Sky Arts Doc Showcases Yet Another Side to Miles Davis.

There’s a strong case for suggesting that Miles Davis was the most important musician of the 20th century. Certainly, for four decades he expanded its horizons, repeatedly. And not once but twice he pulled off that allusive feat, the world-wide cross-over hit.

Born into an affluent family in Illinois twixt the musical pillars of Chicago and St. Louis he attended the prestigious Julliard School in New York in the 1940s, but quietly dropped out to take in the sounds of Harlem.

After soaking up all that he could in the company of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and co, by the late 40’s he’d become a regular member of Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking quintet. But by 1949 he’d formed his own nonet, teaming up with arranger Gil Evans. And the Birth of The Cool that that ushered in took Jazz in a whole new direction.

But on returning from Paris, where he’d fallen in love with French icon Juliette Gréco, he quickly sank into depression and drugs. And the next four or five years were wasted pimping to fund them.

Eventually, in 1954, he forced himself home to his father in St Louis where, at least for the moment, he snapped himself out of it. And in the second half of the 50s he re-emerged to form what came to be known as his first great quintet.

Together again with long time friend and arranger Gil Evans, he was joined by John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Connonball Adderley on alto sax, and Bill Evans on piano. The result was the seminal Kind Of Blue and Sketches Of Spain in ’59 and ’60.

More than merely the culmination of what they’d begun with the birth of the cool, this was the mapping out of entirely new terrain.

What had begun with the rejection of bebop had burst forth into something completely new. Instead of the former’s complex virtuosity, which was based around chord progressions, there was an increasing move in the direction of what came to be known as modal jazz.

More and more, performances and albums were seen as complete works to be slowly mined as a whole, rather than as being made up of distinct, component parts.

But if there’s one word to sum Davis up, it’s restlessness.  Regardless of whatever it was that he achieved or where it was that he found himself, he was forever driven to move relentlessly forward, refusing ever to look back.

And by the early 60s, he’d formed the second great and very different quintet. Wayne Shorter came in on sax and Herbie Hancock on piano, as everything else that was going on in the shape-shifting 60s was increasingly incorporated into his music.

By the time Davis embarked on the next stage, keyboard duties would be shared between Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. And what that resulted in was Bitches Brew.

It’s this period that the documentary Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, shown on Sky Arts focused in on. And it was riveting on a number of counts.

By not going into any of the incredible achievements that Davis had already notched up by the time he released Bitches Brew in 1970, they were able to focus instead on how that album came into being, and what made it so groundbreaking.

It also meant that they had enough time to be able to include in it the entire 38 minute set that he and his band gave in front of the 600 000 people at the famous Isle of Wight Festival later on that year.

But more than anything, it emphasized just how pivotal a figure Davis was. The jazz fusion, as it was derisively referred to, that Bitches Brew produced was the result of an extraordinary concoction of diverse elements.

The black panther power funk of James Brown and the acid fuelled psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix were fed into electric keyboards, multi-tracking and tape looping. The results were hypnotic and genuinely ground-breaking.

If this were all he had done, it would have marked him out as one of the century’s key musical figures. But this was the fifth time he’d taken music and extended its boundaries.

First, as part of the Charlie Parker quintet. Then with his own Birth of the Cool. Then there was the first of his quintets, which saw Kind Of Blue become the biggest selling jazz album of all time. Followed by that second quintet, and their seminal performance that that culminated with, Live at the Plugged Nickel in 1965.

And finally, with Bitches Brew, which itself became the biggest selling jazz album of all time, and the Isle of White performance that this documentary rightly celebrates.

Keep your eyes out for this remarkable doc. It is, in every sense, an education.

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