Although Bitches Brew gets the bulk of the credit for launching Miles Davis into the psychedelic stratosphere, that 1969 album, however groundbreaking, was a walk in a quiet park compared to the electric violence that thundered out of speakers when the needle dropped on the 1970 Miles at Fillmore album.
Listeners were quick to figure out that the pastoral expansiveness of Bitches Brew which itself was the result of a few years of sonic evolution took on a defiantly unpredictable personality when Miles and his band took the stage. Ill content with being the jazz guy who rock kids could dig, Miles was bent on shaping his group into something that burned with rock's visceral fire and jazz's improvisational virtuosity. His live shows of that period were menacing and relentless, tapping into a sort of extraterrestrial groove that was unfamiliar yet instantly accessible.
By the end of 1970, Miles had all but abandoned the material on Bitches Brew and the majority of the band who recorded it, as he ushered in another sonic phase. The transition is perfectly captured on The Cellar Door Sessions 1970. This excellent six-CD box set documents a four-night stand by Miles and his band at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., the weekend before Christmas 1970.
Some of this material made it to the phenomenal Live-Evil LP, which (like most of Miles' "live" albums of the era) was heavily edited by Teo Macero, resulting in an album that gave the effect of a live concert but was far from an accurate document. For example, John McLaughlin is featured throughout Live-Evil, when he was only present at one night of the Cellar Door shows.
In the new collection, six of the sets are presented in chronological order, making it easier to grasp the metamorphosis Miles was undergoing at the time.
Though Miles had yet to arrive at the driving hostility found on other "live" albums (like Dark Magus), he was obviously moving away from droning spaciousness and into something far more aggressive. "Inamorata" is the best example of this shift, as the song played every night employs grinding, two-hand keyboard riffs by Keith Jarrett and four-to-the-floor rhythm attacks by Jack DeJohnette and Michael Henderson with as much facility (and emphasis) as the brief interludes of atmosphere from Miles' trumpet. Those interludes get briefer and briefer, even as the song is played longer and longer as the weekend rolls on. By the time John McLaughlin shows up on Saturday night, it's turned into a viscous and suffocating monster that's as threatening as it is transcendent.
Miles allows plenty of room for his sidemen to shine. Though Henderson was new to the lineup, it's impossible to imagine any of these numbers without his funk-laced electric bass. Likewise, Gary Bartz's tonality on alto and soprano sax is in the forefront so often that sometimes you wonder if Miles is the auxiliary player. But it is Jarrett beating the living crap out of two electric keyboards who adds the most audibly effective difference, sounding more like Larry Young on a PCP bender than a subtle Scientologist.
Such youthful antagonism was strongly encouraged by Miles, who wanted his live performances of the era to be as brain-frying as the most acid-drenched rockers. The incredible shows documented on this collection prove that he succeeded completely.