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Blood on the dance floor: Miles Davis’ Live Evil

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In the second half of the 1960s, Miles Davis put together what’d be known as his second great quintet: pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. As this group recorded seminal albums like E.S.P., Miles Smiles or Miles in the Sky, Davis’ music began shifting away from strict jazz.

Throughout his career, Davis was always shifting away from the jazz mainstream. He turned down a gig with Duke Ellington while putting together the nonet that’d record The Birth of the Cool, revolutionizing jazz from stuffy big band arrangements into a compact form: a tightly-knit group that would alternate solos between arranged sections of music. Just listen to Move, a song with a composed head, room for soloing and a finish, with everything crammed into a frantic three minutes.

This group’s style would go on to be known as cool jazz, a form that allowed composition as well as improvisation. And true to fashion, Davis abandoned it: his bands moved first to hard bop, which took inspiration from blues, before moving more towards the improvisational style that dominated his best known albums: Milestones and Kind of Blue.

These albums, which came out in 1958 and 1959, were a decade old when Davis full on tackled electric instruments. His band had dabbled in rock instrumentation in the late 1960s: Miles in the Sky kicked off with Stuff, a track with electric piano, bass and rock-styled drumming. Within a year, Davis was recording Bitches Brew, arguably the album that started jazz-fusion.

But let’s save that one for later. What’s important is how fast and aggressively Davis’ music was moving. In only a few years, he’d gone from acoustic jazz to electric jazz and, in 1970, had moved into a netherworld between jazz and rock. And not what’d be styled as fusion, either. This is harder, darker and funkier: Return to Forever never played music this explosive, this exciting.

Equally split between studio sessions and live recordings, Live Evil opens with a bang, the nearly side-long live jam Sivad. It catches the band in mid-flight, with crashing cymbals and a thumping bassline. Davis soon enters with a swaggery trumpet solo: notice how different it sounds than in his earlier work. By this point, he hadn’t just amplified his signature instrument, he was playing it through a wah pedal. The band careens through this piece (actually edited together from several live songs) sounding on the point of collapse, less like a jazz band than a group turning music inside-out, stripping the music to it’s bones and making something   new.

A few minutes in, one hears John McLaughlin’s guitar cutting in. It’s worth noting he wasn’t part of this band and was sitting in for one night. Indeed, it’s the only live material released with Davis and him playing together. It’s a testament to how talented and tight this band was that he could just slide right on in. “Until I worked with Miles, I didn’t believe an electric band could be organic,” writes Gary Bartz in the CD’s liner notes. “I soon realized that you can’t get more organic than electricity.”

And what a band this was! The second great quintet was a few years removed and there was no real links to them left. The live material has Davis’ amplified and wah-wahed trumpet, Bartz on sax, Keith Jarrett on electric piano, Michael Henderson on bass and both Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira on percussion. This was not a stable group, either. Both Black Beauty and Live at the Fillmore East, each recorded only months before, had radically different lineups.

It’s a different band in the studio takes, too. Right after Sivad comes Little Church, one of the sparsest and spookiest moments in Davis’ entire catalog. Here Davis’ trumpet playing is directed by Hermeto Pascol’s whistling (occasionally sounding like a Theremin) over a bed of shimmering analog organ playing. Coming even earlier – recorded nearly a full year before the live material – is a medley of Gemini and Double Image, two tracks left over from the Bitches Brew sessions, with McLaughlin’s snarling guitar going against Davis’ trumpet. And that’s just side one.

The album lurches back and forth between the live boiling funk jams and studio compositions. The live material was mostly recorded on a single evening: December 19, 1970, at the tiny Cellar Door in Washington DC. Whereas Davis had been playing (and selling out!) large and prestigious venues throughout his career, as the seventies began he started playing the smaller college-crowd circuit. He played as a supporting act for Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, exposing his music to a completely different audience.

It’s not hard to imagine the sprawling, churning jams on Live Evil finding an appreciative audience with those crowds. Even at his furthest out, this band has an explosive power while still sounding loose. The extended soloing in What I Say isn’t spiritually far removed from Young and Crazy Horse’s loose and jammed out explorations during Cowgirl in the Sand. And it’s worth noting Moreira would go on to appear on several of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s albums.

On sides three and four – disc two of the CD reissue – Live Evil kicks into high gear. Two of the three songs here are explosive and lengthy jams, each well over 20 minutes long. The last of the two, Inamorata and Narration, is the more interesting and intense. It joins the band in full flight, almost segueing perfectly to the previous 23-minute jam. Just after a searing sax solo by Bartz, where he almost sounds like he’s fighting with his instrument to get the notes out, there’s a section where all the electric instruments sound like they’re playing in different rooms while still retaining their chemistry.


As the album winds down, the music sonically falls down a well as Conrad Robert reads a poem that sums up all you’ve just heard: “Who is this music that which description may never justify?” It ends with what sounds like an audience recording, the band in-on jam mode, Davis’s trumpet slashing through distorted bass and crashing percussion like Hendrix’s guitar, jazz so far off the map that nobody’s ever even charted those waters. Miles Davis made many albums after this, including some going even deeper into unexplored territory, but he never was this exciting and dynamic while still remaining accessible to the average listener. If you ever listen to one album with a jazz-fusion label, make it this.

Originally published May 8, 2012

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Written by M.

June 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

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