Miles Davis - Live-Evil
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.
Like the word “ironic”, “funk” is a word often overused, misused and abused in our society. I remember a couple years ago when Flatboy Slim had that idiotic video “Funk Soul Brother” whatever (I’m not up on my Fatboy Slim song titles); regardless, everyone knows the clip I’m referring to; it contained shamelessly kitschy big-afros and “funky” proclamations. It seemed that after the release of the Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats”, every DJ with delusions of funkiness started dishing out commercial ready big beats featuring samples that told the unfortunate listener how funky their music was. Of course, if one was to check out the term “funky” in a contemporary dictionary, they may find the following definition: offbeat or unconventional. Now repeating clichés ain’t all that offbeat and it certainly ain’t unconventional. One can argue that looking up the definition of “funky” in a dictionary is in fact not very funky, but I am listening to Miles Davis’s Live-Evil, which is one of the funkiest albums ever recorded. Best yet: It’s instrumental and therefore never verbalizes how funky it is; it simply is funky. Of course, the tradition of declaring one’s own music funky stems from James Brown, but considering he created the blueprint from which all funky music is drawn, I’d say he was justified in doing so. Sly Stone branched off with funky social-commentary; George Clinton with a funky Galactic mythology; and Miles Davis did with funky jazz madness. No doubt, hip-hop has been dominating popular-music for some time now, whether it be directly or through its strong influence on pop and in some cases rock. Well, for the novice, the roots aren’t just in James Brown, they’re also with Miles Davis and before On The Corner, which featured Miles and his band jammin’ over James Brown beats within two extended musical loops, there was Live-Evil: Miles’s first giant leap into the whelm of full-fledge funkiness. Not to say Miles wasn’t funky beforehand; “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” (from Bitches Brew) was definitely on the funkier side of things, but that cut was more a foreshadower than anything else. And even “Voodoo Down” was missing the raw, unrefined force that Michael Henderson would bring to the Davis fold...
By the end of the 1960s, Miles Davis’s musical entourage was rather hefty: Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz and Steve Grossman on sax; Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Joe Zawinul on keys; Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham on drums; Airto Moreira on percussion; John McLaughlin on guitar; Ron Carter and Dave Holland on bass. In 1970, a very important addition was made to the outfit: Michael Henderson on electric bass. Henderson was a Motown sessionist, not a jazz bassist; as such, his inclusion helped Miles to take his music in a far more rhythmic and immediate direction. On December 19, 1970, Miles and his band—with Henderson on bass—played The Cellar Door, Washington D.C. The performance was recorded and used for the live selections of Live-Evil (I suppose the studio tracks are the evil selections). The double album was released in 1971—a year in which rhythm & blues/soul music was beginning to surpass rock music in terms of creativity and vigor. To the jeers of many jazz critics and even many of his creative peers, Miles chose to bridge the gap between r&b/soul music and jazz; even throwing a little rock and psychedelia into the mixture. First there was the predominance of electric-pianos on 1968’s Filles De Kilmanjaro, then the addition of John McLaughlin on electric-guitar on 1969’s In A Silent Way, and the final step—the final step in forming the first ever fusion band—was Michael Henderson on bass for Live-Evil. Oh yeah, and Miles playing his trumpet through a wa-wa pedal (first occurring on Live-Evil).
There aren’t many moments in my life when I remember first hearing a specific piece of music—at least, not in much detail. One case in which I do—down to where I was and what I was doing—is when I first heard “Psalm” from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Another is when I first heard “Sivad”, the opener of Live-Evil. I was on the threshold of my teen years and twenty-something, and riding in a car with a friend of mine who popped into his tape deck a Miles Davis compilation (one focusing on his electric period). Thus far, I had only heard fusion via the instrumental interludes on the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head and I was not at all prepared for the penetrating power of Miles gone funky with a vengeance. The first thing that hit me—and still hits me—was Henderson’s bass-line on “Sivad”: dropping and pumping like some nasty business; slipping and sliding like some grinning, afro-centric serpent; simultaneously sloppy and precise; it is truly one of the great bass-lines. Then here comes Miles around the corner—but man, dat cat don’t sound like Miles! First listen, you’d be conviced it was McLaughlin on guitar, but nah—it’s Miles! Soloing like a wild-man—a savage man—over all the exciting bumps and dips of his band. It’s appropriate that one can initially mistake Miles for an electric guitar, since Jimi Hendrix inspired his using of the wa-wa- pedal. The compilation offered only an abridged version of “Sivad”, but I heard enough to get hooked. Not long after I was purchasing everything Miles circa 1968-1973, making my own On The Corner T-shirts and learning the bass-lines to “Sivad” and “Black Satin” (from On The Corner). My punk-rock band became a fusion band and we shifted from playing mosh-crazy house-parties to black jazz venues; this all culminated to me moving to Manhattan in the late 1990s and being one of many fusion front men there. Then I got really into electronica and hip-hop and...well, musically I’m a fickle sonofabitch. It could be my downfall, but I digress.
The full-version of “Sivad”, the one that opens Live-Evil, is indeed a monster—along with the forth track on the album, “What I say”; which has a big break beat that’s several decades ahead of its time. Now Live-Evil isn’t a perfect singular statement like In A Silent Way; “Gemini/Double Image” is a bit of a drag and overall the second disk isn’t as strong as the first. Nonetheless, the epic funk battlefields, “Sivad” and “What I Say”, are enough to make this album essential listening. In addition, the softer, more somber tracks, “Little Church” and “Selim”, are haunting examples of musical purity—Miles enriching our ears with evocative melodies (his work on Sketches Of Spain comes to mind) while the bass creeps cautiously, an organ hums tensly, and human whistles/vocals float about forebodingly like wistful phantoms. The word “funk” has more than one definition...and I believe Miles and his band made full use of the word with Live-Evil.
By: Edwin C. Faust
Published on: 2003-09-01