On Second Thought
Miles Davis - Get Up With It






for 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.

Listen, I know that the last thing you want to read right now is another encomium to Miles Davis’ electric period. Not because this music is not good or, at the very least, interesting, but because (like Krautrock, CBGB’s-era punk, and many other moments in musical history) we’ve seen more than enough critical ink spilled over it. I turn to William H. Gass, on a famously difficult author who he was mistaken for on more than one occasion, William Gaddis, or, to be more specific, the literary criticism thereof: “Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is what we’ve done to six or so very fruitful years of Miles Davis’ work: damned them with faint praise, with hand-lettered stickers placed on jewel cases in the tiny record stores that sometimes make me feel like I’m perusing someone’s collection, the product of very specific tastes, and that there isn’t much I want to borrow; words like “disturbing beauty” are flung about, as are patronizing not-as-flippant-as-I-wish-isms about how Miles and his “mind blowing” band had “got da funk.” You know what I’m talking about.

Thus, Get Up With It is not an easy album to write, let alone think, about. It’s a bit more of an anything-goes hodgepodge than it is a sprawling masterwork, and is probably written about the least of all Miles’ electric work. It certainly doesn’t offer any coherent textures of the sort that Bitches Brew (synesthetic keyboard haze lurking all over the place) or On The Corner (gut-bucket funk, that blithely in-your-face bassline dominating side two) are defined by. The product of ten musicians (and, the deliberately sparse album jacket informs us, “others”) who very rarely sound like themselves—witness the presence of Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock, whose distinctive keyboard styles are mutated into almost unidentifiable washes and squirts of wah-noise—it’s an album where Miles’ subconscious seems to run amok, an mazelike, orgiastic catacomb where I tend to think jazz (as our trumpeter knows it) is being laid to rest, or at least dressed up in a shroud (all the better to leap out at us from, claws out).

“He Loved Him Madly” (a tribute to Duke Ellington, if you’re curious) and “Calypso Frelimo” are the two showcase pieces here, at over half an hour each. The first is a simmering crawl dominated by gently coruscating waves of heavily reverbed guitar that would not sound out of place on Can’s Future Days. When drums and bass finally enter the mix, a cloudy intensity develops that perfectly frames Miles’ echo-laden trumpet calls, which cut a dramatic swath through the sonic undergrowth. As he took tons of flak from the likes of Down Beat for electronically distorting his instrument and playing in what were, to say the least, unconventional settings, some critics (who were in the minority) responded that he was playing with the same lyricism of “My Funny Valentine” and “Flamenco Sketches”—that only his manner of presentation had changed. This song, which can easily hold its own against anything on Bitches Brew, is the perfect piece of evidence to support this theory.

The live “Calypso Frelimo,” meanwhile, couldn’t be any more different if it tried: layers of frenzied percussion and two spazz-out guitarists fight for airtime over some of Miles’ most high-octane, Latin-flavored trumpeting. Think of it as a lengthier, higher-fi funk/jazz counterpart to “Sister Ray,” with a well-timed cool-down section (Michael Henderson’s lurking, stop-start bass is a highlight here) and with its musicians on, I presume, different drugs. “Maiysha,” which begins with a surprisingly gentle guitar melody before a Teo-Macero-assisted tape-splice takes things in a headier, noisier direction, is cut from the same cloth, as are “Mtume” (Miles’ percussionist gets his hour) and the closest-to-straight-funk-yet “Billy Preston.”

“Rated X,” however, is a bizarre sonic experiment that seemed designed to polarize listeners. Over a relentless bass vamp and what seems like one sustained drumroll, Miles takes (somewhat clumsily, but with yards of charm to spare) to the organ. Ten minutes of droning and pounding later, you’re left spinning with a uniquely pained wonder. “Red China Blues,” a harmonica-assisted three-minute workout made for single release, is downright eerie in its very conventionality; one waits for some lurking horror to unveil itself midway through, for the emphasize-the-absences disorientation that takes place so many other times during the course of the album.

By the time Get Up With It has ended, we feel we’ve been on a long journey. As when listening to an overstuffed mix CD-R or a packed-to-the-gills release from a cassette-only noise-punk label, it’s hard to remember where we were at the beginning by the time things wind down. When “Billy Preston” finally enters its coda, there’s no signifier—certainly not a fade-out, the sonic equivalent of a sudden cut to a crane shot in the last minute of a film—that things are wrapping up; it all stops. And that’s what Miles did soon after the release of this record and a few Japan-only live documents: he put down his horn for the rest of the decade, letting cobwebs envelop his house. I will not guess at his reasons for doing so; I’m sure he had his own. And like his smoky, brooding cover photograph on this album, all hexagonal glasses and pursed lips, to say nothing of the music within, it’s a mystery. I would expect nothing else.


By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01
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