Miles Davi - The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Box Set)

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Miles Davis (t), Gary Bartz (as, ss), Keith Jarrett (el p, org), Michael Henderson (b), John McLaughlin (g), Jack DeJohnette (d) and Airto Moreira (perc, CDs 2, 6 only). Rec. 1970

This is the eighth Davis box set, and comes up to the remarkably high standards of the previous sets in terms of packaging (albeit no trade mark metal spine), liner notes (Bob Belden and Adam Holzman with additional essays by all the six sidemen above who played with Davis on these historic sessions) and the music, a good representation of dynamic, at times exciting and highly creative jazz-rock featuring Keith Jarrett on electric keyboards and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Miles Davi - The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Box Set)

These sessions were made between Wednesday 16 and Saturday 19 December 1970 at the Cellar Door, a club in Washington D.C. In all the Davis band played 10 sets - two sets a night on Wednesday and Thursday and three a night on Friday and Saturday - and although all were recorded, we are told that four of the ten sets were plagued by audio problems, so what we have here are the six remaining sets in the real time sequence in which they were performed, one set per CD.

In all there is over three hours of new music that has never been released in any format. The material that was released came from the Saturday night sets when the band was joined by guitarist John McLaughlin and appeared on the two album set Live-Evil, together with a slightly baffling compilation of other Davis material. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these tracks is Davis’ approach to rhythm, with Henderson providing a groove based approach with DeJohnette playing in an overt "rock" style, completely releasing the band from jazz’s formal regularity of straight ahead rhythm patterns.

These sets see the beginning of Davis’ regular use live of a wah-wah effect for his trumpet, so adding another electronic colour to the ensemble. Jarrett’s approach was broadly speaking free flowing, and there is a tension sometimes where he seems to want Henderson to follow him into rhythmically freer passages, with Henderson clinging on hard to his bass vamps. When Jarrett goes further out, or throws in classical influences to his playing, Henderson decides the best option when in doubt is to drop out (for example, Wednesday 1st set ‘Directions’). Bartz was perhaps most effective on soprano saxophone, where his lyrical, keening tone was able to cut through what was often a very loud band (for example, Friday 3rd set).

The core repertoire of the band was based on the opener "Directions," usually followed by "Honky Tonk," "What I Say," "Inamorata," with "Sanctuary" often (but not always) used as a closer. In between there were often freely improvised passages with no central theme, using bass to establish tonality and drums to moderate rhythmic intensity and tempo. Equally the themes, often notional, were there to establish tonality and tempo, which in the hands of Jarrett and DeJohnette became extremely elastic. Listening to the six albums in order is revealing in the way they progressively took more and more liberties with the music in terms of tempo and tonality as each night develops.

The creative tension between Henderson and Jarrett is never fully reconciled, as Jarrett’s impulses often lead him into free passages where Henderson chooses not follow. They are at their best when it’s Jarrett adjusting to Henderson’s relentless grooves. Yet the internal tensions often overflowed into some inspired music (all the sets of Friday), but this was upset when McLaughlin joined the band (at the behest of an urgent phone call from Davis to get on a train from New York) for the second and third sets on Saturday. New adjustments had to be made; McLaughlin plays strongly with Henderson, but it is Jarrett who shines in the hot house of creativity with an extended solo he seems to have plucked out of thin air.