Monday, February 4, 2008

Get Up With It: A Fine Time to Leave

By the early seventies jazz was reeling. It's convenient - not to mention tempting - to lay all the blame at the feet of fusion - something I may get to in a future review but not here - but there were other factors at play. A business shake-up at Blue Note Records led to the departures of Jackie McLean, Don Cherry and Lee Morgan from a label that had previously accorded its roster an enviable amount of creative control. The emerging Black Power movement began to thumb its nose at jazz's white following and roots as an alleged cultural Uncle Tom. And many of its greatest practitioners began to die off: John Coltrane's death in 1967 was followed by a procession of venerable casualties such as Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster and Duke Ellington. While Armstrong's passing meant the loss jazz's greatest improviser and entertainer, it's possible that Ellington's death proved an even more devastating blow; a father figure had been snuffed out. Most within the community took his death hard, none more so than Miles Davis.

Judged from the perspective of his recent funk-rock workouts, the Ellington-inspired funeral dirge "He Loved Him Madly" from Get Up With It sticks out like a sore thumb. Meandering and defiantly staid, it lacks the immediacy of On the Corner's opening medley nor the astonishing potency of "Spanish Key" from Bitches Brew, perhaps his most effective jazz-fusion piece. Its thirty-two minute running time combined with a maddeningly slow pace makes for difficult listening - as opposed to "In a Silent Way/It's About That Time" from In a Silent Way its build-up is little more than a tease. A first listen to Get Up With It and you're more likely to be humming the creepy organ refrains of "Calypso Frelimo". Still, it's a number that draws me back in from time to time and I've begun to appreciate it as one of Davis' finest compositions. It's frustrating, then, to consider that he never followed up on it. "Maiysha" and "Mtume", the albums's final cuts recorded four months after "He Loved Him Madly", may well represent his final forays into an Ellingtonian aesthetic. Furthermore, there wasn't even an attempt to forge the tribute into a standard, the kind of which jazz had been so desperate for that they had to make due with the comparatively slight "Birdland" by Joe Zwainul. Revisiting "He Loved Him Madly" might have firmly established the classic status of the piece, not to mention providing the composition with the kind of definitive performance which it meritted. It also would have been the ultimate tribute Davis could have paid to the man he apparently loved so madly.

Get Up With It makes me wonder if Davis' decision to withdraw from the scene for the next half-dozen years amounted to walking away just as jazz might have really needed him. With so many giants having perished and many others being squeezed out of the big labels, Miles Davis still had his faculties intact and raging, only just having honed his skills as a composer. Critics today regard Get Up With It as Davis' farewell but it needn't necessarily have been. He could have become a mentor to whole generation of performers, perhaps even shaping a very young Wynton Marsalis into an interesting figure. He could have worked in tandem with luminaries such as Lester Bowie and Charlie Haden and Keith Jarrett, maybe helping to ensure that the emerging ECM label in West Germany wouldn't spurn blues and swing from their distinctive sound. He could have become a composer of the standard of Ellington and Charlie Mingus and John Lewis. But he didn't and jazz is still reeling.

No comments: