Miles Davis - Big Fun
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
A month earlier, I reviewed Live-Evil and gave a somewhat detailed account of my first exposure to Miles Davis’s fusion-period and the subsequent fanaticism it inspired. Digging into (and digging on) Live-Evil resparked the above fanaticism last month and I started purchasing Miles Davis CDs I had neglected to purchase during my first wave of Miles Davis fandom. One of which was 1974’s Big Fun. I had heard the album in the past—my friend had a Japanese import CD—and I copied it onto cassette. Of course, such a crappy transfer didn’t do the album justice, especially after wasting away for several years. Listening to Big Fun on a digitally remastered disk—after several years of neglect—was quite an experience for me...so I kept listening to it. And I’m still listening to it. After immersing myself in Davis’s work this month, I can safely say that Big Fun is one my favorite Miles Davis recordings—in fact, I consider it second to only In A Silent Way. Now I wasn’t the only one neglecting Big Fun...a whole legion of music-historians, critics and fans have been as well and it’s time to set the double-record straight (forgive the pun).
History is often bogged down by facts and musical history is no exception. Because Big Fun was a compilation of unreleased material recorded between 1969-1972, it wasn’t seen as very groundbreaking after albums like the high-selling Bitches Brew and the controversial On The Corner were already released. Also, because the material on Big Fun was recorded during different periods and likewise recorded with different musician line-ups, many critics to this day label it as “scattered” and “unfocussed”. I truly doubt these critics would hold the same opinion if they weren’t privy to the knowledge of recording dates and band line-ups. Too much knowledge can deafen people’s ears and I believe that’s why Big Fun hasn’t gotten its full dues. Sure, like most of Davis’s work, it’s considered worthwhile listening, but it’s not nearly as recognized as the overrated Bitches Brew and hardly held in the same esteem. Yes—Bitches Brew is an important album: the shotgun of fusion and all that jazz. But the first disk containing “Pharaoh’s Dance” and the title-cut is too atonal and sluggish to really get into. Things definitely pick up with the second disk, but it’s far from one of Davis’s best works. Crowded notes layered on top of crowded notes—Bitches Brew lacks the groove of On The Corner, the diversity of Live-Evil and the beauty of In A Silent Way. Right now you’re probably thinking: is this a Bitches Brew review or a Big Fun review? Well, many of the selections on Big Fun were recorded shortly after Bitches Brew, so comparisons are justified. What’s not justified is the dismissal of Big Fun in favor of Bitches Brew. I don’t give a shit that Miles chose to release the Big Fun material years later; it’s simply superior to the material on Bitches Brew. Just because Brian Wilson never officially released SMiLE, doesn’t make it a less noteworthy accomplishment. Many of Prince’s B-sides during his Revolution period (e.g. “17 Days”, “Erotic City”, “Irresistible Bitch”) surpass songs the Purple One deemed album-worthy. What’s important isn’t historical significance; it’s the music.
Critics and historians get hung up on facts—when it was recorded and who was playing—especially jazz critics and jazz historians. Why do they care if Herbie Hancock was playing electric piano on one cut and Joe Zawinul on another? They entirely miss the point of what Miles was during with his music during the fusion era. Davis deliberately left off the musician’s names on the liner-notes of On The Corner in protest to over-dissection of ‘who’s playing what on what’. Also, Miles wasn’t recording his fusion the way jazz was traditionally recorded; creative editing in the studio was vital to the final result of In A Silent Way and on. Miles had adopted what would later be viewed as a DJ mentality with his music; it wasn’t about who was soloing, it was about the overall effect of the album. Big Fun is his greatest achievement in this regard. I believe that the album wasn’t just a hastily collected bunch of unreleased material, but something that Miles built-on and sculpted with artistic calculation over a four-year interval. Despite critics labeling it “scattered” and “unfocused”, Big Fun has a very consistent vibe throughout. In contrast to its title, the album is moody and hauntingly lyrical—not entirely unlike In A Silent Way. Imagine the foreboding nature of Bitches Brew, with the primitive and funky undercurrent of On The Corner, but also with the majestic melodies of In A Silent Way cresting the surface. Plus, Big Fun is tied together by a stronger Eastern vibe than any of Davis’s other albums; the prevalent use of electric sitar helps to enhance this and when the sitar isn’t used, the bass on a funkier track like “Go Ahead John” has a trancelike drone that maintains the vibe. The first song, ”Great Expectations” was and is an epic recording. At nearly 30 minutes in length, it wasn’t an easy thing to release off the bat, so it makes since that Miles would wait until he had other appropriate material to go along with it. Originally released as four side-long tracks on a double album, the massiveness of the material was what surely inspired the otherwise divergent title.
Big Fun is the work of a true musical craftsman and an even truer artist. I totally get it and I think most listeners who aren’t distracted by information will also. The folks putting together the remastered CD version of it apparently understood what Miles was going for with Big Fun. The extra-tracks included from the same time-period flow perfectly with the original tracks—maintaining the spiritual, Eastern vibe. “Yaphet” sounds like an extension of the more meditative parts of “Great Expectations”; it ends the two-disk set with full-circle completion. One of the greatest joys, however, is “Recollections”—a fragile, hushed masterpiece wrought of stirring emotion and musical purity. And to think, “Recollections” wasn’t released for several decades! It doesn’t matter though. What does matter is that “Recollections” and all the other sublime tracks on Big Fun were eventually released and moreover, that they were ever recorded. A world without this music would be a considerably emptier place.
By: Edwin C. Faust
Published on: 2003-09-01