Forty-five years ago this month, Miles Davis released his album, Live/Evil. The first time I listened to it, eight years ago, I was astounded, most especially by the song, “Sivad.” The next day, I biked around feeling that my life had changed unalterably; knowing that that music was in it the universe made the universe a different place, and joyfully so. My perception of what is possible had expanded. I also thought, a little crossly, about all the music-loving friends I’d known over my life who had never brought this song to my attention. It seemed like an inexcusable oversight. Regardless, I had heard it now, and could never go back.
Live/Evil is a sprawling work, clocking in at over two hours and ten minutes. Four of the songs (or ~3.9, maybe – more on that later) are live performances and four are studio recordings (and presumably the “evil” portion). Despite its length, it fascinates for its entire duration, if only for being so unconventional, if not outright outlandish.
The album came out in the middle of Davis’ “Electric Period,” commonly considered to have kicked off with In a Silent Way in February, 1969, and to have ceased with his six year retirement from music in 1975 and marked in his catalog by Agartha and Pangaea, double-albums created from live performances in Osaka, Japan, in February 1975. The evolution of this period can be heard on over a dozen official Davis releases and many live bootlegs.
Music geeks will want to know who played on Live/Evil, so here’s the full list: Gary Bartz: soprano saxophone, flute; Steve Grossman: soprano sax; John McLaughlin: electric guitar; Keith Jarrett: electric piano, organ; Herbie Hancock: electric piano; Chick Corea: electric piano; Joe Zawinul: electric piano; Michael Henderson: electric bass; Dave Holland: electric bass, acoustic bass; Ron Carter: acoustic bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums; Airto Moreira: percussion; Billy Cobham: drums; Hermeto Pascoal: drums, whistling, voice, electric piano; Khalil Balakrishna: electric sitar.
During the electric period, Davis experimented at a break-neck pace with styles, instruments and personnel, melding elements of rock and roll, funk and avant-garde with jazz and blues. He exchanged pianos and stand-up basses for electric keyboards and rock-style bass guitars. He imported sitars and tablas from India, drums from Brazil and rhythms from Africa. By the time of his concert at Carnegie Hall in March of 1974 (as documented on the album, Dark Magus), his band featured not one, not two, but three electric guitarists, all playing at once, performing a hellacious din that has been described as “heavy metal jazz” (Magnet).
“I have to change,” Davis explained in his autobiography. “It’s like a curse.” Conventional jazz critics mostly didn’t get it, expressing first disappointment, then disapproval and finally horror. To them, the sullying of jazz with these other genres was an unforgivable sacrilege.
But it paid dividends for Davis. He gained his greatest commercial success and shared the stage with the biggest rock and roll stars of the era. And the crazy, crass music he left us remains uncategorizable.
“Fusion” is the label often given to this music, but Davis was not fond of such terms. In a Rolling Stone interview published in December, 1969, he said: “I don’t like the word rock and roll and all that shit. Jazz is an Uncle Tom word. It’s a white folks word. I never heard that shit until I read it in a magazine.”
Upon its release, though Live/Evil was well-received by many popular music critics (who were clearly more open-minded than their jazz counterparts), it didn’t make the same impression as wildly popular (for a jazz record) Bitches Brew. In comparison, it is certainly less accessible, and it’s enjoyable to quote various critics who have described it over time:
- “A difficult and dense record” (Madden)
- (Paired with Bitches Brew): “Two of the most challenging collections of music – ever. In fact, what they offer goes beyond music – the albums are challenges that go beyond the ordinary and are an invitation to enter the sublime.” “[They are] products of a combination of genius, depravity and bravery” (Marie).
- “The music on Live-Evil boils over with sexual aggression. It’s steeped in the blues, McLaughlin’s guitar lines in particular. But it’s not he mournful blues of the Delta. This is the strutting, cocksure blues of Muddy Water’s Chess recordings” (Freeman).
- “This music teetered on the brink of insanity yet had a propulsively pelvic groove” (Buckley).
- (In reference to the song, “What I Say”): “Everything is taken to its ultimate extremity: the sheer physical range of the trumpet, the speed of the phrases, the intensity of the rhythms. Miles seems to be beating almost despairingly at the limits of his abilities in his shrieking notes and his chromatic scurrying around… There is an extraordinary collective violence in this music” (Carr).
And these are from the positive reviews.
Live-Evil was the first recording to feature Davis playing his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal. How did that come to be? Says Davis, in his autobiography: “By now I was using the wah-wah on my trumpet all the time so I could get closer to that voice Jimi had when he used a wah-wah on his guitar. I had always played trumpet like a guitar and the wah-wah just made the sound closer.”
“Jimi,” of course, was Jimi Hendrix, who was an explicit influence on the music of Davis’ electric period. As Davis relates: “The music I was really listening to in 1968 was James Brown, the great guitar player Jimi Hendrix, and a new group… Sly and the Family Stone, led by Sly Stewart from San Francisco. The shit he was doing was badder than a motherfucker, had all kinds of funk shit up in it. But it was Jimi Hendrix that I first got into when Betty Mabry turned me on to him.”
The two met in 1969 and jammed together. Said Davis: “Jimi Hendrix came from the blues, like me. We understood each other right away because of that. He was a great blues guitarist.” Plans to record together were made but never came to fruition, apparently because the money side couldn’t be worked out. When I try to imagine the insane freak-outs those two could’ve put together, my brain simply melts down. Some things are simply beyond conception.
As it was, Davis lifted musical elements from Hendrix’s oeuvre and repurposed them in his own. As detailed by Bob Belden, a producer, composer, bandleader and Miles Davis scholar: “Jimi’s music – particularly the bass lines – directly influenced Miles Davis. If you listen to ‘Inamorata’ from ‘Live/Evil,’ that’s the bass line to ‘Fire.’ ‘Mademoiselle Mabry’ from ‘Filles de Kilamanjaro’ is derived from Jimi’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’; ‘What I Say’ from ‘Live/Evil’ is basically ‘Message to Love from ‘Band of Gypsies,’ and so on” (Molkowski).
Davis’ borrowing from Hendrix didn’t stop at music. He imitated Hendrix’s wardrobe, seeking out the stores where he bought his clothes, and went so far as to hire Hendrix’s hairdresser, James Finney, who accompanied him on tour.
Hendrix’s death greatly upset Davis and he attended his funeral in Seattle, but was so disappointed by it – “the white preacher didn’t even know Jimi’s name,” Davis recollected in his autobiography, and “the motherfucker didn’t even know nothing about who Jimi was, nothing about his accomplishments”– that he vowed never to go to another funeral again.
That was in September, 1970. Two months later, Davis played a set of four shows at the Cellar Door, a small club in Washington, DC, that held less than 200 people. The live material on Live/Evil, including most of the song, “Sivad,” is culled from these sets.
From all accounts, these performances were truly phenomenal: “an unreal mixture of explosiveness and intimacy; an atom bomb served with a two-drink minimum” (Madden). In the liner notes for The Cellar Door Sessions, Jarrett described them thusly: “You don’t usually see this kind of comet go by more than once or twice in a lifetime.” McLaughlin put the shows in their historical context, saying that “there’s a great sense of vitality in the music, and freedom also. Don’t forget that 1970 was a very volatile time in the United States with the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers and the strong anti-war movement. Miles’ music reflected the social upheaval” (Alkyer). Adds Belden: “What you hear in the The Cellar Door is anti-establishment at its highest” (Alkyer).
Many audience members were thrilled and the crowds grew larger each night as word spread, but others were confused or even offended. For Davis, however, “there was no more joy than confounding people paying money to hear him.” (Alkyer)
This was the scene, then, where Davis picked up his trumpet and, aided by wah-wah, invoked the spirit of Hendrix with a solo that is captured in “Sivad,” the first track on Live/Evil.
First-time listeners often mistakenly assume they are hearing a guitar coming in at the 49 second mark, but they’re wrong. That squealing, distorted sound, chattering with rabid ferocity, lunging like a rabid dog and circling like a dervish – complete with what sounds for all the world like a pick-glissando – is coming out of Davis’ horn, not McLaughlin’s guitar. For slightly over one minute this unbelievable madness goes on, and relents only in the sense that the Davis solo from here on out is now clearly being emitted by a brass instrument, but the raucous attack doesn’t let up at all. At 3:05, it concludes with six sharp jabs that seriously sound like “fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you!”
All that is to say nothing of the jam he’s playing on top of, with its growling guitar, uncannily wicked beat and a bass line so funky and down-and-dirty that I’m surprised it was never banned on grounds of obscenity. Nearly half a century later, this shit’s still so cool you could hang meat in it.
Then, on the record, “Sivad” abruptly jumps to a studio recording of “Honky Tonk,” featuring Herbie Hancock on clavinet trading licks with McLaughlin on guitar and with Airto Moreira playing counterpoint on the cuíca, a Brazilian drum that, in his own words, “talks and squeaks and laughs and cries” (Chambers). This plays for a little over a minute until another very obvious cut switches to the same song as played live back at the Cellar Door. Now the mood is quintessentially “jazzy,” with Davis alternately slinking through the smoky shadows and then flashing out, like a sensuous snake with mirrored scales. This seduction concludes at 8:05, where, as if to remind everyone that he doesn’t need special effects to sound good, Davis steps up to the mike with a naked trumpet and lets loose with a soaring string of notes that transports us to heights like mountain peaks above clouds, icily beautiful, clean and transcendent. After laid-back solos from McLaughlin and Jarrett and some parting riffs from Davis, the tune wraps up and the song ends with an abrupt fade.
For me, this song stands out not just for its amazing performances, but for its intriguing qualities as a studio product. Here I am speaking specifically of the obviousness of the cuts and fades, which are characteristic not only of “Sivad” but of Live/Evil as a whole. Some critics have made negative remarks about these choices:
- “Live-Evil isn’t a perfect album. Most of its flaws are products of the editing desk, though, and not the Cellar Door’s stage. The insertion of a slice of the studio recording of ‘Honky Tonk’ into the middle of “Sivad” is clumsy and distracting” (Freeman).
- “Many of producer Teo Macero’s edits disturb the flow” (Tingen).
Now, Macero was no amateur and was certainly capable of following convention, so clearly he made a conscious decision not to. In my read, he was purposefully jarring the listener. “Don’t get too caught up in all this,” the cuts warn us. This attitude is analogous to how Davis treated not only his audiences but his players; he was famous for pulling sudden moves to throw people off balance. Constant awareness was key to him. He always wanted his musicians to “play above” themselves and, with this idiosyncratic editing, I believe Macero was pushing listeners to “listen above” themselves.
Live/Evil‘s final track, “Inamorata and Narration by Conrad Roberts,” at a monstrous 26+ minutes, is one of the album’s “epic funk battlefields” (Faust), and features two of the most incongruous edits on the album. The first is at 23:09, where the jam is suddenly interrupted for a recitation of poetry by actor Conrad Roberts. Then, at 23:54, the music kicks back in, but the sound is now muffled, very lo-fi. I read a review where the critic panned this effect, but he obviously didn’t know what you have to do to really enjoy this section, which is to play it loud, very loud; just this side of wherever your speakers will distort. Then it totally makes sense: it is pure, unabashed irreverence in a highly distilled form – a brazen, thudding, squealing stomp. Despite all the musical innovation since, from metal to punk, this clip is still insane for its sheer power and impudence. Davis is channeling Hendrix again, and his final notes are virtually indistinguishable from guitar feedback.
You can check it out for yourself here, with this clip of the last 3:45 of the track:
But let’s not forget about the “evil” in Live/Evil. Three short tracks were written by a Hermeto Pascoal, a Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist, who also performs on the recordings. A sharper contrast would be hard to find between the often percussive and bombastic live excerpts and these small, intimate performances, none of which feature a single solo. I would say they give the listener a chance to catch their breath between aural assaults except that they deliver their own legitimate challenge: to hush oneself to catch and soak up the delicate subtleties interplaying. “Now listen,” I can imagine Davis croaking with his hoarse whisper. There is a serious lesson in attentiveness here. For example, “Nem Um Talvez” at the end of side two and “Selim,” which starts side three are in fact two versions of the same song that at first sound identical.
The fourth studio track, and the most “evil” of them is “Medley: Gemini/Double Image.” This is a dark, spooky work of what I can only call hard rock due to McLaughlin’s blistering guitar work. I imagine this is exactly the sort of thing that sent Davis’ older fans running, covering their ears in terror. And while I deeply respect this song, and am mesmerized by the musician’s performances, I don’t know if I can actually say I “like” it. And that, really, points to questions that Live/Evil makes me ask: Is there any purpose to exploring the world, and life, through the lens of “like/dislike”? How important are personal preferences and how fluid are they anyway? Aren’t there far many more ways of experiencing and understanding existence? Of stretching out, of challenging myself, of growing? To “live above” myself?
During the 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, the status quo got a serious shake-up, not just in the US but around the world. Musically, this period is well known for its adventurousness, though arguably no one pushed their art further than Davis, and I daresay he broke ground that has yet to be explored by anyone since. By the mid-70’s, much of the revolutionary promise of the previous years was fizzling out, culturally and politically, and it is telling that both Davis and John Lennon retired from the public eye in 1975.
Recordings, like all media, are only an approximation of reality, but they can give us a hint of what was going when they were produced. In the case of Davis’ electric period, the songs chronicle doors that were opened, doors not just of sonic style but of imagination and perception. Even if these ways-less-traveled have been mostly ignored since – like nearly everything else innovative from that time – the recordings are still there to inspire us. For me, “Sivad” is the sound of a door being busted off its hinges.
And that’s our collective challenge in these dark times of runaway ecocide and brutal ignorance: to break through the doors of conventionality, escape our confinement, and embrace ways of living that radically break with business-as-usual. We must all take on Davis’ “curse” and make it our rallying cry: “I have to change.” It’s that or extinction.
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- Alkyer, Frank; Enright, Ed & Kornsky, Jason; editors: The Miles Davis Reader (Hal Leonard Books, 2007)
- Buckley, Peter: The Rough Guide to Rock (Rough Guide Music Guides, 1999)
- Carr, Ian: Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography (Da Capo Press, 2009)
- Chambers, Jack: Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis (Da Capo Press, 1998)
- Davis, Miles Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe (Simon and Schuster, 1990)
- DeMichael Don: Jazz’s Picasso puts it in black and white (Rolling Stone, Dec. 1969)
- Faust, Edwin C.: On Second Thought: Miles Davis – Live-Evil (Stylus, 2003-09-01)
- Freeman, Philip: Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis (Backbeat Books, 2005)
- Parker, James: The Electric Surge of Miles Davis (The Atlantic, July/August 2016)
- Madden, Blake: From The Vaults: Miles Davis – Live-Evil (Trust Me, I’m a Scientist: JULY 1, 2013)
- Marie, Zen: Under the influence of … Miles Davis’ electric masterpieces (The Conversation, July 6, 2016)
- Milkowski, Bill: Axis, Bold as Jimi (JazzTimes, August 2001)
- The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 liner notes (Columbia/Legacy, 2005)
- Tingen, Paul: Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books: 2001)
- Uncredited: HIDDEN GEMS: MILES DAVIS’ “DARK MAGUS” (Magnet Real Music Alternative, 2012/04/19)