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Welcome to Washington: Miles Davis at the Cellar Door: The Stop Smiling Music Review

The Stop Smiling Music Review

Miles Davis The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 / Courtesy of Columbia Records


Monday, February 13, 2006

Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970

Reviewed by Sam Sweet

I felt like the band was a kite being flown high above the Earth, and Miles was holding the string. Under certain wind conditions, a kite will dance wildly, circling and dipping, almost touching the ground at times. Every now and then the music would take off towards the clouds, but never too high, because before long we would feel the tug of the anchor on the kite string, pulling us back to the ground again and again. When I listen now to these recordings, I remember that Miles really wanted to be 'grounded' in the funk.

— Airto Moreira, from the booklet included in The Cellar Door Sessions


What was it like being in the front row at Washington DC's Cellar Door club in the week leading up to Christmas, 1970? When Miles Davis's new group opened up the gates on “Directions,” Jack DeJohnette's drums galloping wildly forward, the rest of the band close behind with a wash of hot lava, did the front row want to run and hide? Did they let the tumult of music fly past them as they sipped their drinks? Or did they spit them out in excitement, or anger?

These recordings, as crisp and clear as live tapes get, are the link between the throttling heavy-bag funk of the Jack Johnson sessions and the percussive free-for-all of On the Corner. The attention Miles was paying to the soul and pop music scenes at the time is well documented through anecdotes about his communication with Jimi Hendrix, his romance with 20-something scenester Betty Mabry and the addition of Stevie Wonder bassist Michael Henderson to the ensemble. Even without the help of these anecdotes, though, The Cellar Door Sessions will make it clear that, in 1970, Davis was leading a funk band.

To Davis, who came of age in East St. Louis in the '30s, funk was “that gutbucket sound . . . that nasty, low-down sound you hear coming from the corner.” The sex, the nastiness of the sounds and, most of all, the movement. Every sound is punctuated. DeJohnette's drums, Michael Henderson's bass and Davis's heavily modulated trumpet fall into each other in fits of stabbing and thrusting. Gary Bartz's saxophone, Keith Jarrett's keyboards and Airto's percussion, meanwhile, flesh out the sound.

Highlights include the timeless “Honky Tonk,” which builds a blues whisper into a groaning, gyrating rhythm. “What I Say,” with its skittering DeJohnette/Henderson intro, never fails to elicit licentious responses from Jarrett and Bartz during the multiple performances included in the box. These recordings are leaner, less ferocious, than what was put down during the Jack Johnson sessions just eight months earlier, but they scuttle with the same spirit.

Columbia/Legacy came up with some delicious packaging for this set. The color scheme is a pimp-Cadillac combo of snowflake white and cherry red. The box is jacketed in some mysterious material that feels like a cross between pleather and suede.

There are some who are baffled as to why the world needs another lavish six-disc set of Davis minutia. But the chance to hear what the front-row experience of a 1970 Davis nightclub appearance sounded like is one that few fans of heavy jazz and funk music — and no fans of Davis — will want to pass up.


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