For solo rocker Mike Watt, who founded the influential early '80s punk combo The Minutemen, and later and fIREHOSE, discovering Miles Davis during his infamous electric period was something of a musical awakening.
"You know what Miles sounded like to us at first?" said Watt. "The electric period, like Down on the Corner? It was black music. It was like Sly (Stone), it was like Curtis Mayfield. We heard it like that. We didn't hear it as jazz, even though there was no singing. I think we felt it less with the licks than hearing the soul of it, the vibe of it."
Now Watt and other fans of the jazz pioneer can listen to classic electric Davis recordings from that era whenever they have the urge and the need to feel inspired.
Columbia/Legacy reissued (July 29) five legendary live albums the late jazz great recorded during his "electric" early '70s period. Black Beauty, Live-Evil, Miles Davis in Concert, Miles Davis at Fillmore and Dark Magus have each been remastered and reissued for the first time as a domestic CD release.
These landmark recordings are significant because of their influence in and outside jazz circles, although they were heavily criticized at the time by jazz critics. The controversy that Davis caused with his switch to electric and electronic instruments is akin to acoustic Dylan storming the stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival backed by a fully electric band.
And just as with many experimental artists, the impact of his style still reverberates throughout music.
"Miles didn't have any words. No chorus," Watt said. "The title was the only
words. In fact, that had a big impact on us. After a while we started figuring the title was way more important than any of the lyrics. This is what people are gonna read, and they're gonna bring their whole mind to that. This is what Miles was doing."
But just as folk ideologues were angry with what they saw as Dylan's sell-out, jazz purists were similarly outraged by Davis' adoption and adaptation of elements of rock and funk music.
Seth Rothstein, the Miles Davis reissue project director at Columbia, explained why these live albums may have been dismissed at the time. "I guess because his career, if you follow it from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, follows kind of a logical progression and (these live albums) seem to come from nowhere. Of course they came from somewhere. He was being informed by people like Jimi Hendrix and Miles was, in turn, informing others. But people within purely jazz circles didn't understand it. I guess when people don't understand things they dismiss them."
The deluxe treatment these albums have received amounts to a karmic debt
being paid by Columbia, a company that quite a few fans and critics believe
did not give the Davis CD catalog the treatment it deserved when it was initially issued. The limited edition CD digipacks reproduce the artwork contained in the original double LP gatefold sleeves, and include rare pictures culled from the vaults.
There are no "bonus tracks" that CD reissues have become known for, but not because Rothstein didn't want to, he said. "The way these records were originally made, it was way too complex to go in and remix the albums. We could only remaster them because those albums were pieced together and made up of hundreds of different elements from his live show and
studio work as well."
Essentially, he added, Miles would put on a concert and do a 40-minute or hour-long piece and his original producer Teo Macero would have
to try to put it in an LP format, making for a lot of tricky editing and
splicing. And just as Miles' electric period, which includes these live albums and studio LPs such as On the Corner and Pangea, influenced a number of musicians working in rock, soul, jazz and funk, it comes as no surprise then that these live recordings have had a major impact upon many electronica artists.
Miles and his producer were collaging his music in the studio, much like contemporary artists who sample and reconfigure their own music today -- just one more reason these albums are significant, if not essential.