Miles Davis – Dark Magus (1977)

n a conversation on “jazz albums for people who are not jazz fans,” Dark Magus should rank high at the top of anybody’s list; this release has a lot more in common with heavy metal / hard rock than it does with what most would associate Miles Davis with.

Citing yourself as a Miles Davis fan can be a rather obtuse observation; the artist’s career reaches across a near fifty year span during which he constantly invented and redefined a number of musical styles. One of the more contentious periods of the trumpeter’s legendary career is his ‘electric’ period, that grew out of the line-ups formed during the recordings of On The Corner and Big Fun

The pinnacle of his electric period, for me, comes in the three live releases Dark Magus, Agharta, and Pangaea. In this post, we take a look at the first of these three, a live performance recorded at Carnegie Hall on March 30, 1974 – released originally in 1977.

Ranked by Q Magazine as one of the 50 Heaviest Albums of all time, Dark Magus finds itself in the company of Slayer‘s ‘Reign In Blood‘, The Stooges‘ ‘Fun House‘, and Deep Purple‘s ‘Machine Head,’ comparisons that all make perfect sense by the time one reaches the beginning of the second side of the first record/disc.

In a conversation on “jazz albums for people who are not jazz fans,” Dark Magus should rank high at the top of anybody’s list; this release has a lot more in common with heavy metal / hard rock than it does with what most would associate Miles Davis with. Obviously the line-up for the recording plays into the reasons why, coming at a time when the bandleader replaced Jack DeJohnette with drummer Al Foster who’s sound is noticeably stripped down but brings the ferocity of an 80s arena rock drummer. Similarly, the departure of John McLaughlin‘s purely angular riffs for the Hendrix-like guitar onslaught of Reggie Lucas and most notably, Pete Cosey.

Dark Magus also finds Miles Davis making solid use of new technology, throughout much of the album, and for a rest of the period, noted for running his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal, offering a contrast to the traditional Harmon mute sound that has become nearly synonymous with Davis’ trumpeting. Additionally percussionist Mtume brings what might the first recorded drum-machine solos, almost certainly the first time in Carnegie Hall I’d assume.

Much appreciation for these releases comes from the recording technique. I prefer the “one-take” recording style of jazz pioneered by producers like Creed Taylor over the Dr. Frankensteinesque assembly of Teo Macero used on releases such as Bitches Brew and A Tribute To Jack Johnson. The essence of the music lies in the performance, not in the conglomeration of weeks of takes that give the performance a rigid perfectionist feel.

Dark Magus is a beast, as are the other albums from this 1973-1975 period. If you are a fan of dark, spacious, rough music anything from this period comes as a recommendation. If you are looking to learn a bit about jazz, or Miles Davis in particular this is definitely an accessible starting point for most.

Dark Magus Band:
Miles Davis – organ, electric trumpet with wah-wah
Dave Liebman – flute, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
Azar Lawrence – tenor saxophone
Pete Cosey – electric guitar, synthesizer
Reggie Lucas – electric guitar
Dominique Gaumont – electric guitar
Michael Henderson – electric bass
Al Foster – drums
James Mtume – percussion
Teo Macero – producer

Dark Magus Tracklist:

Side A

  1. “Moja, Pt. 1” – 12:28
  2. “Moja, Pt. 2” – 12:40

Side B

  1. “Wili, Pt. 1” – 14:20
  2. “Wili, Pt. 2” – 10:44

Side C

  1. “Tatu, Pt. 1” – 18:47
  2. “Tatu, Pt. 2” – 6:29

Side D

  1. “Nne, Pt. 1 ” – 15:19
  2. “Nne, Pt. 2 ” – 10:11