December 7, 2010
Miles at the Guthrie, 1971
Los Angeles, CA
March 19, 1971 is a night I’ll always remember. That night Miles Davis brought what some call his last great band to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in two concerts presented by Walker Art Center. When I first got wind that these concerts were to take place – one at 7:30 PM, the other at 9 or 9:30 PM, I immediately reserved two tickets for the late show. Sometime later the piano player Tommy O’Donnell called me and asked me to play bass on a trio gig he had booked for a 10 PM opening party on the same night at what was then the Crawford-Livingston Theater in the old Science Museum building in downtown St. Paul. I agreed to take the gig but only if I could exchange my late-show tickets for early-show tickets. As fate would have it, tickets were available in the center section nearly in the front row! All of this happenstance led to my attendance at the early show and to one of the most indelible memories in my life as a listener.
First, a little background on the evolution of Miles’ sound – the sound of his band - in the months prior to the Guthrie concert. In the late summer and early fall of 1970 Miles’ working group had morphed into new form by replacing Steve Grossman with Gary Bartz on saxophone and losing keyboardist Chick Corea and bassist Dave Holland when they left to form their own band with drummer Barry Altschul and later, multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. Continuing with Miles were Keith Jarrett on electric keyboards, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Airto Moreira still contributing his other-worldly Brazilian percussion sounds. The most significant change came with Holland’s replacement – the R&B electric bassist Michael Henderson. At 19, a veteran of bands led by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye, Henderson brought the Funk – the real Funk - that Miles had been seeking to get “…up in [his] music…” ever since he went electric in the late 1960s. This band - with the addition of John McLaughlin contributing soaring electric guitar lines - was represented on the LP Live/Evil. More recently the raw live recordings that led to Live/Evil were released on a 6-CD set The Cellar Door Sessions 1970.
For the 7:30 PM Guthrie show that night the hand of Mid-western Winter Fate intervened. Funkmaster Henderson was hung up over Chicago in a snowstorm so his flight didn’t arrive in time for the early show. I don’t recall if they announced his absence or not – with his usual stage reticence Miles sure didn’t say anything about it to the waiting audience. But here’s where my indelible musical memories of that night truly begin. Jarrett had his electric piano and electric organ set up in their usual wedge near the front of mid-stage right. (Jarrett’s reference to “…those pieces-of-shit electric toy instruments...” belie the absolutely amazing music he made with them on this night and on all of the recordings of this period). DeJohnette was further back on the stage in the center, with Airto on stage-left surrounded by his strange array of exotic sound-makers. Throughout the evening Bartz and Miles would walk from the far edge of the thrust stage-left each time they played melodies or took solos. Miles, of course, provided plenty of his trademark glares and scowls.
Once the music began so did my immersion in it courtesy primarily of Jarrett and DeJohnette. The two had much musical history together – famously on 1966’s Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey – and their musical telepathy on this night reflected their total simpatico. I remember Miles, Bartz, and Airto as all performing with fiery passion and consummate skill, but it was Jarrett and DeJohnette who took me on a journey I’ll never forget. Because Henderson’s bass lines were missing Jarrett had to step up and supply them, which he did with his left hand on electric organ. That left his right hand for comping and soloing on electric piano. Necessity being the mother of invention, Jarrett and DeJohnette became a rhythm section of three in two. Their history together and the circumstance in which they were placed allowed them to link themselves together into one musical mind for the entirety of the set. As I listened, I closed my eyes and was taken on a journey into deep consciousness as if I were a sea creature diving down, down, down into the depths of the ocean. As I dove down I lost all awareness of anything but the sounds that were carrying me. All verbiage disappeared from my mind. Jarrett and DeJohnette’s musical interplay became the only language in existence. Their instruments became one instrument, their musical voices one voice. As I was carried close to the bottom of this immersive sea of consciousness literal thought would begin to creep back into my mind. I would hear myself thinking again as one does in normal daily life. I would begin to journey back up to the surface of normal consciousness. I would open my eyes and see Jarrett’s upper body rocking forward and back as he played just feet from where I sat. And then out of the blue KeithJack would play something so profound that I would close my eyes, reverse course, and continue my downward journey towards the depths once more. This process – down, a little bit up, down again – happened over and over again during the entire set of music. When it was all over I knew that I had heard music that came from the deepest fount of inspiration – perhaps even something eternal.
Well, you can imagine that the gig I played over in St. Paul at 10 PM that night was going to be unlike any other gig I had ever played in my life. Amplifying the mental state I was in were the states of pianist Tommy O’Donnell and drummer Dick Bortolucci who were both at the same early show. I remember that when I arrived at the gig with bass and amp in hand Bortolucci and I could hardly contain ourselves as we tried to articulate in words what we had heard at the Guthrie. Borto told me that after arriving in downtown St. Paul he simply drove around in circles because he couldn’t get himself to get out of the car and carry his drums in for the gig. He, like I, didn’t want the experiences that we had just had to end, ever. Well, of course, the experiences did have to end and we did have a contract to fulfill. And man, did we ever! Tommy O’Donnell is legendary in the Twin Cities for his ability to bend traditional jazz standards into clouds of ethereal gossamer. That night, Tommy, Dick, and I did all that and more for the after-theater crowd in attendance. Inspired by Miles et al we couldn’t just play regular, standard B-flat party music. We stretched the boundaries of the normally acceptable into music that tried its best to pay homage to the music we had all heard earlier that night. That night was almost 40 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.
Coda I: Two nights later I heard the same Miles band as above with the addition of Michael Henderson on electric bass at a jazz club in Milwaukee. I remember the music as being very good, but not spectacular. After the experience I had had at the Guthrie it’s probably unfair to compare the two concerts, but it’s also unavoidable. Other than the unlikelihood of repeating the kind of peak experience I had at the Guthrie, there are probably two other reasons that the music didn’t soar to the same heights (or dive to the same depths). First, the jazz club environment didn’t create the same sense of cocoon-like intimacy afforded by the Guthrie Theater. (Ornette Coleman says that jazz clubs are about two things – booze and f*cking). Second, as skillful as Michael Henderson was as an electric bassist who was giving Miles just what he wanted, there’s no way he could compare to the consummate musical mastery of Keith Jarrett. Plus, he didn’t have as much history with DeJohnette as did Jarrett.
Coda II: I travelled to Europe that summer and ran into Gary Bartz outside the men’s room of Ronnie Scott’s in London. I engaged him in conversation about the Guthrie gig, thanking him profusely for his contributions to my magical musical evening. We then talked about Keith Jarrett and his unique musical genius. Words seemed to fail both of us.
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