Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Miles Davis and the Fine Art of Overkill

It's a great time to be a Miles Davis fan. Miles is arguably the greatest and most influential jazz musician of all time. Inarguably, he changed his musical course more frequently than any of his contemporaries, and his creative flights were sometimes dizzyingly abrupt and confounding. He was frequently so far ahead of the curve that many in his audience couldn't even recognize the landmarks along the road, and it is only in retrospect that we now see the genius. Along the way he introduced the world to musicians and arrangers as great and as diverse as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, and John McLaughlin.

Columbia Records, God bless them, is in the process of unleashing the most comprehensive aural record of any musician ever recorded. Miles released more than 100 albums during his long and exceedingly prolific career, but that's nothing compared to the riches that Columbia is slowly doling out from the inexhaustible Miles vault. Every nine to twelve months sees the release of another seemingly essential boxed set. In roughly chronological order, here's what's come out:

-- 1998 -- The Complete Birth of the Cool
-- 1998 -- The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
-- 1999 -- The Complete Columbia Recordings: Miles Davis and John Coltrane
-- 2000 -- Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings
-- 2001 -- The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions
-- 2002 -- Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973 - 1991
-- 2003 -- The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
-- 2004 -- Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963 - 1964
-- 2005 -- The Cellar Door Sessions 1970

But that bare list doesn't truly do justice to the music. By way of comparison, note that 2004 release. In 1963 Miles released an album called Seven Steps to Heaven. It was a transitional album, one recorded between his first and second great quintets. And it spanned six songs and about forty-five minutes. The corresponding boxed set, in contrast, spans 7 very long CDs, and contains live versions and innumerable outtakes of the songs on that album. Instead of 45 minutes of music we get more than 8 hours of music. And that's the kind of treatment that Miles has been receiving for most of the past ten years. The man's recorded output has almost tripled since his death; no mean feat if you can pull it off.

But it begs the question: how much is too much? I have that Seven Steps boxed set, as well as a couple of the others. It's not only exhaustive, but exhausting. Seven Steps to Heaven is a good, not great Miles Davis album, and at 45 minutes it was just about right. But I now have 8 hours of music, and if I want, I can hear five different takes of the song "Joshua" from the original album - two abortive studio efforts, two live recordings, and the original album track, all recorded during 1963 and 1964. But I don't want. It's simply too overwhelming. And that's the conundrum in which I currently find myself. I love Miles Davis. And I would have thought that it would have been impossible to shovel too much Miles Davis music at me. But Columbia has found a way to do it. There have been nine boxed sets over the past eight years, with each boxed set containing 5 CDs on average. Hmm, I could listen to music or write a novel. Life is too short.

The temptation with any re-issues project is to cram it full of outtakes and unreleased songs. It's a way to entice longtime fans to ante up on the prohibitive cost of these sets; give the people something new in addition to what they already know. But I'm starting to see the wisdom of a less-is-more approach. I could now, if I chose, listen to Miles Davis non-stop for the next several months, and never repeat a song or performance. But there's a big, wide musical world out there, and I don't want to listen to Miles non-stop. Overkill is overkill, even in the wondrous world of my favorite jazz musician.


teddy dellesky said...

i had the jack johnson set. it was too much...i mean how many times can i listen to outtakes of "willie nelson" successively and not want to puke..."that one was good, that one was good too"

i'm only a small fan of miles' "out there" stuff. i much prefer the "big band" era (a la sketches of spain and the others) as well as the stuff that the quintets did. its just more listenable and post-boppy, which aside from soul-jazz (mcgriff, j. smith, lee morgan, etc.) is my favorite type.

i stick with the straightforward albums. i even skip the extras that sony has been known to add onto the reissues. its less overwhelming and gets at the heart of the music.

Andy Whitman said...

Yeah, I'm pretty much with you, Teddy. Really, just about everything after "In a Silent Way" (1967) I can take or leave.

I appreciate that Miles was pushing the music in new directions, but it turns out I like the theory a lot more than I like the reality. I have the same reaction to John Coltrane. I love everything he did up until about 1964, then he starts losing me. And by the time he gets to "Live in Japan" in 1966, he sounds remarkably like I imagine an elephant in heat might sound. There's a 1+ hour version of "My Favorite Things" (raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and all that) on "Live in Japan" where the melody is discernible for all of about 30 seconds. The rest is the elephant in heat. Stampeding.

teddy dellesky said...

fred - the "out there" stuff does include bitches brew.

andy - i agree. the theiry is great but listening to it for enjoyment is a whole other thing.

coltrane loses me as well. i love him, even more that miles, but post 64 stuff does indeed sound like an elephant in heat.

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, "Bitches Brew" is definitely out there. And, like you, I bought it and listened to it and tried really, really hard to like it, without much success.

"Bitches Brew" was, in fact, the first jazz album I bought. It was my introduction to the music, and it turned me off to jazz for the next fifteen years. There was no discernible melody, no discernible rhythm; only what sounded like keyboard noodling punctuated by occasional staccato trumpet blasts. And if that was jazz, then I had no use for it. Fortunately my brother-in-law eventually pointed me to "Kind of Blue," a much more accessible first step.

In retrospect, I can listen to "Bitches Brew" and hear how Miles arrived at that point. It was a logical progression from where he was at in, say, 1967 or 1968. And maybe because my ears are better attuned to jazz in general I can hear interesting things going on in the music. I stil don't want to play it much, but I do think there are worthwhile elements of the music. But it was certainly the wrong place to start.

I'll be happy to do a new CD mix fairly soon. I'm entering in to another Paste Magazine deadline period, so I'm going to be pretty busy over the next couple weeks. But in early February I should have a bit more time, and I'll be happy to focus on jazz.

Karen said...

andy, if you're doing a cd mix of jazz i want it!

Anonymous said...

As I recall, Kind of Blue, arguably the greatest jazz album ever recorded by anyone (I said arguably, Coltrane Love Supreme fans) has hardly any outtakes. A lot of outtakes deserve to be outtakes. Probably why I don't own any of these boxed sets of mostly outtakes.

Thus endeth the rant...

Andy Whitman said...

In general I agree with you, Bill. But that's not always the case with Miles. Basically, every note Miles ever played after about 1954 or so got recorded, sometimes legally, sometimes not. But he was such a great musician that a lot of the material that was never released in his lifetime really is worth hearing. Some of the outtakes honestly do deserve to be outtakes, but many of them are just as good as the officially released material. The problem is that there is such a wealth of great material that it gets overwhelming. I haven't heard many of these boxed sets, but from what I've heard from other folks who have, they're genuinely amazed by the quality of the music. But I guess I don't have the attention span or fortitude to make it through many of them. My eyes tend to glaze over after a while.

There are a few other folks who fit this category as well -- Dylan, certainly, but also Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. At one point they were simply writing and performing more great music than could be officially released at reasonable intervals. So a lot of simply superb material was left in the vaults. That's why Columbia's Dylan Bootleg series is so magnificent. Dylan actually left a bunch of masterpieces, and I do mean masterpieces, in the can. It's mind boggling.

So yes, it's generally true that outtakes are outtakes for good reasons. But every so often a genius comes along who throws away great material. I think Miles probably fits that profile, although I still have trouble wading through hour after hour of his music.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion topic, and a great discussion to match!

For me, it's about what you go to the music for. I don't begrudge the company's desire to turn a buck on aborted material because there is an audience for that type of material and no one's hurt by the exercise. Most of the people I know that are into Miles or Coltrane or, really, any musician very deeply IS a musician. Musicians have a different need and approach to this type of product. They don't just want to hear a song. They frequently want to hear what MADE the song, what it's growth was, where the ideas came from, and box sets of this magnitude provide that type of insight. I had much the same reaction to a really good, multi-drafted text of Ginsberg's "Howl".

These box sets are ideally not for the casual listener or even just really big fans. They're for completists and musicians. More power to them.

Andy Whitman said...

Hey, thanks for commenting, Scott. I'm sure that multi-draft version of "Howl" must be amazing.

Shawn Barber played me snippets of the Kerouac tribute "Kicks Joy Darkness" recently. Are you familiar with that? I've read lots of Kerouac, and I was aware that he's noted for reading his poetry while backed bu jazz musicians such as Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, but I'd never heard his works read aloud before, and it was a revelation. Great fun.

I'm looking forward to the upcoming poetry slam at the Columbus Music Hall. Keep on doin' what you do. And this time I'll even introduce myself. :-)

Anonymous said...

I do own that (actually won it as a door prize at one of Shaun's readings) and yeah, Kerouac is probably best consumed "warm".

We're very excited about doing the Music Hall! I expect lots of good times and good poetry to come out of it. We had a warm-up open mic last Friday - and will again this Friday - and you could tell that people were chomping at the bit over the last few months.