Backtracking: Miles Davis, Bob Dylan

Outtakes and the Quest for Illumination

Music Features Miles Davis
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I have in my possession a boxed set entitled Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings—eight CDs of some of the most important music ever recorded in America, featuring one of its top musicians at the peak of his powers, defining an era that was to change jazz forever.

And guess what: I’ve never listened to it.

Well, not all the way through, anyway. It’s impossible. Not because of the music, not even because of the sound, which is a bit harsh and trebly. But because it’s one of those albums with every take, in order, so you get to hear Bird try the same thing five times in a row. You lose track of which take was the final one, the one everyone got to hear, and in fact you get bored with figuring out the nuances. Reprogramming the thing so you get the master takes on one disc and the outtakes on another would make a lot more sense, but they didn’t do it and at the time I bought it, at least, there wasn’t a legitimate set of that sort, so the result is that a major piece of American-music history sits on my shelf gathering dust.

The whole question of how much we need to know about this stuff—how many outtakes we need—is a crucial one, as the two new sets from Columbia Legacy I’ve been listening to for the past couple months will attest.

The first is No Direction Home, the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film, two discs of pretty much all unreleased stuff. To me, the first disc is of more documentary interest: home recordings, live recordings and, toward the end, the beginnings of Dylan’s new style emerging. But do I want to listen to a wacky duet version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on approximate harmony vocals? Not often; not when the issued version—featuring Bruce Langhorne’s inspired guitar counterpoint—is in my library.

The second disc, though, is a revelation for Dylan fans. For the first time, I get to listen to some of that controversial electric appearance at Newport and hear with my own ears the crowd’s response, which, unless they’ve gone and messed with it, sounds pretty damn enthusiastic to me: hardly the disapproving riot interested parties claimed. The outtakes from Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde are fascinating, not just because the backing musicians are working hard to figure out an arrangement and melody, but because it soon becomes evident that Dylan was still working on the songs in the studio, tinkering with lines and even whole verses right up to the final take.

According to Greil Marcus’ new book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, that particular song only happened once, although the band continued to futz around with it for some time after the song’s now-immortal take was recorded. Add that info to what Al Kooper shares in the album’s liner notes and the evidence of your own ears, and you can say that No Direction Home has increased your insight into a mysterious and important artist.

What then do we make of Miles Davis’ The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970? Here we’re presented with approximately seven hours of music on six CDs, the sessions that wound up on the double LP Live/Evil. For a lot of Miles Davis fans, this is where they got off the bus: this stuff wasn’t identifiable as tunes, just a set of grooves, the resultant album proof positive that whatever Miles was searching for, he wasn’t going to find it down this blind alley.

As someone who got on the bus with In A Silent Way—because I was a young rock fan, of course, I took great interest in this experiment—I wanted to believe Miles was sincere in trying to burst the boundaries of jazz and integrate into his own art what he’d learned from listening to Jimi Hendrix. Not that I actually understood it most of the time.

This set is essentially the same group of tunes, in the same order, over and over. Yet the kind of ennui that sets in on the Charlie Parker box is entirely absent. It helps that these tunes are 20-minutes long instead of three, but it also helps that you can actually hear these musicians from different backgrounds search for a way to play together—and find it. But this is also the key which unlocks Live/Evil, because Miles had been putting out records that were hardly documents of spontaneous creations—a trait which everyone assumed to be true of jazz records. (He and producer Teo Macero meticulously created them from take after take). The notes to The Cellar Door Sessions show which bits wound up being used, and why the resultant album sounded nothing like these performances. It may not put you inside the mind of Miles Davis, but it will give you plenty of insight—as well as some marvelous grooves and improvisations.

Do you need these sets? Depends on how much you want to know about Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. But I’ve got my answer.