copyright © 2002 Mike Zwerin
Binary time, the foundation of rock and roll, is a term that works better and is in more current usage, in French -- binaire. Jazz is based on a more complex and fluid subdivided three feeling called ternary (ternaire). Most Western music said to "swing" has at least an implied backbeat -- Philly Joe Jones streamlined ternary drumming with a fourth-beat click on the rim of the snare drum behind Miles Davis.
During his rock star period, roughly the last 20 years of his life, Davis did not allow his drummers to play ternary. Except for ballads, the backbeat was usually on top of the beat and in your ears; much more than implied. Taken together with what could be a merciless wah-wah pedal, it turned a lot of serious people off. Now, however, fans allergic to backbeats and electronic effects will be able to hear how, paraphrasing Mark Twain about Richard Wagner, this music is not as bad as it sounds. Thanks to a new glossy 20-CD box The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991" (Montreux Sounds), Miles's rich and relatively undocumented electric period can be heard live at length.
Davis was not at the time, as is sometimes held, in decline. Although his playing was not as fast or virile, the choice of material and notes and his casting remained choice. The period known as "Electric Miles" was an influential language -- witness current successful young European groups led by Eric Truffaz and Nils Petter Molvaer, and jam bands everywhere. Taste aside, the ternary rhythm team of Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb was no better or worse accompanying him than the binary bassist Darryl Jones and Al Foster on drums -- just very different. Most people who cite Duke Ellington's oft-quoted statement that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, don't really believe it. One perception of "swing" is as "the passing of good time" and there is more than one way to do that. There is no such thing as a bad groove, it either is or it isn't. Elvin Jones once said: "Music should be judged on its own terms."
Miles's versions of "If I were A Bell (I'd Be Ringing") or "Gone, Gone, Gone" are neither more nor less valid than Cindi Lauper's "Time After Time," Prince's "Movie Star" or the Michael Jackson vehicle "Human Nature." They were all pop songs to which he gave a new spin, elaborated on, made his own. His wispy anthem "Jean-Pierre" is a rock nursery rhyme. Marcus Miller's "Tutu" deserves to be a standard on its own. Each song stands by itself in one or another of his languages.
Although it may not have been conscious, one reason Miles was attracted to a heavy backbeat late in life was that he had grown tired of creating his own grooves. This way he could continue to be contemporary while using his head more than his increasingly weaker body and make more money at the same time. Having others lean on his good, complex, ternary time for all those years took a lot of creativity, courage and energy. By 1973, he was closing in on 50 and had earned the right to lean on the grooves of others. Let the kids do the work. He followed in the lee of his energetic young musicians like a bicycle racer in a slipstream. They provided him with the force he needed to continue to be the "Prince of Silence." Folklore has it that he'd stop them practicing in their dressing rooms and tell them to "practice on stage."
While many jazz fans detested that consistent insistent backbeat, rock critics did not concern themselves with electric Miles because there were no vocals and, besides, anybody can hear that it's jazz. It was between the cracks, fiery, intensely minimal and overlooked. (For influences, think Jimi Hendrix, Sly And the Family Stone, Cream and Ellington.) The "Electric Miles" period got notably more musical and together in the early 1980s, after his mid-life "creative break" -- and after he toned down the wah-wahs.
The 1984-85 band (four CDs) with Jones and Foster, John Scofield on guitar and the tenorman Bob Berg deserves a special mention. The 1986 formation (two CDs) with blues guitarist Robben Ford and the keyboard/synthesizer team of Adam Holzman and Robert Irving III (and guest David Sanborn) was a killer. So were post-1988 bands with saxophonists Rick Margitza or Kenny Garrett (seven CDs). Some nights were better than others, but none were truly bad, and the sound is always first-rate.
CD 19 (the only one previously released), the much-touted looking-back concert on July 8th, 1991, with Quincy Jones conducting the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band covering Davis's greatest acoustic ternary hits such as "Boplicity" and "Blues For Pablo" is a bit sad -- an historical curiosity at best. CD 20, recorded in Nice (the only non-Montreux concert) nine days later, ten weeks before his died, is evidence that Miles could be scorching and soulful until the end.
Mike Zwerin performed in Miles Davis's nonet (the Birth of the Cool band) at the Royal Roost in New York in 1948. He's been a music critic for the International Herald Tribune (in Paris) since 1977.
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