Music Review: Miles Davis - Miles at the Fillmore - 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3

By , Contributor

Amalie R. Rothschild

This mother lode of vintage Miles Davis concert recordings, greatly expanded from the 1970 Miles Davis at Fillmore double LP (issued on CD in 1997), is perhaps the best entry yet in Legacy’s so-called Bootleg Series. Recorded over four nights (June 17-20, 1970) at Bill Graham’s legendary rock venue the Fillmore East, the original album basically amounted to an edited highlights reel due to the time constraints imposed by vinyl. Here we get it all, spread out over the course of four discs—one for each night. The upshot is approximately 100 minutes of previously unavailable music from those shows. Plus there are three previously unreleased bonus cuts thrown in for good measure, all sourced from an April 11, 1970 performance at the Fillmore West (35 more minutes of unreleased Miles).

If you’ve any doubt about the necessity of this expanded set, set it aside. The complete concerts allow listeners to become fully absorbed in the churning, thick grooves Davis and company laid down. As has been stated many times, the conceptual distance the trumpeter travelled between his early bop days with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s to the electrified funk- and rock-influenced improvisational jams of this period is unmatched. Genius producer Teo Macero, who had collaborated with Davis on so many records—most recently, at the time, Bitches Brew—originally assembled the ’70 Fillmore East shows as a double album consisting of four tracks, one for each day of performance (i.e. “Wednesday Miles,” etc). They ranged from 22 to 28 minutes and included some uncomfortably hard edits. While some favor the overall sound of Macero’s original Miles Davis at Fillmore, with its more claustrophobic aura and added reverb, the drier mix of the newly remastered complete shows presents an eye-opening listening experience.

There’s a spaciousness afforded by the new sonic presentation, allowing each individual band member to be fully appreciated. What a simpatico band it was, with Davis’ trumpet accompanied by Steve Grossman (tenor and soprano saxes), Chick Corea (Fender Rhodes), Keith Jarrett (electric organ), Dave Holland (bass), Airto Moreira (flute, percussion), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). These guys are locked in on a practically telepathic level, with Grossman’s solos perhaps the most underrated over the years. This and the contemporaneous Bitches Brew were jazz of an entirely new variety, the birth of what would later be called fusion (which is arguably too generic a term for what Davis and his band were playing, as—at its widest, most commercial-friendly level—it often encompasses everything from crossover jazz to even so-called “smooth jazz”). While Davis has already been experimenting with this form and would continue to explore its outer limits, these four nights at the Fillmore East are certainly highpoints.

The core set list remained more or less static from night to night, with long explorations of Joe Zawinul’s “Directions” and the Davis originals “The Mask,” It’s About That Time,” and “Bitches Brew” appearing on all four. But the playing is anything but static, with the separation between keyboardists Corea (on the left) and Jarrett (on the right) particularly rewarding close listening. “Spanish Key” turns up as a rare encore on the second night, while “Willie Nelson” closes the fourth night’s set. Again, it can hardly be overstated that this release presents the concerts as they happened, not cut down to “best of” medleys. The lack of guitarist John McLaughlin (a big part of Bitches Brew and other Davis recordings at the time) adds an additional layer of interest to these shows. The only difference in lineup between the Fillmore East shows and the Fillmore West tracks is that Keith Jarrett hadn’t yet joined.

Legacy has kept the packaging pretty simple. The discs are seated on plastic trays (kudos to them for not slotting them into pockets) housed within a multi-fold cardboard case. There’s a folded-up poster depicting Davis in concert on one side and a collage of magazine articles on the other. While the clarity of the text is good enough to read (just barely in some cases), I would’ve preferred to find this material included in the substantial booklet. The poster insert features a lengthy article from Rolling Stone, a shorter piece from The Village Voice, and a letter from Clive Davis to Bill Graham, pitching Davis for a booking at the Fillmore. Who wants to unfold a poster to access these vintage documents? Additionally, does anyone really want a poster included in a release like this?

The main booklet contains a new essay (January 2014) by co-producer Michael Cuscuna. He expertly places the music heard on Miles at the Fillmore in context with Davis’ overall career. But was his hardly-veiled swipe at The Beatles entirely necessary? Cuscuna, when discussing the transition of popular music from the ’60s to the early ‘70s, states, “Gone were the Liverpool pop groups that thrilled 13-year-old girls; innovative bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, and Sly & The Family Stone were emerging.” Not only is Cuscuna’s timeline off (all those bands had already emerged before 1970, with Cream already gone), each of them would readily admit to being influenced by the innovations of a certain “Liverpool pop group.” Not trying to nitpick, because his essay is otherwise a really great read—which only emphasizes how nastily condescending that introductory comment come across.

With that tangent over, I will conclude by re-emphasizing just how essential Miles at the Fillmore - 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 is for any Davis fan. Some 135 minutes of music (including the Fillmore West bonus tracks) not heard on the original Miles Davis at Fillmore double-LP, all of it sonically revelatory—not just for the artistry of the musicianship, but the excellence of the mixing (by Dave Darlington) and mastering by Mark Wilder.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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