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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