Dark Magus

Miles Davis

CBS / Sony, 1977


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Frank Zappa once said, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.”

I can’t tell if he was referring to certain points of Miles Davis’s career, but Dark Magus, recorded in 1974 and released initially only in Japan three years later, could have easily been the source for Zappa’s quote. Less hard bop and more electric, eclectic and free-form than quite possibly anything he had ever done to that point (or would do again), it captures Davis and his band at its experimental peak.

Those who are most familiar with works like “So What,” “Seven Steps To Heaven” and Birth Of The Cool will undoubtedly be clutching their pearls and gasping from the first few notes of this one. Hell, even people used to works like Bitches Brew might still be taken aback by this album, recorded at Carnegie Hall on March 30, 1974, not long before Davis “retired.” (Davis tried going along a similar path the year before at the Montreux Jazz Festival—and was promptly booed for his efforts, as documented on The Complete Miles Davis At Montreux.) And I’m not gonna lie: it’s a difficult set to get through at times. But if you can stick it out and keep your mind open, it turns out to be a fairly exciting ride.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Essentially four extended jam sessions, each one broken up into two halves, this was not going to be a typical evening at the symphony listening to jazz. Dark Magus is an experimental mixture of funk, rock, blues, free-form—and a little bit of jazz thrown into the mix. Add into the fact that Davis himself is not musically the star of the show, and you can understand why the casual jazz listener would think this is more fucked up than Davis’s personal life circa 1974, which has been fairly well documented elsewhere on the Internet.

And this, kids, is where one lets go of all of their views of what jazz supposedly is and allows the experience of this particular concert to overtake their senses. When you do that, and approach the music as it was, you can appreciate just how ground-breaking Davis continued to be, even when he was neither in the best of health nor the musical centerpiece.

In fact, Davis acts more as bandleader than musician; his trumpet work is not often heard, but does leave an impression when he did feign to pick up the horn. (Davis also contributed organ on three of the four pieces.) Instead, he lets the guitar trio of Reggie Lucas, Pete Cosey and Dominique Gaumont, bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Al Foster, percussionist James Mtume and the wind section of Dave Liebman and Azar Lawrence handle the heavy lifting.

There is precious little structure to the four pieces on Dark Magus—each of them bearing the Swahili name for numbers one through four—and that is where this set actually gets exciting. You never quite know what to expect, but you know you’re going to be listening to solid musicianship being given nearly free reign to take the music in whatever direction they choose.

The fact is, this is not always the easiest album to approach; I’ve had it in my collection for some 20 years, and for the longest time, I couldn’t get past the opening track “Moja” (though I always had an appreciation for it). And it does sometimes seem like listening to the four tracks—the remaining being “Wili,” “Tatu” and “Nne”—is akin to running four marathons back to back. But as each track continues to unfold in its own unique manner, the true beauty of what Davis and the band were doing unfolds, allowing them to often lock into a funky groove that would have given George Clinton an erection.

Dark Magus is not for everyone. Even longtime fans of Davis’s work might struggle with this one on any given day. But it is very much worth plowing through it, as hearing such musical improvisational creation is incredibly rare. Give this one a fair shot; you’ll thank me later.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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