Miles’s longtime audience will without doubt find this a bizarre set. Within the space of this double album Miles plays organ on half the tracks, marking the first time in a 30-year recording career that he has appeared on an instrument other than trumpet or fluegelhorn. Other oddities include three electric guitars on several cuts, Miles overdubbing lush multiple trumpet backgrounds, an upfront harmonica track here and there and a couple of tasty bits from Miles’s tape collection.
Dedicated to Duke Ellington, the set begins with a dark, side-long elegy, “He Loved Him Madly.” The quiet bell keening of the trumpet lays out the mournful tone for the three journeyman guitarists (Reggie Lucas, Pete Cosey, Dominique Gaumont) and Dave Liebman, appearing here on flute. This modal monody indicates some of the depth of feeling that Miles’s generation of musicians had for Ellington, and the churchlike air of the piece has just the right celebratory, soothing effect.
The second side includes three shorter pieces. “Maiysha” is Miles’s principal organ piece and comes off as an exotic sendup of Johnny Hammond, Groove Holmes and other organists who play within a jazz structure. While his band plays a standard cocktail arrangement Miles hits outrageous and harsh organ chords that bang on the ear and mock that whole genre of music. “Honky Tonk” comes out of the Davis archive and is derived from what has come to be called his Fillmore Band. The session reads like a who’s who of Seventies jazz-rock: John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Billy Cobham, Airto, Steve Grossman on soprano and longtime bassist Michael Henderson. While “Honky Tonk” jumps with the patented mojo frenzy of its era, its inclusion here seems to be Miles’s way of reminding us where all these young upstarts came from. The side ends with “Rated X,” on which Miles and Cedric Lawson trade keyboard riffs while sitar, tabla and the African percussion of mainstay Mtume drone away in the rear.
“Calypso Frelimo,” a hustling rocker dedicated to the Angola freedom movement, takes up the third side. Again, Miles is to be found at the organ leading his band through its paces, relying on his great rhythm section to see the piece through. Without Miles’s trumpet several of these long numbers tend to drag occasionally. His intention ostensibly is to maintain a monster rhythm band that can back his various whims and phases, play well enough by itself so that he can lay out now and again and not eventually disintegrate as its various members branch off into individual stardom. There’s not much danger of that happening with this outfit — as it has with almost all of Miles’s other bands. The players are all super competent and charisma-less professionals.
“Red China Blues” is a hard-edged number with Miles back on trumpet. Pretty Purdie and Cornell Dupree are in the rhythm section and a wailing blues harp that would seem incongruous on a Miles album fits in perfectly. The album is rounded out by a piece called “Mtume” on which the ubiquitous percussionist gets a chance to work out, and “Billy Preston” with Miles on piano and Carlos Garnett on alto. The cut is Miles’s tribute to another one of his soul inspirations and is a gas. As he has always done, this artist keeps plunging ahead, sure of where he’s going and not bothering to look over his shoulder to see who’s inevitably going to follow.