You can do anything in jazz today. Want to hire a violist and a DJ to improvise over your Eastern European ballet score? No problem -- the resulting disc will still be filed down the rack from Coltrane. Because the downside of diversification is that when anything goes, nothing sparks friction. Eclectic modern jazz, with its Dave Douglases and Brad Mehldaus, offers nothing like the shock and thrill of this document, The Cellar Door Sessions 1970. Most of us know Davis' fusion period from In a Silent Wayor Bitches Brew, but this recording of four nights at a small D.C. club is a rawer experience: Funk, rock, Latin percussion, distorted trumpet, and extended, chaotic jams all plunge into the same volcano.
You almost pay more attention to the possibilities of where these musicians are going than the music itself. Drummer Jack DeJohnette and Stevie Wonder bassist Michael Henderson drive the beat while keyboardist Keith Jarrett comps and squiggles around Davis' wah-wah-pedaled trumpet and Gary Bartz saunters in blowing his alto like he's showing off a biceps. Up-and-coming axeman John McLaughlin drops by, and almost stumbles over himself getting all the notes out -- but the star remains Jarrett, who takes the self-involved ecstacy that simmers in his later work and blows it all on frenetic, breathtaking solos banged out on a Fender Rhodes with a ring as percussive as the carillon on Judgment Day. He evokes years of history in a few notes before leaping ahead into the unknown: Modern music melts away and is reborn, all in a single vamp.
"After this came fusion, most of which sounds childish in comparison," Cellar Door producer Bob Belden has said, and it's true: The '70s rarely lived up to the potential of this set, and by the '80s, well ... the jazzmen of today have chops, ideas, and individual voices, but they don't aspire to this wide a vision. These jams didn't change the landscape, but at least they set the ground a-rumbling.
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