Robert Fripp is on record describing Agharta as, “a wallpaper shredder.”
In case you don’t know who Mr. Fripp is, or, you’re calling into question his credentials when it comes to using such strong verbiage, please listen to him eviscerate his guitar with casual viciousness on this otherwise pleasant, candy-coated David Bowie pop number.
Now, in assessing the nature of that compliment, please understand that Mr. Fripp is British, which means that he doesn’t really give out compliments.
The man sits on a stool during his performances moving nothing save for his hands. His soloing makes the Youtube shredders very nervous, because he’s in his early 70s, and he can still play circles around them. Mostly likely, their efforts elicit absolutely no reaction from him, or at best, maybe what we Yanks would identify as a smirk.
So yes, in case it’s not clear, this album is 100% gutter, and if you’re not for it, well, that’s unfortunate.
Aghartha is a live album, a recording from 1975, one of the last that Miles put together before going into retirement for the second half of the decade.
It may well be the most tremendous thing he put together, a sonic tour de force that’s probably given someone an aneurysm.
To be clear, this is not Miles Davis playing “jazz” music.
Or, at least not explicitly.
At this point in his career Miles wasn’t interested in traditional jazz, and he decided the smartest thing he could do was play some rough-and-tumble funk music.
And he has help.
For my money, there are two world-class musicians (aside from Davis) in this iteration of his band, though Miles might have argued three.
The first is Pete Cosey, who we’ll get into shortly. The second is a young man named Michael Henderson, who plays bass, and… well, take a listen below, and see if you can’t figure out who a young Flea’s second favorite bassist might have been, behind Stanley Clarke.
As the story goes, Miles went to a Stevie Wonder show in the late 60s, and saw a skinny 17-year old up on stage doing terrible things to four strings and a plank of wood.
Needless to say, he had to have him.
Apparently, after the show, (and as only he could), Miles caught Stevie in the corner and said, “I’m taking your fucking bass player,” before proceeding to do so.
In his autobiography, Miles identifies Al Foster as his favorite drummer that he ever played with. Reading that at 22, I had to put the book down, because I couldn’t process that. This is someone who had Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Billy Cobham doing whatever he wanted, and he chooses Al Foster? A “pocket” drummer?
It wasn’t until I started playing in a band with someone who identified himself as a pocket (or “groove” drummer) that I understood the beauty of that particular stripe of skinsman.
Miles plays a lot, and with someone like Al Foster behind the kit, he’s essentially allowed the freedom to do whatever he wants. Mr. Foster CAN be show-y, but that’s not necessarily his knee-jerk inclination. His primary concern is rhythm, as opposed to flexing. As this is so, Miles (and his fellow soloists) can spread out, and cook down whatever, however, and Al Foster is still happy as a clam.
The band on the album is large. 7 people make an awful lot of noise however you slice it, but here they sound like an orchestra. At least three people here are playing through a wah-wah pedal at any given time (including Davis, who wanted his trumpet to sound more like an electric guitar) and it’s deliriously wonderful.
The album only has three songs, but with respective run times of 35 minutes, 13 minutes, and (yes) an HOUR, there’s no feeling of being shortchanged. “Maiyasha”, the only proper, “song”, on the album, taken from Davis’, “On the Corner”, is probably the least compelling cut, but that’s due more to what it’s sandwiched between, than its merits as a piece of music.
Before diving into the songs themselves, we have to circle back to Pete Cosey, who was mentioned above. While this is technically a, “Miles Davis album”, this is really Pete Cosey’s album, and boy, what a thing that is.
While I could very easily go into the specifics of him and his life, I’ll allow you all to seek out that information if you so please. Google him, read the interviews, and watch the videos, because it’s worth your time. He’s perhaps the most exciting guitar player that Miles ever had in his band, and it’s such a shame that he never got any tremendous sort of recognition, save from his peers.
In playing guitar, Mr. Cosey was said to have used some 46 different, “systems”. This involved strange tunings, effect pedal set-ups, early guitar synths, and a number of guitars.
He puts all of them to good use here.
Mr. Cosey’s first grand statement on the album begins 11 minutes and 24 seconds into the song’s first track, ending at 16:36.
Yes, it’s a five minute guitar solo, and no, there is not a dull moment to be found.
The reason it works, is because it has a narrative arc. Mr. Cosey begins his statement with the band’s presence lurking somewhere behind him. Often, his note choices are dissonant, and he seems to amuse himself by playing some variation of your expected pentatonic-indebted guitar solo only to demolish it with a particularly raucous and rude set of notes. This goes on for awhile, becoming more and more abstract, and in some instances, violent. All the while, the band continues to build in the background, locking into the groove more and more, with Mr. Cosey’s guitar as about as far removed from the music as you can get.
And then, grace.
With his guitar sounding as though it’s just about out of life, Mr. Cosey enters the middle half, sounding as though he’s literally trying to asphixiate his instrument against downbeat, Hans Zimmer-worthy WOMP, WOMPS.
After a set of these, sounding as though he’s finally killed his instrument, he begins to very slowly depress his wah-wah pedal, while rattling off a beautifully gutter set of hammer ons and pull offs, only to have the full band come back in, so he can start playing consonant notes, giving the listener blessed relief and release.
The whole thing is genius, and indicative of his MO throughout the rest of the album:
Play bluesy, but weird. Don’t make it easy. Keep your listener in anticipation, and make them sob when the time comes.
“Maiyasha” is arguably, a needed respite between the opening “Prelude” and the closing “Interlude/Theme From Jack Johnson.” It’s a pleasant, Calypso-like song that also boasts another bow-legged Cosey solo, and some enthused, if not raunchy, bass from Henderson.
The album’s final song is a sprawling piece of music that probably has more in common with an orchestral suite than either funk or jazz music. It’s alternately bombastic, deeply sorrowful, abrasive and spooky.
The first time I heard it, I couldn’t help but think that The Mars Volta (at least in spirit) had lifted a good chunk of the ambient bits from, “Frances the Mute”, from it. It’s not a piece of music that I can sit down and listen to particularly often due to the time investment, but that doesn’t take away from how tremendous it is. You feel exhausted after listening, but in a good way— it’s as though you made the journey, and your reward is sleep.
And, honestly, that’s fine.
This music isn’t for everyone, but for those willing to make the investment, and suppress any previous ideas about what “jazz” or “funk” should be, a musical awakening awaits.
So, play it loud. Really loud.
It’s a wallpaper shredder, remember? Robert Fripp said so.