, building arcs of tension and shifting dynamics. And when McLaughlin enters on disc five, they explode. A friend of mine made the comment about these dates that this is when McLaughlin "still gave a shit." Harsh, but the Scotsman has long since given up electric guitar like this ó distortion, wah-wah, unpredictable patterns, double-time passages tumbling up and down the fret board, spelled by half-time asides with blues-cadence signposts. Signs of Milesís glorious noise to come.

Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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