Tag Archives: John McLaughlin

The Aura Of Miles Davis: A Story About Miles’ Final Columbia Album

Miles Davis began 1985 having just received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, which is the highest musical honor in the country of Denmark, in the last month of the previous year. Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg was so inspired by Miles’ achievement that he composed that he decided to compose a suite for him to record. The only major arranger Miles Davis had continually worked with before was Gil Evans. And even later on in their collaborations, Evans wasn’t as fully involved as he’d been when he’d helped to begin Miles’ career as a bandleader with the 1949 album Birth Of The Cool.

The album that came from Mikkelborg and Miles’ collaboration was called Aura. It was recorded early in 1985. Miles Davis was in the process of leaving Columbia for Warner Bros Records at the time. Despite the historic three decade association between Miles and Columbia, Aura wasn’t released until 1989 due to a contractual conflict of interest. It was music of many moods flowing together. It was composed based on notes corresponding to all the initials of Miles Davis’s first and last name. As for the rest of the album, I wrote an Amazon.com 9 years ago that digs deeper into what Aura was and still is.


Miles Davis,just about to leave Columbia records after a lucrative 30 year career with the label turned to Danish composer and musician Palle Mikkelborg to record a ten piece suite in Copenhagen in the late winter of 1985. After a frenetic fusion intro there are nine compositions titled after different colors of the “aura”: white,yellow, orange,red, green, blue,electric red,indigo and violet. Most of these songs,while musically very much in keeping with the early 80’s part of the “electric Miles” period showcase impressionistic “sound paintings” that not only bare a striking resemblance to Miles’ work with Gil Evans on albums like Sketches of Spain at least in terms of arrangement.

The main difference is that on these Miles plays against the melody most the time rather then with it,which while very much in the jazz improvisation tradition gives the music that sense of organized chaos common in Miles’ electric music:the idea melodies and rhythms that are completely different from each other and never coming to a resolution.In this context it could be seen as mixing different shades to make primary colors. The only really funky tune here is “Orange” which is indeed very fiery in nature. “Electric Red” and “Violet” are a slower burning kind of groove whereas “Blue” expresses a light reggae feeling for another musical “color”.

“Indigo” is the only real acoustic piece here. Some of these songs also feature the guitar of John McLaughlin who worked with Miles back in his Bitches Brew days. While the complex,almost ambient nature of ‘Aura’ might qualify elements of this album as off putting and some jazz fans might find some of these songs leaning towards the new age sound it is definitely one of the more unique and individual recordings in Miles’ vast catalog and he has many.


Aura is a true example of why albums matter a lot with instrumental jazz musicians such as Miles. When I first heard it,it was in the form of 30 second previews at a listening station when the remastered CD first came out. It sounded like dull electronic “new age” music in that context. And always avoided it. Upon purchasing the CD later and listening to it, it became clear these were songs that developed in sound and even genre as they went along. In that context,its innovative orchestrated jazz fusion. Therefore I recommend seeking out the Aura album on its own terms-to take in its brilliance.

*Listen to the funkiest song on this album called “Orange” here!

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Bitches Broth: Betty Davis, The Columbia Years, 1968-69

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Betty Davis is, as her ex-husband Miles would undoubtedly have put it, a bad bitch. Her trio of mid-1970s albums–including 1974’s They Say I’m Different, which Andre posted about last summer–constitute some of the rawest, nastiest funk-rock ever released. Imagine prime Tina Turner, but with a heavier rock influence; and what she lacks in vocal prowess, she makes up for with a persona so aggressive, you’d swear she was the one beating up on Ike. If you’re even the slightest fan of powerful women and/or heavy funk, then you need to hear Betty Davis.

That being said, my recommendation for the latest release of Betty Davis’ music, The Columbia Years, 1968-69, is a little more conditional. I received the compilation’s (gorgeous!) vinyl release for Christmas last month, and I love it; it sits proudly on my shelf even as we speak. But I can also understand why it wasn’t officially released until last year.

Comprised of two sessions recorded for Columbia Records in 1968 and 1969–the first produced by trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the second by Betty’s then-husband Miles Davis–The Columbia Years is, if nothing else, a fascinating historical document. For fans of the more famous Davis, it’s effectively ground zero for jazz fusion: the moment Miles hooked up with the circle of acid rockers and funkateers in Betty’s orbit, including Jimi Hendrix sidemen Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Without Betty, there would be no Bitches Brew (in more ways than one–that album’s title is said to have referred to Betty and her entourage of countercultural socialities). According to the compilation’s liner notes, Betty’s come-hither purr in her cover of Cream’s “Politician” even ended up inspiring Miles’ song “Back Seat Betty,” a full 12 years after the couple split.

But just as Betty was never “Mrs. Miles Davis,” The Columbia Years is also of interest for reasons beyond its significance in Miles’ body of work. You can hear the seeds of Betty’s own unique stylistic hybrid being planted, as she tries her hand at a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” heavily indebted to “Stone Free” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; or even her own composition “Hangin’ Out,” which comes across as a tamer version of later party-girl anthems like “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” For existing devotees, the opportunity to hear her earth-shaking style in embryonic form is priceless.

For newcomers, though, I’m afraid the appeal will be significantly lessened. The fact is, in 1969 Betty Davis didn’t really sound like Betty Davis yet; her vocals are thin, and she hadn’t yet developed the hellion’s rasp that made her voice on later records so distinctive. And, while the personnel on the sessions is impressive–not only Cox and Mitchell, but also John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and others–the arrangements lack grit and verve; they have the slightly patronizing feel that comes with the territory of crack jazz musicians slumming in “lesser” genres. It’s telling that Davis’ best music would be recorded with players who were funk and rock musicians first: her 1973 debut, for example, featured Santana‘s Neal Schon, Larry Graham, and other members of Graham Central Station and the Family Stone. It’s also telling that her music got better the more she was at the helm: her second and third albums, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, were both self-produced.

So, yes, everyone should listen to Betty Davis; and, since to know Betty Davis is to love her, then sure, eventually everyone should probably listen to The Columbia Years. But if you’re just getting started, don’t start at the beginning. Check out Betty DavisThey Say I’m Different, or Nasty Gal; hell, check out her canned 1976 album Crashin’ from Passion, later reissued as Is It Love or Desire? Then, circle back to The Columbia Years and see how it all began. With records like this being released and a new documentary set to premiere this summer, the time has arguably never been riper to rediscover Betty Davis. I can attest that she’s a discovery well worth making.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Dawn” by Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin might very well be the best electric guitarist in the jazz fusion genre. He worked through the UK psychedelic rock scene,even giving guitar lessons to a young Jimmy Page. Finding much of this creatively unsatisfying,he picked up with Tony William’s Lifetime in 1969. As well as launching his own solo career.This led him to his iconic work with Miles Davis on his fusion breakthrough album Bitches Brew the following year. With the enormous acclaim working with Miles earned him, McLaughlin formed his own group The Mahavishnu Orchestra shortly thereafter.

Mahavishnu Orchestra’s actual lineup remained fluid over the years outside McLaughlin. In its original lineup though it consist of drummer/percussionist Billy Cobham,bassist Rick Laird,violinist Jerry Goodman and keyboard player Jan Hammer. In a similar manner to Miles,the band would become a platform for many future fusion band leaders. Their debut album in 1970 is called The Inner Mounting Flame. It consists entirely of McLaughlin compositions and is considered a fusion classic today. One of the songs on it that best epitomizes their style and groove for me personally is entitled “Dawn”.

Cobham and Hammer slowly accompany each other on a slowly funky mixture of cymbal heavy drumming and appropriately melodic electric piano. Cobham’s drums become louder as Laird’s bass (playing the exact counter line to Hammer’s keyboards) comes in for Rick Lairds violin solo-one which has a high pitched,sustained tone. He blends directly into McLaughlin’s guitar solo-full of Hendrix like flamboyance yet Santana style sustains. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm goes into a funkified hump with everyone playing their own accompanying solos together before fading out on its original theme.

“Dawn” is a song that’s full of feeling and passion. Listening to the way it instrumentally progresses,it does sound a lot like the day as it comes in. Its all very funky actually. The song has a slow grooving beginning-with the very hummable melody accented strongly. The bridge of the song,where the tempo gets into a faster and funkier groove,is like the sound the bright morning sunshine might make if it could. Jerry Goodman’s violin seemed to weep. And McLaughlin’s guitar seemed to be speaking and singing all at the same time. Its the best example of funky jazz fusion that can really speak to  core of the listener.

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