When Miles Davis released Live-Evil in 1970, fans were immediately either taken aback or keenly attracted to its raw abstraction. It was intense and meandering at the same time; it was angular, edgy, and full of sharp teeth and open spaces that were never resolved. Listening to the last two CDs of The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, Sony's massive six-disc box set that documents six of the ten dates Davis and his band recorded during their four-day engagement at the fabled club, is a revelation now. The reason: it explains much of Live-Evil's live material with John McLaughlin.
These discs finally reveal the crackling energy and deep-groove conscience that Miles Davis was seeking in his electric phase. First and most startling is that John McLaughlin only appears on the final two discs. The first four discs feature a new lineup, one with Keith Jarrett who, in a first for Davis in the electric era, was the lone keyboardist after Chick Corea's departure. Airto Moreira and Jack DeJohnette are holdovers from the Live at the Fillmore East and Tribute to Jack Johnson sessions, among other concerts and sets that have appeared on many different records, from Big Fun to Get Up with It to Directions. The new players here include Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophone (he replaced Steve Grossman), and 19-year-old bassist Michael Henderson -- fresh out of Stevie Wonder's band -- replacing Dave Holland.
Davis was keen on having Columbia record his live sets, and pressured them to do so for these four nights, just a week before Christmas in 1970. This set is a solid look at what's in-the-can, since the vast majority of these tracks -- three hours' worth of them -- have never seen the light of day in any form. As Adam Holzman wonderfully states in his liner notes, this is truly the missing link between Bitches Brew and Dark Magus. This music reveals a truly muscular Miles Davis at the top of his form as an improviser and as a bandleader with the most intense and nearly mystical sense of the right place-the right time-the right lineup. These shows, played in a club instead of a concert hall, provided a virtual laboratory for possibilities Davis was exploring. The money for the gig was nearly non-existent compared to what he was used to making playing halls, so he paid the band out of his own pocket.
The music here fades in with Joe Zawinul's "Directions." There is a five-note bass figure that repeats almost constantly throughout, offering DeJohnette a solid bass from which to enhance the groove and dance around. From the beginning, Davis is blowing his ass off, soloing furiously in the middle register. Jarrett is filling the space, playing both a Rhodes and an organ at the same time. When Bartz begins to solo on soprano, the deep, funky groove is well-established, giving the musicians room to dig in and let loose. Jarrett's solo is like a spaced-out Sly Stone, offering back the groove and then building on it like a man possessed. He matches both DeJohnette and Henderson with a slippery, utterly rhythmic sense of pure groove and then moves them somewhere else until Davis brings them back.
Disc two opens with Jarrett, Henderson, and Airto locking horns in a ferocious groove on "What I Say" that has the members of the audience showing their appreciation with shouts of "Yeah!" and "Blow!" and "You Go!" Jarrett's solo at the beginning is unlike anything he has ever played -- before or since. As they move through the set and get to "Inamorata," the gate to heaven and hell is wide open. The spaced-out blues in "Honky Tonk" reveals Davis' total mastery of the wah wah he employed in so much of his material of the time. "Inamorata" is wildly funky, dirty, and outright nasty in places. But the middle sections offer, as Bartz notes in his liner essay, the kinds of vocalese concepts that are reflected in his solo, Davis' solo, and in the actual voices of Airto and Henderson.
What happens as the band plays each night is that the sense of adventure grows, while the utter relaxation and confidence in each member is carried through to Davis who pushes the buttons and in strange, nearly wordless ways, communicates what he wants on-stage, and the other players give it to him. There are so few rough moments here where someone drops a line or doesn't quite make it; when it does happen on that rare occasion, some other member picks it up and goes with it. And DeJohnette's drumming, in his virtual mind-lock with Henderson, is some of the best playing of his career.
The final surprise is when McLaughlin joins the band for the final two discs -- he came down on Saturday night after an invitation from Davis and had not rehearsed with the group at all. The first set is not here, so who knows what transpired, or how the band got comfortable with McLaughlin. But the final two sets are here, and what transpires is revelatory because one can hear what was missing on Live-Evil: melody. Teo Macero and Davis edited the melodies out for that release. The intensity begins quickly with "Directions" on disc five. Henderson is a bit tentative at first, but Jarrett eggs him on and soon enough he responds with a vengeance. Bartz carries the wave in his solo, and Airto is singing the groove in the back. McLaughlin fills the backdrop with big, ugly chordal figures until it's time for his solo, and then he simply goes for it, digging into that bassline and DeJohnette's circular groove and he just throws notes at them, gunshot-like in the cut, and then moves out enough to carry it all somewhere else. "Honky Tonk" meanders a bit, but when "What I Say" shows up it's all aggression, hard-edged dare, and daunt. It's almost a challenge to the audience because the playing is so fast and raw.
Ultimately, on disc six, recorded in the third set later that evening, again it's "Directions" that gets the nod, but this time, in spite of the trance-like bassline in the tune and Davis' driving, whirlwind playing, Jarrett gets it spacey, sinister, dark, and strange. Bartz's solo comes from the blues and is in stark contrast to Davis', but when McLaughlin takes his cue, it's all knots and folds, razor-sharp and driven, torn between fun and free improvisation. The tension is killer; Bartz's storm of grace and rage in his solo, coming immediately before, throws McLaughlin off for a bit at the beginning of his own solo on "Inamorata," but he finds a place to walk the razor's edge and does just that. The box closes with a fine, freaky version of "It's About That Time," where Bartz goes back to the blues and Davis sinks into the melody of the tune and quiets everything to a hush, slowing it way, way down to a whispering finish.
The Cellar Door Sessions set is like a combination of the Tribute to Jack Johnson set and the complete It's About That Time disc, with a watershed of information providing a complete bridge from one phase of that exploratory period in Davis' career to another. As Jarrett observes in his liner essay (each bandmember has one) after this date, Davis never played with a group as musically sophisticated again. And for all the ego displayed in stating this, one may tend to agree with him. Lavishly packaged and annotated, The Cellar Door Sessions is the last great reissue of the year 2005, and an essential testament to the genius Davis displayed in weaving together exploratory jazz, funk, and rock.