The Lost Septet is a live recording featuring another of Miles’ ‘lost’ bands, groups that never made a studio recording or in some cases weren’t even documented live due to myriad reasons that include brevity of the group’s existence, or Miles changing bands and styles while searching for his next direction.
This 1971 Vienna performance captures a rare group indeed: Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett on electric piano, Michael Henderson, Ndugu Leon Chancler, James Mtume Foreman, and Charles Don Alias. This group is the nucleus of the Live-Evil band and was captured on The Cellar Door Sessions with one significant difference–no guitarist. Though Davis only brought John McLaughlin in for the last night at the Cellar Door, it was indicative of his need to shake things up and his move away from keyboards and towards the guitar.
The biggest change here is the switch on drums from Jack DeJohnette to Ndugu Chancler. Chancler plays a cleaner and less polyrhythmic style that propelled him to work with Santana (for two years after his stint with Davis) and as a studio musician, playing on such funky dance hits as ‘Let It Whip’ and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.’ DeJohnette did a lot of reversing the beat and accenting unexpected beats in a way that managed to evoke both New Orleans second-line drumming and the proto-funk workouts of James Brown. Chancler is more straight ahead, and while he very successfully took over the drum chair for the group’s European tour, during which this recording was made, Miles let him go upon the band’s return to New York.
Apparently there was tension between Jarrett and Chancler, according to interviews in Paul Tingen’s book Miles Beyond, but it’s difficult to say if that was the reason he was let go. Jarrett played well during his time with Miles, but in the years after he has always been critical of this band despite working with essentially the same group for over a year. He also renounced electronic keyboards, playing only acoustic piano after this stint with Miles.
But all of this inside baseball doesn’t matter when listening to Lost Septet, because the music is terrific. Jarrett fills in for the lack of a guitar, Bartz is powerful and plays with greater or lesser intensity depending on the direction the group is going. Chancler provides energy to the other players without becoming a distraction, and he seems to integrate well with Michael Henderson’s circular, funk-inspired bass lines. The percussionists add to the mix, but they never approach the density of On the Corner or later groups.
On The Lost Septet, we hear a band that is very clean and tight. Miles has moved on from Bitches Brew and Live-Evil and has already started to load the group up with percussion. He still uses a keyboard with no guitar, which would change in subsequent groups as he brought in two guitarists and limited keyboards to his dissonant organ clusters. Playing a set of music from In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Jack Johnson, the band is crisp and interactive while Miles is playing well and sounding strong.
There’s a lot of Miles product that has been and will be released, especially from his 1970-1975 period, some of it less than fantastic. But this disc is truly excellent and will be worth owning if you’re a fan of electric Miles.