Despite his mysterious absence from music in the last four years, Miles Davis continues to cast a large shadow over the jazz scene like no one else.
Many performers still look to his music for artistic inspiration. Fans try to sort out the puzzle of his whereabouts, health and plans. And recording executives groan in frustration about his distance from the recording studio.
Some people collect Miles Davis gossip like little nuggets and retell their treasured stories every chance they get. Anecdotes about his leg injuries, altercations with the police and cancelled engagements are constantly talked up. But few people have seen him and no one seems to know why he's become a recluse recently. From most accounts, he shuttles between homes in New York and Connecticut and hardly strays beyond.
Trumpeter Davis hasn't cut a record in four years. Associates say he just isn't interested in entering a studio. So Columbia has been occasionally releasing material he recorded a decade or more ago.
"Circle in the Round" (Columbia KC2 36278), a splendid two-record compendium of mostly unreleased selections (only one has surfaced previously) recorded between 1955 and 1970, is the latest Davis album. It sits atop the stack of fall jazz record releases (along with records by his contemporaries Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins), reminding us of his powerful influence on jazz in the last 30 years.
The music here starts with the hard-driving quintet that included saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Philly Jo Jones; continues with a peek at the sextest that launched the trend toward modal harmony; examines the mid- and late-'60s quintet that stretched diatonic melody and cross-rhythms to new lengths; and ends with fusion, the uncertain marriage between jazz melodies and rock rhythms.
One of the most interesting selections on this album, the title track, is one of the least realized. The trouble with the 26-minute "Circle" is that it alternates between inspiration and tedium. The theme is bleak and beautiful but stated too often. A 12/8 meter, evoking Spanish images, is soothing but monotonous. And Joe Beck's guitar figures are initially interesting but repetitious in the end.
Both Davis and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter take four solos, some of which are lyrically grandiose, others tough and fiery. Annotator James Isaacs is unswervingly correct when he says the rhythm team of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams bounce Davis around like a trampolinist. No melody is too daring, no rhythm too intricate for them to pick up immediately and toss back at the soloists.
Though not as ambitious as "Circle," "Teo's Bag" is more finished. It moves along at a brisk 4/4 pace, pushed by Williams' crisp cymbal work (his high-hat configurations are unbelievably diverse and finely syncopated). Davis peels off layers of jagged melody. Shorter is dry and harmonically arresting.
The album concludes with one of Davis' early fusion groups (he is the father of this movement) that included Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul on keyboards, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham playing drums and Khalil Balakrishna on sitar. They offer a weary rendition of David Crosby's "Guinnevere" that attempts too much in the way of expanding meter and tone color within the restricted framework of the Crosby material.
Even in Davis' absence, the jazz fusion movement has spread, touching the trumpeter's contemporaries and musical descendants. It wasn't until about 1974 that tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, a one-time Davis protege, was converted. But he's since held fast to the belief.
Rollins is not as daring as Davis in his fusion attempts. He uses conventional forms and harmonies. His group is made up of the most ordinary electric instrumentalists, guitar and piano. And he usually towers over his colleagues in talent and experience so as to make his performances and records one-man shows.
That's almost the case in "Don't Ask" (Milestone M-9090), the latest Rollins album that features guitarist Larry Coryell, who is technically adept but conceptually out of his element with the saxophonist.
Still, this probably Rollins' best studio record in a long while.His melodies are hummable and his rhythms are enormously elastic. "Disco Monk" is captivating alternating between a carnival feeling and somber sentiment.
One man who largely resisted the fusion trend (except for one album) was the late Charles Mingus. He is represented in the fall jazz record release by "Mingus at Antibes" (Atlantic SD2-3001), an emotionally-charged two-record set recorded at the Antibes Jazz Festival in July 1960.
The set is most notable for the guest appearance of pianist Bud Powell on "I'll Remember April." Unfortunately, it's not the same performer who dazzled audiences in the late '40s and early '50s. His fingerings are unsure in spots and his lines are choppy.
But the rest of the group -- saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin, trumpeter Ted Curson and drummer Dannie Richmond -- play with white-heat feeling. The exchanges between the saxophonists are particularly interesting for their speech-like tonality.
Bassist Mingus had magnificently transferred the spirit of the Afro-American church into secular forms. The moaning climatic ensemble of "Better Git It in Your Soul" is almost worth the price of the album.