The Electric Miles (Parts 1 and 2)

Tate, Greg. Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, pp68–85.

Part 1

Before we begin, look: exhaustive essays on Miles Davis usually bore me to no end too. Mainly because like many other Miles freaks, I've got a few theories of my own—theories so inspired by devotion as to border on church dogma, theories so anxiously air-tight they favor choking off dissension from within the ranks, theories so conceived in arrogance all some other critical bozo will receive for repeating them is my Olympian nod of approval. Like religious passion, musical hero worship has often been known to induce such high hysteria—and on the subject of especially Miles's electric music, I won't deny raising the spectre of Cain over a few of my brother critics' heads. Not that I'm alone in this: ask some of the M.F.'s I know (Miles Freaks, okay?) what they think of the three bios out on my man, and they'll tell you, dem's fighting words jack!

Given the gauntlet before me, I'll explain upfront why I'm throwing my two cents into this ring. The first reason is down beat asked me to put my head on the chopping block. The second is that I've got a few axes to grind. Because to my mind the music Miles made between 1969 and now demands revisionist history, and no writer in my reading has made sense out of its revolutionary aesthetics or adequately appreciated its visionary beauty. Nor have many, if any, of Miles's critics shown enough background in black pop to place his electric music within the cultural context which spawned it. Moreover, when it comes to his last mid-'70s band, I don't think many of my, uh, esteemed colleagues could make heads or tails of Agharta or dig it in reference to Funkadelic and a punk revolution that was just around the corner. And don't let me get started on how none of them realized Miles's lead axe of the period, Pete Cosey, is the Cecil Taylor of the guitar (just hold on to that catchy bit of hype for later), or how they slept through the fact that Miles presaged current directions in modern pop and "classical" forms, or how deviously he revamped his own past and black music's avant-garde through the use of electronics.

Besides feeding all that grist through the critical mill, what we're about to do here is explain the continuity between electric and acoustic Miles, and then beyond that, make a case for his much disparaged Agharta as the work of a genius not in decline, but in ferocious forward motion, on fertile ground.

In his 1967 essay "The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)" Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) prophesied a black music unity which would be "Jazz and blues, religious and secular ... New Thing and rhythm and blues." Seven years after its release, Miles's Agharta remains the closest anyone has yet come to seeing Baraka's prophecy of black populist modernism made manifesto. And the evolutionary process through which Miles will come to deliver this Unity Music sermon from the mount begins not with Bitches Brew, but with the 1966 release of Miles Smiles. On that LP Ron Carter and Tony Williams so radically transform—indeed, so radically subvert—the role of bass and drums in improvised music as to make the solo skeins of Miles, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock come off like a tightwire act run through a rain forest: adventuresome perhaps, but given the setting more a quixotic excursion than one undertaken by musicians in full command of their senses.

Operating in telepathic and telekinetic union, Carter and Williams mutate the LP's uptempo song forms into mazes where the bassist's line, pulse, and meter shifts and Tony's symphonic drum rituals impose syllogisms which dictate rather than follow the soloist's logic. Confronted by these puzzling equations. Miles, Wayne, and Herbie respond with linear, if contorted, harmonic suspensions—superbly balanced ones which don't play off the Carter/Williams axis so much as they cut across and through it. In a way, their brainy bypass surgery reminds you of the two-dimensional floorplans astrophysicists make up to map three-dimensional space. Because when there's no fixed center of gravity, space warps and curves like crazy, and when there's no set groove, what Carter and Williams lay down can't really be navigated, but at best only graphed, like space-time.

The impact of Carter and Williams's relativity theorems on Miles's music was instantly felt in the band's next two releases, Sorcerer and Nefertiti. These LPs, however, bear the stamp of not only the Einstein and Heisenberg of bass and drums, but Ornette Coleman as well. Jumping ahead a bit and taking the physics metaphor a quantum leap further, we can say that these two poles of attraction made Miles's polite chamber jazz world collapse, implode, then expand towards infinity from the inside (or as Wayne Shorter once put it, "... from the soul on out to the universe"). To be more musically specific about these transformations is to say this: the difference between the music on Miles Smiles and the two subsequent dates is that on the latter the melodies function more like elliptical motifs than like heads made to kick off a string of solos. On Sorcerer and Nefertiti melodic interpretation as much as harmonic improvisation is the rule—with the melodies continually being recycled into the improvs as structural devices. These lend symmetry and shape to the moody mise-en-scene which unfolds on both records, phrase by eerily lyrical phrase. Once again Carter and Williams play a game of disorderly conduct by design. Only wise to their antics now, the soloists don't compete. Instead they open up expansive passages which possess the thematic resolve of the melodies at every turn. And inasmuch as this music makes freedom, composition, chaos, and lyricism coexist in a collective improvisational organism—well, given all that, it refers us back to Ornette, whose music not only influenced Miles's direction in this regard but also, I believe, inspired the odd-man-out lines in Wayne Shorter's writing and playing. Coleman and Lester Young have been overlooked as influences on Shorter, though all three's strange phrasing is alike in seeming alienated, innocent, and knowing at the same time. Miles's is too, but then I've always had this other theory that the two musicians most responsible for Miles's style were Prez and Lady Day, especially on ballads.

As amazing as the level of playing and writing in the quintet was, equally so was the way in which each member's conception gave itself over to the fabric of the music. Ron Carter, for example, brought a rhythmic feeling which throbbed like the human pulse rather than just grooved you to death. And by working it into his extraordinary harmonic technique, made free improvisation sound as cyclical as eight-to-the-bar. Shorter's writing gave the band an intellectual persona equal parts rational, mystical, and romantic, while his playing provided crazed models of mathematic concision. Whether comping or improvising, Hancock gave the music orchestral breadth, and Tony's drumming, a force of nature unto itself, came across like a cross between a hurricane, a forest fire, and a cast of thousands conducted by somebody like Ellington, Disney, De Mille, Rostropovich, or hey, Tony Williams himself.

As an arranger and leader, what Miles did in making this cabal of artful astrophysicists cohere is create a context where the sublime funk of Kind of Blue and the firepower of Milestones could be fused, accelerated, and then fissioned across four years and now nine albums—records whose breadth of texture, mood, and composition remain unparalleled in small band jazz. As a trumpeter, Miles made the band focus on how much emotional energy could be compressed, expressed, and released through pure tonality and imaginative phrasing. Like Lester Young's, Miles's solos have come to possess a quality of the inevitable, almost as if their beginnings contained their middles and ends. And as Miles's playing has assumed this capacity, so too has his way of organizing a band into a cellular organism. In all of Miles's bands since the one Trane fell into, the parts have come to sum up the whole, as the players became the tunes and the tunes then became absorbed into the ensemble's communal sound. As Ellington achieved with orchestras, Miles has done with smaller units: turned them into palettes which somehow work for him more like the democratic process than like pigments did for Picasso. Though for all of that, his charisma has also made each band seem like the product of his genius alone.

This enigmatic quality isn't of course Miles's and Duke's alone, since all the great jazz leaders have had it, as have the baadest urban bluesmen—like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry—and the major black pop innovators as well: Berry Gordy, James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, George Clinton, Maurice White, and Bob Marley. Now, speculation as to why Miles stepped out of a black musical universe where Ellington to the nth degree was the directive into a parallel one where funk was its own reward has assumed motives on Miles's part that are racial, social, sexual, psychological, economic, and even musical. 1 think all probably apply, though only when understood as integral to the music rather than as proof of the music's supposed lack of integrity. Because to a brilliant hustler like Miles, all games are the same, everything is related, nothing is really left to chance, and like a good offensive runner, he knows how to cover his ass and when to take orders from the sidelines, if not, in fact, from his accountant.

On the purely musical side however, I think Miles left post-bop modernism for the funk because he was bored fiddling with quantum mechanics and just wanted to play the blues again. The blues impulse is charismatic because of its sexual energies, but as a ritual process, as a rite of passage, the blues are alluring because they make the act of confession a means of publicly redeeming your soul, as Mass does for Catholics and as speaking in tongues does for those in the holy-roller church. As an art form the blues are seductive because they give soulfulness and simplicity the same constructivist value harmonic complexity has in European symphonic music and bebop. This is what makes the blues the most difficult black music to perform convincingly, because not only do you have to convert its cliches into your own style, but you've also got to mean every note since the only thing more tired than some tired blues is some fake funk—and that's because when you come looking for the Holy Ghost and find nothing but some lame hypocrites thumping on a back-beat in the name of The One, well, your soul it do get weary. Leading us to reconsider Bootsy Collins's axiom: "Fake the funk and your nose got to grow" (see "The Pinocchio Theory"). Proof that Miles's funk wasn't fake, wasn't just the fetish work of a clone, is in the fact that all the real funkateers I know dig Miles as much as they do some P-Funk, and that's because the feeling in Miles's funk is just as for real while the schizzy musical fusions are maybe twice as surreal.

What Miles heard in the musics of P-Funk progenitors, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone, was the blues impulse transferred, masked, and retooled for the Space Age through a low-down act of possession. And in them all he probably recognized pieces of himself. Like James Brown he was a consummate band-leader who knew his way around the boxing ring, like Sly he was a bourgeois boy who opted to become a street fighting man, and like Jimi he was a musician whose physical grace seemed to declare itself in every bent note and sensual slur. Visual evidence of Sly's and Jimi's impact on Miles can be seen in the dress styles he adapted from them: the multiple-hued fabrics and talismanic flow of attire. Now, I could try to be all cool and academic like only music is what matters here, but that would be about some bushwah. Because when you're out to unravel a legend, study of myth and material is inescapable, the two having assumed like proportions over time. And what any longtime Miles freak will tell you is that for every Miles Davis album, there's a crapload of Miles Davis anecdotes equally astonishing to the average human mind. And when Miles began exploring Sly's and Jimi's musical frontiers he also, so the stories go, made his way through a few human mine fields they'd cut across before him. So that we don't, however, degenerate into rank gossip here, we'll keep the discussion pretty much musicological—though with the understanding that when myth intervenes, we'll lay that sucker into it too.

With Bitches Brew Miles crossed over the threshold of bebop into Sly's and Jimi's stereovision New Jerusalems. While the music on Miles in the Sky, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and In a Silent Way marks his progressive march to the brink, it also depicts, in retrospect, how cautiously the move was being made. In fact, for my money, the least interesting things about those LPs are their overt pop borrowings. Miles in the Sky haunts for how it extends upon the elliptical heads concept; Kilimanjaro is provocative for how much static tension Miles generates using James Brown riffs, for Tony Williams's ambient drumming, and for how the voicings on "Tout de Suite" spookily predict Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band. (If you ever want to experience musical deja vu, play "Tout de Suite" back-to-back with "Water Torture" from Hancock's Crossings, then hear that against the third and fourth sides of Agharta—curiouser and curiouser.) As for In a Silent Way, it just may be the epitome of the beautifully designed and recorded artifact, being something like a Taj Mahal of music: that rare, manmade thing of beauty which rivals nature in its fixed and dreamlike universal perfection.

The difference between these records and Bitches Brew is the difference between Alex Haley's Roots and the novels of Gabriel García Márquez. Where Haley prosaically told a people's hellish collective history and redemption, Márquez through more poetic language uses history as a means into his folk's collective unconscious, that Jungian hideaway where the spooks really sit beside the doors to the kingdoms of heaven and hell. Where J.B. and especially Jimi and Sly took music isn't something that can be summed up in a few quotidian riffs any more than a Márquez novel can be experienced through synopses. It's at once a thought process, a textural language, and a way of reordering tradition and myth unto itself. On evidence of Bitches Brew and the music thereafter, Miles seems to have believed that to go as out there as them he would first have to lose some ego and enter their worlds not as a master but as a disciple. And in time as he became a master of their language, he would affirm Jung's observation that in ritual sacrifice, the sacrificer gives of himself to become one with the sacrificee.

On musical terms though, Bitches Brew is an orchestral marvel because it fuses James Brown's antiphonal riffing against a metaphoric bass drone with Sly's minimalist polyrhythmic melodies and Jimi's concept of painting pictures with ordered successions of electronic sounds. Bitches Brew can also be heard as a devilishly Milesish takeoff on John Coltrane's spiritual energy music and that music's saxophone, percussion, and bass batteries, modal improvs, tone clusters, and cosmic yearnings, thus making the double-set rank as an act of comic blasphemy with Richard Pryor's Preacher routines or with certain African genesis myths in playing prankster with God's tongue by dragging the heavens back into the province of the vernacular—namely the streets—and the language of the streets, the dozens, sermons made scatologies which find their musical parallel in what funk did to gospel. The streets though aren't just a funky run of avenues where mom-and-pop stores front for numbers runners and storefront churches pimp for jackleg preachers. They're also a place of mystery and romance, and given that Miles knows them and their music inside out, it's not surprising that the melodies on Bitches Brew croon, sway, and reveal them selves like those of such balladeers as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder—all of whose gorgeous melodies and harmonies have yet to overcome the precious corn of Tin Pan Alley in the ears of other improvising composers—excepting Zawinul, Cecil Taylor, and Bennie Maupin, whose overlooked The Jewel in the Lotus ranks beside Miles's Great Expectations, Weather Report's Mysterious Traveller, and Cecil's Solo in channeling the charm of exotic musics into forms which are as tightly knit, free-flowing, and fetchsome as Stevie's, Smokey's, Curtis's, and Marvin's vocal arrangements.

In 1970 Miles recorded two live dates, Black Beauty—Miles Davis at Fillmore West and Miles Davis at Fillmore East. I've never cared for the latter because two bands are fighting for control on it: Miles's and Circle, the collective Chick Corea and Dave Holland formed with Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul when they left Miles. In this battle of the bicameral bands, Miles's night-trippers dig into blues and ballads like they were victims for slaughter; the Holland/Corea twins meanwhile run away from the murder site to throw temper tantrums which are quite gonzo given the context, but lacking in the anthemic-cathartic qualities of say, Trane.

Black Beauty is another story altogether, debuting a 19-year-old bassist named Michael Henderson, who brings with him lessons learned from Motown's legendary James Jamerson and from maybe a few listenings to Ron Carter and Buster Williams besides. As far as focus and intensity, the performances of Zawinul's "Directions" and Shorter's "Masquelero," which open and close the double-set, get the prize hands down—primarily for the brassy blur of blips Miles phrases in implosive runs akin to Hendrix's experiments with backlooped guitar, and for Corea's explosive solos, which come about as close as anybody ever will to cutting Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner on Rhodes electric piano.

On evidence of the music that Miles released following Bitches Brew, it's clear he was out to create not only a new trumpet voice, but also a new improvisational process—one which would enable his electric band to make music equal, on its own terms, to the music of the quintet. What he discovered, however, as he progressed further into electronics, was that those terms would first compel him to overturn his prior aesthetic sensibilities, and to enter into a zone of musical creation as topsy-turvy as the world of subatomic physics—which is to say, one governed by laws as seemingly random as those of material reality seem fixed and eternally observable.

Part 2

Discussed in Part 1 of this essay was how Ron Carter and Tony Williams proposed a quantum model of the bebop universe—one wherein freedom and structure became wedlocked to the improvisational/compositional urge underlying all jazz. As in the labyrinthine narratives of Jorge Luis Borges, this seeming chaos of order and precision had a character half-polymath and half-mad, one part whimsical in nature, one part obsessive about functional design. From the resultant music we can deduce Miles gained insights from Carter and Williams into the ways in which jazz could be disintegrated and rearranged without having ever seemed to change face. What funk and black rock brought to Miles's speculations isn't unlike what considerations of gravity bring into speculations about four-dimensional space-time—namely a feeling for how the earthly parts of our being impact upon our perceptions of the cosmos, spacially and temporally. And similarly to modern physicists, Miles found in embarking upon his electric journey the relativity of his quantum experiments to the everyday ebb and flow of Afro-American popular culture.

Though the soundtrack Jack Johnson was recorded before either Fillmore date, it stands as the culmination of everything Miles had been reaching for since Filles de Kilimanjaro. A masterpiece, a landmark, a signpost, and a synopsis, the record sums up the first leg of Miles's electric reincarnation. What makes it a masterpiece is no less Miles's constructivist trumpet bursts than Michael Henderson's extraordinary bass playing on "Right Off," where Henderson's lines function as both an anchor and a flow chart, giving the music mucho cool, bottom, and movement. This performance can be heard as either 20-or-more minutes of imaginative grooving, or as 20-or-more metamorphic and metalogical minutes of extremely composed bass improvisation. In terms of instrumental prowess, it is rivaled only by mentor James Jamerson's work on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Boogie Mosson and Bootsy's more condensed rides with P-Funk, and Marcus Miller's throwdown on "Fat Time" from The Man with the Horn. Two models besides Jamerson which Henderson might have used were Carter (behind the infinity patterns on "Madness" from Nefertiti) and Buster Williams (check the fluid undergirding he gives Hancock's aqua-velvet arrangements on The Prisoner).

Jack Johnson is a signpost because it's a prelude to every major act of fusion in the '70s; on "Right Off" we hear where Zawinul learned to weave funk and bop into an organic continuum, hear John McLaughlin wail with Billy Cobham bashing away behind him, and hear Herbie Hancock break down on electric keyboards like solo and rhythm parts were one and the same. On "Yesternow"—whose creepy bass part is ripped right off of James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud"—we not only get a taste of Miles's direction from here on out, but can catch wind of Return to Forever and the harmolodic funk of Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer (dig the overlays of polytonal thematicism against pulse). Besides all this prophetic stuff however, Jack Johnson is a bitch because of Miles's brilliant use of space and swinging single notes, and for the funked-up rhythms and passing chords he provokes McLaughlin into. (Their dialog here goes beyond call-and-response into formulating a communications system as complex as the Yoruba people's talking drums.)

Following Jack Johnson came Live-Evil, which tracks like a gonzo invasion of the ghetto by technically advanced booty snatchers from a parallel universe. This music finds counterpart only in the mutant funk rites George Clinton was taking to the stage around the same time—though I'll give Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart their propers for wallowing in similar sties on the other side of the tracks. Listening to this music is like listening to a "History of the Blues" as told by Richard Pryor, George Romero, and Sun Ra. In it wretched excess is the norm, sinister-but-sarcastic sums up the tone, and blues riffs are continually being splattered like blood bags and revived as cartoon zombie figures. The trick about the music is that its textures rather than musicianship make it sound like garbage, like maggot-brained cosmic slop or, if you will, like cosmic debris (to cross-reference a funka-zappic tune or two). Because of this, to truly love the music you have to want in on this filthy mess as a way of life. I favor Clinton's and Miles's worlds over Zappa's and Beefheart's because Don and Frank run romper runs by dictatorship whereas Miles and Uncle Jam are more like groundskeepers at insane asylums for black and white radicals. Leading us back to the notion of genius through democracy rather than fascism. Miles took this principle even further than George, however, by nailing "The One" through collective subversion rather than perverse collective arrangements.

In this sense Live-Evil is also a riotous avant garde revival of New Orleans polyphony like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, using the blues to speak in tongues ancient and to the future. Besides, what Gary Bartz's sax does with Ornette and Shorter is all-out funk personified; what McLaughlin does to the blues and ragas is mondo pervo; Jack DeJohnette suspends backbeats in a levitation act like Houdini wouldn't believe; Keith Jarrett comps with Worrellian weirdness; Henderson's bass lines are as absurd as the adventures of Plastic Man; and Airto is a hoot. As for Miles, nobody outside of Hendrix and Jeff Beck has ever played a more hilarious wah-wah pedal.

Between bands in 1972, Miles conjured up a session which took its cues from Sly's There's a Riot Goin' On, Stockhausen's Telemusik/Mixtur date, and once again, The Streets (though this time we're talking the streets of the world). In On the Corner Sly's Riot vocalese turns up in Miles's raspy, guttural trumpet (only as Sly's singing sounds like Miles talks; who's influencing whom I wonder?). Sly's synaptic minimalism figures heavy in the big-band-converts-into-drum choir arrangements (only you get hints of this hookup in "Sivad" on Live-Evil, too, and Stockhausen's theories on random, mixed, and reprocessed sounds are a presence in "Gemini/Double Image," where two contrite melodies cross each other for a showdown on a sci-fi set). But from Ian Carr's new bio we learn Miles got excited over the Telemusik/Mixtur work because of how distortion converted acoustic sounds into electronic colors. Miles subverted this process to transform African, Indian, and funk rhythms into a One-World Festival. Anybody who thinks Talking Heads came up with anything new in terms of synthcraft and uncanny rhythm mixes on Remain in Light better check this one out, not to mention Bernie Worrell, Junie Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Edwin Birdsong, Leon Sylvers, and Greg Phillinganes—to name a few bloods overlooked in the race to crown Byrne and Eno the Kings of electric swing (Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman, look alive).

Except for Miles's incendiary improvs, 1973's In Concert is little more than a sad rehearsal date put out for public consumption. The album which followed—Get Up With It—though is notable for three reasons: the protopunk "Rated X" which lays the groundwork for Agharta, and two 30-minute-plus works, "He Loved Him Madly," a wake held in honor of Ellington, and "Calypso Frelimo," a "dub fugue" in honor of the freedom fighters who liberated Mozambique from Portuguese oppression. The Ellington funeral is ambient music for the hereafter. Its colors, moods, and textures derive from Tibet, India, Micronesia, and Memphis. The three guitars favor sitars and soul band strokes; Miles's organ smears remind one of Tibetan harmonium voicings, while Henderson's bass sinks to lows as gut-plummeting as those in gamelan music. Across this aural sarcophagus Miles's horn sobs and hobbles like a bereaved widow in a shroud. Beyond mourning Duke, the piece seems to suffer more from wanting to join him in the afterlife.

"Calypso Frelimo" is a fugue because it is orchestrated with antiphonal coordination through its 32-minute thematic evolution. It is dub because, as in that Jamaican craft, musical ideas are restructured by their echoes, or if you will, by shadows of former selves. The work is also a suite in three movements: allegro, adagio, and allegro non troppo. As in reggae, the tonal center is a single bass drone, though in the adagio section, Henderson's suspenseful line variations and declensions dramatize the polytonal modulations of organist Miles and guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas.

Cosey's staccato guitar simultaneously functions like a second set of congas to Mtume's, a second rush of cymbals to Al Foster's, a second steel drum simulacrum to Miles's Gnostic organ, a second rhythm guitar to Lucas's, and as one of three solo voices. In effect, the ensemble music isn't dissimilar to that of Sunny Adé or Steve Reich—especially in terms of its conversion of multiple melodies into polyrhythms and subtly swelling formal metamorphoses. Where Miles's work goes beyond theirs is in having his trumpet and Cosey's guitar improvise a swinging infinity of new colors, lines, lyrically percussive phrasings, and needlepoint-by-laser stitchings out of the given melody. The singularly transcendent thing about jazz is that it allows one human being's voice the right to assume universal proportions through self-expression in a collective framework. And because Cosey and Miles can continually solo, and enhance rather than rupture the communal fabric of the calypso, they celebrate jazz as a way of life and as an aesthetic model for the human community.

Where these principles take on their highest form of expression outside of Miles is in the music of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Where Miles goes beyond them on Dark Magus, Pangaea, and Agharta is in having an entire band of improvising composers onstage creating a pan-ethnic web of avant garde music locked as dead in the pocket as P-Funk. Heard in its 100-minute entirety, 1974's Dark Magus tracks as a surrealist collage of the crossroads where African rites and urban Afro-American means converge. In this it resembles the work of black artists Romare Bearden, Bettye Saar, and David Hammons, and poet Jayne Cortez. In the music we hear a patchwork assemblage of guitar and saxophone multiphonics riff over a logjam of percussion until squelched by more Gnostic organ and inaudible hand signals from Miles. What keeps this frenzied jungle boogie in sync are the systolic bass vamps of Henderson, who by this time had assumed as dominant a role in the band as the bass had in black pop, thanks to Larry Graham. Miles's horn work here is the finalized fusion of Stockhausen and Sly, scribbling blurbs of feline, funky sound which under scrutiny take on graphic shapes as wild and willed as New York subway graffiti. On Dark Magus Cosey's guitar leads are a cross between Miles, backlooped Hendrix, and Trane's sheets-of-sound. On Pangaea and Agharta his lines sizzle into exotic scales distorted to run subterranean channels while orderly tracking to thematic resolution.

Like Miles and Cecil Taylor, Cosey is a constructivist whose improvs affirm fellow architectonic-anarchist Taylor's belief that music from a man's innards will systematize that gut-bucket spillage on its own terms. For Cosey those terms derive from years studying the guitar systems of the country bluesmen, and from applying the microtonal intervals of sitars and koras to electric guitar. (In conversation recently, Cosey told me he has "32 systems for tuning the instrument," meaning Glenn Branca can sit down and Robert Fripp has got a lot of scales to go.) Cosey's improvs extend upon the orchestral guitar techniques of Hendrix by likewise moving successive waves of harmonic distortion (that's noise to you, mom) which have the logic and density of symphonies and the filth of the blues. Where his vast scalar armament takes him beyond Hendrix is in the elongation of microtonal scales into multidirectional hooks and tentacles of curvaceous, screeching sound. What's even more amazing is that he makes these monstrous creations swing like a Basie band arrangement or a tenor solo by some of his former employers named Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. For what it's worth, protopunk axemaniac Robert Quine claims Cosey as an influence, and hearing Agharta, Dark Magus, and Pangaea will make you think Keith Levene, Andy Gill, Adrian Belew, and Robert Fripp oughta own up too. Besides Hendrix, the only music which comes close to his in terms of all-out heavy metal furor and invention is the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, hardcore punk's Bad Brains, and what Eddie Hazel roared out of the gate with on Funkadelic's "Super Stupid" in 1971.

While Cosey and promethean firebreather Sonny Fortune dominate Agharta and Pangaea as soloists, these LPs are also magnificent ensemble works. Because by 1975 Miles, through his decades-old practice of paying cats to practice on the bandstand, had created the world's first fully improvisational acid-funk band— by which I mean one capable of extemporaneously orchestrating motifs from Santana, Funkadelic, Sly, Stockhausen, Africa, India, and the Ohio Players (check how their 1974 hit "Fire" gets revamped on Agharta's first side). The band's cohesion amidst sonic chaos knows no parallel in fusion, funk, rock, or either the black or white avant garde. And while others may have achieved similar ends since, these furthermuckers (sic) were making it up night after night on the road, making new music every time they hit like they'd been possessed by whatever god or demon demands that black musicians push themselves all the way out there and then some. In the final analysis, this is music in the spirit of jazz to me, r&b, New Music, and by way of abstraction, even the gospel truth.

Before we end I'll admit to being unable to take Miles's comeback seriously. Not that I'm alone in this mind you: I don't think Miles does either. And more than anything, what the release of his new LP Star People has convinced me of is that The Return of Miles Davis has to be understood as one of the goofiest promotional campaigns in the history of hype, to be understood at all. This isn't to say Miles hasn't occasionally pulled off some miraculous music since we've been graced by his presence again. It is to say, however, that when you take a good look at his new packaging imagery... well, you can't say it doesn't do Madison Avenue proud. Figure it as a movie treatment and the scenario would run something like so: alleged to be drug-ridden, debilitated, and dying of cancer, jazz's legendary Prince of Darkness returns from a six-year sabbatical to triumphantly reveal functional chops and heroic recovery from a painful joint operation. His first act is to release an album sporting the title The Man with the Horn (just like it was some 1950s film noir flick) and fronting slick cover art that wouldn't be out of place as a Vogue cologne advertisement. Next comes marriage to a famous actress, surprisingly cordial and candid interviews in Ebony and People, followed by pictures in Jet that depict the brooding black brujo laughing and shaking hands with fans and tuxedoed-down at bourgeois black affairs where Our Hero almost looks like he was born up in there (which he was, remember). Months later comes the concert tour album, We Want Miles, a title which in the best Madison Avenue tradition sought to create demand for a commodity by trying to convince the public they were dying to have it in the first place. Now comes Star People, an LP of simple blues variations containing cartoon aesthetic artwork by Miles and liner notes wherein the maestro explains his music to Leonard Feather, then defines his contributions to modern art thusly: "All Drawings, Color Concepts and Basic Attitudes by Miles Davis." Is he kidding us or what? Hard to tell with a man who admits, as he did to Cheryl Hall, that he's always been a big ham at heart. Nevertheless, for all the ribbing Miles definitely seems a happier, healthier human being than ever before, and I'm glad. Up to a point. Which is to say that when it comes to Miles's new band and new music, my ambivalence toward the situation tends toward the critical side.

That said I'll in fact force my hand here and say that to these ears, Miles's new band is the first one to ever become progressively less interesting to listen to as time marches on. And for my money the most profoundly musical moments I've had with Dewey's new crew are to be found on The Man with the Horn, while the most banal are on Star People. For sheer structural complexity nothing Miles has done since matches "Fat Time" on The Man with the Horn—a lean blues march featuring extraordinary bass from Marcus Miller, whose supple line variations and asymmetrical turnarounds supply enough power and imagination to deserve credit as a solo show of force alongside the killer guitar work of Mike Stern, guitar made all the more stirring in its movements by Miller's telepathic shadowing, shading, and undergirding of them. Nor when you talk about gut-bucket funk has any other of Miles's new music come close to matching "Backseat Betty," where again Miller's rump-rolling funk grinds can be heard to spur Miles to some of the sexiest, tenderest trumpet work of his career as a funkateer. And on "Aida," the bassist's sproingy ricochet shots and declensions provoke Miles to heraldic scalar peaks and daring intervallic leaps, revealing the trumpeter at the top of his form rather than trying to regain it.

Seeing Miles at Avery Fisher for his New York premiere in 1981, I was struck by how restrained Miller seemed while Stern and hornman Bill Evans were given ample noodling space. Stern is a guitarist of sure power but limited imagination, and while by his own admission he's more a bebopper than a rocker, hearing him in behind, say, Cosey, Fripp, Belew, and Eddie Hazel is a somewhat atavistic experience. Evans is a player of gorgeous tonality and rigorous logic, but somehow he just never catches fire. With Miller kept under wraps, the backbone of Miles's new band is, of course, drummer Al Foster, whose driving downbeats and crisscross fills whirl up a polyrhythmic firestorm that at least maintains an illusion of power behind this band. Though, again, after hearing the Cosey/Henderson-fronted unit, this group's funk comes off like so much staid hackwork, while its oblations to 4/4 seem calculated to satisfy Miles's old crowd as the funk pulls in a new one.

Now, what I've come to love about Star People is that it doesn't sound like Miles wants this band to become capable of anything but playing a simple blues. And while seeing Miles in concert recently made me think he was trying to reconstruct his mystique out of thin air, Star People reveals him capable of delightful self-parody. Like Picasso when he ran out of ideas, Miles has taken to enjoying poking a little fun at himself. So that on Star People we hear the innovator of modern music make a big to-do out of playing muted blues cliches over funk vamps that were old in 1970, hear him riotously romp through a cornball Tin Pan Alley variation like he was born yesterday, find him spurting soul band trumpet squeals in and out of a number whose head and rhythm arrangement come across like a cross between Basie, Bird, and James Brown. Moreover, we find Miles enjoying working with musicians not on the cutting edge, but on the backburner of bebop conservatism. (If guitarists Stern and John Scofield play one new lick here, it's news only to maybe, say, T-Bone Walker.) On the other hand, I'm not going to say the record doesn't swing when it wants to, and all in all it just may be the most accessible LP Miles has ever made. (I mean it could've come out on CTI, you know?) Furthermore, when you stop and consider the source of this oldhat comedy routine, it kinda leaves you in stitches. (When genius mocks itself, what other response is there?)

When Miles first came back, I thought it was with a whimper— but I was wrong: Miles Davis has come back to partay y'all. Laugh with him at your own expense.