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Album Review

‘Miles at the Fillmore’ catches the master mid-transformation

Amalie R. Rothschild/1970 file photo

“Keith, you know why I don’t play ballads anymore?” Miles Davis asked Keith Jarrett early in the 1970s, during Jarrett’s tenure as Davis’s keyboard player. Jarrett said he didn’t know, so Davis answered his own question.

“Because I love playing ballads so much.”

The exchange illustrates as well as anything the relentless need for reinvention that fueled Davis’s career. Having been at the forefront of bebop and cool, and having brought small-ensemble jazz to near-perfection in both the 1950s and ’60s, Davis was nevertheless compelled, by his own artistic conscience, to cast aside even styles he treasured and move on. Almost every time he did so, something equally revolutionary emerged.

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The fruits of that transformative urge can be heard on “Miles at the Fillmore — Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3,” out from Sony Legacy on Tuesday. Like other releases in the Bootleg Series, the four-CD set offers previously unavailable live recordings that show Davis extending the innovations already begun in the studio.

“Miles at the Fillmore” also restores to wholeness music previously available only in frustratingly incomplete form. Davis and his band played four nights at Bill Graham’s storied Fillmore East in New York on June 17-20 of that year, opening for Laura Nyro. When Columbia released the double album “Miles Davis at Fillmore” later in 1970, each night’s set of 45 to 60 minutes had been edited down to a single track capable of fitting on one of its four LP sides.

Heard in its complete, unruly, sometimes crazed glory, “Miles at the Fillmore” shows just how furious the evolutionary pace of his music was at this point. Two months before the shows, Columbia had released “Bitches Brew,” the landmark double LP whose amalgamation of improvisation, electric sounds, and grooves from funk and rock spawned an entire genre. “Bitches Brew” was also very much a creation of the studio. Many of its tunes originated as sketches, and the album versions were created by splicing together multiple takes.

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His band was a mix of veterans and newcomers. The rhythm section of Davis’s 1969 quintet was still present: Chick Corea on the electric Fender Rhodes piano, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Saxophonist Steve Grossman had already shown himself a surprisingly strong replacement for Wayne Shorter. Percussionist Airto Moreira had played on a number of Davis’s studio sessions. The newest addition was Jarrett, whom Miles had tapped to play electric organ, despite Jarrett’s hatred of electric instruments.

This group, minus Jarrett, had already been recorded at Graham’s Fillmore West in April, in concerts recorded for the 1973 album “Black Beauty.” But it is these Fillmore East shows that show how dramatically Davis was advancing, even beyond the textures and sounds of his most recent work. A listener familiar only with the studio versions of “Bitches Brew” or “It’s About That Time” will find their moody atmospherics replaced by sprawling collective improvisations. Sometimes only a motif is left from the original, and some new tunes, like “Willie Nelson,” seem to consist of little more than a bass lick.

But Miles didn’t want to re-create or even approximate the originals; he wanted this band to jam out, and that they do with aggressive, gleeful abandon. The result is music of wild color and barely controlled chaos. Davis and Grossman throw off assertive, swaggering solos over the keyboards’ pitched battles with one another. The whole thing is propelled by DeJohnette’s volcanic drumming, with Holland often left to knit things together and keep them from hurtling over the rails.

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While there are moments of crystalline beauty, this is for the most part music of abrasive intensity, brought to places that Miles himself probably couldn’t foresee. But his instinct for surrounding himself with the right musicians and turning them loose was at the core of his genius. “Miles would come over and say, ‘You’re crazy, you all are out of your mind,’ ” Holland once said. “But he never once put a lid on it.”

A few months after these incendiary dates, Grossman, Corea, and Holland would be gone. Holland would be replaced by 19-year-old bassist Michael Henderson, who had previously played with Stevie Wonder. Jarrett would be the sole keyboardist, and Miles would be leading what had essentially become a funk band. The evolution was relentless.

But you can hear a pair of retrospective glances on “Miles at the Fillmore.” On two nights, Miles brought the maelstrom to a halt by playing a brief fragment of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” It was the last standard from his 1960s repertoire to appear in his shows. Heard here, it is a palimpsest, a small relic of the past he continually felt compelled to leave behind. It was a reminder, if only for a minute or so each night, that he could still play ballads after all.

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David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@
gmail.com
.

Correction: Because of an editing error, photographer Amalie R. Rothschild was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.