1.14.1975 Keystone Korner

Much like the residencies at Paul’s Mall in October of ’73 and Keystone Korner in April of ’74, Miles Davis prepped his live ensemble for its upcoming overseas tour with multi-night club dates – returning to the friendly confines of Keystone Korner in San Francisco’s North Beach, then on to the Troubadour in Los Angeles before shipping off to Japan in January of 1975.

The Keystone Korner dates were also the band’s first since guitarist Dominique Gaumont was dismissed the previous month. And though Gaumont’s departure returned the band to the septet configuration it had honed to perfection throughout much of 1973 and into 1974, the band that emerged here at the start of 1975 was an altogether different beast. The smaller lineup certainly allowed saxophonist/flautist Sonny Fortune more room to stretch out and carry the music into different turf than his predecessor, Dave Liebman, but the biggest benefactor was likely guitarist Pete Cosey, whose approach to his instrument shifted dramatically, almost as if he simply absorbed Gaumont’s voodoo, merged it with his own singular style and was born anew.

With Miles’ rapidly deteriorating physical health and a working band likely aware it was living on borrowed time, the ensemble often performs as if guided by an invisible hand – both possessed by and in service of the master, the 1975 septet produced some of the most fascinating, gripping music of the electric period.

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11.18.1974 Bottom Line

The Miles Davis octet spent its final weeks of 1974 on an unglamorous string of dates across the northeastern U.S., ping-ponging between multi-night stands in New York City, DC, Cleveland, and East Lansing. A remarkably anti-climactic way to cap a year that reached such remarkable heights as the Carnegie Hall show that produced Dark Magus and a triumphant tour of Brazil, but a stark reminder that this was a group of working musicians through and through.

The tour also offered an opportunity for the band to road test a fresh batch of material it had recorded over several sessions in the latter half of the year, much of which provides evidence of Miles slowly emerging from purely groove-based songwriting. With tunes like “Maiysha” and “Mtume” oscillating between loose, heavy funk vamps and clearly defined sections anchored by some of Miles’ most beautiful melodies in years, this new material is probably as close as we’ll get to anything resembling a traditional verse/chorus structure throughout the electric period.

A key element to this new direction was nuance, and despite Dominique Gaumont’s mastery of heavy, heady psych, delicacy was not a characteristic the young guitarist often displayed in 1974. Miles would sack him by the end of the year, making this audience recording from November 18 Gaumont’s last circulating tape as a member of the working group.

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11.1.1974 Allen Theatre, Cleveland

Despite health issues that kept his creative output minimal in the latter half of the year, Miles booked a fairly hefty schedule of live dates in November of 1974. And who could blame him? With a trio of phenomenal guitarists in the lineup and saxophonist Sonny Fortune now a full-fledged member of his working group, studio material from the period proves the Miles Davis octet was white hot.

As evidenced by this relatively unheralded tape from Cleveland, rumors of Miles’ ill-health seem to have been a bit exaggerated, with both the bandleader and his ensemble operating at peak form.

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8.2 + 8.3.1974 Paul’s Mall

The seven-month stretch between Miles’ triumphant run of shows in Brazil and the Japanese gigs in early 1975 that would birth Agharta and Pangea is one of the darker recesses of his electric period. Though the octet’s activity remained steady with dates throughout the eastern U.S., the live tapes are few and far between, many capturing only portions of the performances in less-than-ideal fidelity. Thankfully, there remains enough documentation to trace the evolution of the band that would emerge in Tokyo as the unassailable colossus that crystallized the final chapter of Miles’ electric era.

These tapes from Paul’s Mall are notable mainly for the inflection point they document – with saxophonist/flutist Dave Liebman having left the group after the Brazil dates, Sonny Fortune was effectively auditioned on the bandstand during the octet’s multi-night stand at the Boston venue. Our man got the gig and remained with Miles through February of ’75. The tapes are also curiously devoid of third guitarist, Dominique Gaumont, who’s inaudible on the August 2nd performance and failed to join the band on stage for the 3rd, providing a glimpse of the seven-man Agharta / Pangea lineup in its most embryonic form.

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5.28 – 6.2.1974 São Paulo

After three nights in Rio de Janeiro, the last of which was documented in a phenomenal 40-minute tape, the Miles Davis octet continued its tour of Brazil with a trio of shows at the Theatro Municipal in São Paulo. Originally booked to perform May 28 and 31, June 1 (Tuesday, Friday, Saturday), the band was forced to reschedule the Friday night gig after Miles, clearly still riding high after his 48th birthday celebration on May 26th, overindulged between shows.

I was in São Paulo, Brazil, and had been drinking all this vodka and I smoked some marijuana-which I never did, but I was having such a great time… Plus I took some Percodan and was doing a lot of coke. When I got back to my hotel room, I thought I was having a heart attack. I called the front desk and they sent up a doctor and he put me in the hospital. They had tubes up my nose and IVs attached to me. The band was scared; everyone thought I was going to die. I thought to myself. This is it. But I pulled through that one … They had to cancel the show that night and reschedule it the following night. I played and blew everybody’s mind I was playing so good.

From Miles the Autobiography, as told to Quincy Troupe

True to his word, Miles was indeed in rare form on the night of June 1st, with both sets documented in full via saxophonist Dave Liebman’s on-stage taping rig as well as in a brief B&W film clip by Brazilian filmmaker Andrea Tonacci (amazingly, the only known footage of the band in 1974). Like the tape from Rio on May 25th, Liebman’s on-stage recordings of these three nights in São Paulo make for a captivating listening experience – capturing the band at the peak of its power with an incredible depth and clarity that rivals Miles’ official live albums. Fittingly, these superb tapes are also the last to feature Liebman, who had recently recorded his excellent Drum Ode LP and would be replaced by Sonny Fortune when the octet resumed touring in late July. Essential documents by any measure.

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5.25.1974 Rio de Janeiro

Following a series of spring dates in which guitarist Dominique Gaumont evolved from “surprise guest” to a full-fledged member of the live ensemble, the Miles Davis octet began a six-date tour of Brazil with a three-night stand at the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.

While the official tour program (courtesy of Peter Losin’s Miles Ahead) confirms the band performed nightly from Thursday, May 23-Saturday the 25th, this tape of the penultimate show is the only circulating document – but what a document it is. Recorded on-stage by saxophonist Dave Liebman, the tape combines the clarity and instrument separation of a multi-track recording with a three-dimensional quality that simply immerses you in sound – the ability to hear the squeak of Miles’ wah-wah pedal in the quieter sections is a nice little added bonus. Like the similarly recorded performances in Sau Paulo the following week, these on-stage tapes make for an exceptional listening experience.

The Miles Davis octet in Rio as photographed by Ricardo Beliel Revira. Note the cable to an on-stage microphone on the floor to the left of Miles’ wah pedal.
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4.16-21.1974 Keystone Korner

In the weeks following the pivotal Carnegie Hall gig that produced Dark Magus, the Miles Davis octet headed out on a brief and sparsely documented tour culminating in a six-night run at Keystone Korner in San Francisco. While a recording of the band’s April 19th performance at Keystone is rumored to exist but does not currently circulate, this rough audience tape from an unknown night in the North Beach run provides a rare glimpse of a band in a transitional state with the recent addition of guitarist Dominique Gaumont.

Like the firmly in-the-red late 1972 shows that featured most of the musicians from the On the Corner era sessions, the music documented here has the feel of a band searching for new land amid its own cacophony. Still, Pete Cosey and Gaumont engage in an entertaining turf war as “Turnaroundphrase” reaches a fevered pitch to start the set, chasing Miles’ horn before trading jabs and tripped out solos while Michael Henderson holds the line and Miles clouds it all with atonal blasts from the Yamaha organ.

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3.30.1974 Carnegie Hall

By all accounts, Miles’ hometown gigs were often beset by weird vibes, strange guests, and high drama, all of which coalesced here at Carnegie Hall for the live recording of the Dark Magus double LP. Much of the night’s theatrics were courtesy of Miles himself, who, after arriving over an hour late despite living just blocks from the venue, informed his septet that they’d be joined by a pair of guests during the second set – 22-year-old saxophonist Azar Lawrence, and French-Bahaian guitarist Dominique Gaumont.

While Lawrence had gained notoriety for his then-recent work with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, members of the septet became familiar with the relatively-unknown Gaumont when the band performed in Paris in late ’73.

Dominique took me all over Paris on the Metro and we were having a ball. I brought him to the hotel and introduced him to Miles, who was in a kinda semi-conscious state because he had been ill. He had nurses around the clock with him in the suite. So I introduced Dominique to Al Foster and we hung out and had dinner in the restaurant. We dined for hours and went to a club. I don’t know if Miles remembered meeting Dominique and the next time we met was in New York. When Dominique came to New York he hooked up with Al and Al brought him by to Miles’s place and that’s how he got in the band.

Pete Cosey interview via The Last Miles

Though much is made of Gaumont’s contribution to the night’s second set, the beauty here is the way in which the septet so easily reshapes itself to accommodate the new musicians. Having honed its act to a fine polish, the surprise addition of Lawrence and Gaumont unmoors the band from its familiar patterns and allows Columbia’s tape engineers to document the exploration of some entirely new turf. In contrast to the expertly crafted psychedelia of the opening set, the sprawling, indulgent, often disorienting second set doesn’t simply make for a thrilling live LP, but one that captures a pivot point in real-time.

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1.27.1974 Massey Hall, Toronto

After burning down the Shaboo Inn with a sprawling pair of sets the night before, the Miles Davis septet made the 500-mile journey from Willimantic, CT for a Sunday night performance at Toronto’s legendary Massey Hall. Like the previous night’s club gig, the septet leveled the audience in the cavernous theater with a pair of sets very much in the vein of what it brought to Europe the previous fall, but here in Toronto the band’s opening and closing sets are universes unto themselves. The first, a dead-on heavy funk blowout, the second, a dark, meandering, heady epic with more than a few bizarre subplots.

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1.26.1974 Shaboo Inn

It’s hard to overstate how rapidly Miles Davis fell off the cultural radar beginning in 1974. In comparison to the wealth of images and live footage covering his activity from 1969-73, the stretch between January of ’74 and his retirement in mid ’75 is documented in a smattering of photos and a brief B&W video clip. And though the year saw the release of the excellent compilation LPs, Big Fun and Get Up with It, Miles’ extraordinary live albums recorded during this period – Dark Magus in March of ’74, and Agharta and Pangaea in February of ’75 – would languish unreleased in the US until the latter half of the decade.

It didn’t help that health problems and heavy drug consumption kept his appearances unreliable and his live calendar sporadic at best. By all accounts, even the band’s first shows of the year – a multi-night stand at the Shaboo Inn in Willimantic, CT – got off to a rough start.

“His road manager called from the Willimantic Motor Inn and said, ‘Miles canceled the first night because his hairdresser didn’t show up,”‘ says former Shaboo Inn owner, David “Lefty” Foster, who felt ill at the thought of telling the crowd waiting outside the club that the show was off.

“There wasn’t one boo,” Foster says. “They just all turned around quietly and started walking to their cars, got in their cars, and they drove away. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it.”

Hartford Courant, August 2007

With the band originally booked for January 24 & 25th (Thur & Fri), the stage recording made by Dave Liebman featured here is reportedly from a makeup show on Saturday the 26th. Though repeats of “Turnaroundphrase” and “For Dave” across both sets would suggest each hour-long segment of music was recorded on separate nights, I’m going to take Mr. Liebman at his word.

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