30 July 2008


Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue

Like any other art, jazz has had its fair share of artistic controversies. Think of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the creation of bebop. Or Ornette Coleman's 1959 debut at the Five Spot in New York. No controversy compares, though, to the one that greeted Miles Davis when he decided to incorporate electronic instruments and rock-and-roll rhythms into his music at the end of the 1960s. It is in this context that filmmaker Murray Lerner presents Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue. Lerner, through interviews with former bandmates and footage of Davis' performances, seeks to examine Davis' shift from jazz titan to rock star, pairing his short documentary with a complete take of Davis' 38-minute performance at the 1970 Isle of White festival.

The film opens with two opposing views of Davis the Rock Star. Carlos Santana describes Miles as the ultimate searcher, looking for new avenues of "musical orgasm," as he quotes Davis. He is followed by Stanley Crouch, who essentially calls bullshit, and argues that Miles turned to jazz-rock fusion simply for the money and popularity. After presenting the controversy that surrounded Davis at the time and afterwards, Lerner largely leaves this narrative behind, instead focusing on the ins and outs of Davis' then-new style. The film is littered with interviews with a variety of Davis associates from that era: Santana, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dave Liebman, Gary Bartz, Dave Holland, and more. These musicians together describe and dissect different aspects of Davis' music at this time. After 35 minutes of dissection, Lerner concludes the film with Davis' Isle of White performance.

Clip from Davis' Isle of Wight Performance

The film is at its best when Lerner's interview subjects discuss what it was like to play with Miles at this time. Hancock, Corea, and Keith Jarrett all describe their experiences as Davis forced them to play electronic instruments in his band; Hancock remembers that he had never seen an electric piano before Miles brought one into the studio for him one day. Santana describes Davis' relationship with himself, Jimi Hendrix, and other young lions of the late-sixties rock world as a symbiotic one, noting that just as Hendrix intrigued Davis with his sprawling psychedelic rock, so did Davis shake up Hendrix when he recorded A Tribute to Jack Johnson. All these musicians describe Davis both as an astute, if laconic, teacher, who guided their development of a new sound and instilled a necessary sense of fearlessness into their artistic selves.

Davis in 1973 with Dave Liebman, left, and Michael Henderson, background

Where this documentary falls short, however, is in its incomplete portrayal of the uproar which accompanied Davis' turn to jazz-rock fusion. Aside from two clips of Crouch (Crouch entertainingly tells of how he listened to Bitches Brew in various states of consciousness in an effort to like the music), Lerner does not include any critical commentary on Davis' music from this period. This poses two problems, the first being that the film assumes the viewer already knows about both the controversy and Davis' own stature and history up to the late sixties. Lerner could do better by explaining how Miles had come to represent the epitome of sophistication and cool by the mid-sixties, both through his music and style. There is no context relative to the rest of the jazz world in the film. Is it not too much to ask for even a cursory discussion of the state of jazz in the late-sixties?

Secondly, Lerner's skimping on the Miles Davis controversy presents to much of a dichotomous depiction of Davis' music: it is either groundbreaking art, as Santana argues, or pop-shlock, as Crouch argues. A more nuanced portrayal would have served Lerner well here. Many people (including Crouch) have noted that Davis was wary of turning into a nostalgia act, but as John Szwed notes in So What, it is tough to charge Miles Davis with trying to make a quick buck when he was releasing albums with tracks that would stretch on for ten minutes or more. Davis' Isle of Wight performance consists solely of a 38-minute long jam that ebbs and flows in and out of tonality and melody. Were he totally selling out, surely he would have presented less challenging music on stage than that. Also, unlike the Tony Williams Emergency, John McLaughlin's Mahvishnu Orchestra, or other fusion bands of the era, Miles spliced songs together out of different group improvisations cut in the studio, tunes which did not translate into a stage repertoire. Of course, you would not know that from watching Miles Electric.

Lerner also does himself a disservice by presenting Stanley Crouch as the stand-in for all criticism of Davis. While he presents an important vantage point in the jazz wars (his essay on the post-Bitches Brew Davis is a must-read for the student of jazz history), by no means is his view gospel for the anti-fusion factions in the jazz wars. We also don't hear from any of his associates from the sixties who avoided fusion and electronic jazz; there is no Ron Carter, for instance. Certainly, the debates that still rage about Davis' turn to fusion are one of the reasons his music from this period remains so captivating today. At an hour and thirteen minutes, there is certainly more time in the documentary to hear more of the critical take on Miles Davis.

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