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Unofficial Channels Extra: The Greatest Bands You Almost Never Heard

Phil Freeman on bootleg culture

Every serious Miles Davis fan knows that the trumpeter’s 1969 quintet – with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette – was one of his greatest bands. Their shows were seething, roaring excursions through new and old material, interpreting “Bitches Brew” right alongside “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” But if all you had to go on was the official releases from Columbia/Sony, you wouldn’t know anything of the kind. Sure, they released It’s About That Time a few years ago, a two-CD set recorded at Wayne Shorter’s final gig with the band and finding the core quintet augmented by percussionist Airto Moreira. And all of the aforementioned musicians played in various contexts on sessions during the In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Live-Evil eras. But only one recording of just these five musicians working it out together has ever been made available by Columbia, and that was a Japan-only release from 1993. This vital chapter in Miles Davis’s history – his first road band to use exclusively electric keyboards, and eventually electric bass as well, and to incorporate rock rhythms into the music – has been almost entirely undocumented by his label.

Fortunately, bootleggers have stepped into the breach, offering audience recordings, radio broadcasts and similar documents. One of the most fascinating is Gemini/Double Image, a recording of a performance from October 1969, on which night the band performed two uninterrupted medleys of 45 and 34 minutes’ length, respectively. It’s even weirder music than that usually identified with Davis’s initial forays into fusion territory – Corea abandons his keyboard for a wood flute at one point.

Given that during his late 60s and early 70s electric years, Davis brought clusters of musicians rather than working bands into the studio, it’s unsurprising that bootlegs document lineups that don’t occur on any album. A 1971 European tour where Jack DeJohnette was replaced by Ndugu Leon Chancler is heard on several unofficial releases, and other similar temporary shakeups and substitutions are documented on other discs.

Other bootlegs fill in gaps in the historical record of rock artists. Carlos Santana’s collaborative album with John McLaughlin, Love Devotion Surrender, is a landmark of guitar wank. But few now remember that it wasn’t a mere one-off in the studio – that it sparked a full U.S. tour by a band featuring Santana, McLaughlin, organist Larry Young, bassist Doug Rauch, drummer Billy Cobham and percussionist Armando Peraza. During their epic sets, this band performed not just Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “Naima,” but “Afro Blue” and the spiritual “Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord” as well, all transformed into quarter- to half-hour, solotastic epics. One such evening, a September 1973 show, has been documented on numerous bootlegs of varying length and quality. The whole thing runs to two 70-plus minute CDs, and is either transcendent or leaden, depending on your stamina and taste for stone-faced spirituality expressed through walls of amplification.

Sometimes bootlegs don’t document otherwise unheard bands; sometimes they just offer a new angle on a performer’s music. A Cecil Taylor performance in Ann Arbor, Michigan circa 1976 features the short-lived 1976 lineup of his Unit that included trumpeter Raphé Malik, saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and David S. Ware and drummer Marc Edwards, a group otherwise heard only on the live album Dark To Themselves. The two pieces performed during the 45 minute radio broadcast are of a more traditionalist and lyrical nature than anything Taylor had recorded since the 1950s, of an utterly different character than the churning collective roar heard on Dark. Its mere existence radically expands one’s understanding of the ensemble’s capabilities.

Another superb bootleg of more recent vintage documents an avant-jazz summit conference of sorts. The quartet of Taylor, Anthony Braxton, William Parker and Tony Oxley performed in London and Italy in 2007, and the Italian date is locatable online with relative ease. The concert is divided into six discrete sections, beginning as a duo performance, with Taylor reciting as Oxley rattles his kit. The next act is a lengthy solo turn by Parker, who plays the wood flute for awhile before hefting his bass. Braxton makes his first appearance after that, but he, too, is unaccompanied. Taylor solos for a while. Then, and only then, in the evening’s final third, do all four musicians play together. Fortunately, it’s a convulsive and powerful performance, with Taylor beating the keys into submission as Oxley clambers all over his kit and Braxton tears it up on various horns. Parker remains his solid self, anchoring the proceedings so no one flies off the stage and into the orchestra pit.

The recording quality is beautiful, suggesting it was done in some kind of official capacity (state radio, perhaps), so its lack of official release is puzzling. It’s not like any of the group members – Braxton and Parker in particular – are likely to believe the market is glutted with their output.

The interesting thing about bootlegs of this nature – legendary concerts, studio outtakes, etc. – is that they are fundamentally parasitic in nature, dependent on the continued existence of the mainstream music industry for their own vitality. Without the starmaking (for lack of a better word) power of labels, these unofficial recordings would be utterly valueless. Outside of the hippie jam-band scene, it’s impossible to make any money or sustain interest in live recordings of groups with no aboveground profile. (Les Rallizes Dénudés are sort of the ultimate example of the exception proving the rule.) Bootlegs of Miles Davis are only salable because there is a catalog of official Miles Davis releases which have been absorbed by devoted fans who still need more. Had Columbia Records not invested the time and money to make Miles Davis a star, he wouldn’t have been playing concerts across the globe in the first place, and certainly no one would have been sneaking recording equipment into the hall.

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