The Cellar Door Sessions is the link between the Avant-electric Miles Davis of Bitches Brew and the scorching Afro-funk of Agharta/Pangea.
There are those, including myself, who have always been puzzled at the seeming inability of Miles to strip things down to the funky core. This seemed to provide one explanation for his inability to break through with his electric music from 1969—1975, while his band members, including Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter all seem to have been able to parlay their fusion of jazz improvisation with electronics and popular song-type structures into great commercial and (in many cases) critical success. It seemed that Davis just couldn’t provide straight-ahead funk or rock, always adding polyrhythmic or other elements that kept the results dark and murky. The recent release of the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions showed that Miles and his sidemen were able to provide straightforward, funky grooves tempered with rock guitar showmanship.
The Cellar Door Sessions is very different music than that played by many of Davis’ live bands of the electric period as heard on releases such as Miles at Filmore and It’s About That Time. On those recordings, there was a great deal of tension between the ‘outness’ of the rhythm section (Chick Corea & Dave Holland) and the playing of Miles and the rest of the band. Clearly Corea and Holland would like to have gone farther out than Miles wanted to go.
Here, the groove is all-important. Drummer Jack DeJohnette, working with Miles since the Bitches Brew sessions, punctuates the work of the other musicians as no drummer had done since Elvin Jones in the legendary John Coltrane Quartet. Bassist Michael Henderson, a newcomer who would play with Miles until his hiatus in 1975, is rock solid, providing the foundation that Miles clearly wanted from him. At times Henderson’s steadiness is in direct opposition to the more fragmented, open-ended playing of Keith Jarrett (and, on the final disc, John McLaughlin).
Jarrett, of course, is brilliant, playing both Fender Rhodes electric piano and Fender electric organ, often at the same time. It’s well known that Jarrett refused to play electric keyboards once he left this band (though he did make the excellent album Ruta & Daitya with DeJohnette, on which he played electric piano), and one can only mourn that fact after hearing these recordings.
Gary Bartz is easily the best and most sympathetic saxophonist to work with Davis since the departure of Wayne Shorter. Bartz was Davis’ first alto saxophonist since Cannonball Adderley, and both his alto and soprano work are powerful here, a near-match for Miles’ intensity, and light years from the histrionics of his predecessor, Steve Grossman. This band was similar to the one that played the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of August 1970, with the exception of Dave Holland playing electric bass and the keyboard duties being split between Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, with Jarrett playing the organ. From February to June of that same year Davis had recorded the sessions that became the Jack Johnson album, which were released in their entirety on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.
Disc One, comprising the first set from December 16, drops right in on the familiar Davis vehicle “Directions,” which he often used to open sets, as heard on such recordings as Live at the Fillmore East: It’s About That Time, Black Beauty: Miles Davis Live at Fillmore West, and At Fillmore: Live at Fillmore East (all of which were recorded earlier the same year as the Cellar Door concerts with different lineups).
This number, a mainstay of Davis’ live performances at the time, was recorded in September 1969, but not released until the 1981 Directions album, which featured unreleased material from these sessions as well as some from the Jack Johnson sessions. Every disc (each representing a separate set from the four nights the group performed) but one opens with “Directions”. It provides a good signpost with which to tap into the tenor of the group on each successive night, and it is worth noting that while the band sometimes drifts a bit on the Wednesday and Thursday night sets on Discs One and Two, they are very succinct by the time they open the second set with the piece on Friday, 12/18/70 on disc Three. Henderson is locked into his groove while DeJohnette both underlines and dances outside the groove and Jarrett provides the soloists with some outstanding electric keyboard backing work as well as taking an amazing solo of his own.
It’s easy to hear at this point why some consider this group to have been a pinnacle of Davis’ electronic years and why it’s tragic that there’s so little recorded evidence of this lineup. It also helps illuminate a point of controversy that has long existed regarding the introduction of guitarist John McLaughlin into the band on Saturday night. While some have always maintained that McLaughlin brought a lot of energy and a certain edge to the Cellar Door Sessions, detractors (including Keith Jarrett himself in several interviews) have claimed that McLaughlin’s powerhouse, rock-influenced guitar work upset the balance of the group and resulted in performances that were less interesting than those without him.
When the group hits the stand for its second set on Saturday night (Disc Five), “Directions” has a very different feel. The starting tempo is faster, and Miles solos right away, as if to assert his leadership immediately. Bartz follows, and a sensuous groove is established underneath him, but when McLaughlin begins his solo around six and a half minutes in, it does sound as if his conception is somewhat different than that of his bandmates.
That continues on “Honky Tonk” as well, but it’s not clear that this is to the detriment of the band on the whole. McLaughlin was a longstanding periodic contributor to Miles’ projects, and it is likely that Davis brought him in on the last night specifically to shake things up a bit. Perhaps he felt that what was captured on the first three nights was not adequate material for his upcoming Live-Evil album. McLaughlin was a veteran of several high-profile Davis sessions at this point, including In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and the sessions that became Directions. In addition, he had, during the same time period, jammed with Jimi Hendrix, recorded and performed with ex-Davis drummer Tony Williams’ band Emergency, played with Miroslav Vitous, John Surman, and Larry Coryell, and released his own recordings Extrapolation and Devotion. It seems entirely plausible that Miles brought McLaughlin in to bring the same thing to the front line of this band that Michael Henderson brought to the rhythm section: a specifically non-jazz conception and approach to this music.
As for Miles himself, his playing throughout The Cellar Door Sessions is some of the brightest, most vital playing of his career. It is generally acknowledged that during the period 1968-1972, Miles was as healthy and fit as he had ever been or would be, and that this vitality was evident in his trumpet work. There were more quick, abbreviated runs and many more high notes than previously. Much of the melancholy tone that characterized Miles’ trumpet sound in the 1950s and early 1960s disappeared during this time, and his playing sounded more confident and bolder than it ever had. Following the recording sessions for On the Corner Miles’ playing again changed in the 1972-1975 period, becoming less coherent, more fragmented, and somewhat hypnotic, with a less aggressive, more seductive edge. But on these nights at the Cellar Door, Miles was completely in control of himself and his instrument. It’s a privilege to finally be able to have the experience of being there and hearing this bold new direction Miles and his crew took into completely uncharted waters.