Sort of continuing the Miles Davis theme from my previous post, I want to discuss one specific piece of Miles from the early seventies: “Honky Tonk” (a studio recording on the album “Get Up With It”) or “Sivad” (as the live version is called on the album “Live-Evil”). Sivad (Davis spelled backwards) was the first thing I ever heard of Miles. I had been reading about Miles Davis and his record Bitches Brew in Rolling Stone and was already curious about this music when the magazine gave a great review of Live-Evil. So on my 13th birthday I went to Alexander’s Department Store on Fordham Road in the Bronx and bought Live-Evil (along with “Third” by Soft Machine – a topic for a future post for sure).
I have to admit that of the two records, Live-Evil took me longer to appreciate. Miles really clicked for me when I heard “Right Off” from Tribute To Jack Johnson (once again, another topic for a future post) but there was something I heard in Sivad/Honkey Tonk that always intrigued me. Eventually it came to me: this is Miles breaking down the Blues to it’s most basic form and rebuilding it into this new thing that certainly doesn’t sound like your 12 bar blues but to me still retains that essence of the blues.
Honky Tonk was first recorded on May 19th, 1970. According to Paul Tingen’s excellent book, “Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967 – 1991”, the personnel was Miles – trumpet, Keith Jarret – electric piano, Herbie Hancock – clavinet, John McLaughlin – guitar, Gene Perla – bass, Billy Cobham – drums and Airto Moreira – percussion. This was Jarret’s first session with Miles. The tune starts with the clavinet through a wah-wah pedal, followed first by Jarret on the electric piano and then McLaughlin on guitar. McLaughlin is justly famous for his blazing lead work but I was always knocked out by his rhythm guitar playing with Miles. Here, he’s stabbing out chords like Jimmy Nolan mixed with Martian DNA (also check out his playing on the previously mentioned “Right Off”). After about a minute of them dancing around each other over one chord, you begin to hear the main chord sequence and at 1:10, the bass, drums and percussion enter, establishing the stop start rhythm that defines the tune. That main chord sequence is basically just two chords, a I7 – IV7 progression, one used by many a rock band. It’s also the heart of the blues. It’s like he took the first two measures of a 12 bar “quick change” blues progression (where the first 4 measures are I7/IV7/I7/I7) and built it from there. There’s a lot of space in that start and start groove and it allows the listener to hear the musical conversation between Hancock, Jarret and McLaughlin (along with those weird sounds from Airto’s percussion). It’s one of the many reasons why I like this tune so much. It then throws another curve at you at the 1:55 mark when McLaughlin goes into a old school Blues rhythm guitar groove over that I7 – IV7 progression. So at this point you have the band sounding like they’re playing at a bar on Chicago’s south side mixed with this funky but strange clavinet and these even stranger sounds from Airto (playing the cuica) that evoke the Amazon jungle. And this is when Miles enters. But almost as soon as the bar band groove settles in, the band is back to the stop start rhythm, but now with Miles playing these cool blues inflected lines and McLaughlin slashing out chords. Then it’s back to the blues shuffle groove briefly and then once again to the stop start approach. This see-sawing between the two different settings provide a sense of tension and release as well as textural variety to the song. This is vital to the success of the piece which would otherwise soon sound boring due to the repetitive nature of its harmony. The song ends with a reprise of the intro of clavinet, electric piano and guitar.
Though the live version of Honky Tonk was recorded after the studio version, on December 19th, 1970, it was released well before the studio version. Titled Sivad, it was the first cut on the Miles album Live-Evil (released November, 1971 while the studio version Honky Tonk was released as part of the album Get Up With It in November, 1974). Sivad is actually a post production constructed medley comprised of three components. The beginning is an excerpt of the tune “Directions”, recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington D.C. on December 19th, 1970. At the 3:27 mark, the intro from the studio version of “Honky Tonk” is edited in. Finally, at 4:15, you hear the live version of “Honky Tonk”, also from December 19th, 1970. The live version has the return of Jarrett, Airto, McLaughlin and obviously Miles. The rhythm section is now Michael Henderson on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums along with Gary Bartz on sax. The absence of Herbie Hancock’s clavinet open up the sound considerably and as a result, you hear the Keith Jarrett’s electric piano much more prominently as well as Airto’s squawking percussion sounds (and unfortunately his occasional vocalizing). Around this time, Miles began using an electric trumpet, played though a wah-wah pedal. Here is using it to add shading to his tone, similar to how other trumpeters used a plunger to color their sound. At about 8:04, Miles switches from the electric trumpet to the regular trumpet and begins going in for some high note power trumpet playing.
In contrast to the studio version, McLaughlin’s rhythm playing is much more subdued but here he is given a decent amount of solo space. For a long time, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with McLaughlin’s solo. I felt that his sound here was thin and dry. McLaughlin was not a regular member of Miles’ touring band and the decision to have him play was made that morning. He got there that halfway through the evening, a situation that no doubt played a part in his less than stellar sound. But in listening again to his solo, I realized that he is playing some seriously sick stuff. Jarret takes a brief solo that features some interesting sparing with DeJohnett before Miles returns with some more high note playing before the tunes abruptly fades out.
To borrow a phrase from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, this is blues, Ancient to the Future. Miles does indeed run the voodoo down.
Miles Davis – “Honky Tonk” from Get Up With It
Miles Davis – “Sivad” from Live-Evil