This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
KING RICHARD III: Ay, if the devil tempt thee to do good.”
– William Shakespeare, Richard III
For Miles Davis, tension was the release.
By 1970, the famously caustic Davis had grown tired of even saying the word “jazz” aloud. Beginning with 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, the phrase “Directions in Music by Miles Davis” started appearing on his album covers, as he took to challenging genres altogether. “I don’t like the word rock and roll and all that shit,” he told Rolling Stone in a 1969 interview. “Jazz is an Uncle Tom word. It’s a white folks word. I never heard that shit until I read it in a magazine.”
Influenced by the likes of James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, Davis released Bitches Brew in the first half of 1970. It was soaked in electricity and mangled with tape edits. The groove-centric rhythm section was doubled, sometimes tripled. A swirling and angular cacophony of collective improvisation writhed within its guts. Upon its release, Davis went from being one of jazz’s greatest ambassadors to one of its most polarizing figures.
It wasn’t the first time that Davis had mutated, even directly challenged the music that birthed his career. Early on, he brought us the “cool”, a relaxed and elegant answer to the hard bop that preceded it. Then he went modal with Milestones (1958) and Kind of Blue (1959). With Bitches Brew, Davis had broken the mold yet again, this time pointing to a musical future that was exciting in its uncertainty.
Within months he was already on to a new challenge. In July of 1970, Davis told JET magazine: “I think I can put together a better rock ‘n’ roll band than Jimi Hendrix”. The next year, he released Live – Evil.
Opposites, extremes and the unquestioning acceptance of his own dual nature were regular themes in Davis’ life and music, but particularly central to Live – Evil. In making the album, he told cover artist Mati Klarwein to create “a picture of life on one side and evil on the other.” Klarwein obliged with a front cover image of a pregnant woman and a back cover featuring an otherwordly toad inspired by J. Edgar Hoover.
While much of the double album comes from a series of 1970 performances at Washington D.C.’s Cellar Door club, Live – Evil also features four tracks recorded at Columbia’s Studio B.
An original Davis composition, “Medley: Gemini/ Double Image”, provides some of the album’s evil in the form of a stop/start march fit for an army of the dead, with guitarist John McLaughlin slashing through with some surprisingly metal licks.
The Studio B tracks feature several musicians not in the live band at the Cellar Door sessions, including late 60s Davis stalwarts Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. “Little Church”, “Nem Um Talvez” and “Selim” were compositions by Brazilian composer and instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal, who also played on the recordings. Pascoal’s tunes play like sad ballads of a Logan’s Run future: wistful, yet too sterile to feel romantic. There’s a restraint in them- a balance to the improvisational bulldozer that is the Cellar Door band.
The Evil Emperor and his Team of Rivals
There was no shortage of ego on stage during those 1970 Cellar Door sessions. Gary Bartz (saxophones), John McLaughlin (electric guitar), Keith Jarrett (keys), Jack DeJohnette (drums), and Airto Moreira (percussion) collectively have over a hundred years of experience and a hundred albums as band leaders. And more than once, Davis went out of his way to rattle all of them.
“I hate what Keith is doing behind me!” an exasperated Bartz told Davis during a break in a show one evening. “I don’t like what this motherfucker is doing. I want freedom, I don’t want him to play when I play!”
Davis replied that he would ‘take care of it’, summoning Jarrett immediately after Bartz left. “Gary just came in here and said that he loves what you’re playing behind him,” he then told Jarrett. “Gary said, ‘play a little more!’”
At one point during a set, Davis stood on Keith Jarrett’s side of the stage and asked, “What’s wrong with Gary?” while the two looked over at the saxophonist. Moments later, Davis walked over to Gary Bartz and asked the same question, this time with Jarrett as the subject.
These incidents, recounted in Paul Tingen’s 2005 article for JazzTimes on the Cellar Door sessions, were representative of Davis’ constant desire to challenge his musicians to “play above what you know”. Virtuosic musicians know quite a bit, so Davis had to be creative about constructing his challenges, and he began with who he chose for for the band.
Bassist Michael Henderson was the odd man out of the group, used to playing funk with Motown artists. His non-jazz background was a source of internal tension at times, but it was exactly why Davis made him the linchpin of the group.
“He said, ‘stay there and don’t follow those motherfuckers.’ So I had to figure out 19 trillion ways to play each riff,” recalls Henderson. In response to suggestions that Henderson might mix it up to be more in line with the freedom within the group, Davis told him: “If you learn any of that old shit, you’re fired.”
John McLaughlin was a studio regular with Davis, but not a regular member of the live band before the Cellar Door sessions. Keith Jarrett has given conflicting interviews regarding his opinion of McLaughlin joining the sessions, at one point referring to McLaughlin’s electric guitar as a “marketing gimmick”. Philosophical considerations aside, making musical and literal space for McLaughlin on the tight Cellar Door bandstand surely added another degree of difficulty.
The band had trouble mixing with Henderson, Jarrett resented McLaughlin’s presence, and everyone seemed to have an issue with Jarrett (Airto Moreira would later say “Keith had the attitude that he was better than everyone else, and that attitude came out when we were playing together.”) And Davis wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“There were conflicts in the band, but the music always outweighed the personal,” says drummer DeJohnette. Henderson adds: “Musicians tend to go back to where they have been, and Miles didn’t want them in those pockets. Whenever they got in a pocket like that, he’d do anything, he’d stop the music, or looked at you differently, just to get you out of the comfort zone or out of playing free… So you had to adjust and make a thing that you didn’t understand make sense. You opened up your mind and your soul to it and you make it believable. Go with the flow and make it happen. Keep it exciting.”
Underneath the Volcano
Forty-three years later, the excitement created by those seven musicians on that cramped Cellar Door stage is still palpable on record. The live tracks – later heavily edited by producer Teo Macero in a tradition that began on Bitches Brew – showcase an unreal mixture of explosiveness and intimacy; an atom bomb served with a two-drink minimum.
Live – Evil is a difficult and dense record, but it’s one I keep coming back to, even while music I’m initially infatuated with continually slips away. It’s futuristic, in a literal sense. There was no prediction, plan, or rules for the music that would come from those Cellar Door sessions. It was recorded as it was created, which was only as fast as its proponents could dream it up, all while tethered to the string of a playfully sadistic puppet-master. “We were vicious,” says Michael Henderson, “This band was on the edge and off the rails.”
Davis was going for moments that couldn’t be duplicated, diamonds formed under extreme pressure. Song names were interchangeable. Structures and chord changes were unimportant. Even notes were unimportant. “Anybody can play,” Davis said, “The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent.”
Live – Evil is what happens when the best musicians in the world are stripped of their ego, of their security blankets, of their bearings even, and instead given only one directive: PUSH. The result is music that contains real danger and consequences. Live – Evil is futuristic because it will always sound like something that is happening right now. It will still burn that way in another 40 years.
Musicians have real nightmares about showing up to gigs and not knowing how to play the songs. But these are only nightmares because we are taught that good music is harmonious- that tension is built up for the purpose of later release. Miles Davis brought his musicians through that living nightmare and out to the other side. Sometimes the devil will tempt you to evil in the service of good.