Illuminations of the Cellar Door: Miles Davis

I was listening to Miles Davis’ 1970 recordings from the Cellar Door, a space in Washington, DC. These recordings went into making the album Live Evil in 1970. It is an absolute classic of an album, and yet it falls in that controversial zone that separates lovers of early Miles from those entranced by the second half of his recorded tenure, the electric years.

Much has been said about Miles Davis and his music. Sometimes too much, and for that reason I have hesitated to jump in. But in the words of trombonist George Lewis, music doesn’t speak for itself. We have to talk about it because it doesn’t talk. I imagine Miles having the last laugh because like it or not everyone is still talking about his music. I’ll at least try to be concise.

1. This box set reminded me that the move to electric instruments (not just by Miles Davis) was a gradual progression. It started in the mid-Sixties as a search for new sounds and evolved. It’s still evolving today. This is one more hole in the leaky boat of the “electric revolution and/or sellout” trope. There is a clear progression from the acoustic quintet of the sixties, to electric pianos, to guitar, and onward. It’s crystal clear here, and I think it’s important to point that out because that search is relevant to so much music in the 21st century.

2. This set of recordings should forever put to rest the notion that Miles Davis could not play the horn, or had limited “chops.” PLEASE listen to this recording and then refrain from saying Miles had bad trumpet technique. Ever again. OK?

It’s not that chops have anything to do with making this music great. Nonetheless he’s playing a ridiculous amount of trumpet in all ranges very fluently. The timing of his attack is impeccable. It’s too easy to sit around putting him down without acknowledging the physical realities of this music, and it’s tiresome to hear once again how Miles made the most of his limited abilities. These recordings demonstrate dramatically the awesome nature of that ability, perhaps even more so than many celebrated “masterpieces.”

I have often thought that Miles created the ultimate artistic illusion: he played so much music on trumpet that he fooled people into believing he couldn’t play the instrument. There was so much music happening they couldn’t hear the trumpet playing. To me that’s one of his great contributions to the modern language of the trumpet: that it is primarily a MUSICAL instrument.

3. The Cellar Door box set gives a renewed appreciation for Miles’ producer Teo Macero. It’s remarkable to me, having listened to Live Evil (severely edited from these tapes) for years, the unerring taste that Teo had in picking the best material. That goes for all the box sets — I feel that Macero always honed in on the best stuff and made incredibly astute judgments about these recordings. That might seem easy in hindsight, but try to put yourself in his shoes. At the time no one had ever heard anything like this and it was his job to decide what was the best stuff. Once again on the Cellar Door he nailed it.

4. It is an illusion to judge an entire period and an artist by one recording. Remember that the so-called “Cellar Door Sessions” represent exactly four days in these musicians’ lives. This is what they played that week. It’s majestic, but let’s keep it in perspective and not go all necrophiliac here. They played something else the next week, and something else the week after that. In the case of Miles Davis he left a 50 year body of recorded work. Why should a live date from 1970 be the basis for analysis of a man for selling out, or for that matter for being a genius? Let’s keep this in perspective. It was a really really great gig.

5. Anyway. There are likes and dislikes and music will never prove anyone’s point. But to me this work stands the test of time because it sounds inevitable. It sounds like a logical progression from the music that came before it, it sounds like a brilliant solution to a series of questions, it sounds as fresh and ingenious as the day it was made. It still excites with the freshness of discovery. What more should it have to do for us?

6. It is frequently said that starting in the seventies the Davis bands were less free than in the past, that the musicians were not as able to shine as individuals. I think if you listen for what they are actually playing, this is simply not true. This is the way these musicians played, and they are playing their asses off in the context of Miles Davis’ music. A recent comment was that “If you ask Al Foster to point out his best playing he wouldn’t say it was with Miles.” Wow. First of all, why would you ask Al Foster to choose? He was smoking with Miles and he was smoking with Joe Henderson. Period. (And he’s still smoking.) It has been said that the saxophonists stopped being a personality in Miles’ bands of the late period, and became “ciphers,” in other words merely guys representing “the saxophone player.” I couldn’t disagree more. Gary Bartz, Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman? Come on. Listen to them. Transcribe them. Then tell me they’re ciphers. It strikes me as awfully ungrateful to hear the music that way. Miles always chose great players, and saxophonists of the late period all shined: from and to many others.

I’m not saying one need be uncritical. I just get the creeps when I hear music analyzed for it’s “social meanings.” This is great music and it is merely armchair kibitzing not to see the nitty gritty of that. There is a physicality to all of Miles’ music that could be considered its primary perceptual trait. It can be criticized on many fronts (and has been), but let’s first admit that these musicians are giving their all, playing hard and for keeps and for an uncompromising band leader who was looking for new ways to move forward (among many other things…). When it came time to work there was no question of Miles Davis’ commitment to quality and the hard work required to achieve it. The recordings from the Cellar Door once again demonstrate the quality of a unique and exciting personal vision. I hold out hope that this music could finally put some of those sweeping assessments to bed.

The transition of the late 60s and early 70s now seems to be another “neglected period of Miles” that is seeing a resuscitation in interest. Fancy that. Ten years from now, will we be re-rediscovering Tutu, Decoy, Live Around The World? And if so will we finally be able to say that the guy was simply great? Somehow I doubt it. When you go it alone as Miles did there will always be doubters. Yet it’s still dispiriting to me to read people putting down various “periods” of Miles’ work and then later “rediscovering” them.

My feeling is that someone who gave us such consistent excellence over so many years must have been in touch with something larger than we can understand. All of his work would deserve a consideration, and I say let’s give it to him. All appraisal of his personal life, all partisan wrangling over various artistic decisions, all second-guessing his reasons should take a back seat as we simply accept him as the American music master he was, in every period.