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Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time
Though Miles Davis’ 1970 double album Bitches Brew gets the nod as the first salvo fired in the fusion revolution, there was actually plenty of electrified jazz happening before it hit the streets. Davis veterans such as drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter were both on record with amped-up jazz by 1969. And several brave rock groups—Soft Machine and the Mothers of Invention, for starters—had already trod similar ground. So it’s not so much that Miles did it first (even his übermellow 1969 album In a Silent Way, sometimes referred to as jazz-rock, is actually more like a slightly louder version of his 1959 modal landmark Kind of Blue, with Williams’ lock-groove rhythms replacing Jimmy Cobb’s more elastic drumming); it’s just that he nailed the musical zeitgeist better than anyone else. Not only was Bitches Brew noteworthy for its heavy beats and high volume, but—unlike old-school live-to-tape jazz sessions—it was a total studio product, full of loops and spliced performances. Which is why Live at the Fillmore East is such a crucial document: These two March 1970 sets represent the only available glimpses at Miles’ great “lost quintet” (Davis, Shorter, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette) playing the Bitches Brew material without any post-production trickery. Whereas that album was 105 minutes of simmer, Fillmore immediately explodes. On the first version of “Directions,” Shorter whips up some blistering late-period Coltrane fury that propels Corea into perhaps the most aggressive Fender Rhodes solo ever recorded. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” finds the surly trumpeter stabbing out terse phrases over thick electric throb and sprinting percussion. And the two versions of “Spanish Key” speed up the buttery funk of the studio version to delirious, needles-in-the-red effect. All of which means that these caffeinated takes on classic Bitches Brew-era material transcend mere historical curiosity: Even among the recent flood of high-quality electric Miles product, Live at the Fillmore East stands as the most sinister and turbulent artifact from the early days of fusion. —Brent Burton