miles davis - live evil

Miles Davis: Live-Evil (1971)

You can say someone is your favorite artist or musician, but in the case of someone like Frank Zappa or, in this instance Miles Davis, it’s near impossible to be well versed in every aspect of their discography. How do you gain a level of understanding broad and deep enough to qualify/quantify the man is your favorite when there are literally troves of live, alternate, and side performances to sift through? I often find myself settling back to the 10 or so “home base” recordings that solidified my love for Davis, but the beauty of someone with as many records as he has is the joy of returning to less tread waters, exploring albums you’re not nearly as familiar or comfortable with. Hence Live-Evil, which ironically was the first Miles I found and purchased on vinyl.

It’s a double album comprised of both live and studio tracks (though sequenced so that the tracks interchange) with different lineups, hence the play on words for the title. The four live tracks were recorded December 19th, 1970 at the Cellar Door in Washington, DC while the studio tracks were take from a few sessions earlier in the year. Even taking into account the dichonomy of studio versus live, the difference in intent between the two are kind of startling when listening to Live-Evil’s sequence as opposed to, say, the incendiary box set The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 which captures all the shows from which the live tracks are taken.

Although not yet a full member of the band, John McLaughlin joined Davis and company for the live shows, and you can him him real time explore and find his place within the massive jams Davis conducts. Coming off the heels of Bitches Brew Davis is in full funk rock odyssey mode, putting his trumpet through wah pedals and assorted effects, treating it like a punctuation mark to the grooves laid out by a murderer’s row of talent, including Jack DeJohnette on drums, Michael Henderson on bass, and Keith Jarrett on keyboards. Opener “Sivad” gives you everything you could want from a band of that caliber before taking a sharp left to the brief composed arrangement of “Little Church”. There’s a modern classical feel to the track, with the musicians coming together to create a complex tone. It’s short, almost an interlude to the dark rock jam “Medley: Gemini/Double Image” recorded a few months earlier and boasting Joe Zawinul (who cowrote the track; “Double Image” would later appear on his solo album) and Chick Corea on keys, Wayne Shorter on sax, and McLaughlin bringing a hefty does of ominous discordia to the track.

(Note: Ominous Discordia has to be my new band name)

But it’s the live tracks that really get me. The funky bass that opens “What I Say?” with the cowbell instantly gets you on your feet. It’s also a great showcase for Jarrett’s keys – the man can funkify with the best of them, and Davis is in top form. Side 2 ends with the studio cut “Nem Um Talvez” featuring a more composed, orchestral approach, bringing more of Davis’s past back including Ron Carter from the legendary 60s quintet on bass. It’s nicely, especially the small percussive touches by Airto Moreira, but when I listen I feel like it’s a breather for the more rocking, electric tracks.

And since this is a double LP, there’s plenty more of that. Taking aside the brief “Selim” (all the studio tracks except the medley were written by drummer Hermeto Pascoul) that opens Side 3 and recalls the collaborations between Davis and Gil Evans it jumps into the 23-minute “Funky Tonk”. Davis’s trumpet explorations recall more of the Bitches Brew vibe from the previous year rather than the more overtly funk/rock feel of classics like On The Corner which would immediately follow this. I love the simultaneous soloing going on, hearing the blast of runs of both bass and organ behind Davis. Finally the whole of Side 4 is dedicated to “Inamorata and Narration by Conrad Roberts”. If it’s the longest of the tracks, it’s also maybe the most unfocused and lackluster, although with musicians calling anything on the track bad or even mediocre would be ridiculous. But if I’m being honest it’s the place where I can hear McLaughlin struggle the most to engage with the rest of the band in an organic way.

It’s honestly been years since I’ve listened to Live-Evil, and one of the interesting things I discovered going into this listen is that the live/studio demarcations were even more blurred than I realized. Each “performance” in this instance was meticulously spliced to create what we hear: on “Sivad” the performances were cut together from different sections of performances throughout the band’s second set, and even has about 45 seconds of music spliced in from the May 1970 studio sessions. The final two sections of “Inamorata” which comprises the last three minutes (including the Conrad narration) wasn’t even from the Cellar Door sessions. It’s a Zappa level production job (longtime producer Teo Macero handles that chore) and the fact that it comes through relatively seamless is just another marvel of the album.

Dig that Davis, man. I have plenty more in the tank on both vinyl and CD so I’m sure we’ll be back sooner rather than later.

MD 1970

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