The Cellar Door Sessions 1970
The Music Box's #2 specialty package for 2005
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2005, Volume 12, #10
Written by John Metzger
When Miles Davis abandoned his second great quintet in the late ’60s, he began to explore the uncharted waters of jazz-fusion by incorporating a myriad of funk-rock rhythms, ostinato bass lines, and amplified instrumentation into his work. Yet, for all the acclaim that albums like Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way have received — and rightfully so — they were merely the culmination of the first part of a journey that had commenced on Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro. In 1970, he began pushing his music even further during the sessions that resulted in the magnificent A Tribute to Jack Johnson, an album that fully grafted the jazz world’s improvisational virtuosity onto rock ’n‘ roll’s raging intensity, but even here, he still clung, however tenuously, to a traditional jazz-oriented framework.
As the year progressed, the make-up of Davis’ touring band began to mutate, but by fall, it had coalesced around pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Gary Bartz, percussionist Airto, and bass player Michael Henderson. In fact, Davis not only had jettisoned most of the players who had helped him to create his early forays into fusion, but he also had discarded most of its music; only a skeletal snippet from Wayne Shorter’s Sanctuary and a looser interpretation of It’s About that Time were retained with any regularity. Indeed, this was a entirely different band, and it served an entirely different purpose. The addition of Henderson — who had earned his reputation by working with both the Motown label as well as with Stevie Wonder — marked a shift from acoustic to electric bass in Davis’ ensembles, and as a result, the underlying force that drove his material had changed substantially. In essence, it signaled the dawning of a new, more aggressive era.
At the time, Davis’ artistic inclinations had veered toward capturing music that was made "in the moment," and so, instead of heading into a studio, he took his outfit to Washington D.C.’s Cellar Door for a 10-show, four-night run in December. It was the recordings from these concerts that formed the basis for Live-Evil. Understandably, Teo Macero severely edited the material, and while the final product worked quite well as a two-LP package, it wasn’t truly representative of the band that Davis had assembled. However, the newly issued, six-CD collection The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, which features six of the concerts that were performed at the intimate venue, does provide a more comprehensive portrait of the group, and it, therefore, is an easy matter to see why some consider this ensemble to be as groundbreaking and as invincible as either of his most-respected quintets.
If there is a flaw to be found within the material that is presented on The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, it’s that occasionally Davis’ outfit didn’t always mesh perfectly. Sometimes, Henderson and DeJohnette would head in opposing directions; other times, Davis appeared to be so infatuated with the effect of his wah-wah pedal that he allowed his playing to become a distraction from the brute force wielded by his band. Nevertheless, such blemishes are bound to appear on any concert recording that is drawn from the messy world of improvisation en masse, especially when it features an aural snapshot of a group whose leader thrived upon keeping his collaborators uncomfortably off-balance. The bottom line is that the music contained on the package is as earth-shattering as it is insightful.
Although The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 contains 28 tracks, Davis and his ensemble performed only seven songs — Directions, Yesternow, What I Say, Inamorata, Honky Tonk, It’s About that Time, and Sanctuary — and as one show bleeds into the next, one can hear the transformation that occurred when, with each subsequent iteration, the compositions were violently torn asunder and reinvented. No longer did Davis and his ensemble operate simply as a platform for individual soloists. Instead, the group became a single, living, breathing entity that mutated each melody’s fractured essence into an elongated adventure. Jarrett — who in Davis’ previous outfits had been constrained by the presence of Chick Corea and, to a lesser degree, John McLaughlin — now had more room to maneuver, and in utilizing a pair of keyboards, often simultaneously, he vigorously bent the material to his will, fueling Davis’ moody musings via his churning keyboard accompaniments and mercurial, blues-inflected motifs. Augmented by Airto’s otherworldly shadings, Jarrett, along with DeJohnette and Henderson, propelled the music along its path by keeping it in a constant state of motion. It was over this molten terrain that Bartz furiously unleashed his brash and brassy wails while Davis gleefully stabbed and sliced through the thick air with the delicious puissance of his swift, sharp uppercuts — occasionally pausing, however briefly, to signal a change in ambience merely by altering the timbre of his horn.
Of course, the concerts featured on The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 culminated when the band was reunited with guitarist John McLaughlin during the final night of its engagement. It wasn’t that the group without McLaughlin didn’t venture into the unknown or brew a broiling primordial stew; one listen to the thrashing funk of What I Say from the opening show or the frenetic machinations of Joe Zawinul’s Directions that began the late set from Friday evening is enough to dispel any argument to the contrary. However, with McLaughlin on board, its heavy, ominous overtones turned darker and more foreboding. Sitting amidst the turbulence concocted by the ensemble, Davis pitted the guitar-like emissions from his trumpet against McLaughlin’s own jagged incursions. Taken in full, the onslaught unleashed by the outfit throughout The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 not only extended into live performance Davis’ accomplishments on A Tribute to Jack Johnson, but it also hinted at the directions that his music would take in the years to come.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box