By Mike Zwerin
25 November 2002 - Binary time, the foundation of rock and roll,
is a term that works better and is in more current usage, in Frenchbinaire.
Jazz is based on a more complex and fluid subdivided three feeling
called ternary (ternaire). Most Western music said to "swing"
has at least an implied backbeatPhilly Joe Jones streamlined
ternary drumming with a fourth-beat click on the rim of the snare drum
behind Miles Davis.
During his rock star period, roughly the
last 20 years of his life, Davis did not allow his drummers to play
ternary. Except for ballads, the backbeat was usually on top of the
beat and in your ears; much more than implied. Taken together with
what could be a merciless wah-wah pedal, it turned a lot of serious
people off. Now, however, fans allergic to backbeats and electronic
effects will be able to hear how, paraphrasing Mark Twain about
Richard Wagner, this music is not as bad as it sounds. Thanks to a new
glossy 20-CD box The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973 - 1991
(Montreux Sounds), Miles's rich and relatively undocumented electric
period can be heard live at length.
Davis was not at the
time, as is sometimes held, in decline. Although his playing was not
as fast or virile, the choice of material and notes and his casting
remained choice. The period known as "Electric Miles" was an
influential languagewitness current successful young European
groups led by Eric Truffaz and Nils Petter
Taste aside, the
ternary rhythm team of Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb was no better or
worse accompanying him than the binary bassist Darryl Jones and Al
Foster on drumsjust very different. Most people who cite Duke
Ellington's oft-quoted statement that there are only two kinds of
music, good and bad, don't really believe it. One perception of "swing"
is as "the passing of good time" and there is more than one
way to do that. There is no such thing as a bad groove, it either is
or it isn't. Elvin Jones once said: "Music should be judged on
its own terms."
Miles's versions of "If I were A
Bell (I'd Be Ringing") or "Gone, Gone, Gone" are
neither more nor less valid than Cindi Lauper's "Time After Time,"
Prince's "Movie Star" or the Michael Jackson vehicle "Human
Nature." They were all pop songs to which he gave a new spin,
elaborated on, made his own. His wispy anthem "Jean-Pierre"
is a rock nursery rhyme. Marcus Miller's "Tutu" deserves to
be a standard on its own. Each song stands by itself in one or another
of his languages.
Although it may not have been conscious,
one reason Miles was attracted to a heavy backbeat late in life was
that he had grown tired of creating his own grooves. This way he could
continue to be contemporary while using his head more than his
increasingly weaker body and make more money at the same time. Having
others lean on his good, complex, ternary time for all those years
took a lot of creativity, courage and energy. By 1973, he was closing
in on 50 and had earned the right to lean on the grooves of others.
Let the kids do the work. He followed in the lee of his energetic
young musicians like a bicycle racer in a slipstream. They provided
him with the force he needed to continue to be the
"Prince of Silence."
Folklore has it that he'd stop them practicing in their dressing rooms
and tell them to "practice on stage."
jazz fans detested that consistent insistent backbeat, rock critics
did not concern themselves with electric Miles because there were no
vocals and, besides, anybody can hear that it's jazz. It was between
the cracks, fiery, intensely minimal and overlooked. (For influences,
think Jimi Hendrix, Sly And the Family Stone, Cream and Ellington.)
The "Electric Miles" period got notably more musical and
together in the early 1980s, after his mid-life "creative break"and
after he toned down the wah-wahs.
The 1984-85 band (four
CDs) with Jones and Foster, John
Scofield on guitar and the tenorman
Bob Berg deserves a
special mention. The 1986 formation (two CDs) with blues guitarist
Robben Ford and the keyboard/synthesizer team of Adam Holzman and
Robert Irving III (and guest David Sanborn) was a killer. So were
post-1988 bands with saxophonists Rick Margitza or Kenny Garrett
(seven CDs). Some nights were better than others, but none were truly
bad, and the sound is always first-rate.
CD 19 (the only one
previously released), the much-touted looking-back concert on July
8th, 1991, with Quincy Jones conducting the George Gruntz Concert Jazz
Band covering Davis's greatest acoustic ternary hits such as "Boplicity"
and "Blues For Pablo" is a bit sadan historical
curiosity at best. CD 20, recorded in Nice (the only non-Montreux
concert) nine days later, ten weeks before his died, is evidence that
Miles could be scorching and soulful until the end.
Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973 - 1991
Long Box 20 CDs
Davis And The Golden Age of Parisian Jazz
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book entitled "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University
Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.