MILES DAVIS — Agharta (review)

MILES DAVIS — Agharta album cover Live album · 1975 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Reviewing "Agharta" (and its sister CD, the equally vivid "Pangaea") is like writing about Mount Everest: mere words are not enough to convey the sense of intimidating awe one feels when standing in its shadow. Extending the Himalayan metaphor even further, these two concert recordings together reach the highest peak of achievement in the turbulent, post-jazz career of Miles Davis during the mid-1970s.

The two releases form separate sides of the same coin, recorded at an afternoon/evening gig in Osaka, on February 1, 1975. The earlier set of "Agharta" may not sound as raw as the twin-disc Carnegie Hall concert heard on "Dark Magus" the previous year. But the music here is equally relentless: a shifting landmass of music moving from gut-thumping electronic Funk-Rock fusion to joyful dance grooves to easygoing swing, before finally collapsing into a disquieting abyss of dark, interstellar noise.

Track titles (excepting the single recognizable melody of "Maiysha", from the 1974 album "Get Up With It") are entirely meaningless. Each of the two "Agharta" discs is essentially a long, uninterrupted jam, improvised in true jazz fashion over several brief themes, typically introduced by Miles and then quickly assimilated into the onrushing juggernaut of rhythm. A 30-minute, two-part "Prelude" actually fills most of Disc One, and "Theme From Jack Johnson" introduces only the first few moments of an hour-long, freeform blow on Disc Two.

It's during this latter half of the set when the music gradually evaporates into a black hole of ambient, avant-garde least on the highly recommended Sony Japanese pressing. The final ten minutes or so of drifting Space Rock was inexplicably left off the much-maligned 1991 Columbia CD re-master, excised by timid sound engineers with no taste for true exploratory music.

On this tour Davis assembled maybe the strongest (and certainly the loudest) band of his long, influential career, built atop a solid backbone of rhythm provided by drummer Al Foster and bassist Michael Henderson, with a vital layer of percussive color added by the always inventive Mtume. But the real musical muscle can be heard in the effects-driven controlled chaos of Pete Cosey's guitar playing, which in a more perfect world would merit the same acclaim reserved for the likes of McLaughlin, Fripp, or Hendrix (take your pick).

Miles himself is often silent, or else neglecting his trumpet in favor of a cheap-sounding Yamaha organ. Blame his failing health at the time: he was suffering from crippling osteoarthritis, among other ailments, all of them contributing to his dependence on drugs and forcing him into premature retirement for several years soon after these gigs.

But his presence and guidance throughout the show is unmistakable. And his own uncertain performance, fragile and tentative as it sometimes is (and leaning hard on the crutch of his ubiquitous wah-wah pedal) only adds to the otherworldly effect of the entire concert experience. His trumpet is no longer the authoritative solo voice around which the rest of the band orbits, but a single cog in a well-oiled musical machine, and often indistinguishable from the sound of an over-amped electric guitar.

That's where the true innovation of "Agharta" can be heard: in the realization of a new musical language transcending the conventions of jazz, rock, or any other genre...

...and after first pointing out the futility of trying to describe the penultimate masterpiece by one of the acknowledged forces of 20th century music, I suddenly find myself having just wasted 573 words trying to do exactly that. Point proven.
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