Credit: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
by Brendan Nagle Featured Kicking the Canon Music

Miles Davis | Get Up With It

May 24, 2021

Few, if any, artists in the history of modern popular music experienced a creative eruption as rich as did Miles Davis did in the years leading up to his temporary retirement in 1975. Already the biggest name in jazz and the progenitor of numerous stylistic innovations, by the late-’60s Davis had started to feel boxed in by the acoustic trappings of the genre. Sensing the cultural shifts spurred on by rock ‘n’ roll and funk, Miles started to experiment with amplification, introducing the electric piano and bass guitar to his so-called Second Great Quintet, and soon after assembling a new band to record In A Silent Way, the rock-inflected 1969 record that kicked off his now-legendary electric period. That Get Up with It, Davis’ final studio album before his retirement — and thus the other book-end to that radical period — came only five years later remains mind-boggling to this day. The amount of ground he covered in that half-decade or so is simply astonishing; so much of the music still feels unfathomably forward-thinking five decades on. And whereas most of the records that were controversial upon release, like On The Corner, have become accepted as beloved classics with time, Get Up with It is perhaps the major work from this period that has been slowest to receive its due.

The hesitance to embrace it is understandable, certainly: Get Up with It is, simply put, a monstrous album. Technically a compilation, as it includes a handful of studio outtakes from previous records, the double-LP clocks in at over two hours, with two of its eight tracks coming in at over 30 minutes long. But even beyond its length, it’s easy to see why this wasn’t a commercial success on par with, say, Bitches Brew. Get Up with It is just so dense, rhythmically, harmonically, in its instrumentation — it lacks much by way of genuinely danceable grooves, and it’s remarkably dissonant throughout. Of particular note is Miles’ playing, though it’s actually his work on the electric organ (which he plays on more than half of the tracks), rather than his trumpet playing, that really stands out. The electric piano and organ work of legendary players like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Keith Jarrett had typified his electric sound to this point, and the contrast between their playing and Miles’ is stark. Of course, he lacks the dexterity of those accomplished keyboardists, and so he opts for a different approach, leaning into dark, complex chords and holding them for prolonged lengths of time. The emphasis is on texture above all else, and the rest of his band follows suit.

Taking up the entire first side, “He Loved Him Madly” is a striking introduction — striking, in part, because it is so languorous and subdued. The droning organ is the first thing we hear, quickly joined by some light noodling courtesy of one of the three guitarists playing on this session (I suspect it’s Reggie Lucas, though I can’t be entirely sure), and James Mtume’s hand drum rolls, pinging back and forth across the stereo image. Things carry on that way for quite some time, Michael Henderson and Al Foster offering soft punctuation on bass and drums, respectively, until gradually they shift into the most skeletal of grooves. It isn’t until almost exactly halfway through that Miles enters with his trumpet, and one might not even notice his entrance if they aren’t listening closely. He’s running his horn through a liberal coating of effects, and, much like his organ playing, he’s holding long notes, focusing on the shifting timbres coming out of his wah pedal and the muddy collision of tones courtesy of a heavy delay effect. Davis and flautist Dave Liebman, the other ostensible soloist, only barely distinguish themselves from their surroundings — their playing could hardly be called melodic, and instead they blend into the static atmosphere of their band, meandering in and around those dense textures, while never progressing forward. Between the three guitars, the organ, and the processed wind instruments, there are moments where one has to really focus to even be certain which instrument they’re hearing. Brian Eno cited “He Loved Him Madly” as a precedent for ambient music, though frankly there’s very little ambient music that is as evocative and otherworldly as this — in fact, there’s very little in all of music that sounds quite like it.

Miles’ electric period represents more than just a change in instrumentation, it also marks a radical formal shift away from traditional jazz structures and into much more abstract territory. Get Up with It functions as an end point of sorts, with Miles so fully embracing his role as ringleader and orchestrator that he barely even picks up his signature instrument (and, of course, when he does pick it up, it hardly sounds like a trumpet). Though Miles never appeared all that enamored by the free jazz movement (and his style of leadership would never be referred to as democratic), here he’s arrived at his own version of Ornette Coleman’s “nobody solos, everybody solos” ethos. The emphasis is on the whole of the sound, rather than individual soloists.

The tempo picks up a bit on “Maiysha,” which has a quasi-bossa nova feel in its rhythms, though its sensibilities are still alien, especially in the latter half of the song when guitarist Pete Cosey gets a chance to let loose some of his signature feedback theatrics. Some of the earlier recordings stick out a little awkwardly as the album continues, most notably “Red China Blues,” a relatively straightforward blues number (complete with harmonica) taken from the On The Corner sessions, but even then it serves as a lucid reminder of the roots from which this decidedly Black music sprung, plus it features some wild riffage from Miles on his wah’ed trumpet. Some of the other ones, like “Honky Tonk” (from the Jack Johnson sessions) and “Rated X” (also On The Corner) fit in remarkably well. “Rated X,” in particular, is a standout; it’s the only track that stands completely free of wind instruments, Miles’ organ joining Cedric Lawson’s electric piano, Reggie Lucas’ guitar, and Khalil Balakrishna’s amplified sitar to conjure a swirling, knotted drone, all while the rhythm section (Henderson, Foster, Mtume, and tabla player Badal Roy) lays down an up-tempo groove that genuinely prefigures the breakbeats of jungle and drum’n’bass. Star producer Teo Macero’s editing technique is more prominent here too, periodically cutting out the drums and using their absence as a rhythmic device unto itself. One gets the sense that these earlier recordings were precedents of the sound they were pursuing for this record, and it makes sense that Davis and Macero kept them in their back pockets.

Despite effectively birthing an entire subgenre of music, no other fusion band really sounded all that much like electric Miles. And Get Up with It is the cherry on top of that titanic ’70s run, his most far-out album to cap off a string of avant-garde masterpieces. Though a lot of the music Miles made in the ’80s is more worthwhile than it’s given credit for, he was never again the sort of figure who could challenge and redefine the way we understand music. And while we’ve observed the echoes of Get Up with It reverberating throughout the musical world for nearly 50 years — in the atmospheric fusion of ECM Records, in the evolution of noise and ambient music, in the experimentalism of post-rock — it still sounds impossibly modern.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.