In retrospect, Miles Live at Fillmore was an odd choice as the first Miles Davis album I ever bought. The reason I chose it was simple. I was curious about his music, and that was the only title my local record store had in their “used” bin. So I plunked down my four bucks, took it home, and plugged in to the music of the legendary trumpeter at just about the midpoint of his long career. The original four sides of vinyl have been fleshed out to four CDs for the newly released Live at The Fillmore: Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 from Columbia Legacy, and it is a very impressive package.
The double LP had not been well received by the critics, and now I understand why. They probably felt that the set was more about Teo Macero than Miles. The original concerts took place at The Fillmore East, in New York during Davis’ four-day stand of June 17-20, 1970. Incredibly enough, he was opening for Laura Nyro. Producer Macero edited each night’s set down to 20 minutes, and titled them “Wednesday Miles,” “Thursday Miles,” and so on for each of the four vinyl sides. The new edition presents the full set of each night per disc, plus material recorded at the Fillmore West from that year as bonus tracks.
Bitches Brew had been released in April 1970, and was immediately picked up by the hip rock crowd, including “underground” FM radio, and Rolling Stone magazine. This period would eventually lead to Davis being the only jazz musician to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And with good reason, for this music has much more in common with what groups such as The Grateful Dead or The Allman Brothers Band were doing than jazz.
The reason The Grateful Dead’s concert tapes are so prized is that the group could be radically different from show to show. In some ways, the Davis band of this period shares this quality. The setlists are similar from night to night, but with musicians of this caliber, the solo spots are never the same.
This may have been the most “all-star” band that Miles ever had. The group included Chick Corea (electric piano), Keith Jarrett (organ, tambourine), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Steve Grossman (tenor sax, soprano sax), and Airto Moreira (percussion, flute). Although I mentioned such jam band precursors as the Dead and Allmans previously, the Davis band is closer to the heavy metal music of the day than anything else. Miles was a fan of Jimi Hendrix, and the thunderous roar this group makes is not unlike that of Led Zeppelin.
The first three songs are the same each night. They open with Joe Zawinul’s “Directions,” then “The Mask,” followed by “It’s About That Time.” Although the studio version of “Directions” would not be released until 1980, it hardly mattered to the crowd. The track provides a high-energy introduction, with Davis’ horn bursting forth immediately, then stepping back to allow Grossman’s sax to dominate with some Coltrane-inspired “sheets of sound.” It is fascinating to listen to the two keyboardists in action, as they are identified in the notes by channels, with Corea on the left, and Jarrett on the right.
Next up is “The Mask,” which wears its voodoo proudly right from the mysterious keyboard opening. Then Miles steps up and really punches in with his trumpet. Davis is famous for the muted sound he used so effectively, but in this context he blows with abandon. On this tune, Grossman takes the sly approach, playing the lower register of his sax to the loud approval of the Fillmore hippies. “The Mask” is a spellbinding tune and gives the crowd a chance to catch their breath after “Directions.”
The segue into “It’s About That Time” is nearly invisible, but once they get it going, it does not stop. Besides Hendrix, the other artist of the era that turned Davis’ head was Sly Stone, which the funky groove of “It’s About That Time” bears witness to. Holland’s bass is key, and listening to him between the dueling keyboards at around the nine-minute mark is a beautiful thing.
Those three tracks each run from 10 to 12 minutes, and then things get interesting. On the third and fourth nights, Davis played “I Fall in Love Too Easily” next. It is basically a trumpet ballad, and quite beautiful. The song is from his 1963 Seven Steps to Heaven album, and a not-so subtle reminder of who this man is.
“Bitches Brew” is the highlight of the second half of the set, on all four nights. In listening to it on consecutive nights, one really sees the mood of the band. It feels as if they are responding to the way the crowd greeted the first half of the show, as there are so many little variations. Nothing really radical, but the energy is different on every one. Part of the Miles Davis lore is that he never played encores, which for the most part was true. However, on June 18, 1970 he did bring the band back out to play “Spanish Key” from Bitches Brew.
The three bonus tracks were recorded on April 11, 1970 at The Fillmore West in San Francisco. The songs are “Paraphernalia,” “Footprints,” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” Like so much of this set, these songs have never been previously released, and add another 35 minutes of music to it. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is probably my favorite track of the Bitches Brew album, and this version is great.
Besides all of this amazing music, there is a 32-page booklet chronicling the whole affair with an essay from Michael Cuscuna as well as production notes. There is also an insert, which is really a nice touch. One side of it features articles from Rolling Stone and Newsweek about the Fillmore concerts and new musical direction. The other side is a poster of Miles onstage, a throwback to the days of posters being included in the album package. I am tempted to straighten it out and pin it up to my wall, like I would have done as a teenager.
The Macero-edited versions of these nights have little in common with what actually went down. Yet it had to have been Davis’ idea to release them in that fashion, and an interesting choice if nothing else. The vinyl is simply no comparison to hearing the full force of this band on four consecutive nights though.
Every musician in this band became a star in their own right, but they were living their childhood dream of playing with Miles Davis here. The performances are outstanding, and the music is very powerful. Like the previous Complete in a Silent Way Sessions and Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, Miles at The Fillmore: Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 is a revelation.
I agree with others that those studio sessions are fascinating, but that Macero did the right thing in editing them the way he did. The live material is different. The band was editing themselves for the audience. Releasing the full set from one of these nights would have been the way to go, to give fans a chance to hear this band in full flight. In any case, that is what we have now, and the historic stand at The Fillmore is a must for any fan of electric Miles.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00HSCDX70]