I have been living with Miles at the Fillmore for a few weeks now. Recorded on April 11, 1970 at the Fillmore West and June 17-20 at the Fillmore East, Miles Davis was at the height of his fusion phase (1968-1972) and taking music to unknown regions. Miles had come a long way in his thinking from the start of the 1960s to the end of the decade. In fact, Miles at the Fillmore might be the last great set of concerts Miles ever performed. The music is simply, to use Miles’s phrase, “motherfucker.”
Miles at the Fillmore contains 4 discs and constitutes the complete shows Miles performed at the Fillmore West and East. The set list for each show does not vary much. Beginning with the Joe Zawinul composition “Directions,” each show highlighted songs from Bitches Brew and Music from Jack Johnson. In addition to “Directions,” the set list is as follows: “The Mask,” “It’s About that Time,” “Bitches Brew,” and “The Theme.” On the last two nights at the Fillmore East Miles added the classic “I Fall In Love Too Easily” (a rarity for Miles to go back into his back catalogue), and “Willie Nelson.” Others songs that were added at various shows include “Paraphernalia,” “Sanctuary,” and “Footprints,” all Wayne Shorter compositions, as well as “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Spanish Key,” both from Bitches Brew. Miles’s long-time producer Teo Macero originally produced the music. Columbia/Legacy has put together a handsome CD package that is colorful and full of photographs. Also included is a wonderful essay by Michael Cuscuna.
Miles at the Fillmore represents music from Miles’s jazz-fusion era, a controversial blending of jazz, funk, and rock along with African and Indian rhythms. The music is a departure from the earlier “classical” jazz one would find in his earlier work, and if one is expecting to find the type of music found on say, Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain one should look elsewhere. The music played on Miles at the Fillmore is pure witchcraft. Although the music played here represents some of the most experimental sounds Miles ever played, the band does fit together in a strange and wonderful way. The electric keyboards figure almost as much as the trumpet, and at times the music can test one’s patience. One could argue that the music sounds almost like a drugged out freeform and directionless set of notes that only resemble bona fide songs at the beginning and end of each track. Yet, that may be the point. This music is Miles at his most experimental, his most intuitive. The musicians are feeding and building off one another; they are playing in tune, if one can stretch that phase. What occurs during these concerts is magic. Moreover, as the liner notes suggest, this music is very much of the time.
The concerts at the Fillmore West and East opened up a whole new audience for Miles. For the first time he was attracting a younger, whiter crowd who had not grown up listening to jazz. Here is Miles from his autobiography:
“After I finished Bitches Brew, Clive Davis put me in touch with Bill Graham, who owned the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in downtown New York. Bill wanted me to play San Francisco first, with the Grateful Dead, and so we did. That was an eye-opening concert for me, because there were about five thousand people there that night, mostly young, white hippies, and they had hardly heard of me if they had heard of me at all. We opened for the Grateful Dead, but another group came on before us. The place was packed with these real spacey, high white people, and when we first started playing, people were walking around and talking. But after a while they all got quiet and really got into the music.”
This music is not for the faint of heart. Its errant and frenzied style will turn off those looking for classic jazz. But the music is worth the effort. It’s trancelike and visionary, casting a hypnotic spell over the listener. I have never taken acid, but I assume this would be the perfect music to play if one did. Further in his autobiography Miles states how he was influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and what he could do with the electric guitar. Miles wanted to recreate the sound of the lead guitar with the trumpet, so one has to re-tune one’s ear when listening to this music. The trumpet assumes a different role, a different “voice.” If we don’t hear the music it’s not because Miles failed to deliver, it’s because we are not ready to receive his call to listen. We must open ourselves to be responsive to this music, which means coming to the music with no preconceived notions of what jazz should sound like. “Music,” Jean-Luc Nancy argues, “is the art of making the outside of time return to every time, making return to every moment the beginning that listens to itself and beginning again.” Miles at the Fillmore is, as I’ve stated above, music of a time, but it is also timeless, or outside the laws of time which are binding. This is what I mean when I say that there is witchcraft to this music. Miles at the Fillmore is a Bacchanalian festival that simultaneously recaptures the spirit of the 1960s and looks forward to the strangeness that would become the 1970s. It’s no wonder that Miles went into semi-retirement in 1975, since he must have been mentally and physically exhausted. When he re-emerged in 1980 he was different, less daring, and almost fragile.
What we have with Miles at the Fillmore is a record of a group of musicians hovering around a bandleader that all heard the same thing. There playing is as far out as it is far in. This is not pedestrian music, but the echoes of a genius on the verge of madness.