03 March 2008

Teo's Last Playback

31 Zeus - Year 87 p.s.U.

I only just found out yesterday, while listening to Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone, that famed record producer Teo Macero passed away on February 19th. Maconie played a track from Miles Davis' Sketches Of Spain album and noted that it was a "tribute of sorts" to Macero. That seemed to be an ominous comment, so I checked on-line and it does appear that Teo's gone.

He was born into a middle-class life in Glens Falls, New York and after a stint in the U.S. Navy, studied at the Julliard School in New York City. Macero met Charles Mingus in the early 1950s and co-founded the Jazz Composers Workshop. He recorded a few albums with Mingus and the J.C.W., then moved into production when he signed on as a Columbia Records staff member in 1957. As a kind of "house jazz producer", Macero handled duties on a number of "big" albums, the most famous being Dave Brubeck's Time Out (which contained the massive 'hit', Take Five).

Teo really hit his stride, of course, when he became Davis' regular producer through Miles' most creative and exploratory period, the mid-60s through the mid-70s. In that decade, Miles seemed to be one step (or maybe three steps) ahead of the rest of the jazz world and most of the rock/pop world as well. Records like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew sounded literally like nothing else at the time, and it was Teo's contributions as much as Davis' and his proteges/sidemen's playing that made them such legendary pieces. When he first started working with Miles, Macero had the usual producer's role of setting the levels of the soundboard and mixing the session recordings. Occasionally, as on the "Sketches.." orchestral parts, he added textures and colouring to the music.

"In A Silent Way" was probably the first album where Macero sparked his own ingenious revolution. Miles had the band jam for long sessions and he wanted to include a lot of these parts on the LP. Teo reportedly refused, saying "I'll get fired and you'll get fired." He told Davis to leave the tapes with him and he would work on them. The way he worked on them was by cutting the tapes up and then splicing various sections together to form a new whole that was quite different from the original sessions. In a sense, Macero had used William S. Burroughs' "cut-up" style, only in an audio context, not a literary one. He had created what could be called "organic artifice", because the finished album sounds as if the band are playing the pieces in "real time"--not separate sessions spliced together with seamless edits. Still, for all of Teo's studio magic, "In A Silent Way" seems to have a linear quality--he would perfect his cut-ups on the next one, "Bitches Brew".

Miles assembled a top-notch band in August 1969, with many "big name" players (some, like John McLaughlin, weren't well-known but would go on to become veritable super-stars in the jazz scene) and again they jammed. This time, though, a strange "fusion" of James Brown funk, Sly & The Family Stone psychedelic R&B, Jimi Hendrix cosmic blues and some modal jazz emerged. Again, Teo worked with the session tapes, splicing and stitching until another record was created--a double album, no less. "Bitches Brew" is subtitled "Directions In Music" and it lives up to the hype, to my ears anyway. Some of the music seems far more sinister and the individual instruments become lost in a whirlwind of sound. Pieces like Spanish Key and Pharaoh's Dance move in such non-linearity that it becomes difficult to believe it's the work of essentially the same set of people as "In A Silent Way". Miles and Macero raised the bar for both jazz and rock at the same time, quite a singular triumph. Jazz purists didn't agree, however, and Davis received the same reactions as Bob Dylan had when he 'went electric' at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Some leftovers from the "Brew" sessions would eventually be released as Big Fun in 1974.

Teo didn't stop there and for the next Miles Davis album, after the 1971 jazz-rock tour-de-force A Tribute To Jack Johnson, decided to strip the groove down to it's essence. The legendary On The Corner seems to be largely made up of tape loops, blended together to form a kind of urban robotic funk. The 20-minute suite that made up the entire first side of the LP features a static 4/4 beat, with the other instruments dropping in and out of the mix almost randomly: McLaughlin's swamp-skronk guitar, Colin Walcott's sitar drones, Michael Henderson's bopping bass, Davis' trumpet vamps and the keyboards all weave around each other in delirious patterns. I'm not even sure if this "was" jazz anymore (of course, many critics decided that it "wasn't"), but it seems like a mutant strain of the "Brew" formula. Given that there are so many loops running through the tracks, the music has surprising "space". The opening of Black Satin attests to this. Featuring a tabla beat, growling synth tones, sitar drones and whistling--every note is clear, yet they all combine in a strange segue before the actual track starts. The second side seems to be one big loop itself, with the "Black Satin" theme running through all of the tunes. "On The Corner" can be a daunting listen for the uninitiated, but it's impact on future funkateers and turntablists seems undeniable.

After that, a few more studio sessions in 1973 and '74 resulted in the 70s swansong Get Up With It double-set. The music returns to a "Bitches Brew" density and while some of it seems to have a small spark of innovation, much just sounds like Miles & Co. going through the motions. Davis kept up a punishing live schedule, playing ferociously with changing line-ups. Sometimes almost everyone on stage was equipped with a wah-wah pedal, including the keyboardists. The intensity of these shows can be heard on live records like Pangaea, Agharta & Dark Magus. Near the end of 1975, Miles was burned out from drug problems and other personal difficulties so he decided to take a long sabbatical--similar to rock icon John Lennon's "retirement", for the remainder of the decade. Teo continued producing other acts and Miles' proteges dominated mid-to-late 70s jazz in fusion bands like Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report.

Teo and Davis teamed up one last time, for the The Man With The Horn album, released in 1981 during Miles' "comeback" period. It's passable as a funky jazz record, but the rampant experimentalism of 1972 had been replaced with a somewhat more 'radio friendly' sound. Davis passed away in 1992, after recording another six or seven albums. His final studio record was Doo-Bop, a rather tepid hybrid of hip-hop turntablism and jazz. Now that Macero has gone, one of the most prolific artist/producer collaborations in recent history has completely finished.

The Teo Macero/William Burroughs connection may be tenuous. I don't know if Macero was influenced by Burroughs' writing--I think his cut-ups may have been more of a studio necessity than a bold experiment in sound, though that's what it turned out to become. There may be a slight connection in Bill Laswell. In 1998, an album called Panthalassa was released. "Panthalassa" was a 'remix' of fusion-era Miles by Laswell--utilising master tapes and some out-takes--essentially cut-ups of cut-ups. Laswell also worked with Burroughs on the Road To The Western Lands disc, which was a series of remixes of a song first recorded by Laswell's band Material. It's possible that Teo had a "non-simultaneous apprehension" of the cut-up process which yielded some of the most original music of the last 40 years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great man, producer, arranger. I was sad to hear this too.

RIP Teo...Miles's music wouldn't have been as great as it is without you.