An excellent, eccentric investigation.

An excellent, eccentric investigation.
Reviewer: JoshuaBBuhs
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The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles:
256 pages
January 11, 2016
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Explores the performances of Miles Davis' revolutionary first electric band.

An excellent, eccentric--in the literal sense, off-center--investigation.

I do not know much about jazz, and even less about musical theory, which put me somewhat at a disadvantage coming to this book, but also allowed it to teach me. As many pretentious teenagers, I explored jazz recordings, finding some artists that I liked--Coltrane, always Coltrane, Monk, early Miles Davis, Wynton (but not Branford) Marsalis, Joshua Redman--and what I did not: acid jazz, "smooth" jazz. But after awhile, I no longer felt the need to explore.

I had only the most rudimentary map of the music's cultural geography, and reasons to explain my lack of further investigation. In 1995, I read Peter Watrous's review of Wayne Shorter's latest album, in The New York Times, which doubled as a condemnation of jazz fusion. which had come about through the efforts of Davis in the 1970s and, Watrous said, destroyed jazz for two generations: made it into simpering pop music such that jazz in the 1990s--a la Redman and Marsalis--was focused on recovering the experiments that had been going on just before fusion and trying to develop them. Jazz had to be backward looking now.

I didn't like what I'd heard of jazz fusion--albeit that was always from the rock side, Jeff Beck and other rock and rollers adopting jazz techniques, so I was all right letting jazz slide. I knew what was important.

Judging by the introduction to Gluck's book, my view was not idiosyncratic; Watrous's condemnation of fusion was widely shared. Gluck wants to recuperate what Davis was doing, though, explain it, and explain how others did build on his experiments, though this progressivism was obscured by the economics of the industry. A clue to Gluck's sympathy for Davis is in the title of the first chapter. "Miles Goes Electric," which harkens to the drama over Bob Dylan going electric--what now seems a tempest in a teapot, given Dylan's later output. The same, Gluck seems to be saying, should be understood when we consider Davis's fusion experiments: the uproar is silly when weighed against what the experiments wrought.

The scholarship here is excellent. Documenting musical changes is difficult, and Gluck has to rely on a great deal of bootlegged material, and also does a forensic recreation of some of Davis's "Live" albums--that were actually heavily produced--to understand what he and his quintet were working at. Gluck has scoured interviews--and done his own--to get a sense of the biographical and social issues at play. But unlike many other--most other--all other?--cultural criticism being put out today, he never reduces the art--the music--to psychology and sociology. He understands the aesthetics, the music, as a thing unto itself, and tries hard to explain it, though I admit some of the explanations went right over my head.

The book's structure feels a bit improvised, and probably could have been shorn up some but reflects Gluck's own approach to the music and the personalities behind it, as he veers from the work that Davis was doing and tries to pull in other personalities. I would have liked for him to push harder on some of the connections he was making--he hints again and again at connections between Davis and Sly and the Family Stone without drawing them out--and he sometimes becomes reticent for fear of being a gossip-monger, but if that's part of the story, then gossip is part of of the story.

Not that he doesn't have a clear eye for those he writes about. The book starts with a consideration of Davis in the late 1960s, his place in the jazz world, and the musical problems he was considering. Davis was inspired by the more abstract explorations of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, which were breaking down the usual head-solo-head structure of jazz. Davis was fond of Coltrane, who had been in a group with him, but jealous of Coleman--though that jealousy also provided Davis with a good explanation of himself: Davis could play any style; he was a chameleon, a trickster.

What he wanted to do in the late 1960s was experiment with these new forms, and also work to make jazz more popular again. As it had become increasingly abstract and lost contact with dance cultures, jazz had lost some audience. Davis wanted to bring in pop, funk, and rock sensibilities to connect with a younger audience. (He was in his forties.) Thus he formed a new quintet--later called lost because he never made an album just with it, though he toured with it a great deal.

Gluck follows the various individuals who formed this quintet into Davis's orbit, and examines as they played and developed the songs that would become the loudest declaration of the fusion movement, "Bitches Brew." (Wayne Shorter was the group's saxophonist.) Gluck notes that a lot of the development had to do with Davis's light hand in management. During concerts, he would wander off the stage after his solo, allowing the group to explore the more abstract forms--far different than the bebop on which Davis was raised, and confusing even to him at times--before coming back on and brining some of the old jazz sensibility back.

There's a sidestep, then, to Chicago, where a lot of those whom Davis would most influence came from.

Gluck then traces Davis becoming increasingly "electric" through the mid-1970s, continuing to try to channel popular music into jazz, even as he was also making political statements. But his experiments were always constrained by his own sense of what jazz should be and the interplay of the various musicians.

That was not true of others in his quintet, as well as those influenced by what he was doing--as well as Coleman, Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Gluck follows out some of these strands in the works of the experimental groups "Circle" and "The Revolutionary Ensemble." These pushed the experiments even further ahead, to the point that members of "The Revolutionary Ensemble" would sometimes play in parallel. There was no longer the "group consciousness" of improvisation that made so much of what Sun Ra, Coleman, and Coltrane doing exciting. Meaning was being created entirely by the listener.

These experiments, though, had largely run their course by the end of the 1970s, and many of the musicians involved returned to more standard forms of jazz. It wasn't, though, at least in Gluck's formulation, that the experiments were not bearing fruit. Rather, it was an economic decision. Davis's position as a famous bandleader allowed his musicians to experiment while still getting gigs, still producing albums. Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble were in very different situations.

And this is where Gluck's research and insight really pays off. He shows that Circle existed on the margins of the jazz world, able to make a few albums and play here and there, but in fringe areas without enough remuneration to pay for their continued work. The Revolutionary Ensemble was even further from the center, playing in the lofts of Chelsea, New York, where Ornette Coleman and others had moved after deindustrialization left large, cheap places for rent. Obviously, there was little money here.

In a concluding chapter, Gluck writes of Davis and others he inspired as Coleman's children, which is true, but the evidence of his own book suggests that Coltrane and Sun Ra were equally influential, and I would have liked to have seen him exploring more of those connections. I would also have liked to see him at least sketch a bit more in depth where jazz went forward--a response to Watrous.

But these are the signs of a good book. The research he did was small-scale and exacting, sketching networks of influence and explaining the development of a musical form that is too easily dismissed. And he left me wanting more.

[Note: I won a copy of the book in a give-away that asked for but did not require a review.]