The current global obsession with electronica and renewed interest in Miles Davis’ pivotal early ’70s period make a remixed exhumation of Miles’ influential sonic explorations seem reasonably honorabledespite the obvious capitalist motives. And the fact that studio maverick Bill Laswell was assigned to compile and segue material from Miles’ In a Silent Way, On the Corner, Get Up With It, and Agharta is enough to raise the eyebrow of even the most hard-boiled skeptic.
The nature of those landmark albums was cut-and-paste to begin with, so the works automatically lend themselves to remixingespecially On the Corner and Get Up With It. Upon first listen, On the Corner’s protean grooves sound as if they’ve been playing since the beginning of time. With no definite framework, the hallucinogenic strata of interlocking polyrhythms, fuzzy wah-wah guitar strumming, arcane keyboard flourishes, and serpentine horn lines form artful sound collages meshed together by original producer Teo Macero. The enigmatic Duke Ellington tribute, Get Up With It, which contains the prophetic “Rated X,” is less crudely constructed. Terse and otherworldly, the song’s rough-hewn textures of rumbling tablas, congas, and bass, underneath a kaleidoscopic tornado of swirling organ chords and jangly guitar riffs, sound like early manifestations of drum ‘n’ bass.
Laswell’s meticulous production skills and astute sense of mood and space illuminate certain instrumental parts that are buried in Macero’s compressed mixes. With enhanced depth of field, tunes like “Rated X,” “Black Satin,” and “Billy Preston” sound more translucent, with crisper rhythmic attacks and thicker bass lines. But despite its lofty intentions, the pompously titled Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974, Reconstruction & Mix Translation by Bill Laswell proves a pleasurable but ultimately disheartening experience.
How much you enjoy this project (as opposed to this music) will depend heavily on your knowledge and fondness of Miles’ early electric days. His voluminous output during those five years was praised by devotees as the zenith of his creativity, while jazz Luddites simultaneously decried it as repugnant. By this period, Miles was no longer interested in conventional jazz combos. Rather, he assembled multicultural motley crews of jazz, rock, funk, and assorted ethnic music gypsies. Integrating the muscle power of rock with the delicacy of jazz, Miles juxtaposed the earthiness of blues and the urgency of funk with surreal embellishments of Afro-Brazilian and Middle Eastern instrumentations. In earlier incarnations, he had created spacious aquatic soundscapes filled with lurking melodies that were hauntingly beautiful. As his interest in Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and James Brown grew, the emphasis shifted from impressionistic electro-magnolia gardens to dense eruptions of unbridled funk.
But remix or no remix, the music stands on its own. The evocative atemporal musings on In a Silent Way capture Miles’ plaintive tone and exquisite phrasing at their finest hour since Sketches of Spain of 1959. Though he was vilified at the time as pandering to the rock audience, Miles was in fact using electric instrumentation to re-explore the colorful terrains that characterized his seminal collaborations with Gil Evans in the late ’40s and ’50s. With its hushed simpatico melodies, subtle backbeats, and suspenseful pacing, In a Silent Way leans closer to Stravinsky than Santana.
At the other end of the spectrum is Miles’ sonically devastating live album, Agharta, which rivals the ruthless energy associated with the New Thing scene. The dense walls of sound, lethal discharge of guitar and keyboard noise, and relentless splatter of polyrhythms approach entropy. Miles’ (then-) fragile chops succumb to an elephantine ensemble that includes three screeching electric guitars and loads of avalanching percussion. This recording finds Miles placing less emphasis on soloing and more on ensemble interplay; his once-elegant legato melodies give way to abrupt staccato riffs that seem to evoke both his physical and emotional anguish. Guitarist Pete Cosey, whose formidable technique and bone-chilling wails can capture the soul of 12 drowning kittens, is the actual crowd pleaserMiles sounds more like a guest than a leader on Agharta. Yet it’s the closest Miles comes to free jazz.
So what exactly has Laswell done for this project for it to merit such a long-winded title? Very little, which is atypical; he’s usually heavy-handed as a producer. To his credit, Laswell wisely has avoided the temptation to update the material with drum ‘n’ bass rhythms, trite rap cameos, and turntable wizardry. He uses suspenseful, controlled dissonance and droning tamboura to weave the material into a narcotic suite that evolves episodically. All the songs from In a Silent Way are truncated into a 15-minute intro. Augmented with subtle ambient touches and reverb, the lulling, bewitching qualities that made the original so refreshing are still intact. The same can be said for the abbreviated “He Loved Him Madly,” from Get Up With It, which closes the album. Originally clocking over 30 minutes, “He Loved Him Madly” proceeds more like a requiem than a tribute. With the use of that notorious wah-wah peddle that got so many critics all worked up, Miles’ sorrowful cries and guitar voicing translate beautifully as they float over an equally mournful vamp.
But elsewhere, in typical fashion, Laswell’s fetish for dissonance and dub overwhelms the artist’s signature sounds. It’s a lot like his past failures, such as last year’s lethargic Third Rail, which featured harmolodic guitarist James Blood Ulmer and P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell in one of worst attempts at wedding free jazz with blues, funk, and hip-hop, and saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders’ wasteful 1996 album, Message From Home, in which Laswell’s overwrought production extinguished Sanders’ thermonuclear multiphonics and biting lyricism to lukewarm, smooth-jazz blather. Such is the case with “What If,” “Agharta Prelude Dub,” and “Rated X.” Laswell wipes out all the teeming chaos of barrelling rhythms and blood-curdling guitar screams that make Agharta so frightening and grafts isolated solos from Miles, Cosey, and saxophonist Sonny Fortune onto a slow-burning dub bass line. While the dub setting sheds new light on both Fortune’s flinty soloing and Cosey’s cathartic wails, the refurbished versions buffer their ballistic impact. Laswell’s most blasphemous remix, however, is the sanitized treatment of “Rated X.” Laswell has softened the menacing edge of this blistering masterpiece by erasing those bizarre strata of organ chords that Miles stacked so beautifully in favor of annoying reverb. Dumbed-down to a meandering interlude, the once-potent “Rated X” sounds like that anonymous background music featured on the Weather Channel.
If the idea was to market this project to the hipster who thinks old-school means vintage Public Enemy, then Panthalassa is a serviceable effort. But after the recent releases of luxurious and comprehensive boxed sets of Miles’ multifaced innovations (including last year’s grand reissue of five double CDs that wonderfully captured Miles live and uncensored from 1970 to 1974), this project seems like an artsy tax write-off. Maybe if Panthalassa had been released after the painfully sordid 1992 album Doo-Bop, it would’ve sustained greater interest for serious electric Miles fans. Instead, it just leaves us sighing one of his famous sayings: “So what?” CP