Miles Davis Goes Electric

Read an excerpt from the liner notes for the latest box set from VMP Anthology

On March 28, 2023

The latest release from VMP Anthology, Miles Davis: The Electric Years collects seven albums in Miles’ electric period from 1969 through 1974 — the first of his career where he literally plugged in and used electric instruments. These albums exploded what jazz could be in the wake of rock music, and set the path for the future of many, many genres.  

Read below for excerpts from the box set’s liner notes, written by author, jazz critic and historian Ben Ratliff, and click here to learn more about The Electric Years

The Miles Davis studio records from 1969 to 1974 need not be experienced all together to make sense. But they also need not fulfill a neat and contrived notion about an “electric period,” beginning and ending at a certain time. So let’s think about what it means for this record company to put them in one container, and for you to hold them in that container. 

Consider this. Each track of this music, from the first track of the first enclosed album to the last of the last, from “Shhh / Peaceful” to “Billy Preston,” communicates and commingles with all the others. The individual roles of the musicians involved becomes blurry and hard to track. As a total volume of music, these records achieve an organic unity by growing and dissolving into one another, even as they might individually seem to you disjointed or unclear or even disembodied. If so, you shouldn’t feel alone. This may be some of the most confusing music ever made.   

To put it in another way, the box set you are holding looks like a file of dry, flat, autonomous objects, but it is more like a vat of interactive, liquescent, organic, melted material, live and dead and in between, turned inside-out and released. To take it one step further: This is a compost.

• • •

Once Miles Davis let his second quintet dissolve, in the middle of 1968, he no longer needed a small working band, the stable unit of semi-equals that had been customary to both his way of doing things and to the jazz tradition as a whole. 

He was past 40, and knew a lot about a great deal of music and a great deal of personality types. He no longer needed a small working band because he likely had revised his ideas about what a “band” was and what “work” was and what the “jazz tradition” was. He knew that musical genres and their repertoire were instruments of racialist determinism: “jazz” was an Uncle Tom word; “soul” connoted any singer whose voice white people would like theirs to resemble but couldn’t; “rock” meant white people singing about liberating white people. He identified with Black music as a set of very old practices and dispositions which transcended copyright and ownership, and he himself owned a five-story building on West 77th Street. He didn’t need to create bands per se; he didn’t need to write songs per se.  

He moved in the direction of creating, let’s say, systems that would self-generate, or that he could switch on and switch off, with which he could engage and cleanly disengage. Once the system was in place, his job was to assemble its players and feed it bits of input. (“All I did,” he said in his autobiography regarding Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, “was get everyone together and write a few things.”)  

But he still needed to make records for Columbia. These were both a primary source of income and a generative source of tension and irritation, as he jousted with Columbia about budgets and schedules and marketing and cover art. He made 12 albums in a six-year stretch between 1969 and 1975. Seven were studio records (or in the case of Live-Evil, partly so); the others were live. What you have here are the seven studio records: In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970), A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971), Live-Evil (1971), On The Corner (1972), Big Fun (1974) and Get Up With It (1974). The dates refer to when each was released, not when they were recorded. Chronological time within them is swirled and spliced and repeated, both beside the point and central to it. The records force you to think out of order.

Historically, most jazz musicians have had to be live performers: you make your money on the road. After a bumpy start and a scary stretch of addiction and disarray, Davis had become a great one, in his own skeptical, contrarian way. He had flash, and he became cosmopolitan early: In 1949, about to turn 23, he traveled to Paris and had a love affair with the singer and actor Juliette Greco, who introduced him to Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, therefore making his music and gestures part of French cultural life. In public appearances he began to turn everything into a chain of iconographies: his appearance, his trumpet tone and phrasing, even his outward affect. (This affect could amount, materially, to near-nothings: even among the earliest performance films of him, in Paris during 1957, there was a Miles Davis way of standing still.) But around that same time, the making of his studio records, increasingly conceptual, became the basis of his working life. Especially after Miles Ahead, a Miles Davis record wasn’t just another jazz record. Which is to say it wasn’t a set of workouts on short-order tunes and standards, a closed commodity, a “that.” It was a set of propositions.

A Miles Davis record would give an indication of where he was going (or a “direction,” as per the banner that showed up on some of his record jackets after 1968: Directions In Music By Miles Davis) by inventing a new sound-world. The studio records, even with post-production edits that Davis neither manually made nor specifically ordered, became his texts. The texts stood for him, not the other way around. When he performed live, he eventually let the sound of the band be influenced by the processed effects of the recorded music — particularly with regard to massings and reductions of sound, intentional echoes and repetitions, re-startings, ruptures that defy emotional preparation and pull you up short.

• • •

Let me propose a Miles Davis theory. You won’t like it at first. Miles Davis died some time in the mid-1960s. I’m aware that his physical form expired much later, in 1991. That is the journalistic fact — I remember hearing the news on the radio; I’ve got the New York Times obituary right here. But let’s assume we can think about “death” in the life of a creative person in new terms — not pejorative, as in the falling off of integrity, nor tied to physically showing up for the job. Let’s imagine an artist’s life, perhaps any artist’s life, in this way: 

At some point in youth they find their tools and their discipline, become seduced, obsessed, adepts in it, beholden to it, become a kind of human computer of it. (Davis writes in his autobiography that in 1945, when he was 19, he and his friend Freddie Webster, under the spell of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, heard those elders at any chance possible around New York City, forcing themselves to analyze their rapid improvising in real time: “We were like scientists of sound. If a door squeaked we could call out the exact pitch.”) These young artists learn and progress in their abilities, taking (to them) nearly unimaginable steps forward, doing things they had not been able to do before, sometimes refining, sometimes even re-forming their self-identities, and when they have the means to do so they stamp out new creations in serial order, one properly distinct from the next (because to them, progress can only be measured by distinct units). Their vitality persists into a certain point of maturity, and then, so to speak, in full perfumed intensity, they die. 

Not that their life ends. They continue making work, of course, almost always. That work might even be better, according to them or you or both, than anything they’d done before. But something important has happened — they are different beings now, making a different kind of work. They know their musicality and the corpus of their language and they may be imagining a newly confident and reckless way in what they can do with what they have already done. To a certain way of thinking, this is where complacency, repetition, cynicism and benign neglect sets in. Maybe; but if you look at it from a different angle, this is where a new form of self-knowledge begins.

These people now know what they have, in a way that perhaps they didn’t, entirely, before. “What they have” might come down to a tone or a collection of tones; a battery of phrases; a habit of mind, a set of affinities, a sound. Whatever it is, they now understand that nobody can take it away from them. They are less inclined to make work that portrays where they’re at this month, because they’re less interested in what they’ve learned this month, because they are beginning to think in longer periods of time, because the past starts to invade the present, and vice versa. They become interested in presenting their work in digest form, as medleys or remixes, or in suggestions of endlessness: chunks of proprietary discourse separated by ellipses. They can burn their own work, drown it, shrink it down, sacrifice it; they can bleed it out so that it commingles with the ideas and sounds of others. They can broaden it. They can melt it. It becomes a mass. It need not carry individual titles. Outward distinctions don’t matter. They know who they are and what they make.

Don’t misunderstand. To suggest that Miles Davis died in, let’s say, 1965 — perhaps, if you like, on stage at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, as he gathered his tunes into medleys and exploded them, looking down at his music from a great height as his band remixed it over and over, beginning to resemble a system that could almost run on its own or at least via the on/off switch in Davis’ control, creatively blurring its own maker’s hand — is not the same as saying that Davis ceased to matter, or to make music worth paying attention to. (I’d like to say “in fact, the opposite!” but being simple-minded does not fit the subject.) There were fadeouts and disappearances, withdrawals from public life and playing. On May 24, 1967, at Columbia Studios, the Miles Davis Quintet recorded “Pee Wee,” written by Tony Williams, released as the second track on Miles Davis’ album Sorcerer. Miles Davis did not play on the track at all. A jazz bandleader absenting himself entirely from a track on one of his own records was not a known practice: what an original death notice!

• • •

I have suggested that these albums blur together and liquefy within themselves and among one another. But they also retain some of their own individual character. In a Silent Way is prelude music, tentative, vulnerable, bespelled by its own daring, reluctant to lock into a method. Bitches Brew, Davis’ first double-album, is the trendiest and most fraught. It came loaded with Columbia’s budget and expectations; it has claims to make and minds to blow, and so the rhythms can achieve a mannered groove, and Davis’ lines and gestures often clap their hands in front of you and communicate ta-daaa! Jack Johnson is (mainly) strutting, stark, blunt, lean. Live-Evil, well-rehearsed and reckless, flings itself forward, attaining newly rich and deep blends of sound while importing the feel of Black vanguardist pop, particularly Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys and Sly Stone’s mountaintop tracks: “Dance to the Music” “Thank You,” “I Want to Take You Higher.” On The Corner amounts to a more direct thought experiment: What if James Brown’s “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Stockhausen’s Hymnen and the flute melodies of various indigenous peoples around the world could be integrated by the same receptors? Big Fun, anachronistic, center-less, relaxes and lengthens Davis’ ideas between 1969 and 1972; half of it stays quiet enough for the papery twangs of berimbau, tamboura and sitar to be heard. Get Up With It keeps an oblique relationship with performance, entertainment and intention. It is extraordinarily haunted. 
• • •

As a total volume of music, these records achieve an organic unity by growing into one another, even as they might individually seem to you disjointed or unclear or even disembodied. If so, you shouldn’t feel alone. This may be some of the most confusing music ever made.

Profile Picture of Ben Ratliff
Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, and elsewhere. He's the author of four books, most recently 2016's Every Song Ever.

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