“The critics hated it. And mostly they were right.” – The Penguin Guide to Jazz on Miles Davis’ On the Corner
Between 1968 and 1975, Miles Davis just about single-handedly pulled a genre through the wringer. He didn’t just catch up with the innovations of rock and R&B, he quickly went into someplace new. Even now, nearly 40 years after they were recorded, his two Osaka live albums – Agatha and Pangaea – are a dense, frantic kind of funk/jazz/rock that there isn’t really a word for.
Between the release of In A Silent Way and those two live albums, Miles Davis’ music took a number of turns and jumps: the electrified jazz of Bitches Brew, the swaggering rock of Jack Johnson, the kaleidoscopic funk of On the Corner. As good as that trilogy is, the album I’m most drawn to lately is one of Davis’ most overlooked: the double album Get Up With It.
On the surface, it looks like just a collection of outtakes, no different from the filler releases from Miles Davis’ retirement: Directions, Circle in the Round, etc. But the material here wouldn’t have fit on any of the previous albums, yet here it pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. It goes from ethereal to frantic, from chugging funk to electrifying soloing. There’s even a blues tune. It’s a mix of Miles unlike any other, purposefully contrasting one shade of Miles Davis with another, until everything comes together as a kind of portrait.
The earliest number here is “Honky Tonk”, dating from the Jack Johnson sessions in early 1970. The sound of this band is distinctly different from the others: it’s stripped down, funkier in a more James Brown way. John McLaughlin’s guitar cuts and chops it’s way through Michael Henderson’s basslines and the keyboard duo of Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. Airto Moreira is there, too. This one may have sounded a little familiar to listeners at the time; excerpts from a live version appeared on 1971’s Live-Evil.
From there, the music covers Miles Davis’ major bands of this period: “Rated X” and “Billy Preston” both showcase the On the Corner band, which featured both a sitar (played by Khalil Balakrishna) and Indian percussion from Badal Roy. Later, the keyboards and exotic drums vanish, replaced by raging guitars via Lucas and Cosey, as Davis starts playing electric organ, banging out chords to steer his band mid-song.
The bluesy “Red China Blues”, recorded in early 1972, is the album’s most digestible song. A fun, late night jam kind of number it’s a moment of rest from the rest of the album’s challenges. But even here, Mile Davis’ trumpet sounds sharp, piercing. He cuts through the backing track like a knife; it’s said the song wasn’t even meant for Davis, he just liked it and added his horn on a whim.
It’s flip side is “Rated X”, presented here as a tense, frantic funk with Davis stabbing at an organ, playing long droning chords as his backing band throbs and drops in and out behind him. It’s a musical panic attack. And funnily enough, it was what he opened concerts with for a spell, too. Here’s it’s deep in the running order, originally ending side two of the record with a bang.
But the two most important songs here at the two long ones, each of which complements the other. One’s a slow, ethereal piece, the other a driving funk. One inspired Brian Eno, the other could pass for a Can number. And somehow, each is recognizably Miles Davis. Let’s look at them individually.
Opening the record is “He Loved Him Madly”, a long, slow number where Miles Davis barely touches his trumpet. It opens with a moaning organ, some light drumming and guitar plucking. After a while Dave Liebman’s flute comes in, as does another guitar or two. It takes over ten minutes for the rhythm section to even kick in. And Davis’ trumpet doesn’t even show up until after that. But when he does, it’s a knockout: his playing is mournful, haunting. It’s spooky, coming to you from deep in a fog. You’re hearing music from a ghost. Eno name checked this one as an influence on his ambient experiments.
Opening side three – or, as you’re probably listening to it now, CD Two – is the half-hour long “Calypso Frelimo”. It’s a driving, pounding track. Henderson’s relentless bassline keeps pushing the groove forward as Miles Davis and others solo. This was a staple of Davis’ live sets at the time. And although he was a formidable live act – just look at albums like Dark Magus – it was rarely the unrestrained monster that it is here.
It’s not just a showcase for Miles Davis or his talented rhythm section of Henderson, Al Foster and James Mtume, though. There’s his two explosive guitarists, Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, and solos from Liebman and saxophonist John Stubblefield. An interesting side note: this dense, jamming half-hour take comes from one session in September 1973, too. On previous albums, his master takes were usually cobbled together from different sessions, mixed together by Teo Macero. Here? Well, Davis’ band shows pretenders like Return to Forever, The Grateful Dead and even CAN how to jam.
Chronologically speaking, the last two numbers here date from October 1974. Each features both Cosey and Lucas – “Maiysha” also has the late Dominique Gaumont on guitar, too – and have some of the densest funk of his career. They also represent some of the last recordings of this period of Davis’ career: early in 1975, Davis retired from music. He’d be back a few years later, but his music was never as far-out again.
Taken as a whole, Get Up With It compresses electric Miles Davis down to two CDs worth of music. It ranges from churning funk to spooky ambience to driving jams. During this period, Davis didn’t just change the direction of jazz – within a few years it went from “The Girl From Ipanema” to Jaco Pastorius’ fretless electric bass on “Teen Town” – but it just anticipated directions in music over coming decades: critics hated On the Corner on it’s release; within a decade, Lester Bangs was telling readers to walk around listening to it on headphones and see for themselves how it captures the energy of the street.
And of all the albums Miles Davis released then, the only one to capture the entire freewheeling sense of change and exploration is still Get Up With It. As it turns out 40 years later, the critics were mostly wrong.