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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Electric explorations
Miles Davis
Davis' music stayed contemporary until his death at 65
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

Trumpeter Miles Davis was one of modern jazz's only superstars, one of the few figures well-known outside the genre - if only as the epitome of style and cool.

Author and musician Paul Tingen has decided to write about the less-well chronicled side of the great jazz musician - his involvement with rock and funk, which started at the end of the 1960s.

Miles Beyond book cover
Tingen delves into the trumpeter's psychology
Tingen has done his homework thoroughly, interviewing more than 50 musicians, friends and partners of Miles Davis from the last 20 or so years of his life.

He has also delved deeply into the psychology and philosophy of the mysterious man behind the big shades, to try to understand something of the way he coaxed unique sounds - and undying respect - from his fellow musicians.

Tingen describes how at the end of the 1960s Miles found himself beached by the new popularity of pop and rock and frustrated by the very sophistication and complexity of the modern jazz he played.

The sounds of rock and funk offered a way into new musical territory - and perhaps a way of re-connecting with the black American audience who had largely deserted jazz.

The result of these deliberations was 1969's experimental jazz-rock double LP Bitches Brew, which gave Miles his biggest hit of the decade.

This has prompted many jazz writers to argue that Miles was selling out - a view which Tingen passionately disputes, not least because the music on Bitches Brew is no "easier" than on most of Miles' other records from the 1960s.

But the good reception for Miles' first "rock" record certainly encouraged him to pursue this new vision of what jazz might be.

Tingen analyses the next five years in detail - a period of mixed success both artistically and commercially, and certainly a time which divided the critics.

One of Tingen's achievements is to pay tribute to the huge creative input of Columbia producer Teo Macero, whose work with editing, dubbing, looping and sound effects echoed George Martin's role with the Beatles - and prefigured many techniques used by today's pop producers.

Jimi Hendrix
Miles once claimed he could out-rock Hendrix
Tingen's interviews with two of Miles' former lovers, Marguerite Eskridge and Jo Gelbard are particularly helpful in filling in some of the biographical gaps.

After a long silence from 1975 - 1980, partly caused by illness and exhaustion, a fragile Miles returned to recording and touring.

It is clear that the "comeback years" of the 1980s are less interesting to Tingen than the early 1970s, but he adds much detail to what we know about this patchy but just occasionally brilliant final period of Miles' career.

Using a shifting personnel - most of whom were some 30 years younger than him - Miles toured extensively in his last years, playing his last concert at the Hollywood Bowl only days before his death in September 1991.

Miles' refusal to tire or retire stirs Tingen's admiration, as it does anyone who reads this book - or who saw Miles play live in his last decade.

By taking a specific segment of the musician's career, Tingen has been able to explore his late achievements in depth.

Miles' means and motives remain difficult to read, however. Tingen spends some time interpreting Miles' musical methods as a kind of Zen teaching and employing examples from spirituality and philosophy.

It is hard to say just how illuminating this approach is, though it certainly makes interesting reading.

It may be that Miles Davis will forever remain inexplicable and slightly out of reach - it may be, indeed, one of the reasons he still fascinates us.

This book is an absorbing read for any fan of Miles, and an essential road map for those who are interested in his electric years - and ought to intrigue anybody who is simply interested in the 20th Century's musical legacy.

Miles Beyond, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis 1967-1991 is published by Windsor Books International

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