Miles Davis,
(Columbia, 1975)

Pangaea, a spectacular 1975 release, was the last album Miles Davis recorded before retiring from music for five years.

He was running on empty, his failing health made worse by drugs and drink. In a sense, this double disc is an 88-minute primal scream, as Davis spews forth his pain, tempering it with the melodic gifts he's always possessed.

From 1970's Bitches Brew on, Davis had been baffling and annoying jazz purists and critics with his increasingly electric, rock 'n' roll-influenced sound. But his self-avowed desire to draw a young, black audience was foiled by his own music -- Miles Davis records were too weird, atonal and jazzy for rock and R&B fans. So, his albums from this era were initially unpopular. Many weren't even released outside of Japan until recently.

Pangaea is truly scorched-earth music, thorny and apocalyptic, with influences as diverse as Sly Stone and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

And the rock influence is strong: bassist Michael Henderson had just come from playing with Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas were noisy electric players, and drummer Al Foster played backbeats like a man possessed.

That's how Pangaea opens -- with Foster's heavy, fast rock beat. The guitars come in next, snarling in anticipation of Miles' entry. When he makes his appearance, nearly two minutes into the piece, he's playing through a wah-wah pedal, slowly mutating the tone of his trumpet into almost vocal tones.

It's a bizarre sound, but somehow retains Miles' classic simple lyricism. Further into the piece, at about the six-minute mark, the rhythm section drops out completely in the middle of a raging Sonny Fortune sax solo. Fortune keeps blowing on, and the beat comes back, just as ferocious, but at half-time. Fortune adapts his solo to the new beat, and the juggernaut rolls on.

That exchange is just one example of what Davis' septet acheived here. It's a truly organic form of rock 'n' roll jazz, where the entire face of the music can change through one musician's gesture -- a synergy latter-day jamsters like Phish or Rusted Root can only dream of.

Though the two pieces on Pangaea are long (40 minutes-plus) they still seem like windows onto something even larger -- this music feels like it could go on forever.

[ by Paddy O'Furniture ]

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