With On the Corner, Miles overshot his attempts to appeal to young black audiences by jumping ahead of the curve by nearly 20 years, laying the foundation for hip-hop, dub, and drum and bass techniques. Its disastrous reception kept Miles out of the studios for years, but he never stopped developing his sound. When Agharta and Pangaea came out after three years of nothing but vault-clearing compilations that only hinted at the strides the ever-changing live bands were making, even Miles’ dwindling numbers of faithful must have been stunned.
From its opening moments, Agharta lives up to its namesake, the legendary city within the Earth’s core. Everything bubbles and rumbles like disturbed magma, James Mtume’s frantic percussion complementing Al Foster’s rhythmic drumming, while Michael Henderson’s groovy bass mingles with funk rhythm guitars. Everyone combines to form a primal sound, one tied to African rhythms that stretch even farther back in time to the bubbling of the primordial soup. Out of this molten foundation bursts tuneless synthesizer screams in abstract buzzes so hot the speakers threaten to melt. Those electronic shrieks sound like a primal beast moaning in agony and rage. Or a cat hooked up to a live wire. The effect is jarring, unsettling and it instantly throws a wrench into the funky groove of “Prelude,” catching the audience off-guard from the start.
When Miles enters on trumpet two and a half minutes in, his ailments and substance abuse issues can be heard in his wan tone. Further diluted in wah-wah effects, Miles’ trumpet creeps into the rumbling funk of his bandmates with a sound so watery one first suspects he hadn’t cleared his spit valve in six months. The first time I listened to the album, I nearly despaired at this; just five years earlier, Miles was at the top of his game. His playing on A Tribute to Jack Johnson is the strongest of any of his studio album, and here I thought he sounded on the brink of death.
Upon further listens, however, Miles’ playing reveals a quiet strength and a striking counterpoint to the fiery sound of his band. It’s also a reflection of the conscious, well-considered shift in style brought on by the evolution of his musical direction. As Miles explains of his playing circa-On the Corner in his autobiography:
At first there was no feeling because I was used to the old way of playing thing like with Bird and Trane. Playing the new shit was a gradual process. You just don't stop playing the way you used to play. You don't hear the sound at first. It takes time. When you do hear the new sound, it's like rush, but a slow rush...But you don't have to blast because you've got an amplifier. And the smoother you play a trumpet, the more it sounds like a trumpet when you amplify it. It's like mixing paint: with too many colors you get nothing but mud. An amplified trumpet doesn't sound good when you play real fast. So I learned to play two-bar phrases and that's where I was going with my new music.On Agharta, Miles’ playing is not smooth in the sense of his classic mid-range legato, but he seems to have found a sound almost beyond legato, his trumpet burbling through phrases with amoebic progression, punctuated by squeaking staccato pips. Were someone to transpose his playing, I don’t think a single passage of notes would be unmarked by either slurs or dots.
Yet there is a bizarre logic in Davis’ playing here, especially if one considers him as much a conductor as a player. Miles always took his role as bandleader to heart, not merely in playing prowess but in just how much he ceded to his rotating rosters of up-and-comers. Before and after he started plugging instruments into amplifiers, he left the electrics to people like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. What he does with his trumpet on Agharta—and what he’s too tired to do on Pangaea, to noticeably negative effect—is guide the others with his warbling notes, pushing out beyond the band as they realign around him.
Indeed, Miles’ staccato squeaks and quivering, murky slurs tether the sound as much as Henderson’s basslines, if not more so, making him both leader and anchor. This split gives drive to his melodies (for want of a better term) and a foundation to his most abstract searching. Unorthodox as his playing sounds here, this approach fits in with Miles’ larger arc as a bandleader, in which he has always been front and center but also a background force. Photos of Miles from this period show him hunched over his wah-wah trumpet, the horn pointing almost straight down as he plays the damn thing almost as if it were a clarinet. But decked out in outlandish clothing and mysterious shades, this posture has the effect of casting Davis as some kind of sorcerer, conjuring music from beneath the Earth and tapping into that underground city to bring out its savage, alien sounds.
For fireworks, Davis turns to two players. Woodwind player Sonny Fortune gets off a rousing alto sax solo after Miles’ fractal entry that is the closest thing to traditional-sounding jazz on the whole album. His arpeggios provide some semblance of form in the tenuous musical outreach heard thus far. It’s almost reassuring to hear from him, the mere fact that he’s playing something coherent and traditional turning even the gritty punch of a sax into a burst of cool air amidst this sweltering acid-funk. But never fear; not long after, Fortune breaks out a soprano saxophone, adding a tinge of Bitches Brew to the mix with that sinewy, sidewinding, reedy noise those instruments make. I always think of a desert when I hear soprano saxophones, and the high-pitched drone here compliments the tribal rhythms well, further tying the overall sound to African heritages even as they sound like nothing of this Earth.
The other star player is guitarist Pete Cosey, who leaps in with a lengthy solo 11-and-a-half minutes into “Prelude” and promptly announces he has filled the hole left when Jimi Hendrix died before he could collaborate with Miles. With squealing, wah-wah-wracked distortion, Cosey sounds like a monster unleashed, darting in clipped, effects-laden chords and running through fast, vicious passages. Cosey is one of the few guitarists to truly understand what made Hendrix Hendrix, and his solo shows the same balance of squall and listenability.
Cosey’s prodigious skill makes him more indispensable to the band’s dynamic than any other guitarist to play with Miles. Not even John McLaughlin had the same level of importance with Miles; listen to the Cellar Door Sessions, from which Live-Evil was culled, and you’ll hear a band that is much tighter without him than with him. McLaughlin served as a session player for that lineup, and it showed; his playing is exemplary, but it exists almost entirely outside the interplay of the others, making his solos, thrilling as they are, jarring. McLaughlin’s diminished role is especially evident as Miles was slowly working his way toward the sound on On the Corner, to which McLaughlin contributed little.
(As Adam Holzman wrote in the liner notes for the box set, hearing these complete Cellar Door recordings helps bridge the dying-sun jazz of Bitches Brew with the fitful beginnings of the 1975 volcanic funk sound as heard on Dark Magus, recorded live in 1974 but not released until after both Agharta and Pangaea. The Cellar Door tapes show Miles starting to consolidate everything but the guitarist, making Cosey’s find all the more vital.)
Cosey’s interplay with the band is tremendous given how much time he spends shredding (a word one can almost use literally for his style). His whammy-bar-abusing stunts form a bizarrely logical extension of Miles’ own playing, and across the entire album Cosey keeps rhythm with second guitarist Reggie Lucas and Henderson’s fluid, walking bass.
And while I’m on the subject, let’s talk about Henderson for a bit. Having replaced the legendary Dave Holland at age 19, Henderson’s complete unfamiliarity with jazz and his inability to do much more than hold a steady beat made him the whipping boy for those who felt Miles was selling out and simplifying his music to appeal to teenagers. By 1975, however, Henderson had become the rock upon which Miles had built his new church. Plaiting his bass through the thick lines of mangled guitar distortion and soupy trumpet, Henderson is the least "visible" member playing yet quite possibly the only reason it all works. He and Al Foster generate beats that extend into infinity, holding such a tight rhythm that one feels these LP-length jams could extend even further on the strength of the foundation. Henderson’s vamps add flashes of color to the bottom end, but he works best when generating the throbbing pulse of the sound, a groove so funky you can dance to it but so unwavering it takes on the vague properties of a drone. As such, even Henderson and Foster’s time-keeping feels warped and unorthodox.
Listening to Agharta, it’s almost funny to consider there was a time Davis had slammed the avant-garde wing of jazz. The man who once threatened to stomp the foot of Eric Dolphy—one of the more melodic and precise practitioners of free jazz’s early explosion—for tuneless squawking had now gone so far not only past jazz but jazz fusion that he existed on his own island of experimentation. Yet one can easily tie the ostensible break from form here back a full decade to Miles’ work with his Second Great Quintet. Live recordings and studio albums of that lineup reveal a gradual but considerable shift in Davis’ group interplay to a kind of Left Bank to the free-jazzers New Wave, less radical in aesthetic but no less daring in aim.
With the Second Great Quintet, Miles broke from traditional songwriting patterns to develop the more fluid collage of distinctive styles and solos that sees its endpoint with these Osaka recordings. But rather than collide in shrieks and howls of cacophony, the young players of the quintet found the pulsating through lines that made the composition whole. This grounded their clashing solos and paradoxically slowed this innovative sound to a crawl, countering the abandon of free jazz with coherent experimentation. That development continued through the beginnings of Miles’ flirtations with electric and can be plainly seen in his best two pure jazz-rock albums, the serene, cautious In a Silent Way and the airtight A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Even in the maelstrom that is Bitches Brew, a calm bedrock roots the music.
That pulsing, hypnotic sound especially comes through on Agharta in the second track, “Maiysha.” Opening with Miles playing wavering chords on an organ and Sonny Fortune’s gorgeous flute lines, the song simply but brilliantly reverses the dynamic of “Prelude.” It pulls back the lead instruments into melodic softness as Foster, Mtume and Henderson play more propulsive rhythms, keeping time with Miles and Fortune but also anticipating another hot Cosey solo on the way. As chaotic and improvisational as Agharta can sound, no one is just leaping into the fray. The play between Miles/Fortune and Cosey shifts several times throughout the composition, but the rhythm section split the difference so perfectly that they barely have to modulate to accommodate, only dropping down in the middle section for a gorgeous, out-there solo from Miles that in itself demonstrates how he could ground his searching, exploratory music in gentler, more cohesive sounds.
Agharta culminates in an LP-length jam that serves an artistic smorgasbord for the various influences at work on Miles at the time, as well as his own artistic evolution. When Miles hired Henderson for his band, he specifically honed in on the young man’s green chops, commanding him never to learn “the old shit” under threat of termination. He was an artist who never liked to look back and insisted on moving forward where luminaries like Louis Armstrong kept consolidating their live shows into “just the hits.” But the “Jack Johnson/Interlude” jam uses a number from Miles’ past to demonstrate the distance travelled in just five years. “Right Off,” the tightest, most focused jam of Miles’ electric period, ruptures with a rollicking sax solo from Fortune that melts into more guitar freakouts from Cosey before settling into something sounding like the original song (albeit with a swing that reaches far back into jazz’s history) in time for Miles’ solo, which feels like a classic jazz approach to the original, variating the theme while still keeping the original version recognizable. Take out the electricity and this could be a typical jazz jam, but then the electric add-ons make it so much more. The jam soon settles into a workout of the more current number, “Ife,” but before that Paul Tingen, writer of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis 1967-1991 notes the bassline of “So What” being played at 16:42. As Tingen says, Henderson must have figured “the risk of being fired for playing old stuff is gone.”
Tingen also correctly points to the counterintuitive ending of the show, which does not build the white-hot jamming of the rest of the album to its final explosion but instead ends on an entropic note. It’s a curious approach, one in direct opposition to the typical structure of a concert. Yet there’s a bizarre logic in it, given the nature of the music. Agharta, as indicated by its title, sounds like music made before civilization, before humanity, even. Much as it incorporates everything, from avant-garde 20th-century composition to Afrobeat, the music sounds primal, like the foundation for everything it’s consolidating rather than the endpoint. The eruption of this underground city spews forth lava that cools into a new landmass.
No wonder, then, that this cooling energy should continue into Pangaea, named for the supercontinent that originally joined all land on Earth. Granted, Pangaea’s reserved energy owes less to thematic consistency of musical rebirth than to the sheer exhaustion of the bandleader, tired and ill and forced to cede even more prominence to his band members, who seem unsure of how to proceed without him. All of the elements that made Agharta so fiery—the screeching synths, the funksplosion guitars—appear and add speed and verve, and often the band sounds as relentless as they did during the earlier show. But too often the jams fall apart, reaching areas meant for Miles to assert himself now left perilously unfilled and throwing off momentum that is slow to be regained. It’s still a great recording, but Pangaea seems to anticipate the continent breaking up into fragments rather than reflect the igneous formation of Agharta.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to take one without the other, and collectively the albums represent Miles Davis’ artistic peak, and the endpoint of various musical efforts of his. By resurrecting Hendrix via Eddie Hazel in Pete Cosey, Davis found a sound that, in theory at least, tapped into the prevailing African-American trends. In Mtume and Foster’s tribal drumming, he extended that idea further into the past, mixing the modern with the roots. And in the rhythm section’s endless loops he found a way to recreate live what he’d been doing in the studio with Teo Macero’s help, that is, reconstituting jams around a basic beat and constructing music not out editing (or just out of editing, as it were) but real-time musical direction. This style leaps to the other end of the spectrum from primal roots music to arrive at the European intellectualism of modern composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, of whom Davis was a fan. Davis describes the influence of Stockhausen on his own work in his autobiography:
I had always written in a circular way and through Stockhausen I could see that I didn’t want to ever play again from eight bars to eight bars, because I never end songs: they just keep going on. Through Stockhausen I understood music as a process of elimination and addition.This explains why both albums peter out into the abyss rather than building to an orgasmic chord to send the crowd home reeling. It makes the jams seem incomplete, even cyclical, perfectly suited to the idea of the albums restarting after ending. Stockhausen’s musique concrète broke the boundaries of musical structure by warping recorded sounds into music, thus completely subverting musical composition while finding ways to make the whole world musical. Davis’ approach manages to find similar grounds of deconstruction and incorporation, breaking apart genre and throwing in everything until you have something as danceable as it is avant-garde.
I don’t like to overly romanticize artistic self-immolation, and anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Miles at this time knows of his crippling conditions and worse drug habits. Nevertheless, while so much of his sickness was self-affliction, the strain it induces in him with Agharta and Pangaea gives the albums the feel of Icarus reaching the apex of his flight as he hangs in the air for a second before plummeting back to Earth. This is the sound of a man reaching the limits of musical exploration and expansion and collapsing exhausted.
Following a five-year retreat of sex and drugs, Miles reemerged in the ‘80s as an elder statesman, his embouchure so ravaged that the watery tones of his trumpet here sound as strong as Dizzy Gillespie at his peak. The Miles of the '80s continued to work popular music into his sound, and it’s funny that the man who resented the stale traps into which legends such as Satch fell spent so much time following the pop culture barometer. But those '80s recordings lack the fire of these albums, and while Miles reemerged looking to stay current as fans dug with even more relish into his early days, this pocket of mid-'70s work remains understudied and underpraised. For this fan, however, Agharta and the other work of the tail end of Miles’ glory days remain not merely his finest hour but one of the most daring and inimitable musical progressions of the 20th century.
P.S. For a condensed history of Miles’ electric period, I highly recommend Bill Laswell’s remix album/tone poem Panthalassa, which combines elements from all stages of the ’69-’75 period into an hourlong jam. It cuts a lot of waffle out of Davis’ Stockhausen-inspired improvisational free-for-alls while revealing the logical foundations linking the vastly different aspects of the electric years, from the fire of “Prelude” to the abstract but deeply emotional elegy for Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly.” Freshly unearthed sections mix with sometimes radically altered existing structures to make the ultimate Electric Miles mixtape.