Miles Davis – The Lost Septet
(Sleepy Night SNRCD013. CD Review by John Bungey)
It’s 5 November 1971, and what sort of a night were fans at the Vienna Konzerthaus expecting from the mercurial prince of darkness? Hopefully they had a better idea than the Yugoslav audience who had booed Miles the previous year for not playing Some Day My Prince Will Come and My Funny Valentine.
But even if you were one of the hipper Austrian souls, well-versed in Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, the intense, burstingly noisy set documented here would have been quite a shock. In his quest to find a new music that mixed the brawn of rock with the brain of jazz the trumpeter had moved on once again. This septet, never recorded in the studio (hence the “lost”), features Keith Jarrett on electric piano, Gary Bartz on saxes, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Ndugu Chancler on drums with Don Alias and Mtume on percussion. Tracks come from In a Silent Way, Live Evil, Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew but they are marshalled into a more or less continuous performance. Tunes amount to little more than brief phrases propelled by a bass line and a rock drum beat.
It is, though, music of febrile intensity, anchored by Henderson (a veteran of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder) and is of course, as with any early ’70s Miles, not for the faint-hearted. This show was recorded for radio and has been widely available as a bootleg with good sound; this is the first official release (with some informative but shakily-spelt sleeve notes).
Miles is on strong form, straying out of his usual middle register to play declamatory high notes between dramatic pauses. Using his wah-wah pedal he sometimes sounds a little like his friend Jim Hendrix, occasionally like a scalded cat. While Bartz plays with high-velocity passion, the 26-year-old Jarrett is the other obvious star, wresting as much emotion as he can from the tinny electric piano and Contempo organ allotted him.
Jarrett has been famously dismissive of this crew: “Miles and I were in a duo with a group who had no idea of what they were doing.” For Miles that was part of the point; when Henderson asked Miles whether he should learn some of the older material he was told: “If you learn that old shit… you’re fired.” Henderson can sound leaden rather than funky – his four-note bass line towards the end of It’s About That Time is more Black Sabbath than Sly Stone. Jarrett has some lovely moments towards the end of that piece, his delicate sprays of notes contrasting with the heaviness all about. On Honky Tonk and elsewhere he summons warm, gospel-tinged chords, but he is on his own. “When Keith starts playing that Catholic school shit, lay out, don’t play, don’t follow him,” Miles reportedly told the rest of the band.
There is group playing of thunderous power – as when Honky Tonk acquires an unrelenting momentum (in the build-up Davis fools around with the motif that would become Jean Pierre, a fan favourite debuted on record 11 years later). What I Say, as on Live Evil, is taken at break-neck speed and features incendiary soloing. But sometimes this is music to admire rather than love. This concert is fascinating, yes, intriguing, yes, but fun? Hmm. There is a dourness that means the music isn’t half as approachable today as other Miles projects. The year 1971 had been a tricky one for the band leader as he struggled with addiction, ill health, a marital bust-up, racism and the tax authorities. You can hear some of that on stage. Back in 1971, for all the thrill of encountering Miles’s new thing, I bet a few people at the Vienna Konzerthaus were wishing he’d play a little of “that old shit”.