The handful of times I saw the Replacements, singer Paul Westerberg had his vocal mic higher than need be. He chose to stand on tiptoe and crane his neck a bit to have his mouth in the right place to get the job done. It seemed a mistake when I first noticed it, but by the third or fourth go-round, a theory hatched: the positioning was purposeful, a chance to juice the yearning aspect of his performance. And it worked. When that trademark rasp blasted from the PA, it had an I-can’t-get-it-all-out poignancy.
Along the pathways of this four-disc set, Miles Davis does something similar with his horn. True, he plays plenty of phrases in mid-register, a spot where his attack is vicious enough to be punitive. But during the zenith of his electric period, from ’68 to ’73 or so, one of his go-to ploys was a keening shriek that spoke volumes…in emotional currency at least. Sometimes it’s just one note – a stab in the heart. Sometimes it’s a blast of blats that trail off into a wounded yelp – an extended wail. Always it’s a jolt. He’s trying to articulate something that’s seemingly ineffable, and listening to him come close is about as engrossing as jazz gets.
At this late date we know that the bandleader’s electric era centered on physical impact. Inspired by the power of rock and funk, he had his musicians plug in and freak out. Since most were skilled improvisers, the results moved from ornery to sublime. Cranking the volume on this stuff reminds just how communicative a player Davis himself was, and how he nurtured the same effort from his cohort. Together they create a savage backdrop for the leader’s trumpet exhortations.
Recorded at Bill Graham’s famed Fillmore East theater in New York, these gigs are typically turbulent. The group’s personnel was in steady flux during this era; by the summer of 1970 it contained a wildly aggressive rhythm section of keyboardists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira. Saxophonist Steve Grossman shared the front line with his boss. Previous albums have offered music from these shows, but this package is the debut of the unedited tapes. The band, whose searing sets had won recent acclaim from pop audiences, grinds through some seriously engaging episodes. They started on a Wednesday and rocked ‘til Saturday, picking up steam with every show. Having the music united in one package (previously unissued pieces cut at the San Francisco Fillmore two months prior round out this box) details their creative process and its nuanced shifts from night to night.
The set lists don’t change much, but in the interplay is deft enough to keep every performance distinct. Holland sets up bedrock grooves, Airto throws in splashes of color, Grossman snarls in stormy whirlwinds, and Corea and Jarrett cross swords while their instruments speak in tongues. DeJohnette is ferocious, bent on exploding each crescendo into a thousand bits and instantly resuscitating any sluggish passages. Miles was proud of his music’s flexibility (could this Fillmore set be the hippie version of Live At The Plugged Nickel?), and its dogged sense of exploration is one of its defining traits.
From the audacity running through the second night’s encore of “Spanish Key” to the Ra-like jumble of keybs that marks the third night’s spin on “The Mask” to the final show’s “Willie Nelson” and its ominous blues lingo, we’re hearing inquiries being posed as proclamations. Miles’ temperament guides the action, vulgar one second, vulnerable the next, and the band shadows him even as they throw up their own version of defiance. A few of my favorite moments come when Airto adds a police whistle to the mix. It enhances the sense of mayhem the band generates with regularity, and offers a touch of irony as well. Not a chance in hell a simple traffic cop’s tool could ever straighten out the glorious snarl of this bunch.