MILES DAVIS — Agharta (review)

MILES DAVIS — Agharta album cover Live album · 1975 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
2/5 ·
EntertheLemming
Sketches of Pain

The word genius is bandied about in reference to musicians like Davis, Lennon, Coltrane, Morrison, Hendrix et al like slurred proposals by those who know the vows of fidelity ain't gonna last past the best man's speech. (The hitherto salacious excesses of the groom being outlined by a professional arbiter of taste - a biographer) Everyone and their dog claims to be under the influence of the aforementioned luminaries until such time as the fashion cops pull them over. However, we certainly can't blame Miles Davis for the fickle and transitory nature of the fan-base and musicians he longed to be acknowledged by (i.e. Rock Music) Support slots opening for the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana merely served to betray a germ of populism as an integral part of this complex and contradictory man. Although frustrated at his overtures being spurned by the ordinary pop lovin' Joe, Miles would have savoured the irony of having swapped jazz snobs for rock snobs, the latter being arguably even more conservative than the former. Enthusiasts for the sort of music he was producing circa 1975 would deem Agharta as dense, seamless and abstract. Me ? Closer to impenetrable, monotonous and incoherent. Others would claim this is Miles 'space music', or as someone like his avowed inspiration Stockhausen would have it, a space for music to exist. (How many holes does it take to fill the Osaka Festival Hall, or is this flat-packed structure one I have to assemble myself ?)

There are instances on the half hour Prelude where I am haunted by a nagging visitation from a bratty Moonchild over an immutable funk beat. Prelude to what ? you could measure these track lengths with a sundial. Everything is textural hereabouts, even what pass for solos are inextricably woven into a sound-scape where there is neither foreground or background with just that incessant and ingratiating pulse to remind us this corpse is still breathing (heavily Man). I guess that some sort of ground-breaking has to be undertaken before either eulogies or being buried alive is considered appropriate. Not even James Brown would milk such modest resources and expect to get away with it. What exactly did Davis contribute to these four titles by way of thematic, harmonic or motivitic sources to warrant a writer's credit ? We appear to be in the realm of a succession of shifting 'moments', that require the listener to surrender their habitual notions of linearity and embrace the fleeting and arbitrary coalescence of unrelated strands of sound. (Jeez, I'm starting to sound like a publicist for the ECM label). I'm too lazy, old or set in my ways most likely for this malarkey - creative listening on this scale must be a young un's game.

The only people who could be forgiven for wishing to name-drop Miles are those countless hired labourers he employed who must have become disenchanted at their being no architect for the house that everyone else built with Davis inscribed on the mailbox. e.g. Tutu is tantamount to a Marcus Miller solo album with Miles as guest soloist. Similarly, Aura composed and arranged entirely by Palle Mikkelborg goes out with the MD moniker carelessly scribbled to the cover art. Little wonder Davis post 70's output is such an unwieldy mess.

By this stage Miles had abandoned conventional harmonic devices entirely but something had been lost in the interim: and those who essay lives in reverse (historians) could have advised him a plot always appears at the end. Without recourse to any hook, gradation or development these rambling acreages merely depict a stricken wreck who could only keep afloat with a ballast of booze and nostril sherbet on board. I cannot discern any leadership or guidance throughout Agharta and such is the tyranny of texture at play Miles contents himself only with a shrugging tootle here and a grudging parp there as though preoccupied with choosing the wallpaper for his derelict house.

To their credit, the hand picked band he assembled for these dates do their damnedest to inject some excitement into these jams despite the absence of any charts, instructions or orders from their AWOL general. Davis was fond of regaling his new charges with this sort of tutelage:

Play what's not there, don't play what you know, play what you don't know

Hip-speak: closer to your backside than your mouth.

If proof of such were needed we only have to consult Pangaea, a concert recorded by the same personnel on the same day which yielded another completely different set of performances. Cosey in particular displays a fiery and vicious energy completely at odds with his laconic taskmaster. The Foster/Henderson/Mtume bass/drum/percussion trio is retained from the excellent On the Corner, and all three are certainly more than able to nail a groove mercilessly as they do here. Sonny Fortune strikes me as more of a conventional jazzer in that his sax and flute solos on the record are the only ones that develop along marginally conventional lines of statement, improvisation, recapitulation etc.

Miles Davis sold himself like a brazen 'strumpet with trumpet' to get into bed with rock and even tried to shoehorn his way onto PIL's Album album, under the flimsy pretext that Johnny's voice sounded like his own horn ? Lydon flatly rejected his contributions. From here it is but a short slap to the horrors of jazz funk followed by a short button press to the digital technology that begat Detroit Techno and call the lineage facile if you like, Rap. The graveyard of progressive music that was the 80's where electronic dance music's endemic cyclic rhythms choked any dissenting voices must surely owe a debt of gratitude to Miles Dewey Davis.

If you are captivated by free jazz, Can circa Tago Mago, early Tangerine Dream, spacey Sun Ra, Matching Mole or Zappa's more atonal extravaganzas, you may well be in hog heaven with this album but failing that, these air miles won't even refund your fare.
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beejaymelb wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Really enjoyed your beautifully written review, despite not entirely agreeing. Yes, it is largely unfocussed and often melodically wispy (to be kind) but in a way that is the point. Your connections (Tago Mago, Ohr era Tangerine Dream) are really appropriate though also potentially misleading unless the reader knows (and preferably likes) the exploratory 'journey more important than destination' approach to extended pieces.
Anyway, terrific deconstruction with some wonderful language use. Cheers.

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