While the counterculture turns on, Miles plugs in with startling results
It happened fast, six months tops. In the late 1960s, Miles Davis shook off the security of traditional jazz, gave away his Italian suits, found huge, superfly sunglasses, and put the music world on rocked-out, funky notice. In Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, director Murray Lerner blends contemporary interviews with archival footage, culminating in the full 38-minute set Davis played at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. Miles Electric centers on the session, its intensity stoked by Davis’s innovations and his social acuity. Editors Einar Westerlund and Edward Goldberg cut to a sophisticated, Davis-worthy beat, each interview followed by a split-second dissolve to a white screen. The effect is delicate and ghostly and keeps attention on what’s being said. Lerner’s focus and specificity — Davis’s music remains front and center — have an unexpected effect: Miles Electric offers rare insight into the unusual experiment that was the 1960s/70s. Through Lerner’s subtlety and grace, his utter lack of nostalgia, Davis’s conversion to high-wattage sound gets its due: a powerful statement, musical and social.
Boxing, always an interest, increasingly informed Davis’s 1960s music, its rhythms as nimble as the feints, shuffles, and jabs he practiced three times a week at the gym. (He released a Tribute to Jack Johnson in 1970.) Lerner pays a great deal of attention to Davis’s physicality, his sense of presentation. Black pride, emphatic and unreserved, was in its headiest stage and Davis was ready to make people nervous. Singer Betty Mabry, Mrs. Davis from 1968-69, introduced her husband to the music of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone. In a Silent Way portended the massive changes manifested in Bitches Brew (both 1969). Fans and critics wrung their hands about Davis’s amped-up sound. But for Davis the shift was purely musical and personal expression; the jazz circuit and its limited audience were too confining.
Isle of Wight followed Woodstock and Monterey. Rock still hadn’t been institutionalized; these festivals were provisional and unpredictable. They were really impromptu villages, more a matter of loose partying down that strictly toting up profits. Tiny Tim preceded the band on the Isle of Wight stage, Davis and his crew appearing as the last strains of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” made their way to the furthest reaches of the audience of 600,000 — this ad hoc juxtaposition of goofy dance-hall revivals and ultra-hip jazz perfectly evocative of the time.
Electronic keyboards, synthesizer, and electric bass were among the standard Davis line-up by this point. Each member was an extremely accomplished musician in his own right — Jack DeJohnette on drums, Dave Holland on bass, Chick Corea on synthesizer, percussion by Airto Moreira, Gary Bartz on sax, and a very young Keith Jarrett on keyboards. Lerner interviews them all, along with earlier band members and admirers. Carlos Santana, for whom Davis opened more than once, has a lot to say, much of it corny, occasionally clearheaded. He rightly notes that Davis’s explorations paralleled the youthful questioning of authority. Lerner takes his time setting the scene, his interest as much on Davis’s process as on the performance. And he trusts the audience enough to show the Isle of Wight session, titled “Call It Anything,” entire.
Improvisation means performing composition in public and on the fly. Fearless and curious, Davis demanded from those who played with him to “play what you don’t know.” Process informed result, the pace and tone set not by certainty but by trust. Using eight different cameras, Lerner caught some of the turned-on stage vibe, the loose, inventive thrill of no guarantees; the crowd bathed in the wild, slightly lurid island sunset, Davis preternaturally cool, the band as ecstatic as the trippiest person out there.
Keith Jarrett terms “Call It Anything” a “microhistory” of jazz, from Dixie Licks to funk. The more prosaic Airto Moreira remembers the pleasure of “Call It Anything,” marveling at how clear it remains despite his then elaborately narcotized state. Drugs of course were the necessary corollary to the music and the moment — even venerable and curmudgeonly Stanley Crouch notes how he tried to alter his own consciousness, to cope with Bitches Brew. (It remained and remains unpalatable to him.) “Call It Anything” is an intense, compressed version of the sense of possibility pervasive at the time. It wasn’t all sweet and easy, but the market didn’t have quite the binary winner-loser, zero-sum-game hold on cultural life it does now.
Part of the sense of openness came from the medium itself: in the 1960s, electricity became intimate. Sure it made Davis’s music noisy, aggressive, and dangerous — but blatantly sexy too. As Gary Bartz says at one point, “I just thought of electricity as something you got from Con Ed. But it’s life, life itself.” Electricity propelled this extremely volatile and fecund period, American cultural life unimaginable without it. Lerner never loses sight of Davis and the music and this scrupulous specificity conveys an essential and often glossed-over element in the contemporary adulteration of the 1960s into a retro concept: it was a time of unapologetic and uninhibited risk. This is exactly the spirit that drives “Call It Anything.” Lerner’s bold decision to leave it uncut elevates his film from merely a superb vignette on musical history: more than any other documentary on the period, Miles Electric catches the radical buzz.