Thursday, January 21, 2016

Miles Davis - 1968 [1998] "Miles In The Sky"

Miles in the Sky is a studio album by American trumpeter and composer Miles Davis, released on July 22, 1968, by Columbia Records.

Miles in the Sky was produced by Teo Macero and recorded at Columbia Studio B in New York City on January 16, 1968, and May 15–17, 1968. For the album, Davis played with tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Ron Carter. Guitarist George Benson made a guest appearance on the song "Paraphernalia". The album's title was a nod to the Beatles' 1967 song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

With the 1968 album Miles in the Sky, Miles Davis explicitly pushed his second great quintet away from conventional jazz, pushing them toward the jazz-rock hybrid that would later become known as fusion. Here, the music is still in its formative stages, and it's a little more earth-bound than you might expect, especially following on the heels of the shape-shifting, elusive Nefertiti. On Miles in the Sky, much of the rhythms are straightforward, picking up on the direct 4/4 beats of rock, and these are illuminated by Herbie Hancock's electric piano -- one of the very first sounds on the record, as a matter of fact -- and the guest appearance of guitarist George Benson on "Paraphernalia." All of these additions are tangible and identifiable, and they do result in intriguing music, but the form of the music itself is surprisingly direct, playing as extended grooves. This meanders considerable more than Nefertiti, even if it is significantly less elliptical in its form, because it's primarily four long jams. Intriguing, successful jams in many respects, but even with the notable additions of electric instruments, and with the deliberately noisy "Country Son," this is less visionary than its predecessor and feels like a transitional album -- and, like many transitional albums, it's intriguing and frustrating in equal measures.

Listening to Jazz music is such a surreal experience. The atmosphere is often full of intensity, and what I mean by "intense", I'm not necessarily referring to the sound of the music but the artist that is creating it. The compositions are often improvised, and the musicians seem to disappear into a different realm. And within this realm, the only thing that exists is the musician and their instrument. They develop a synergy with their instrument, it becomes a part of them. Another form of communication. The instrument becomes a window into their soul, their mind, and their creativity. And the sounds that are released are like another form of expression, the kind of sensations that no arrangement of words could ever describe. Miles Davis knows this experience all too well.

The 1960's was certainly an interesting era in time. There was this urge for experimentation that just captivated everyone. Segregation had just come to an end as white individuals and minorities were beginning to experiment with coalescent communities. Hedonism was also growing in trend, as the usage of drugs and sexual promiscuity was beginning to be seen in a less condemning light. Obviously, this would grow to have a tremendous effect on music. Music began to become much more abstract. Musicians began seeing music as much more than just something to listen to, but something to get lost in. Artists begun to push music into different directions, becoming much more experimental. The late 60's was a transitional period in Miles Davis' career, as he too fell into this urge for something different. Miles In The Sky is now seen as the stepping stone into a new era for Miles Davis. Miles In The Sky introduces a growing interest in the usage of electric instruments, such as the keyboard, bass, and guitar. This album is often seen as the first from his "Electric" period. The compositions of the album come from different sessions, and we can truly see the stages of Miles Davis' evolution from acoustic Jazz to Fusion music. Again, this album was just the first step, and the electric touches are not as prominent as in the latter albums.

We begin with "Stuff". Already we can hear the usage of an electric bass and a Rhodes piano within the composition. The piano arrangements are fast paced, yet the drumming and wind instruments show a little more restrain, though often erupting into a more passionate delivery in variation. Overall, this is still the Bop-styled Miles we have heard before. "Black Comedy" and "Country Son" represent the acoustic section of the album, and are some of Miles' final orchestrations using an acoustic quintet format. "Black Comedy" is very lively and aggressive in nature, while "Country Son" displays a more atmospheric tone. But now let us move on to the perhaps most well-known composition from the album, "Paraphernalia". The composition displays one of the first electrical guitar arrangements in Miles' music. "Paraphernalia" turns bop inside-out, with intense eruption of solos appearing and vanishing in a modal or free space, and interludes of quick changes on every beat, not as accompaniment for solos, but just stated on its own.

There is such intense musicianship within Miles In The Sky. Of course, Miles is the star of the show, but I must mention the drumming of Tony Williams. He was merely a teenager when he first joined Miles Davis' Second Great Quartet, but his dexterity for the instrument is astonishing. He was 23 during the recording for this album, and his feel for the drums is such a mind-blowing performance. Despite its abstract cover art and its name, "Miles In The Sky", this album doesn't contain the psychedelic atmospheres that are found in Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way. In fact, this album is often overlooked and it's a shame because this is perhaps one of Miles' most historic releases. Not only because it marked the beginning of Miles' "Electric era", but this was one of the defining albums for Jazz Fusion. This was a release that would not only grow to influence the Jazz world, but even transcend to inspire several rock artists. This is an album that must be heard by Jazz fans, especially any admirer of Miles Davis.

Miles in the Sky is an odd outsider among Miles' fusion work. For starters, only one song has guitar and nothing like the jagged skronk of John McLaughlin, although Herbie Hancock's electric piano places this somewhere in the domain of fusion. However, unlike Miles' better-known fusion, Miles in the Sky is largely clear of dissonance, and unlike Herbie's well-known fusion work, it also has little in the way of funk to its rhythms. It is generally a tight, smooth album. It never feels like the party (or wild anarchy) that most of its peer albums do. It's classic hot jazz in energy, without much in the way of melodies. Rhythm is the real key.

So in my initial forays into jazz, I found Miles in the Sky quite daunting in that it had little to hang onto. It was too pure and streamlined a piece, without the terror of fusion to come or the melodies and deep grooves of the hard bop behind it. It feels like it all takes place within some dark negative space, and it is the tentative toe in the water to Miles' fusion era. It feels as if it is trapped between worlds or dimensions. There is a focus here that seems anathema to the progress to come, a directional thrust to the rhythmic build of the songs to an endpoint. It is pretty much Tony Williams' album. Miles is clearly leading the pack, and Ron Carter's bass grooves are undeniably significant, but it's Tony's extremely hyperactive drumming that drives every moment of each song, especially "Paraphernalia" with its ever-shifting tempos. Meanwhile, Herbie's piano is always threatening to go somewhere mysterious (there's even a part in "Paraphernalia" where I swear he's about to do "The Girl From Ipanema"), and on "Black Comedy" threatens to steal Williams' thunder.

An interesting step into a new space, but no competition for the mountains of madness to follow.

Tracks Listing

1. Stuff (16:58)
2. Paraphernalia (12:36)
3. Black Comedy (7:25)
4. Country Son (13:49)
5. Black Comedy (Alternate Take) (6:26)
6. Country Son (Alternate Take) (14:40)

Total Time 71:49


    Miles Davis – trumpet, cornet on "Stuff" and "Country Son"
    Wayne Shorter – tenor saxophone
    Herbie Hancock – piano, electric piano on "Stuff"
    Ron Carter – bass, electric bass on "Stuff"
    Tony Williams – drums
    George Benson – electric guitar on "Paraphernalia"