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One of the reasons Miles Davis (1926-1991) will always be
considered one of the true giants of Jazz is due to his
innovations in the form. Regardless of the era in question,
his creativity raised the music and sounds of that period, and
elevated it to a level of sophistication rarely experienced in the
hands of lesser visionaries. Of course, Davis was able to do
this because he surrounded himself with stellar musicians,
a list of whom reads like a “Who’s Who” of Jazz greats.

In the late 1960’s, Davis embraced electric instruments.
With albums like “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew,” he
created a new type of music (along with Tony Williams’
short-lived group, “Lifetime”). Based upon the standard
definitions of these terms, this new music wasn’t exactly
Jazz or Rock. “Fusion” was the new name used to define this
new type of music. However, if the “truth be told,” neither
Miles Davis nor many of the other musicians developing this
new form cared for that label or labels in general, for that matter.

This electric period reached a sort of peak with his release of
two double albums, “Agharta” and “Pangaea.” Both discs were
live recordings from the same day; “Agharta” was taken from
the afternoon concert with “Pangaea” recorded from the
evening performance.

Davis is quoted as saying that his band had settled into a
“…deep African thing…with a lot of emphasis on drums and
rhythm, and not individual solos.” No argument there! This was
definitely borne out when I heard “Agharta,” a 97-minute,
two-CD set. In addition to Davis, the other featured players
are Sonny Fortune on soprano and alto saxophone and flute;
Michael Henderson on Fender bass; Pete Cosey on guitar,
Synthi and percussion; Al Foster on drums; Reggie Lucas on
guitar, and Mtume on congas, percussion, water drum, and
rhythm box. Where solos are concerned, Davis probably plays
less than any of the other six musicians. When he does solo
on his trumpet, his contributions are confined to short “jabs”
or “interjections.” In fact, his presence is more evident on
the organ.

I believe this was the first band configuration Davis used that
featured two guitars. The results are fascinating, and vary from
“wah-wah” type sounds to avant-garde noises. The soloing is
redolent of Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), and Davis had also
expressed an interest in working with Hendrix. The importance
of the rhythm section, consisting of drummer Al Foster, Mtume
on congas and the aforementioned rhythm and percussion
instruments, and Michael Henderson on Fender bass cannot be
overestimated; however, a deep groove prevails much of the
time. In fact, this live concert of five tracks (“Prelude Part I,”
“Prelude Part II,” “Maiysha,” “Interlude,” and “Theme from
Jack Johnson”) can be viewed primarily as a study in rhythm,
because the band was often playing against one chord.
Avant-garde electronic sounds were also heard a lot, adding an
“extra-terrestrial” feel to the proceedings.

For me, this was a compelling experience. It was certainly more
“vital” than the “safer” music that Miles Davis made after
completing these concerts in Tokyo, and after taking a
six-year hiatus. Since he always worked with excellent musicians,
even the tame music he made during the 1980’s has its merits,
and I can enjoy it on its own terms. However, after “Agharta”
and “Pangaea,” Miles really wasn’t in the “Vanguard” any longer.

Incidentally, the remastered sound is quite good on this set,
reissued by Columbia Legacy in 1991. It’s a fascinating listening
experience for those who like to “explore.” I can’t wait to listen
to “Pangaea.”