MURRAY LERNER, a documentary filmmaker now in his 70s, filmed a legendary open-air rock concert on England's Isle of Wight in August of 1970. Tied up until 1997 in legal hassles, Lerner has only just now released a Woodstock-style documentary of the event's highlights along with a collection of individual DVDs featuring the entire sets of individual acts.
One of those acts was Miles Davis and his band. Their 38-minute set has been padded with almost 90 minutes of newly taped interviews with several of Davis's sidemen, along with his acolytes Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell. The DVD, Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, is informative.
The great benefit of Miles Electric is that it explains what a radical transformation Miles Davis and his music went through in the late 1960s. As Bob Belden, a producer with Sony, puts it:
Can you imagine being Miles Davis? You've been struggling your whole life. You've got money, but you've got high expectations. You've been with Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Cannonball, Wayne Shorter, Herbie, Ron, Tony. And then you put out this record, which is essentially a jam session, and it becomes the top selling jazz record of all time. And then on top of that, you do the Fillmores, and you're on Newsweek magazine, and within the space of six months . . . he played the Isle of Wight.
"This record" was a double album called Bitches Brew which would serve as the basis for the songs played at the Isle of Wight, and as Belden explains, its phenomenal success would alter Miles' career forever.
WHAT THE AUDIENCE at the Isle of Wight had witnessed was a moment similar to watching Bob Dylan "go electric" for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. However, the two musicians' transformations had very different aftereffects.
Dylan's adoption of rock instrumentation both increased his sales and earned the brief hatred of his fellow folkies (and some of his critics), but was ultimately largely accepted. But when Miles Davis began to feature electric instruments in his act only a few years later, he caused an enormous divide amongst his fan base and jazz critics--a divide which remains unbridged.
The beginning of the Miles Electric DVD reflects this controversy. Carlos Santana appears slightly glassy-eyed and wearing jeans, a faded psychedelic Miles T-shirt, and a leather cap. His first words?
With music, you want to penetrate the listener. You want to penetrate to the point where you reach what Miles Davis used to call "a spiritual orgasm."
Smash cut to New York Daily News columnist and Wynton Marsalis compatriot Stanley Crouch dressed in a dark suit and tie. Crouch's reply?
Well, that's bullshit. See, that's all just part of the Miles Davis myth. Miles Davis was trying to make some money. Miles Davis was so great, to see him grovel before these commercial arenas by the end of his life, was really very difficult. So people had to say, "Oh no, Miles didn't sell out--he's moving ahead.
No doubt, Davis probably wanted to make money. But while Bitches Brew was certainly inspired by the music of the late-1960s--Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Motown, Sly Stone, the Beatles, (and Santana claims in the DVD, rather immodestly, his own band)--the album that Davis released was hardly pop music in the conventional sense. (The success of Bitches Brew was certainly not based on the accessibility of its music. And curiously, its follow-up was much more accessible--but had nowhere near the same commercial success.)
BUT ASIDE FROM THE OBVIOUS popular influences, none of the musicians featured on Miles Electric discuss the other elements that went into Bitches Brew. On that album, Davis managed to fuse jazz, rock, and R&B with 20th century classical music, especially 12-tone serial composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. He also used tape-editing and overdubbing effects such as Musique concrète.